[This historical letter tells the story of the yellow fever epidemic in Mobile, Alabama in 1853 as they tried to determine how it started. William Crawford Gorgas, a native of Alabama, later help conquer the disease throughout the world ]
YELLOW FEVER EPIDEMIC IN MOBILE, ALABAMA AREA
COMMUNICATION FROM J. C. NOTT, M. D.
Gentlemen:—I herein transmit to you such facts as I have been able to collect, bearing on the epidemic yellow fever which prevailed in and around the city of Mobile, during the summer and autumn of 1853.
Extended beyond the city of Mobile
The disease this season has pursued such an unusual course, as to bring under discussion again the long neglected idea of contagion, which I, in common with most members of the profession, had regarded as obsolete. However it may be explained, the fact is none the less certain, that the disease has extended not only to all the little settlements within five or six miles of the city, but to Citronelle, the present terminus of the Ohio Railroad, thirty-three miles from town; and to the various towns on the rivers tributary to our bay as far as steamboats have gone and no farther —to Montgomery and Demopolis, for example; to say nothing of many intermediate points.
Imported from New Orleans
The first cases of yellow fever which occurred in Mobile, it is conceded on all hands, were imported from New Orleans on board the barque Miltiades; and for the following facts I am indebted to Doctor Walkly, and Mr. Cox, one of our most respectable stevedores—Doctor Walkly’s information was derived from the captain of the barque and the second mate of the steamer Daniel Pratt, which acted as lighter to her.
The Miltilades sailed from Portland, Maine, to New Orleans, where she lost several of her crew with yellow fever; from thence she came to Mobile Bay and anchored below Dog River Bar, some fifteen or twenty miles below town, on the 11th July; and on the 13th, Peter Johnson, one of the crew was sent to our Marine Hospital, in the back part of the city, one mile from the wharves, where he died with black vomit. Dr. Lopez, surgeon of this hospital, informs me that this man entered on the 11th instead of the 13th, in artieulo mortis, and that he had been sick at sea five days with yellow fever.
One of stevedores came down with yellow fever
On the 14th, three days after the arrival of the vessel, the stevedores went on board to load her with cotton for Liverpool. One of them, John Johnson, was taken down with the yellow fever on the 19th or 20th, and was brought to town on the steamer Daniel Pratt, and placed in the “Sailors’ Home,” where he died with black vomit on the 25th. On the 25th, four others were brought up from the vessel sick, by the same steamer. One was taken to No. 9 Government street; one to Franklin street, below Eslava, and another went to the hospital.
On the 1st of August, the second engineer of the Daniel Pratt was taken down with the same disease and recovered. Dr. Levert saw a stevedore, David Nichols, with yellow fever, from the same vessel, on the 27th July.
These, as far as I can learn, include all the cases from this vessel. There were, however, other imported cases, preceding the appearance of the disease among our citizens, as the following facts will show; and these, like the former, cannot be questioned.
Cases of yellow fever at the hospital
On the record of our “City Hospital” the following entries are made of yellow fever cases: July 23d, one; 25th, two; 26th, three—all of whom were laborers that had fled from the epidemic in New. Orleans, and were either sick on arrival or taken soon after. It may be worthy of remark en passant, that I was informed by the Sisters of Charity that the disease did not spread among the inmates of this hospital until some time after, when it had become epidemic throughout the city.
After diligent inquiry among the physicians, the first case I can trace among our citizens who had no communication with the Miltiades, was Mr. McDowell, a patient of Dr. Levert; he slept at Hollywood, a watering place on the opposite side of the bay, and came to town every day on the steamboat Junior; he sickened on the 31st of July, and recovered.
A few days after this, rumor was busily at work, and cases were talked of in different parts of the town, but having no connection with each other. On the 18th, I made a memorandum in my note-book, to the effect that up to that date, from the best information, there had been in the town about thirty cases. I inquired among the physicians as to their dates and localities, and could trace no connection among the cases; they seem to have been sown broad-cast over a mile square.
