Transcribed and compiled by Donna Bluemink
(Used with permission of the Virginian-Pilot & Portsmouth Star,
Southern Argus and the Ledger Dispatch)
Compiler's Note: The purpose of this file is to give the reader just a sampling of newspaper articles on the 1855 epidemic-ralated subject. This list is an ongoing project reading newsprint on microfilm.
Newspaper Table of Contents
January 13, 1859 - Removal of the Bodies of the Philadelphians
May 8, 1881 - Death of Ezra T. Summers
September 27, 1891 - Hero Physicians
August 1, 1905 - Health Board Calls For A Cleaner City
August 3, 1905 - Quarantine headlines
August 13, 1905 - Quarantine Inspection headlines
August 15, 1905 - Rigid Quarantine Against Fever in Portsmouth
September 28, 1905 - Old St. Paul's Church
September 9, 1911 - Obituary of John Vermillion
May 19, 1912 - Scourge Survivor Describes Scene of Epidemic
August 16, 1932 - Stricken By Yellow Fever Capt. Phillips Lives To Tell Story
January 12, 1936 - Medal Awarded for Services in 1855 Yellow Fever Scourge
December 7, 1939 - When Death Stalked Streets of Norfolk & Portsmouth
December 14, 1939- How Dr. Walter Reed . . . Conquered the Scourge . . .
July 14, 1952 - exhibit of yellow fever mosquito
February 19, 1955 - Yellow fever Victims Memorial . . .
June 12, 1956 - regarding letters from 1855
October 18, 1964- short history of yellow fever
September 25, 1966 - U. Va Archive Traces Yellow Fever Defeat
April 11, 1982 - When Silence of Death Reigned
June 17, 1992 - regarding yellow fever memorial
March 31/April 1, 1993 - regarding yellow fever memorial
July 10, 1994 - Slave's Heroism
March 3, 1996 - yellow fever memorial
April 11, 1999 - Disparate groups unite as 1855 fever rages
September 4, 2003 - short history of yellow fever
Removal of the Bodies of the Philadelphians - A Solemn Procession
As before announced, Captain Nathan Thompson, an active agent of the Philadelphia Relief Society, formed in that city, in 1855 of which Thomas Webster Jr., Esq. was President, arrived a few days ago for the purpose of superintending the removal to Philadelphia, of the sacred remains of those of that noble band of heroes who came to our relief from the above city, in the summer of 1855, and fell at the post of duty; and whose names will ever stand inscribed on the "roll of honor."
Yesterday at eleven o'clock, the bodies were disinterred and a procession formed, consisting of the Howard Association with the male orphans of the Howard Asylum, the Masonic fraternity, and the Woodis Riflemen; this company numbering on the occasion, about fifty men, although the notice to parade was very short — only a few hours. A band of music marched at the head of the procession, Captain Corprew, Sergeant of the City, rode as Marshall and Mayor Lamb and others were in the line.
The procession, moving slowly towards the steamer, presented a truly solemn scene, forcibly reminding many of other scenes witnessed when and where these heroes fell. They came in life and health, with willing hearts and strong arms to our help when so greatly needed, and their crumbling remains only, go back to be "placed beneath the green sod at a well-chosen, quiet spot, within hearing of the solemn toll of the belle of their native city, there to be visited and cherished with fond remembrance by those who loved them well.
A noble column it is, that stands to mark the scared spot where the remains of those brave, generous ones will find a permanent resting place. Tall, massive and symmetrical, with suitable devices and inscriptions exquisitively carved in the pure, native marble, it rises in its sad beauty, majestically above surrounding monumental stones and other evidences of affection and respect, amid trees and vines, and flowers that give to Laurel Hall [Hill], that lovely "city of the dead," a mysterious charm in its stillness and loveliness. Cold indeed must be the heart of him who can look unmoved upon that beautifully chiseled and appropriate monument erected by a people of a great city, to the memory of those who came hither to battle with an unseen enemy that spared them not.
The mortal remains of those gallant men who came forth to meet the foe and fell, have been exhumed, and are now returning over Ocean's blue waves to a still more honored river side, where the hand of affection may plant a tree to wave, and flowers to bloom over the cherished dust of your departed. — Here, the death-mists settled over their eyes and the weary ones sank down to unbroken rest and repose — there, in the quiet sun-light or beneath the shade of the evergreen, "Where the perfume-breathing blossoms will bloom in dew-bathed freshness", and while the evening star will look down in its cold, calm beauty they will slumber on till the last waking.
The following is a list of the Philadelphians who died in the epidemic:
In Norfolk: Herman Kierson, M. D., Thomas Craycroft, Student of M., Thomas W. Handy, Druggist, Andrew J. Thompson, do., son of Captain Nathan Thompson.
In Portsmouth: Courtland Cole, M.D., Edmond H. Barret, Student of M., E. Perry Miller, Druggist; Fred Mwifeldt [Muhsfeldt], Cupper and Leacher, Robert W. Graham, Nurse; Singleton Mercer, do., William Herson, do., Mrs. Olive Whittier, do., Miss Lucy Johnson, do.,.
Death of Mr. Ezra T. Summers.
It becomes our painful duty to announce the death of Mr. Ezra T. Summers, one of our oldest and most highly-esteemed citizens, which occurred at his residence, No. 103 Cumberland street, corner of Charlotte, on Sunday evening at 6:30 o'clock, after a long and painful illness, in the 80th year of his age. The deceased was born in Yorkshire, England, came to the United States in 1802, and settled in New Hampshire. He removed to Norfolk in 1812, and has since lived here.
For a long time he conducted an extensive cooperage business, and sold largely of his products for export to the British West Indies. He was active in the local politics and improvements of our city; was Councilman for several terms; a member of the Magistrate Court for years, and held the office of Coroner for quite a long time. He was also Mayor of the city, having been elected to succeed Hon. Hunter Woodis, who fell a victim to the yellow fever of 1855. His most conspicuous service was rendered during the fever of 1855, treating successfully by his own methods a large number of cases. He retired from business about the commencement of the late war. He was an Odd Fellow, vice-president of the Seamen's Friend Society, and a menber of the Freemason Street Baptist Church at the time of his death.
Last September he received a fall, which caused him to break his thigh, since which time he has been in declining health.
The funeral will take place from the Freemason Street Baptist Church this afternoon at 5 o'clock.
The Noble Martyrs of Duty in the Pestilence of 1855.
They Fell, not Mid Sabres Flashing or Cannons Thundering Loud, but on the Field of Duty—Their Memory is Embalmed in the Hearts of a Grateful People.
The following extract from a letter written by the late Dr. Moses Gwin, of Chicago, and published in the New York Medical Journal, will be read with interest by our people:
"We may brave the pestilence when all other flee; we may remain firm at our posts when death is more imminent than it ever was on the battlefield; but who sings our praise? Does the world know who the physicians were who fell at Norfolk when yellow fever depopulated that town? Does it know who rushed in to fill their places? And of those who survived, can it designate one? Did they survive to receive fame? Yet those men were braver than the bravest military leader, for theirs was a bravery unsupported by excitement or by the hope of fame. No, there are none so poor as to do us reverence. And, thank God, there are few of us so unsophisticated as to expect it."
The perusal of the forgoing leads THE VIRGINIAN to the reflection as to even physicians who, responding to duty's call, served in the great scourge referred to and fell while nobly battling for the lives of others.
Truly it may be said that theirs was a heroism greater than they who fell amid battle array. No cannon thundering loud, no great huzzales, no cheer of music moved them on, or hope or reward animated them, but theirs was a true heroism and duty was their only reward. It is true that no public monument marks the spot where they are buried, yet they fill martyrs' graves and their memory lives with a grateful people.
Forrest's history of the pestilence says the brave band of physicians belonging to Norfolk suffered fearfully, and few of them who were at home during the epidemic, escaped a fierce attack. Ten were laid in the dust—martyrs in one of the holiest of causes. The resident physicians who died are as follows in the order in which they fell: First, Richard W. Sylvester; 2d., Thomas F. Constable; 3d., George J. Halson; 4th., Richard J. Sylvester; 5th., Francis L. Higgins; 6th., Junius A. Briggs; 7th., Thomas Nash; 8th., George L. Upshur; 9th Richard B. Tunstall, and 10th., Henry Selden. A brief sketch of these noble men, as gleaned from Forrest's history, will be of interest. [Please see Forrest's book, pages 232 - 253.]
* * * * * *
While the recollections of the terrible pestilence is full of sadness, yet shining forth in splendid refulgence is the record of the noble men who names appear in the roll call above. They are not forgotten—their memory is treasured in the hearts of grateful people. It is true no monumental shaft inscribed with their names has been erected to their memory—that is a duty Norfolk has yet to discharge—and as a reminder of this, THE VIRGINIAN feel it a duty to bring forth from the pages of "Forrest's History of the Pestilence" the names of these men, whose bravery "was braver than the bravest military leader—for theirs was a bravery unsupported by excitement or by the hope of fame."
September 30, 1891 — The Norfolk Virginian
Editor of THE VIRGINIAN:
Dear Sir: In reading the item headed "Hero Physicians," we would like to call attention to an oversight and possibly an injustice to one of our leading physicians, who has had a stead and large practice for over thirty-six (36) years, and is probably called to, and welcomed at, as many or more bedsides than any physician in this city. We speak of Dr. L. A. Bilisoly, who was graduated in March, 1865, and was one of the small band of heroes who helped to bring out what was left of the Harrold family, and place them in an ambulance to be sent to the Naval Hospital. The fever had not yet become prevalent in the city, and some four or five hundred lookers on were witnesses to the act of five fearless men doing this deed of charity. Dr. L. A. Bilisoly worked faithfully night and day, even carrying suitable nutriment, prepared at his own home, and taking it himself in his buggy for those of his patients most in need. He was taken with the disease not until September, when, of course, his valuable aid and services were brought to an end. He survived, however, and after the scourge had left us, the citizens of Portsmouth made him a present of a handsome gold headed cane, in appreciation of his services so well done. He is now, and has been for more than twenty years, the surgeon for the Seaboard and Roanoke Railroad Company, and also of the Fourth Virginia Regiment since its organization. The Dr. Bilisoly mentioned with Dr. Hodges as escaping the dread disease, was Dr. Virginius B. Bilisoly, who had the "Congress" fever down on the Isthmus in 1849. He was also made a recipient of the famous horse "Barnum," and the finest physician's chaise ever brought to this city; purchased by friends and the citizens generally. Of him 'tis useless to say more, everybody knew him and everybody loved him.
