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|Yellow Fever epidemic of 1853 -- Trinity, Vidalia, Natchez|
On July 6, 1853, a young woman in New Orleans, Miss Pearsall, died of yellow fever. Her death and that of others caused a panic. The fear of epidemic, according to one report, "hastened the departure of many from the city who had intended to leave about this time."
A few days later, Miss Pearsall's father boarded a steamboat and became sick shortly afterward. At Natchez, he disembarked and was taken to a hotel for rest. But he died on July 17, and his death was believed to have been the first from yellow fever in Natchez in 1853. But many others would die.
If you were standing on the landing at Natchez and heard the words -- "Yellow Jack" -- it would send chills down your spine. That's what the yellow fever was often called and people would quickly leave town.
The medical profession didn't know then that yellow fever, caused by a virus, was spread by the mosquito, although doctors suspected that it was a water borne illness. Some also thought the disease stirred from the soil.
Locally, several doctors provided a glimpse of the yellow fever epidemic of 1853, one of many recorded in this region throughout the 19th Century. The doctors quoted here had previously suffered from the virus and attested to the fact that those who died from yellow fever suffered a hideous death.
Dr. A.R. Kilpatrick lived in Concordia from the late 1840s until the Civil War. He resided along the Black River, near the town of Trinity, the small community across the Little River from present day Jonesville, which didn't exist then.
Dr. H.B. Shaw had been residing in Vidalia for 14 years. He moved there in 1839 and attended many a sick person in his day.
In Natchez, Dr. Davis was one of many doctors who attended the yellow fever victims there. He, too, wrote about his experiences.
These doctors responded to a survey by the Sanitary Commission of New Orleans on the 1853 yellow fever epidemic. Doctors across Louisiana and Mississippi had been asked to provide information on the local drinking water, surface soil, land clearing, drainage, climate, whether there were any "remarkable" occurrences in the plant and animal kingdom, local population, and to catalog the number of yellow fever sufferers and deaths, and social conditions of the afflicted. Doctors were also asked to characterize the epidemic, including a description of each patient's vomit.
NO LOCALS DIE AT TRINITY
Kilpatrick's reported that most families along the Black and Tensas rivers in western Concordia and eastern Catahoula "use cistern water, contained in wooden cisterns; but some use well water, which is quite brackish and unpleasant.
"The country is comparatively new and entirely agricultural — new fields are opening — immense deadening made annually; and the soil constantly upturned by the plough. The region is markedly paludal (marshy), being cut up with sloughs, ponds, lagoons, large lakes, and much stagnant water."
"There was no epidemic here, but a good deal of ordinary fever, such as intermittent and bilious remittent fever...I treated this disease in Woodville, Mississippi, in 1844; and had it myself...."
While no locals died from yellow fever in 1853, Kilpatrick said that outsiders did expire at Trinity. His report continued:
"Trinity is a village of 280 inhabitants, at the junction of Black, Ouachita, Tensas and Little Rivers; and steamboats from New Orleans land there at least every week, and in busy seasons every day. Several cases of yellow fever were put off there last July and August, all of which died; and some corpses were put off for burial.
"No particular precautionary measures were used to prevent the spread of the disease; yet no one took it from these cases.
"There is a large steam sawmill in the place, the sawdust from which is all used in filling up low places in the streets and gardens. The dust is in a decaying state, as the practice has been pursued for three years.
"There are low places in town, which hold water till evaporated. Besides this, a large space has been dug by workmen in forming a foundation for a warehouse on the bank, and the dirt (about a thousand cart-loads) is used in filling up low places in the village. Cistern water is mostly used for drinking purposes; many, however, use river water. More bad whiskey is drunk there than in any other place.
"The spring months were dry, but the summer more than usually wet. The few fruit trees in the country bore healthy fruit. There was an unusual number of houseflies in the spring. Mosquitoes not as troublesome as usual. No disease or fatality amongst animals. Mold less than usual."
SEVERAL DIE IN CONCORDIA
The population of Vidalia in 1853 was about 60 persons, of whom two-thirds were white and mostly adult males.
Dr. Shaw said Vidalia was situated "in a planting region, and has no commerce; its inhabitants being principally officers of court, or connected therewith. The residences are not crowded together, but occupy separate lots of ground, and have open spaces around them.
"Above and below the village on the river, and in the rear, are extensive cotton plantations, which have been cleared up and settled a great many years since...There are marshes near, and there are but few ponds of stagnant water, and those of but small extent. The plantations are very well drained. There has not been any recent clearing of land, or disturbing of the soil, in the neighborhood, otherwise than by ordinary cultivation of the fields.
"The drinking water used is obtained exclusively from underground cisterns; no wells are used. This locality has long been considered to be healthy; more so, indeed, than most of similar places on the river. I have not known any case of yellow fever to originate here...until this year, and am informed by persons of undoubted veracity who have resided in the immediate vicinity for over 50 years that they have never known of any such."
Shaw recalled that early summer was dry and hot but the months of July and August were "wet and hot." Rainfall exceeded the average. The doctor recalled nothing "unusual or remarkable" occurring in the "animal or vegetable kingdoms prior to or during the epidemic."
One reason cited for Vidalia's lack of yellow fever reports prior to 1853 was that most of the boats traversing the Mississippi River docked at Natchez. Disease was known to spread like wildfire on ships and at the ports where those ships docked.
Yellow fever claimed the lives of 16 people in Vidalia in 1853, including men, women, and children. Most of the dead were white. Two were black. On nearby plantations, a while male and one child died and several blacks, although Shaw did not know the exact number.