Kept records of weather
I kept, as is my custom, the range of the thermometer, the winds and rain, from the 1st of May until frost, and could see nothing in the season to account for disease. May, June and July were temperate, showery, pleasant, and remarkably exempt from all febrile diseases. Nor was there anything in the type of diseases to foreshadow yellow fever. Yet, I predicted, a month before its appearance, with great confidence, that we should have a terrible epidemic in Mobile, and simply from the fact that I had never known the disease early in the season to attack Vera Cruz, West India Islands and New Orleans, without completing the circuit of the Gulf. I expected unusual virulence; because this had been its character everywhere it had gone; and I shall be greatly deceived if the same disease does not attack cities on the Atlantic next season, and particularly Philadelphia. The germ is sleeping, but not dead.
It should be remarked that our corporate authorities had shown unusual activity in cleansing our city, and long before the appearance of the disease, everything had been done which foresight and prudence could do, to ward off the scourge.
The foregoing statement includes, as far as I know, all the essential facts connected with the late epidemic in the city. I now propose to give what information I have gathered relative to its extension from this point to others around the city and along the rivers.
Spring hill west of Mobile
“Spring Hill” is a part of a sandy, pine hill region, West of Mobile; 150 feet above tide water, and six miles distant from the wharves of the city; it has been a summer retreat for many years; is watered by excellent springs; and has heretofore been considered exempt from yellow fever, or any form of malarious disease.
Spring Hill today
This settlement covers about three-fourths of a mile square, with the virgin pine forest still standing, and includes about thirty families, together with St. Joseph’s College, which contains about two hundred resident pupils. The epidemic commenced its ravages at Spring Hill about the 5th of September, and we shall give the history of its progress.
On the 12th of August, just about the time the yellow fever began to assume the epidemic form in Mobile, and one month after the first imported case, I was called to see a young gentleman, Mr. Alfred Murray, with a well marked attack of the disease, at a boarding house in Mobile, on St. Louis street, near St. Joseph; and on the 14th had him removed on a bed to the house of his brother-in-law, Mr. Wheeler, on Spring Hill, about the centre of the settlement. He recovered, and twenty days after he entered the house, 5th September, two of Mr. Wheeler’s children were attacked with the epidemic, and about two weeks after two other children were attacked; three had black vomit, and two died.
On the 22d August. Mr. Stramler moved his family from town to Spring Hill, and occupied the house of John B. Toulmin; on the 27th, he carried out a negro woman sick with intermittent fever, who died on the 31st, under circumstances which I need not detail; but I have every reason to believe she did not have yellow fever.
Moved ill to same house
Mr. Greer moved with his family to the same house on the 29th, from town, carrying a daughter convalescing from yellow fever; another daughter sickened on the 8th; three of Mrs. Flemming’s children in the same house, on the 10th; and Mrs. John Greer on the next day; Mrs. Flemming on the 15th, and John H. Greer two or three days after. This house is about 300 yards Northwest of Mr. Wheeler’s.
My father-in-law, Col. Deas, lives on a lot about 100 yards North of the last named house, and his household, white and black, consisted of sixty persons. On the 7th September, one of his negro women was attacked, on an adjoining lot; on the 8th, his daughter-in-law, Mrs. John Deas; and on the 9th, Mrs. Brown, his daughter; each being in a different inclosure, and one hundred yards from each other. The disease then spread rapidly through the families of the three adjoining premises, attacking whites and blacks indiscriminately. Fifty-four were attacked out of the sixty, and in fourteen days the whole tale was told—five whites, two mulattoes and one black were dead with black vomit, and the rest were convalescent. One-half of the whites attacked died; and I had never in twenty-five years practice witnessed such a scene, among a class of people well lodged, in clean, well-ventilated apartments, and surrounded by every possible comfort, and this too, on a high, barren sand hill, nearly six miles from the city.