A MEMBER OF THE HOWARD ASSOCIATION IN 1855.
THE VIRGINIAN cheerfully publishes the above, with the remark that its information was gained from Forrest's History of the Pestilence, by which it was guided in the making of its research.
[Handwritten addendum to the above article in the Bilisoly 1891 Newspaper Scrapbook housed at Portsmouth Library History Room: "Capt. Geo. Chambers, Rev. Francis Devlin, Drs. Virginius Bartholomew Bilisoly, Lisle Augustus Bilisoly and Antonio Leon Bilisoly were the persons mentioned here who removed Mrs. Harrold and her grown daughter in the ambulance. Two little boys were all that were left of the family and they were taken by Dr. V. B. Bilisoly to his home and provided for until they could be sent to their relatives in Baltimore. The mother and sister both died in the U. S. Hospital."]
Health Board Calls for a Cleaner City:
Invites Boards of Portsmouth, Berkley and County to Unite in Precautions
Against Fever—More Inspectors Authorized
The Norfolk health commissioners last night took a decided stand for a rigid cleaning up of the city, and called upon the commissioners of Portsmouth, Berkley and Norfolk county to meet with them Friday afternoon to consider the general sanitary conditions of the entire section and to take the steps needed to improve them.
For Norfolk the board decided to swear in as many sanitary inspectors as may be needed to make a thorough investigation into the city's condition. War is to be declared against the mosquito, and the board is preparing to have large quantities of crude petroleum shipped here for distribution among the pools, swampy streets and insect breeding cisterns.
The special meeting of the board was called by Mayor Riddick for the purpose of taking some action in regard to the general sanitary condition of the city. He stated that on account of the state of affairs in New Orleans it was necessary for all the cities on the Atlantic coast to take all the necessary steps to prevent the plague of the tropics from getting a foothold in any of the posts. Norfolk, the mayor said, should not be behind in taking precautionary measures, and, while this port was in no immediate danger, it would be wise for the health authorities to be prepared for any emergency that might arise.
Lieutenant Shaw appeared before the board and addressed the members on the mosquito evil and showed the consequences of allowing the mosquito to breed in the vicinity. Lieut. Shaw stated that he had had the yellow fever and had seen it fought, and he declared that the spread of the disease was due mainly to the little insect. In his address he went into a general discussion of the manner and habits of the mosquito, and showed exactly how it helped to spread the disease. Some of the mosquitoes, so the Lieutenant says, spread the germs of malaria, and still other breeds have a tendency to carry the germs of carious contagions diseases that affect a community from time to time.
Lieut. Shaw said that to get at the root of the evil it was necessary to learn just how the insects were bred, and to kill them in the embryo. He was fortified with papers on the subject by government experts and by reports from all over the country. By reading extracts from these papers and reports and by giving instances that had come under his own personal observation, he showed plainly to the board that Norfolk abounds with breeding places for what is justly regarded the worst enemy of mankind in the insect world.
In pools where the water lies still and there is no drainage, in cisterns, in manure heaps, in damp, close cellars, and in the numerous mud holes that abound in any community, this little insect breeds by the millions, and the only way of getting rid of them is to kill off the young ones. This statement brought Lieut. Shaw to the remedy.
He told the board of health that in the first place it would be necessary to give the town a thorough cleaning. Then he took up the possible places where mosquitoes would probably be found in the process of breeding. He told the board that all pools of water should be drained off that could be drained. Secondly, all weeds should be cut down, and thus prevent the mosquitoes from getting shelter there.
The Lieutenant stated that he knew there were a number of pools in Norfolk and in the suburbs that could not be drained, and these should be so treated that all the young mosquitoes would be killed off, and it would be impossible for any more to breed there. He said that the best means of killing these mosquitoes was to treat the ponds with crude petroleum.
When he was asked about the amount that would be required, he state that two tablespoonfuls would be ample to use for every fifteen square feet of water surface, and that this would not only kill the mosquitoes there at the time, but would effectually prevent any more from breeding in that place. He was unable to inform the board where the oil could be gotten and what it would cost the city, but it was learned after the meeting adjourned that the oil in the crude form was brought to Baltimore from the oil fields of Pennsylvania by means of great pipe lines, and that it flowed into tanks at the oil refineries there.
Then the Lieutenant took up the matter of cisterns. In response to a question by one of the members of the board, an inspector stated that most of the cisterns of Norfolk were to be found in Atlantic City, and that in the case of almost every one of them the cisterns were in disuse and were full of mosquitoes, many of them containing thousands and thousands of the insects. The speaker told the members of the board that it would be necessary to put oil in all of these cisterns and then put in some sort of a screen that would prevent insects already in there from coming out, and would also prevent any more from coming in.
Col. Cabell asked if, when the oil was put in the cisterns that were in use, the water would not be affected. Lieut. Shaw said that experience had shows that it would not, and Dr. Riddick said that there would be no danger of any thing of the sort, because the oil would constantly stay at the top, and in most instances the pumps took up the water from the bottom of the cisterns.
Then the question of manure was taken up, and it was pointed out that the best way to treat this was to compel the stable men to cover it with quicklime as soon as it was thrown from the stable.
The matter of damp cellars, the Lieutenant stated, could be remedied in the same manner that pools of water were, and also by a liberal use of the lime.
After hearing all there was to be said on the matter, it was decided that the best thing to do would be to call a joint meeting of all the health boards in this vicinity and plan some concerted action for the whole section.
The reason for calling this joint meeting was that the most of the breeding places for mosquitoes were outside of the city limits, and while it was for the good of the city to have the evils remedied, nothing could be done without the action of the boards that have supervision over the particular sections of the county in which the pools, etc., were located.
The members of the board were aroused over the necessity for immediate and serious action, and this was manifested by the fact that all the inspectors, as well as the street inspector, were present to give any information that would be needed to guide the board in its action.
The question of the removal of garbage was taken up, and the street inspector reported that for some little time the garbage had not been removed as promptly as it should have been on account of the fact that the department was hampered by not having enough live stock. Mr. Moses said this evil had been remedied now, and in a few days everything would be working smoothly. He reported that in many instances the residents were in the habit of bringing out the garbage after the carts had gone by, and it was necessary to make a second trip, thereby delaying the work considerably. The secretary was ordered to notify all householders of the time for the removal of garbage, and to have the inspectors see that this is done.
The inspectors, including those whose appointments were authorized at the meeting yesterday afternoon, were authorized to make a house to house inspection and see that the city was cleaned up thoroughly, and the street inspector was ordered to see that the work in his department was done in a thorough manner.
Rigid Quarantine Against Fever In Portsmouth
The matter of establishing a rigid quarantine against the yellow fever refugees coming from the infected points in the south occupied nearly the entire meeting of the regular semi-monthly meeting of the board of health last night.
Dr. F. S. Hope, city health officer, was present and explained the position taken by him at a meeting of the quarantine commissioners for the district of the Elizabeth river, the health officers of this section and representatives of several of the transportation men whose lines entered this section, held several days ago in Norfolk, when means of quarantine were discussed without coming to any definite conclusion.
The plan as advanced by Dr. Hope, which required every person traveling to have a certificate of health and identification combine in one. He suggested that all ticket agents of the said companies be required to see the same before selling the said parties tickets. He had been informed that no effort had been made to prevent any one who so desired leaving the fever-infested district and going anywhere they pleased without interference. Continuing, Dr. Hope said that this port was safe so far as the water route was concerned, the port being amply guarded by both marine hospital inspectors and state inspectors, and further than that, that no ship could reach this port in the required period of six days from any of the infected ports and that this left only the railroads as the dangerous points to be guarded, and that was his reason for suggesting the above plan, which was strenuously opposed, the railroads giving as their reason that it would have a tendency to reduce travel and hurt the roads. Dr. Hope stated to the board that he was having printed 2,500 copies of these blanks along the lines suggested at the meeting, and would supply any one desiring to leave the city with them without any cost to those so applying. A person equipped with one of these certificated will be enabled to go where they choose, the health officer at the last place visited stamping the date of their arrival and departure, thus preventing them being held up at every point for any great length of time in order to be within the required time limit of suspects.
The state quarantine commissioners at the meeting several days ago allowed him (Dr. Hope) the privilege of appointing an inspector until some definite arrangements in regard to the future plans of quarantine could be adopted, and that Dr. Chas. Parish was now inspecting every train that came in over the Seaboard Air Line, entering it at the shops and now allowing any one to enter the city until he was fully satisfied that everything was in accordance with the regulations. He also notified the different roads and the commissioners that if they did not take immediate hold of the matter that he, as city health officer, would inspect all trains entering the city and see that they were thoroughly inspected before allowing them to enter. The matter was to have been brought up before the state board last night in Richmond, and it would depend on their action in the matter what he would do in the matter.
The board unanimously endorsed the stand taken at the meeting by Dr. Hope and appointed him as the representative from this city to the needing of the representatives of the different boards in this section, to be held in a few days to discuss the matter more fully of inspection for protection of this immediate section.
Mr. Barksdale offered a resolution calling the attention of the council to the immediate need of sewering of the Fifth ward and doing away with the number of cesspools in that section, which, in is opinion, were mosquito breeders, and these pests are said by medical experts to be spreaders of yellow fever. He thought it should be attended to at once. The resolution was adopted. * * *
Old St. Paul's Church (excerpt about Rev. Jackson)
. . . we reach the year 1855, when the yellow fever devastated the city.