FOUR ESCAPED FEVER IN VIDALIA
In Vidalia, only four residents escaped the fever, while in the vicinity there "were over 40 cases of yellow fever among the whites, and over 30 among the blacks." None of the residents were natives of Concordia, and most were U.S. born, with the exception of a German woman.
"The yellow fever evidently become epidemic in Natchez about the middle of August," said Shaw, "at which time Vidalia was healthy, though communication between the two places was frequent and uninterrupted for some length of time. On or about the 20th August, the German woman above mentioned, recently from New Orleans, was sent to Vidalia sick, from the quarantine station at Natchez, where she had been two or three days.
"The attending physicians pronounced her disease to be yellow fever; and in a few days she died, having black vomit, and bleeding from the nose and gums. On the 22d August, a gentleman who had left New Orleans two days previously, arrived at Vidalia, apparently well. On the third day after his arrival he was taken down with yellow fever, from which he recovered.
"On the 23d, a family came over from Natchez; the man sick of what proved to be yellow fever, from which he recovered, after a severe and tedious illness. Up to the 25th, there was no other case of yellow fever in Vidalia.
"In a very few days the yellow fever broke out in a family residing in a house not far from those in which were the sick above named. Of that family, all whites, five died. About this time the disease made its appearance in some members of a family residing half a mile below the village, on a plantation. Those first attacked had been a few days before in Natchez. From that time the disease spread in all directions; new cases occurring every day..."
He said the disease seemed to run "its course in the fatal cases, in from three to five days. Some of the attacks were violent from the first symptom observed. Every death within my knowledge, except one, was preceded by black vomit; that one was of a child, who passed the black matter by purging. Generally they had bleeding from the nose and gums. I know of no case of recovery after black vomit; though several such were said to have occurred."
Shaw said that the disease affected the intemperate and the temperate alike. He said most of the population was intemperate, but that no one suffered from "abject poverty."
The doctor concluded: "I do not doubt the epidemic to have been genuine yellow fever; I have seen it many times before. In Natchez, in 1839, during the epidemic of that year, when I had it myself; and in 1847, 1 saw unmistakable cases on steamboats from New Orleans. I know of one person who had the fever this year, after having previously had it twice; and one who, after having previously in 1837, had it this year again. In my family there were three of us; adult whites; who had the fever in Natchez, in 1839. We nursed our sick for over two months. I was myself in Natchez almost every day during the greatest virulence of the epidemic there, and much exposed, and yet none of us three were attacked this year."
HUNDREDS FALL IN NATCHEZ
Hundreds died of yellow fever in Natchez.
One physician, Dr. Davis, noticed that in the mosquitoes "were very numerous and annoying; and a kind of epidemic prevailed among poultry, particularly among hens and chickens."
Professor Benjamin C. Wailes, in the nearby town of Washington, said a disease devastated the turkey population in both 1852 and 1853 taking "entire flocks." In dead birds, the livers were "greatly enlarged and diseased."
Dr. Davis said the population of Natchez prior to the epidemic was about 6,500 but dropped to 3,500. Many fled Natchez and some residents recalled that grass grew in city streets because those remaining in town stayed indoors. Davis estimated that 300 to 400 died.
The Natchez postmaster, said Davis, "was supposed to have contracted it from opening a very heavy New Orleans mail. I do not know of any case which appeared to have originated spontaneously, and without the suspicion of intercourse with other cases of the disease, although such cases may have existed. The disease spread by degrees through the city to its extremities, and along the lines of travel into the country. I cannot trace the spread of the early cases of the disease, or its relation to any local cause.
"All classes almost indiscriminately were attacked, but the mortality was greatest among the poor and ignorant; very many, however, of those who had means and friends died. The Jews, Germans and Irish suffered most.
"The symptoms of the disease were pain in the back, head and limbs, injection of the eyes, sometimes accompanied with chill, great weakness, nausea of the stomach, commonly constipation of bowels — duration, about three days or thereabouts, of active sickness, generally; then a change, decidedly for better or worse.
"I cannot tell in what proportion of cases black vomit occurred; it was common, but many died without it. Little or no fever of any other kind prevailed, and it almost invariably ran into the prevailing fever; even a cold with fever was apt to run into the yellow fever.
"I cannot answer with any exactness, as to the length of time intervening between exposure, assuming the disease to be contagious, and the appearance of premonitory symptoms, or the development of the disease. In some instances the disease developed itself almost immediately; in one case, where a man's family went into the country, into a healthy vicinity, nineteen days elapsed before the disease broke out.
"I do not remember how many cases of black vomit I have seen. Many recovered from black vomit, so called, but no instance within my observation after genuine black vomit. There are said to have been, however, a few cases of the latter kind. I heard two or three persons say that they had it before; I do not know of my own knowledge. I cannot answer with exactness, as to the number of persons attendant on the sick, or otherwise exposed and liable, who entirely escaped.
"Those who were most active and attentive seemed to fare better than others. Death usually occurred from the fourth day, or thereabouts, to the seventh, eighth, and even to the tenth and eleventh. A few died in thirty-six hours. Some in fifty hours. These, however, were not frequent. Several lingered between two and three weeks."
Presbyterian preacher Joseph Stanton left a haunting description of a Natchez brought to its knees by yellow fever in 1853:
"There were few...whom the pestilence did not reach; and many of them it carried to the grave. For nearly four months the places of business were generally closed. The grass literally sprung up in our untrodden streets; and the silence, not of a Sabbath, but of a funeral hour, hung over our usually bustling city..."
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