Disease skipped about
Cases existed simultaneously at Wm. Stewart’s, Mr. “Wheeler’s, and Mr. Purvis’s and Toulmin’s houses, widely separated from each other; and in the latter part of September and through October, the disease visited the houses of Capt. Stein, McMillan, Rev. Mr. Knapp, Mrs. George, Dubose’s, John Battle’s, and some others. The disease skipped about in an extraordinary manner; some houses escaped entirely, some had but one or two cases. I could see no connection between the houses or inmates to explain the order of attack. There was scarcly a fatal case among those attacked after the 16th September—not more than two or three.
No communication with the city
The great majority of the subjects on Spring Hill had had no communication with the city for many weeks, and it is worthy of note that the disease had attacked most of the country between the Hill and town before it reached the Hill; though some neighborhoods, as the Nunnery, and around it as far as Hubbell’s, escaped. As far as I can learn, the disease did not spread among the country population beyond Spring Hill, which is sparse.
Red denotes location of town of Citronelle, Alabama
Citronelle near Mobile
Citronelle.—This is the name of a village which has sprung up in the last twelve months, thirty-three miles from Mobile, at the present terminus of the Mobile and Ohio Railroad. It is situated on a beautiful plateau of pine land, about 400 feet above tide water, and has been considered, like all these pine hills at the South, perfectly healthy.
The following is an extract from a letter of Dr. James S. Gaines, a most promising and estimable young gentleman, who witnessed the facts. This letter was dated 4th October, 1853, and published in the Mobile Advertiser, of the 6th:
“The local population of Citronelle is 250; adding the boarders at the hotels and different boarding houses, say 100, it will make our population about 350. This estimate of the population does not include over one hundred hands in the immediate vicinity of Citronelle. I have seen and treated, since the 16th of August, fifty-three cases of yellow fever; thirteen out of this number have died. There have been seven other deaths since this date; they were not seen by me, but from what I could learn, five out of this number were from yellow fever; making the total number of deaths since the 16th of August up to date, twenty. That will just make an average of one death to seventeen of the population. The first case that I was satisfied of its originating here, occurred on the 11th of September, since which time there have been several clear cases, and within the last ten days the number has been increasing; some of them of a very malignant type. I have no idea that the disease could have originated here, had it not been for the frequent communication between this point and Mobile; and it is not singular that it should have done so, when we reflect that the baggage cars are almost air tight when closed, running from Mobile to this point in two hours.”
Doctor fell ill
The Doctor, unhappily, did not live to tell the whole tale—he himself fell a victim to the disease soon after this date. Many more of the population died, and sixteen out of eighteen of the employees on the railroad, besides many laborers. There are no data for accurate statistics, but from what I can learn, something like a fourth or fifth of the population along the road from Mobile to Citronelle died. According to Dr. Gaines’ statement, there was just a month between the first case imported into Mobile and the first at Citronelle.
A brave group of men formed an organization called the “Can’t Get Away Club” that remained to take care of those affected by Yellow Fever during this crisis. Most succumbed to the disease themselves.
- Report on the epidemic yellow fever of 1853 New Orleans. Sanitary Commission 1854
The Grand Masters of Free & Accepted Masons of the State of Alabama 1811-2011 As wife of one of the Grand Masters, Donna R. Causey, had the unique opportunity to work with Alabama’s Grand Lodge to provide biographical data into the lives and backgrounds of all the Grand Masters of Freemasonry in Alabama from 1811 to 2011. Many early photographs of the Grand Masters are included in this work.