The rectorship was filled then by the Rev. Wm. Jackson, for whom God had reserved a work which only a faithful servant of Christ could do. In this year the yellow fever raged in Norfolk; and Mr. Jackson, with other Christian ministers, stood by his people. Men and women still speak of his gentle and untiring devotion to the sick and the afflicted; but the parish register tells the story even more pathetically, with its list of seventy-nine burials, five and seven a day. The last burials at which Mr. Jackson officiated were three on September 4; and he himself was laid to rest by his faithful brethren, the Rev. Aristides Smith and the Rev. Lewis Walke. His is the last interment from yellow fever. It would seem that the Master spared him until his work was ended, and then said, "Well done, good and faithful servant; enter thou into the joy of thy Lord."
JOHN VERMILLION - There died at his home in Norfolk on September 5th, John Vermillion, a loving son and brother and true friend and loyal citizen. Born in the city of Portsmouth, yet spending the greater part of his life in Norfolk, he was well known and well beloved of both communities. As a mere youth, in his native city, he nursed with increasing care the sick and the dying of that dread scourge, the yellow fever of 1855. As a young man, at the first call of his State, he volunteered in her defence, serving in the early campaign on the Peninsula and thence on in every battle in Virginia and Maryland up to and including Gettysburg, where he was made prisoner of war in a few feet only of the spot where the gallant Armstead fell. Gentle, generous, modest as a woman, he yet was possessed of a courage which sprang from a strong moral sense and devotion to duty which were ever the basic principle upon which it rested. After the war he entered into business in Norfolk and as the years came to him and he grew older he also grew in the love, admiration and respect of all who knew him in both communities, gaining their confidence through the rectitude of his life. And so, after nearly four-score years, he passed away and his passing is a real grief to his native and adopted home. Eulogy seems superfluous; his life among them is his best eulogy. This one phase of it is a volume in itself. He was a member of the Ninth Virginia regiment (enlisting in 1867) of Armstead's brigade, of Pickett's division of Stonewall Jackson's corps, of the Army of Northern Virginia. There are yet some living who can and will place the proper value upon this. By those of his comrades who yet linger on this side of the River, he will ever be held in fondest recollection and when in their memories they gather again around the campfires, they will miss him; there will be his vacant chair, but they will linger to caress him when they breathe their evening prayer. John Vermillion was a member of Pickett-Buchanan Camp of Confederate veterans, of the Business Men's Association and Board of Trade, and a charter member of the Virginia Club. The writer who knew him for a great number of years, loved him, for the great good that was in the man for his many exemplary traits of character, making him so worthy of being loved. by W. R. Mayo
Scourge Survivor Describes Scene of Epidemic
From time immemorial among civilized people it has been a matter of pride to see that their dead are shown every mark of respect permitted by circumstances. To a large extent the character of the living is shown by the respect and honor they pay those who have been called by the grim messenger of Death. With the civilized races reverence for the departed has become almost as instinctive as for the mother who gave them birth.
In no way is this brought more strongly to mind than by a visit to one of the city's cemeteries during the days of late spring. The trees have burst into their most gorgeous attire; everything is green, and even the ground seems to be newly born.
It would be difficult to find in this section a spot more kissed by nature than Elmwood or Cedar Grove, the oldest cemeteries owned by the city.
Trees of almost every variety shade the well cared for mounds, most of them of course, native to the tidewater country, but there are a number that are seldom seen in this section. Down in the western end of Elmwood are majestic "weeping" willows. A little more to the east they mingle branches with gnarled, magnificent oaks. Silver leafed maples are scattered about the large grounds in abundance, with a few of the smaller trees lining the walks and walls.
Probably at no other time of the year are the large resting places of our dead so impressively beautiful as at this season. The grass has just begun to be at is best; the flowers have spring from their winter hiding places, and the umbrageous foliage of the trees show to best advantage.
Miles of well graded shell roads wind their way among the tombstones, lined on with side with neatly kept plots of close cropped grass. Here and there, at the cross roads, are small flower beds, shedding their air of peacefulness through the neighboring burial plots. Grassy aisles lead off from the roads at frequent intervals, threading their way through time stained marble and granite slabs and tombs.
In a little frame house at the entrance to Elmwood stays the man to whom the credit for the appearance of all of the city cemeteries should be given, Superintendent John M. Broughton. For more than a decade he has had the care of the graves and large reservations, the roads and flowers, the grass and trees. To him the city's four cemeteries, Elmwood, Cedar Grove, Forest Lawn and Magnolia, possess an attraction rarely accorded human beings. His life's work has been devoted to the care of the numerous acres, and he has come to care for them with the tender care of a mother for her child.
A weed, stealing its way above the velvety grass, does not for long escape his attention. He is more familiar with the graves than even members of some of the families who have been laid to their last resting place in one of his cemeteries. He can give a good synopsis of the life of most of the bodies under his care, and can tell almost to the exact day when any body in the cemetery was buried.
As incongruous as it may seem, it is really a pleasure to have the superintendent conduct you through the winding paths, past the graves of those who at one time were important cogs in the wheel of life, by old family vaults, moss covered and stained by the cruel hand of time. He knows intimately all of the most interesting graves, family plots and vaults, and delights in telling of them. Under his guidance the grim, depressing mounds seem to take on a personal attraction.
The superintendent is a landscape gardener and artist of no small merit, and under his skilful management, this art has been combined with the natural beauty of the cemeteries to form one of the most beautiful, quiet, restful spots for miles around.
For more than half an hour Superintendent Broughton stopped in a western part of Elmwood, pointing out moss covered tombs, beginning to crumble and fall. All were marked 1855, most of them August or September. More than 1,000 graves bearing that date were pointed out in Elmwood alone, with even more in the older cemetery across the street, Cedar Grove.
All of these old, grim, depressing mounds recalled the most terrible, heart-rending, pathetic year in the history of Norfolk—the year of the yellow fever epidemic. Before the "plague" Norfolk was a thriving seaport city, doing a large foreign shipping business. She was known from the "Horn" to Suez as a city having exceptional promise for a brilliant future.
Then in 1855, a foreign ship dropped anchor in the harbor and opened her hatches. Immediately the pestilence began to spread. Gentle zephyrs blowing from the river carried the deadly contagion to the shore. With the night the first case of yellow fever developed. Before it could be diagnosed dozens more were confined to their beds and within two days the city was entering the most terrible, discouraging fight it has ever been called upon to lead.
Before August was well inaugurated, hundreds of coffins had been built. Dozens and dozens of recruits were called to dig graves for the bodies. By September it was no longer possible to dig each body a separate grave and hundreds of those who fell victims to the contagion were all dumped together into long trenches.
An old man who had survived the "plague," when he was a boy of 15 years, was standing beside one of the graves when a reporter visited Elmwood cemetery several days ago. He was bent and weakened by the 70 or more years that have passed over his head, but never misses a visit to the resting place of comrades who have passes over the border, on day when the sun is out and the weather is warm.
In a broken voice, cracked and quivering, he told of the terrible scenes in the cemeteries during the awful months when the fever was at its highest.
"One night during the worst August I ever spent," he hesitatingly related, "I stole away from home and came out here to Elmwood.
"It was just at twilight—ghostly shadows throwing incongruous figures across the mounds of new earth and the oppressive-looking, seemingly never-ending trenches. My God! I have been through many a battle—from Gettysburg to Appomattox—but never have I seen the gruesome sight that met my eyes that late afternoon.
"Stretched beside dozens of newly dug graves and trenches were two score or more men—grave-diggers. They had been working from sunrise—even before sunrise—until after the golden orb had sunk in the west. They were worn out, exhausted and sick with fatigue, and had fallen at their posts. Each was sleeping as quietly as a baby, too tired to move.
"Within scarcely a foot of each body were other forms, ghastly, deathly forms marked with the scourge of the fever. Each in itself was a death-dealing body, more powerful in its destruction than the new cannon that arm the country's forts.
"So great had been the death rate that it was impossible to secure enough men to place the bodies under ground. Each of those grave-diggers was a hero—a braver hero than the man who storms the enemy's strongest trenches and covers himself with glory upon the battlefield. Against an invisible and terrible death they were fighting, with their very hands handling the bodies that carried a poison far deadlier than even the barbed point of an Indian's arrow.
"Every night there would be a hundred or more bodies piled one above another, awaiting the dawn that they might be placed in the rapidly dug trenches. Almost as fast as one could count, life after life was sacrificed.
"Though those humble grave-diggers were heroes, there were many who displayed heroism of a much more dashing character, bravery whose like I have never seen equaled—no, nor do I every expect to see such courage displayed as was shown by those who tended the sick and ministered to the wants of the suffering and the dying.
"Hand in hand, side by side, men who had never had a thing in common joined together in the fight against the death of many whom they had never seen before, did not know and had absolutely no interest in and fighting against the death of the city of Norfolk, dearer to them than even their own lives."
No records of the bodies buried during the deathly pestilence are kept in the books of the cemetery. It would have been almost impossible to attempt to catalogue the bodies then placed beneath Cedar Grove's and Elmwood's grassy sod. So great was the influx of corpses, each of which marked a step of the fever, that enough men could not be procured to cover their bodies after they had been placed beneath the ground.
Over the corner of the plots occupied by the yellow fever victims, stands a small monument to the memory of Dr. George L. Upshur, erected by his brother Masons in commendation of his heroic bravery during the worst summer in Norfolk's history. Dr. Upshur, say those who weathered the plague, seemed always to be at the point of greatest suffering. No danger was too great for him to risk his life in the effort to make some poor mortal's death the easier. From house to house he made his way, fighting a valiant fight to save those who were not in the last stages of the dread disease, and fighting more bravely still to make death less painful to those who were beyond hope of recovery.
In another section of the cemetery, not far removed from that occupied by victims of the epidemic, lie the bones of hundreds of boys and men who wore the gray, who fought and died for the "Lost Cause," to whom life held no dearer charm than the privilege to give it for their State and country and for what they considered their just rights.
A majority of the graves show that their occupants had not yet passed 20 years of life. Mere boys who valiantly fought to defend their mothers' homes, to keep inviolate the furrowed fields of their forefathers and to uphold the name of the South.
In the center of the section occupied by the graves of those who fell in battle, lies a marble slab. Under it rest sixty unknown bodies. There were men who fell before the Federal, shot in battles at and near Norfolk, men without a name, without friends to mourn their loss.
Inscribed upon the slab, which was placed above their graves by the Daughters of the Confederacy, are the words: "We know not who they are, but the whole world knows what they are. They died far from home, but fill heroes' graves."
Over in another corner lies the hero of Fort Fisher, Colonel William Lamb. For hour after hour he held the fort with a small corps of men against a heavy fire from a three fold strength of Federal troops. Finally the gunboat fire became too heavy, the walls of the fort were being pierced time after time, and it looked as though the Southern troops would be forced to abandon the sheltering bags of sand that filled the gaps in the walls.
But Colonel Lamb refused to order a retreat. "Unless they take it over my dead body," he told his men, "the Yankees will never enter the fort."
They did enter the lines, and they almost did it over his dead body. With a bullet in his hip and several in other parts of his body the colonel stood upon the ramparts, with scarcely a handful of men to answer his commands.
The enemy entered and cut the commanding officer down like a dog. In dozens of places he was pierced by the bayonets upon the ends of Yankee guns. Long gashes ran from his head to his feet and he was almost unconscious through loss of blood. Still he would not order his small command to abandon their stations. Instead he encouraged them on, calling to them to pour their concerted fire into the onrushing Yankees.
Unless General Wright had come up with a small reinforcement Colonel Lamb would never again have seen the light of day. But even as it was the Confederate men could not hold their positions against the huge Federal forces, General Wright ordered a retreat, overriding Colonel Lamb's protestations. Much against his inclination the colonel was carried from the fort by the men whom he would not allow to retreat before a grueling fire. He died soon after from the other wounds, and now lies beside many a poor private who felt honored to follow in his footsteps against the Yankees, even when they full well knew that their hope of routing the enemy was nil.
In still another part of the cemetery lies a man who has been honored even more than though he commanded the winning army, Father Ryan, the poet priest. In loving memory of the deeds performed by the unassuming Confederate chaplain and the glowing lines in which he has immortalized the "Lost Cause," The Daughters of the Confederacy have placed simple tomb above his grave, simply inscribed "Father Ryan, poet priest.
Another striking remembrance of the Civil War is brought to mind by the grave of William Collie, from Aberdeen, Scotland. A stone has been raised above the grave by the Confederate daughters, simply styling him as a "friend of the Confederate soldiers and sailors."
During the most trying period of the war, when the Confederate forces were short of powder, shell and rations, the canny Scot was indeed a true friend in need William Collie owned and captained a sailing vessel that for those days and extremely large.
Outnumbering the Southerners in seafighters, the Federal forces had blockaded all of our principal ports when William Collie lent his assistance. He was a man of more than usual daring and bravery and time and again ran the Yankee blockade with his staunch little schooner, bringing food for the Confederate guns, guns themselves, and help from abroad.
One of the most touching scenes in the two cemeteries is the old Denby family vault, built in 1860. Gathering the old semi-circular vault in its fragrant embrace, is an old climbing rose bush, completely hiding the entire vault. Clusters of the beautiful buds hang down across the door, framing the resting place of the Denby family in a natural border.
The only mausoleum in any of the Norfolk cemeteries stand on one of Elmwood's eastern alleys. In it rests the body of John B. LeKies, at one time one of Norfolk's foremost financiers. The mausoleum was build in October of 1890 by his wife. A New York contractor erected the large granite and marble structure, at a cost of about $37,000. The body of Mr. LeKies is at present the only one resting within it. His wife, after her death, will rest beside the body of her deceased husband.
In another part of the cemetery rests the body on one of Virginia's foremost pulpit orators, Hugh Blair Grigsby. At one time he was chancellor of William and Mary College, when it was one of the largest and most important institutions of learning in the country. He was a learned Doctor of Divinity, and one of the most renowned orators in the State.
In the Tazewell family lot is seen a unique treatment of the graves, being particularly noticeable among the other plots. In the small lot are about a dozen graves and eight of them are marble chests standing about four feet above the ground and simply showing plain, unornamented sides. In this lot is buried one of the daughters of General J. E. B. Stuart—one of the most heroic and dashing wearers of the gray—Virginia Pelham Stuart Waller.
Across the street in Cedar Grove there are many other interesting graves and beautiful tombs and vaults. Cedar Grove is the older of the two cemeteries, but has not been so generally used as has Elmwood since 1833, the year Elmwood was founded. Cedar Grove was established in 1828. About three years ago Forest Lawn was added by the city. It is about four miles out of town. While Cedar Grove and Elmwood combined occupy only a little more than 65 acres, the new cemetery has about 150 acres. The fourth burial ground owned by the city is Magnolia, in Berkley ward.
Cedar Grove is interesting chiefly for its picturesqueness and floral beauty. All of the tombs, with only a few exceptions, are twenty or more years old. Covered with moss, clinging flowers and even grass in some places, they have more the air of the antique than can be found in Elmwood.
Over in one corner is the vault built in 1848 for Sarah Skinner. The old iron door has rusted on its hinges, and the old-fashioned lock is probably closed forever.
Nearby stands a vault that is older still. It is the Arthur Taylor vault, built in 1834.
In another corner of Cedar Grove stands one of the most impressing vaults in either of the two cemeteries. From top to bottom, not only on the sides but on the front and back walls as well, it is covered with a thick growth of Virginia creeper. One can search entirely around the old resting place without finding a spot uncovered by the clinging vine more than six inches square. Not unless you take a stick to push back the dense foliage holding the old vault in its tight embrace can you read the name, Edward L. Young. The old iron door can be seen no more, for it has been covered with a thick layer of concrete or cement.
Stricken By Yellow Fever Capt. Phillips Lives To Tell Story
By W. E. Debnam
A horse-drawn hearse drew up in front of a residence on Main street. An aged Negro man draped the reins loosely over the dashboard, and climbed stiffly down from the driver's seat. The horse's head drooped wearily. The man appeared tired as he shuffled up the walk toward the house.
It was the summer of 1855. Norfolk was in the grip of the terrible Yellow Fever Plague that in four months claimed the lives of more than 2,000 citizens and man, horse and hearse—it was the only hearse in the city, had been busy night and day for weeks on end.
The door of the house opened quietly and the Negro, his high hat under his arm, stepped inside. The horse's head drooped lower. He appeared to sleep in harness, unmindful of the billowing waves of heat that poured upward into his nostrils from the hot cobblestones. A wagon, loaded high with coffins bound for the Potter's Field located back of what is now Elmwood cemetery where Norfolk was burying its dead in trenches, creaked past.
The door of the house opened again. The Negro man came out. This time he was carrying a coffin on his back and assisting him was a 12-year old boy.
That boy is now Capt. Samuel C. Phillips, Holland Apartments, one of the few remaining survivors of that dread disease the French steamer Benjamin Franklin brought to Norfolk.
The body was that of George Phillips, Captain Phillips' brother, cut down by the plague in the 43rd year of his life.
The Negro was "Yellow Fever Jack," buried and forgotten these many years—forgotten and his grave unmarked despite the fact that the city, in appreciation of his heroic services in burying its yellow fever dead, presented him a gold watch and chain.
Captain Phillips vividly recalls the Great Plague. A few days after the incident described above he was himself stricken with yellow fever, battled the disease four days, and recovered. Today he is immune from the disease. Two years ago, in the interest of science, he contributed several ounces of his blood to the Rockfeller Foundation. A test proved that despite the fact that more than 75 years have passed since he had the disease, his blood contains many of the properties that guard against his having yellow fever again.
Captain Phillips was born March 8, 1843. During his long and eventful life he has watched Norfolk grow from a borough of approximately 6,000 population to a great port numbering approximately 130,000 citizens.
"Of course I remember the Yellow Fever Plague," he told a Ledger-Dispatch reporter. "A French steamer"—Captain Phillips had forgotten her name, but history records the death ship as the Benjamin Franklin—"came into Hampton Roads early that summer, steamed up Elizabeth River and anchored off what is now the Naval hospital. She brought the plague with her. The disease first broke out in Portsmouth—they called it Gosport then, and quickly spread to Norfolk.
"Every store in the city was closed. Every person who could fled the city. Food was distributed by the Howard Association, a relief organization supported by contributions from the other cities.
"That section east of Church street was struck first. Hundreds were dying there every day. Panic seized the city. In a futile attempt to stop the advance of the plague a wall 20 feet high was built down Church street from Union street to Water street. But it did no good. The disease spread to every section of the city.
"It was very hot that summer. Millions of those yellow fever flies swarmed over the city, carrying the disease everywhere.
"There was scarcity of coffins at first.
When my brother died I couldn't find a coffin in the city. I remember I paid Salisbury, he was operating a furniture store in the heart of the business district that is now East Main street, twelve dollars to put four wide pine boards together to make a coffin. Later on a ship loaded with coffins steamed up Elizabeth River and anchored off the foot of Commercial Place. The coffins donated by a relief agency, were given without charge to all who called for them.
"Doctors and nurses from Charleston and New Orleans, they were acquainted with yellow fever in those cities, flocked to the city's rescue. Dr. Skrive, of Charleston, is one I best remember. He attended me. I remember that day he came to see me first. I was burning up with fever. The family physician had prescribed certain medicine. Dr. Skrive came in and saw the bottles of medicine. "Throw that dam stuff out the window," he said. He gave me some more medicine instead. In four days I was out again.