Biographies of the following men are included listed in order of their service: THOMAS WADSWORTH FARRAR, WILLIAM B. PATTON, NIMROD EARLE BENSON, THOMAS BIVIN CREAGH, WILLIAM JORDAN MASON, WILLIAM LEIGH, JOHN C. HICKS, EDWARD HERNDON, NATHANIEL WYCHE FLETCHER, JAMES PENN, FELIX GRUNDY NORMAN, RUFUS GREENE, WILLIAM HENDRIX, DAVID CLOPTON, STERLING ALEXANDER MARTIN WOOD, JAMES MCCALEB WILEY, ROBERT HUGH ERVIN, STEPHEN FOWLER HALE, WILLIAM HUTCHINSON NORRIS, JOHN ADAMS LODER, WILLIAM C. PENICK, WILSON WILLIAMS, GEORGE DASHELL NORRIS, WILLIAM PARISH CHILTON, JOSEPH HENRY JOHNSON, ISAIAH ATWATER WILSON, JOB PALMER PILLANS, HENRY CLAY ARMSTRONG, HENRY CLAY TOMPKINS, RUFUS WILLIS COBB, JOHN HOLLIS BANKHEAD, JOHN GIDEON HARRIS, MYLES JEFFERSON GREENE, HENRY HART BROWN, GEORGE MILBURN MORROW, FRANCES LEIGH PETTUS, GEORGE PAUL HARRISON, JAMES ANDREW BILBRO, BENJAMIN DUDLEY WILLIAMS, RUSSELL McWHORTER CUNNINGHAM, ROBERT JAMES REDDEN, HENRY HUDSON MATTHEWS, BENJAMIN MOSES JACOBS, HUGH SHEPPERD DARBY MALLORY, LAWRENCE HAYWOOD LEE, DANIEL ARTHUR GREENE, HENRY CLANTON MILLER, WALTER SMITH, ROBERT STERLING TEAGUE, PERCY BLACKETT DIXON, JULIAN FLETCHER SPEARMAN, DUNCAN CHALMERS CARMICHAEL, OLIVER DAY STREET, JAMES MADISON PEARSON, ROBERT FRANKLIN LOVELADY, WILLIAM LOVARD LEE, SAMUEL A. MOORE, COKE SMITH WRIGHT, SAMUEL BOYD ADAMS, ENCY FENDLEY YEILDING, GEORGE UNDERWOOD POTTER, WILLIAM EARL JAMES, JAMES MATHEW JONES, CLARENCE EDWARD MICHAELS, JOSEPH CLIFTON ROE, WILLIAM JOSEPH NASH, FRANKLIN WARREN PARKS, WILLIAM LIPSEY LEGG, JOSEPH SPANGLER SOUTHALL, LEONARD STACY TERRY, JOHN W. PREDDY, TROY LEANDER NUNN, CARL CHARLES COOPER, EELY ELBERT JACKSON, ROBERT RUFUS BERRYMAN, JAMES LEW LAWSON, GORDON LEE EVATT, ARLIS RICHARD FANT, PENSON RABON GRAHAM, WILLIAM WALLACE, JR, TOLBERT DAVID SHARP, FRED W. VAUGHAN, JAMES W. COOPER, WILBUR HALE ARMISTEAD, HOWARD E. BLACKWELL, WILLIAM JOHN BRANNON, MARVIN P. LYNN, PAUL E. BRADFORD, CHARLES CECIL ROBINSON, JOSEPH DANIEL BRACKIN, JAMES M. EIDSON, SR., THOMAS B. WHALEY, WILBUR O. HARDEN, ROBERT CHARLES COLEY, GERALD S. BORDEN, JAMES G. MACON, JAMES FRANKLIN GLASGOW, HERMON WEBB TAYLOR, CHARTER LEE NICHOLSON, JACK SMITH, J. B. ROBINSON, JR, RALPH HARRIS HENDERSON, SR., MARVIN EUGENE LEACHMAN, FLOYD HAMBRICK, JR., DAVID L. SHIREY, J. C. BRADY, E. WAYNE LUCAS, WARREN MALCOLM KILLINGSWORTH, ROBERT L. JONES, WILLARD RAY FULLER, LUTHER EUGENE GROOMS, LARRY W. WORTHAM, DELTON EARL HAVARD, STEVE BROWNFIELD, JERRY UNDERWOOD, ROBERT THOMAS CRAWFORD, V. WAYNE CAUSEY, RODGER SIMMONS, BILLY C. FORD, DARRELL NEILL, GENE ANDERTON, FRANK W. LITTLE, JAMIE A. SMITH, LARRY W. STINSON, TEDDY R. GROGAN, LARRY A. HANCOCK, RONALD ANDRESS, C. STERLING HUGHES
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