"Several of the men on the ship that brought the disease to Norfolk were lying ill aboard ship. Father O'Keefe, he built St. Mary's church, went aboard the vessel and nursed them. The French government gave him a medal for that act of bravery.
"Scores and even hundreds of people were dying every day. Practically every home in the city was stricken. In some cases entire families were wiped out. In others only one or two were taken sick. My mother worked through it all and was never ill with the fever. Those who could, of course, had their loved ones buried in cemeteries. Hundreds died penniless and were buried in Potter's Field, located back of Elmwood Cemetery in trenches six feet wide and fifteen or twenty feet long.
"The arrival of cold weather brought the plague to an end. It left almost as quickly as it came." [This ends the memories of the yellow fever by Capt. Phillips.]
Medal Awarded for Services in 1855 Yellow Fever Scourge
Sent to Surgeon's Grandchild
During the yellow fever scourge which wracked Norfolk in 1855 when physicians rallied courageously to the care of the fever-stricken, there occurred an incident which attracted the personal commendation of Emperor Louis Napoleon of France.
It was an individual bit of medical heroism at the Naval Hospital in Portsmouth performed by Dr. Thomas Williamson, chief surgeon, and Dr. Harrison, his assistant, which caused the emperor to write a note of appreciation and follow this up with a specially struck gold medal for each.
Musty papers and the gold medal presented Dr. Williamson, which came to light recently among the effects of one of his descendants reveal the outline, if not the details, of the courageous work of the navy surgeons.
The incident took place in the summer of 1855 when the French steam frigate Chimere attached to the French West India squadron put into Norfolk harbor with yellow fever on board. In that day it was considered a feat of personal bravery to go near a yellow fever patient and an act of civic suicide to allow a case to come into a community.
Dr. Williamson, however as commanding officer of the Naval Hospital, had the sick conveyed to that institution, where, as an old clipping relates, he and Dr. Harrison attended them personally "with the most unceasing kindness, devotedness and care."
Dr. Williamson, the navy record shows entered the service May 13, 1813, as a surgeon's mate, rose gradually in the ranks with service on the Adams, Torch, Prometheus, Alert, Nonsuch, John Adams and Brandywine, was at the Naval Hospital the first time in 1823, was its chief surgeon from 1852 to 1855, and died in Portsmouth January 12, 1859.
Last week the medal and the records were in the hands of H. J. Kerns of 406 Fairfax avenue, whose sister, Jennie Kerns, was the wife of C. H. Williamson, a son of the chief surgeon. C. H. Williamson died in 1911 and his wife died last month, whereupon Mr. Kerns took charge of the valuable relics and was preparing to forward them to Annie Laurie Williamson of Washington, D. C., a grandchild of the surgeon.
Nearly two and one half inches in diameter, the medal is of solid gold and bears the following inscription: "Ministere de la Marine et des Colonies. Au Deur, Williamson (Thomas). Medin. en chef del'Hoal, de Norfolk. Soins donnes a l'Equipage de la Chimere, 1855." A rough translation of this would be: Ministers of the Navy and Colonial Possessions: To Dr. Thomas Williamson, chief surgeon of the Norfolk Hospital Services, performed for the company of the Chimere, 1855."
The obverse face of the medal bears a relief portrait of Emperor Louis Napoleon, emperor of France from 1852 to 1870.
A clipping found with the medal obviously from a Norfolk newspaper as reproduced from the Richmond Dispatch, read as follows:
From Richmond Dispatch:
"A well earned medal of honor ready apprised the French government has presented two medals of high order, appropriate to the official positions held by each, to Dr. Williamson, principal surgeon and Dr. Harrison, assistant surgeon of the U. S. Naval Hospital at Portsmouth. This highly honorable distinction has been conferred in acknowledgment of the humane and noble conduct of those gentlemen to the officers and crew of the French steam frigate Chimere, which it will be recollected, was attached to the French West India squadron, and put into Norfolk harbor last summer with the yellow fever on board.
Dr. Williamson, upon learning the state of things, with characteristic promptness and benevolence, had the sick conveyed to the U. S. Naval Hospital, where they were attended by himself and his accomplished assistant, Dr. Harrison, with the most unceasing kindness, devotedness and care. The peculiar and energetic devotion with which these gentlemen responded to the calls suffering humanity, elicited the profound gratitude of the French officers and of their government. The French admiral of the station wrote a highly complimentary letter to the American officers, and another of a similar character was penned by Louis Napoleon. The medals, which have just been ordered, crown gracefully and appropriately the gratitude and courtesy which the noble acts of our countrymen have elicited from the French government. How much more elevated and worthy the dignity and intelligence of human nature is the interchange of such kindly sympathies and courtesies, than deeds of hatred and destruction upon the bloody theater of war!
"Dr. Williamson, the chief surgeon of the hospital at Portsmouth, is one of the most eminent and respected surgeons of the navy, and his character reflects as much credit on human nature as does his skill on that of his noble profession. He is a native of Maryland, a gentleman of the old school, on whose intelligence and lofty bearing would in any country command respect and homage. If we could always send abroad such representatives of American character, our national reputation would stand infinitely higher than at present. The whole life of this distinguished man has been marked by the courageous benevolence and humanity which have, in case of the French frigate Chimere attracted so much attention. On one account the U. S. frigate Macedonian arrived in the harbor of Norfolk with the yellow fever on board. The chief surgeon and assistant surgeon of the vessel had both died of the terrible disease. Dr. Williamson instantly volunteered his services, went on board the vessel, and in the midst of the plague devoted himself with the most admirable skill and courage to the suffering crew. Such acts as these seem to us more worthy of admiration than all the animal powers ever displayed on a quarter deck, and which is often stimulated by mere passion, ambition and vanity.
"As the Constitution does not permit gifts to be received by officers of the U. States from foreign powers, it will require a special act of Congress to enable Drs. Williamson and Harrison to accept the medals conferred on them by the French government.
* * * * *
Courtesy of Centers for Disease Control Public Health Image Library
"When Death Stalked Streets of Norfolk and Portsmouth"
by W. E. Debnam
The Story of the Great Yellow Fever Pestilence that Can Never Come Back
Norfolk is one of the healthiest cities in the country today. The death rate from preventable disease has shown a steady decline for the past several years.
Many factors contribute to this beneficient result:
The advance in medical science.
The close watch by the Norfolk Health Department, recognized as one of the most efficient in the country.
And closer co-operation on the part of the general public.
Everywhere people at last are realizing that "an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure" and health officials who not so many years ago found their work hampered by ill-informed citizens who regarded health regulations as invasion of their personal liberty, now find almost invariably a spirit of friendly co-operation on the part of the householder.
In those few instances where this is not the case, the matter is carried into court immediately and those who decline to co-operate are made to see the error of their way.
The road that has led to a healthy city has been no easy one. It is marked with the graves of thousands of men, victims of their own and medical ignorance.
It is marked, too, with countless instances of soul-stirring personal heroism in which men and women, with utter disregard for their own safety, have risked their lives in gruesome experiments and unselfish service in order that mankind might be protected against disease.
There was a time, when Norfolk, as was the case with every other seaport in the world, fell prey all to frequently to the pestilence of small-pox, of malaria, of typhoid and last and most deadly of all—to Yellow Fever born in the teeming jungles of the West Indies.
Andrew Jenner solved the riddle of small-pox by vaccination in 1789.
A hundred years later Ronald Ross and Battista Grassi convicted the anophalees mosquito as the malaria murderer and screen wire and better drainage brought the glow of health back to the cheeks of countless thousands wasting away before this destroyer of the swamp lands.
In 1898 Wright in England discovered the typhoid vaccine that has saved the lives of millions.
But still Yellow Fever—that worst scourage of them all, a murderous plague that slew its victims by the thousands in a few short days—continued to rage until 1900, only 39 years ago, when a quiet, retiring Army major by the name of Walter Reed, born in Gloucester County, Virginia, just a short distance across Hampton Roads, staged one of the most heroic experiments in the annals of medical science and today, says de Kruif, "there is hardly enough of the poison of Yellow Fever left in the world to put on the points of six pins" and the plague, so far as Norfolk is concerned, is a thing of the past.
Norfolk and Portsmouth and the world owe a tremendous debt of gratitude to this man and his assistants who literally walked down into the Valley of the Shadow of Death in order that Yellow Fever might be stamped out.
The history of the two cities before Walter Reed exposed the stegomia mosquito as the carrier of Yellow Fever is marked with recurring epidemics of the plague.
In 1795 Yellow Fever broke out in the crowded tenements near the river and 500 persons died before the frosts of October brought relief.
In July, 1821, another plague of Yellow Fever swept the city and 160 died.
In September, 1826, only five years later, the plague came again and claimed 60 victims.
And after that 29 years passed in which Norfolk and Portsmouth were practically free of Yellow Fever. An entire generation had grown up since the epidemics of 1821 and 1826 caused such widespread terror. Only a very few old persons could remember the harvest of death in 1795. People began to think, says Wertenbaker in his History of Norfolk, that the paving and draining of the streets and the widespread use of cisterns for drinking water had rendered the town immune to Yellow Fever.
And then, on June the 7th, 1855,—84 years ago—the steamer Ben Franklin, bound from St. Thomas to New York, put into Hampton Roads in distress with Yellow Fever aboard.
When the Ben Franklin anchored in Elizabeth River off Fort Norfolk that bright June morning Norfolk was a thriving city of approximately 10,000 souls. Its harbor was thick with commerce. Its shipyards resounded to the pounding of hammers. Everywhere there was industry and happiness and prosperity.
Two months later after the Ben Franklin had delivered its cargo of pestilence she was literally a City of the Dead.
It was imperative that the steamer be repaired, says Wertenbaker, and upon giving assurance that his crew was all in good health the captain of the Ben Franklin on June the 19th was permitted to take her to page and Allen's shipyard at Gosport in Portsmouth.
A few days later a laborer employed in breaking out her hold contracted Yellow Fever and on July the 8th he died. The steamer was at once put into quarantine but it was too late. Pandora's box had been opened and the furies of death let loose over Norfolk and Portsmouth.
The first cases occurred in a row of dilapidated tenements near the Navy Yard. The inhabitants of the area were removed and a fence built about the infected district and for a time it was hoped this would localize the disease.
The hope was in vain, however, and a tremor of apprehension swept over Portsmouth a few days later when cases were reported in various parts of the town.
In Norfolk the people were still hopeful. The Elizabeth River was broad and deep. There were many who believed it would protect the city against the scourge.
Unfortunately the Norfolk authorities had permitted a number of poor families evicted from Gosport to move into Barry's Row, a tenement district on the east side of Church street between Union and Water. A few days later Norfolk shuddered with dread when several cases of Yellow Fever were reported in Barry's Row. The sick and well were moved out. Barry's Row was boarded up and when it was found that certain poor families were moving into the area in defiance of the Board of Health, the torch was applied and Barry's Row was reduced to ashes.
Little did the people of Norfolk realize as they watched the flames mount to the sky that the very means they were taking in an attempt to stop the disease were in reality scattering it to the four winds as the smoke drove the deadly stegomia out of Barry's Row and into every section of the city.
A few days later cases of Yellow Fever were reported all over town and panic seized the people. Thousands fled from their homes. Every train that left Portsmouth and every steamer for Baltimore or Richmond was crowded with refugees.
And then came the announcement that other cities had declared a quarantine against the stricken towns—first New York and then Suffolk and Richmond and Petersburg and Weldon and Hampton and Washington and Baltimore.
Fortunately Matthews County and the Eastern Shore threw open their doors. Henry A. Wise, governor-elect of Virginia, not only took some of the fugitives into his residence but equipped his barns and other outhouses so as to accommodate as many of the poor as possible.
By the middle of August it was estimated half of the residents of Norfolk had fled.
August the 14th was set aside as a day of humiliation and prayer, but still the Fever continued to spread. The district south of Main street was almost entirely deserted. The post office was moved to the Academy building, now Juvenile and Domestic Relations count. Merchants transacted what poor business there was from their residences.
The disease swept north of Main street, appearing first in one district and then another. The number of doctors and nurses was entirely insufficient and people began to die from want of care. One family, who kept a boarding house, became so terrified they fled from town, leaving a lodger, an Irishman by the name of Stapleton, ill in an upper room. When the poor man found himself deserted he staggered down the stairs and up the street to a doctor's office. There his strength gave out and he fell dead on the door-stoop.
Fortunately noble persons came from other cities—physicians, nurses and druggists—to risk their lives in the cause of humanity. The first to arrive was Miss Annie M. Andrews, of Syracuse, New York, who offered her services to Mayor Hunter Woodis as nurse. Others came—45 in all—from Richmond, New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Savannah, Charleston and even far away Mobile and New Orleans. Of the visitors 26 met the martyr's death, dying of the disease they had come to combat.
Before the end of August the city had become a great hospital. Deaths mounted to as high as a hundred a day. At one time the supply of coffins gave out and the bodies had to be interred in boxes, in some instances four to a box. Others had to be tied up in the blankets in which they died and were carried out to the potter's field—it was located on what is now Princess Anne road near the City Garage—on carts and wagons to be buried layer upon layer in pits.
Not only the streets of Norfolk, where almost all traffic was stopped except the ceaseless rumbling of hearses and wagons to and from the cemeteries, but the harbor as well reflected the desolation of the city.
Here is Forrest's description of the scene:
"As we look out along the waterfront we see that wharves and warehouses with the names of occupants painted in large letters upon their fronts all appear as usual, save their doors and windows are closed and there is no living thing to be seen about them. The names painted there will, many of them, if they are to give true directions soon have to be blotted out and graven instead upon the sign-stones in the City of the Dead.
"But look along the wharves, where at every season of the year there are many vessels lying and in the winter and early spring they often line the wharf-heads five and six deep. There is now not one single vessel to be seen from the drawbridge to Town Point. There are the two slender masts of a fishing smack sunk in the county dock; and here, in a shipyard, there is a vessel drawn up for repairs, but there is no shipwright at work upon her.
"The only boat that enters our harbor now is the little steamer, J. E. Coffee, run to meet the boats from Baltimore and Richmond that stop in Hampton Roads. By her our mails are carried and all our commerce done. Yesterday she came in with her deck piled high with empty coffins, and coffins for the dead are the one main article of imports now.
"Poor desolate Norfolk. The coming of a ship into her harbor today would cause as much surprise as the coming of that first ship to the Indians who then dwelt here. The sun shines as brightly and the sea-breezes seem as balmy as at other times; and yet this, one of the finest harbors on the Atlantic seaboard, the unseen pestilence has made to be shunned by the mariner more than if it were full of quick sands and sunken rocks."
Finally when the coming of frost put an end to the pestilence, says Wertenbaker, Norfolk lay suffering and stunned, still unable to grasp the full meaning of the fearful calamity. Of those who remained through those terrible 90 days, every man, woman and child almost without exception had been stricken with the fever and approximately 2,000 had died.
Among the dead were some of Norfolk's leading citizens. Mayor Hunter Woodis; John G. H. Hatton, president of the Select Council; Alexander Feret of the Exchange Bank; William D. Roberts, delegate-elect to the Legislature; Bray B. Walters, proprietor of the National Hotel; Josiah Wills, merchant and banker; Alexander Galt, postmaster; William Reid, ship broker, and John D. Gordan, banker.
The people of Norfolk and Portsmouth may thank God and Walter Reed and the United States Public Health Service that no Ben Franklin with its cargo of death can enter our harbor today.
Every ship that enters Hampton Roads from a foreign port is boarded first of all by a competent physician who makes a thorough inspection to see there is no contagious disease aboard. If the ship has come from a port where an epidemic is raging, even though no cases appear aboard, it is placed in strict quarantine for weeks until all danger is past.
Next week we shall tell the story of how Walter Reed in that little sun-baked camp at Quemados, Cuba, in 1900 solved the riddle of Yellow Fever so that we in Norfolk and Portsmouth and every other seaport in the country can rejoice in the knowledge that, so far as we are concerned, Yellow Fever is as dead as the dinosaur.
How Dr. Walter Reed and Forgotten Men Conquered the
Scourge of Yellow Fever
by W. E. Debnam
Ever since that memorable afternoon almost 300 years ago when Anthony Von Leeuwenhoek, janitor of the town hall at Delft, in Holland, peered through his microscope at an ordinary drop of rainwater and cried out in amazement as he discovered the Microbe, man has been waging relentless warfare against the strange, unseen and oft-times deadly inhabitants of the world about him.
The annals of Medical Science are full of the names of Microbe Hunters, men who on countless occasions have risked their lives in terrifying experiments in order that future generations might be freed of the scourge of disease.
In all too many instances their names have been forgotten. The world builds monuments to it Warriors. It forgets too quickly those who save instead of destroy.
Our story this week is of Walter Reed, of Gloucester County, Virginia, the man who directed the fight that conquered Yellow Fever and one of the greatest Microbe Hunters of them all.
Two thousand persons died of Yellow Fever in Norfolk, during that terrible summer of 1855. And as they died, as thousand of others in North and Central and South America had done for two hundred years before, men argued about the cause and cure of the pestilence—and got nowhere.
While the plague raged in Norfolk and weeds grew in the deserted streets, the terrified citizens carried camphor and asafoedita and thieves vinegar about their person in an attempt toward off the disease. Some tried tobacco, chewing and smoking continuously. There were others who sought safety in alcohol, staying drunk for weeks on end. But to all alike the disease came at last to prove the utter futility of such means of escape.
"There was only one thing on which they were all agreed," says Paul de Kruif in that intensely interesting book of his, Microbe Hunters, "and that was that when the residents of a town began to turn yellow and hiccup and vomit black by scores, by hundreds, every day, the only thing to do was to get up and get out of that town. Because the Yellow Murderer had a way of crawling through the walls and slithering along the ground and popping around corners—it could even pass through fire—and after everybody, including the very best physicians, had fought it by doing as many contrary things as they could think of as frantically as they could do them—the Yellow Jack kept on killing, until suddenly it got fed up with killing. In North America that always came with the frosts in the fall.
"This was the state of scientific knowledge about Yellow Fever up to the year 1900. True, in Havana there was a bearded old man—Dr. Carlos Finlay—who cried: 'You are all wrong—Yellow Fever is caused by a mosquito!'—but everybody said Dr. Carlos Finlay was a Theorizing Old Fool and paid him no attention."
There was a bad state of affairs in Havana in 1900. The Yellow Fever had killed thousands more American soldiers than the bullets of the Spaniards.
At General Leonard Wood's orders, Havana had been scrubbed clean as a hound's tooth. Happy, dirty Cubans had been made into unhappy, clean Cubans. But it was all in vain. There was more Yellow Fever in Cuba than there had been in 20 years.
As things gradually grew worse, messages were exchanged between Havana and Washington, and so it was that on June the 25th Major Walter Reed—he had been a five-year-old boy on his father's farm just across Hampton Roads during the Norfolk plague—came to Kuimados in Cuba with orders to give special attention to questions relating to the cause and prevention of Yellow Fever.
Reed had three assistants. There was James Carroll, and ex-lumberjack who had turned assistant surgeon in the Army. There was Jesse Lazear, aged 34, who had learned microbe hunting in Europe. There was Aristides Agramonte, a Cuban, whose job it was to but up the dead bodies. But Agramonte ran no risk. He had already had Yellow Fever and was immune.
For weeks these four—the Yellow Fever Commission—worked there in the Yellow Fever hospital out of which scores of victims were carried feet first every day—and found nothing at all.
And finally one day in desperation Reed and the others went to see Dr. Carlos Finlay, that bearded Old Theorizing Fool, and Finlay gladly told them his story and gave them some little black eggs shaped like cigars and said: "These are the eggs of the criminal!"
And Walter Reed took those eggs and gave them to Lazear and Lazear put them into a warm, moist place and before long they hatched into mosquitoes with beautiful silver markings on their backs.
"And now," said Reed, "we'll try Finlay's notion about mosquitoes."
But it was easier said than done for everybody knew perfectly well that you can't give Yellow Fever to a guinea pig or a monkey or a rabbit or to any animal except one—Man himself. If Finlay's notion was to be tested Reed had to have experimental animals and that meant nothing more nor less than Human Beings.
And in some epidemics Reed knew 85 out of a hundred died and in others 50 out of a hundred and never less than one out of every five. It would be nothing less than murder!
"But there is where the strong moral nature of Reed came to help him," says de Kruif. "Here was a blameless man, a Christian man but a man who—though he was mild—was also mad with the desire to help his fellow man."
"I'm ready to take the bite," said Jesse Lazear, who was 34 and had a wife and two children in the States.
"You can count on me, sir," said James Carroll, who had a wife and five children.
And so it happened that Lazear went down between the rows of beds on which lay doomed men with faces yellow as the leaves of Autumn, and he bit those men with his silver-striped Stegomia mosquitoes and carefully he carried those blood-filled beasts back to their glass homes, in which were little saucers of water and little lumps of sugar. And here the mosquitoes digested their meal of yellow fever blood, and buzzed a little, and waited for the test.
But first they tried those mosquitoes on Lazear and six other men—tried it in secrecy so dark that the names of those first human guinea-pigs are still unknown. And nothing happened. They stayed as fit as fiddles.
But that was only the first test. On the 27th of August Lazear picked out his champion mosquito and this creature that had fed on four cases of Yellow Fever settled down on the arm of James Carroll and drank his fill of Carroll's blood.
"If there is anything in this Mosquito theory," Carroll wrote Reed, who had been called back to Washington temporarily, "I should get a good dose of Yellow Fever."
He almost died.
And then those Microbe Hunters found another human guinea-pig. He was William Dean, of Grand Rapids, Michigan. And they bit him with four mosquitoes—one of them the one that had almost killed James Carroll.
And Dean, too, caught Yellow Fever and came dangerously near death.
And then one day—it was September the 13th—Lazear was at his job of letting his little silver-striped mosquitoes bit the men in the Yellow Fever ward when one of the creatures lit on his own arm. He let his drink her fill.
And 12 days later Jesse Lazear was dead of Yellow Fever.
And then Walter Reed came back to Cuba and Carroll wiped the tears for Lazear out of his eyes and told him what they had found.
But Walter Reed was a careful man, a cautious man and one not given to calling a problem solved just because two men had caught Yellow Fever from the bite of a Stegomia mosquito and another had died. He had to know. He started to take the test himself but he was 50 years old and to him a case of Yellow Fever would have meant certain death and they persuaded him not to.
So Reed went to General Wood and asked for volunteers to test his theories. And one mile from Kuimados they pitched seven tents and raised a flagpole and called the place Camp Lazear and let it be known to the American soldiers in Cuba that there was another war on—a war for the saving of men—and asked for volunteers.
The ink was hardly dry on the announcement before they came—Private Kissinger and Civilian Clerk John J. Morgan, both of Ohio, and said they were ready for the test.
But Reed was a conscientious man. He explained carefully to Private Kissinger and Civilian Clerk Morgan that, event at the best, they stood one chance in five of dying a horrible death. He told them of the grave of Jesse Lazear. And then he told them of the generosity of General Wood. If they lived they would be paid $300.
"The one condition on which we volunteer, sir," said Private Kissinger and Civilian Clerk Morgan, "is that we receive no compensation."
And to the tip of his cap went the hand of Major Walter Reed and he said: "Gentlemen, I salute you!"
And so it was that on the 5th of December Private Kissinger furnished nice full meals for five mosquitoes—two of them had bitten fatal cases of Yellow Fever. And five days later he was ill of the plague. It was a perfect case and in his quarters Walter Reed thanked God, for Kissinger got better.
And then—ah, Walter Reed was thorough!—they tried it on five immigrants who had just arrived from Spain and who had been nowhere near Yellow Fever—and four of the five caught the disease. And they all lived to spend the $200 that was their fee as human guinea-pigs.
But still Walter Reed wasn't satisfied. He had to find out if Yellow Fever could be carried in any other way Everybody believed that the clothing and bedding and possessions of Yellow Fever victims carried the plague. They had burned Barry's Row in Norfolk, you remember.
So at Camp Lazear they built two little houses—two ugly little houses that were carefully screened and on the 13th of November a young American doctor by the name of Cooke and two American soldiers—Privates Folk and Jernagan—moved into House No. One and for 21 days they literally lived with the Yellow Fever dead. They slept on sheets soiled with the black vomit of Yellow Fever victims. They wore pajamas in which men had died of the plague. They even slept on pillows covered with towels soaked with the blood of men the Yellow Jack had killed. And through it all they stayed as fit as fiddles.
But still Walter Reed wasn't satisfied. Perhaps these men had been immune to Yellow Fever. So Reed and Carroll shot virulent Yellow Fever blood under the skin of Private Jernagan and bit Levi Folk with mosquitoes that had fed on Yellow Fever cases. And five days later they came down with Yellow Fever. But both lived to spend the $300 the government paid.
But still Walter Reed was satisfied. He had to know. And he had one human guinea=pig left—Civilian Clerk John J. Morgan. And so it was that Morgan on the 21st of December, fresh from the bath, entered that second little house at Camp Lazear—a clean little house carefully screened. Five minutes before Reed and Carroll had opened a glass jar in that clean little, well-screened house and out of that jar had buzzed 15 Stegomia mosquitoes, thirsty for blood, every one of which had fed on various days before on the blood of the yellow-faced, dying boys in the Yellow Fever wards.
And on December the 25—39 years ago—Christmas Day—Civilian Clerk John J. Morgan had Yellow Fever. But he, too—ah, Walter Reed and his human guinea-pigs were lucky—lived.
And so it was that Walter Reed convicted the Stegomia mosquito as the Yellow Fever murderer and proved that a dirty, pest hole of a house with no mosquitoes was safe and that a clean house with mosquitoes was a death trap.
It was as simple as that!
And on New Year's Eve Walter Reed, who two years later was to die of appendicitis, wrote his wife, "Rejoice with me, sweetheart. The prayers that have been mine for 20 years, that I might be permitted in some way or at some time to do something to alleviate human suffering have been granted! A thousand happy New Years! Hark, there go the bugles sounding taps for the Old Year."
"They were also sounding taps, were those bugles," says de Kruif, "for the searcher that was Jesse Lazear and for the scourge of Yellow Fever that could now be wiped from the Earth."
Plague That Killed 33% of Norfolk Population in 1855
Recalled by Exhibit Now at City Hall.
By Charles C. Rodeffer
Would you like to see the monster that murdered 2,000 of Norfolk's 6,000 population 'way back in 1855—one of every three?
Then make it a point to drop into the City Hall today or Thursday between 10 a. m. and 3 p. m., and ask Stuart Connell Nottingham, sophomore at the Medical College of Virginia, Richmond, to show it to you. Nottingham will conduct you to a microscope and let you take a look.
Exhibition of the dread aedes aegypti will be special two days this week in the display prepared by the Norfolk Mosquito Control Commission, under the direction of Perry W. Ruth, technical advisor. The exhibit will be in its second week. Even without the aegypti, it averaged 100 persons a day who stopped to look and ask questions last week, Ruth said.
As you look into the lens, you will see a creature that looks much like a dragon fly, or "snake doctor," as country kids used to call them. A long, straight-sided abdomen appears like the handle of a tiny banjo, with five pronounced white line "struts" across it and two lesser ones. Near the tail it has two white dots before it tapers to a tip.
But the most curious formation of all is on the creature's head. In line of the same deathly, sickly white, the gracefully bulging form of a lyre, or ancient harp, appears with striking distinctness. Two straight lines, like harp strings, of the same deathly pallor, lie parallel between the curved lines.
The form gruesomely suggests all the people this deadly little creature has made into angels. It is the yellow fever mosquito.
The specimen you look at, carefully preserved in a vial, is one of the few found in this area now. This one, Ruth said, was discovered in a Bermuda Street slum area some time ago.
From June, 1855, to October 15 of that year, one of the worse pestilences that ever struck any community raged in Norfolk and Portsmouth. As many as 50 burials a day took place in Norfolk alone. Hearses were rushed to graveyards with two to four bodies at a time. Hardly enough able-bodied persons were left to bury the dead.
It was so bad a whole book was written about it—"Great Pestilence of Virginia," by William S. Forrest, published in New York in 1856.
The steamship Ben Franklin, direct from St. Thomas, Virgin Islands, where yellow fever was in severe epidemic, was somehow allowed to tie up at a pier near Gosport, now a part of Portsmouth.
Soon yellow fever cases developed in the vicinity of the vessel.
Alarmed Gosport residents cleared out and sought refuge in Barry's Row in Norfolk east of Church Street.
But they moved too late. By August, one of the fiercest epidemics ever known in the United Stated blazed out in Barry's Row, spreading to Main and Union streets. Hot, damp, soggy weather provided ideal conditions for the disease to spread.
So desperate the situation became that, the night of August 9, fire was set to Barry's Row and it was burned to the ground.
But that was before the days of Walter Reed and the Spanish-American War, when it was discovered that mosquitoes were the bearers of yellow fever. Burning Barry's Row merely aroused the infected mosquitoes and chased them all over Norfolk.
The situation then really got bad. By August 24, the city had as many as 500 cases at a time, burning with fever and tortured with pain. Physicians came to Norfolk from all parts of the South, but they could do little good.
Neighboring cities stopped intercourse with Norfolk and Portsmouth, but they opened doors to refugees fleeing from here.
By September 1, the pestilence had reached the most populous part of Norfolk and the height of its fatal fury. This was when the hearses raced to the graveyard with two to four corpses at a time.
The Howard Association, organized to fight the epidemic, finally managed a measure of control through enforced isolation of cases, and by October 15, only a few cases remained.
But with 90 days of the worse of the epidemic, with few exceptions, everybody left in Norfolk had gone down with the disease—to one-third of whom it was fatal.
Aedes aegypti is the only known natural carrier of yellow fever under urban conditions, although it was discovered in 1932 that other mosquitoes can be made to transmit the virus. Aegypti must bite a victim of the disease to become infective; but once the mosquito acquires the virus, it remains able to transmit yellow fever as long as it lives.
Aegypti also transmits dengue fever, a noninfectious disease of low mortality, characterized by headaches, aching eyes and body and limb pains. It also carries other viruses, such as both Western and Eastern sequel encephalitis and rabbit mayonnaise.
Aegypti is called the most "domesticated" of mosquito species; it abounds near places of human habitation. Happily, it is confined to tropical and sub-tropical zones, because it can't breed and live in water where temperature remains below 68 degrees.
It is evident that the ship Ben Franklin brought infected mosquitoes from St. Thomas to Norfolk. When the mosquito colony died out—for some reason we may never know—the pestilence was done.
But, apparently with these mild winters, aegypti still manages to live in small numbers in stagnant water at warm spots here and it might go pretty bad again if a case of yellow fever broke out.
Nottingham has made a large-scale model of the aedes sollicitans, the most common mosquito of this clime, which he has mounted for the City Hall exhibit. He used balsa wood for the body, pipe cleaners for the legs, tissue paper for wings, wire decorated with medical gauze for the fuzzy antennae, and a stiff wire for the proboscis.
The exhibit shows the egg, larvae, pupa and adult stages of mosquitoes from life. And you could almost spend hours watching the comic antics of the larvae—wrigglers—performing in a drop of water under the microscope.
Yellow fever Victims Memorial Endorsed by Chamber Group
Body to Study Rumored Burial Ground at Corner of Princess Anne Road and Hampton Boulevard
The erection of a suitable memorial to mark the 100th anniversary late this Spring of the Yellow Fever Epidemic was endorsed in principle yesterday at the organization meeting of the newly formed public affairs committee of the Norfolk Chamber of Commerce.
Initially, the committee, of which Houston Ashworth is chairman, faces the task of determining (1) whether the small park at the northwest corner of Princess Anne Road and Hampton Boulevard was a burial ground of yellow fever victims, and gathering such other historical information available to bring recorded highlights of the epidemic into closer focus a century after its occurrence.
Curtis T. Brooks, Jr., assistant manager of the commerce organization and secretary of the committee, said any information available on the subject will be appreciated. He suggested that the inforation be put in writing and sent to the chamber office at East Plume Street.
A widespread report that the Hampton Boulevard-Princess Anne Boulevard corner is being held by the city in perpetuity in commemoration of yellow fever victims once buried there could not be confirmed yesterday by official sources.
Frederic Heutte, superintendent of parks and cemeteries, said he had frequently heard that the corner property had been a repository for the bodies of yellow fever victims since he came to Norfolk in 1930. He added that the park had been maintained under his direction during the intervening years.
A veteran city official, George W. Boush, survey engineer, skeptical about the rumor but called that in 1923 the city moved quite a view bodies from the corner to Forest Lawn Cemetery in connection with the widening Princess Anne Road west of Hampton Boulevard.
Boush said it was his impression at the time that the bodies were taken from the private burial grounds of one or more family groups.
Tragic Yellow Fever Wave Recalled in Aged Letters
By Paul Williams
NORFOLK—Melancholy mementos of Norfolk's tragic yellow fever epidemic of 1855 have turned up here in the shape of some 100-year-old letters.
The letters, all written in the flourishing script of that day from Norfolk, were obtained recently by City Clerk John D. Corbell. One is signed by Ezra T. Summers, mayor of the city in 1855, and great grandfather of the present Councilman Ezra T. Summers.
They were penned at a time when Norfolk and Portsmouth were on their knees from a yellow fever pestilence that started when a steamer out into Hampton Roads [was] in distress.
At the peak of the epidemic, deaths mounted to 70, 80 . . . a day, says Thomas J. Wertenbaker's "Norfolk: Historic Southern Port." The cities had burials but no funerals . . ." The harbor of the till then flourishing port of Norfolk was desolate, with the only boat entering the harbor a small steamer loaded with coffins. When the coming of the frost ended the pestilence about 2,000 had been buried.
The newly uncovered letters, all written to the City of Providence, R. I., express thanks for money sent by that city for relief of yellow fever sufferers in Norfolk and Portsmouth.
Corbell learned of the existence of the documents at the recent city clerk's convention in New Orleans. His friend, D. Everett Whelan, Providence city clerk, made a gift of the letters to Corbell last week.
The Norfolk City Clerk gave the letter bearing Mayor Summers' signature to Councilman Summers, who says it is the only sample he has of his great grandfather's handwriting. Corbell, who has a keen interest in preserving the city's historic documents, will place the remaining letters in the city vault.
"I'm glad to say the fever is abating," says one of the letters, dated Oct. 3, 1855, and signed by Solomon Cherry, corresponding secretary for an association formed to relieve yellow fever sufferers. ". . . the deaths are comparatively few not averaging more than six or eight (a day)."
Another, signed by R. M. Bowden, treasurer and later president of the organization, thanks the City of Providence for a $1,000 check "to aid sufferers of the dreadful scourge that is ravaging our unfortunate City and sister town Portsmouth."
"The number of widows and orphans made by this sad affliction and the many poor rendered so by it will add largely to the demands upon this area," writes Acting Mayor S. C. Whitehead, in a letter dated Sept. 29, 1855. He offers the "earnest prayer" that heaven may "abundantly reward them . . . and avert from their happy friends the evils from which we have so painfully suffered."
'Deathstorm' Brought Horror—and Heroics
By Jim Mays
They called it "The Deathstorm." It was well named. It stalked the streets and alleys of Norfolk and Portsmouth, striking in the black of terror-filled nights, killing without mercy. The Deathstorm was spawned in the West Indies, but there the resemblance to an ordinary storm ends for the Deathstorm was no ordinary atmospheric disturbance.
It was a tornado of disease and death.
It was yellow fever—the dreaded "yellow jack," for which there was then no known cause, no cure.
The year of 1855 was like no year in the history of Norfolk and Portsmouth, before or since.
From early summer of that year until the frosts of autumn stilled the gossamer wings that bore it, yellow fever slashed a swathe of human destruction through the old cities unmatched since the black plagues of medieval Europe.
Portsmouth, a city of 10,000, was virtually deserted—for all practical purposes a ghost city by the middle of August.
Of Norfolk's population of 16,000 only 6,000 remained and of these 2,000 died of yellow fever.
They died at the rate of 70, 80 . . . every 24 hours.
The dead were hauled away by the wagonload.
Coffins were stacked like cordwood in the three Norfolk cemeteries.
Gravediggers could not keep up.
One contemporary observer who escaped the fever described the graveyards as "looking like freshly ploughed fields awaiting spring planting."
As the epidemic raged unchecked into September and early October, the supply of coffins gave out and the dead were merely wrapped in the bedclothes in which they had died and buried in deep pits, eight bodies abreast, four layers deep.
One such put was at the what is now the northwest corner of Princess Ann[e] Road and Hampton Boulevard. Perhaps few of the thousands who pass that busy corner daily realize that the little park on that corner is a memorial to the unnamed victims of the 1855 epidemic who lie in layers there, four skeletons deep.
The story of the Deathstorm in Norfolk and Portsmouth really began on June 7, 1855, when the West Indies ocean steamer Ben Franklin, bound from St. Thomas, Virgin Islands, to New York dropped anchor in Hampton Roads seeking repairs.
The ship had left St. Thomas in the midst of a yellow fever epidemic there, and the deadly yellow jack had come aboard as a stowaway.
For 12 days the ship remained at quarantine about a mile below Portsmouth, but finally on June 19 local health authorities gave the captain permission to take his leaking ship to Page and Allen's shipyard at Gosport near the the southern city limits of Portsmouth.
The Board of Health of Norfolk and the Common Council of Portsmouth had given the captain of the Ben Franklin permission to leave quarantine and proceed to the shipyard for repairs on the condition that the ship's hold "was not to be broken out."
But shortly after tying up at the shipyard the captain violated his promise, and ordered the hatches opened and bilges of the ship pumped out.
On July 3 a Richmond machinist named Carter worked in the hold of the ship.
On July 5 he came down with yellow fever.
Three days later he died and the Deathstorm was loosed on the unsuspecting cities.
At first the epidemic centered in what was then known as Irish Row in Gosport, eight three-story brick tenement houses with taverns in their basements.
Both both the disease and the panic it created spread rapidly, first to Portsmouth, then to Norfolk.
By August hundreds had already fled from Portsmouth, of which a contemporary historian wrote:
"The disease extends to every part of the town, our bad state of preparation and the alarm created has scourged and afflicted the whole surrounding country.
"The emigration has left us a deserted town, entire streets have only one or two families, stores are closed, business suspended. Poor Portsmouth! She presents a sad and desolate appearance."
As the epidemic fanned out across Portsmouth, communication with Norfolk continued without interruption. The ferry continued its regular schedule back and forth between the two cities.
Then Norfolk authorities made another, even more serious mistake. They allowed several families of the Irish Row tenements in Gosport to move to Barry's Row in Norfolk, a half-dozen brick buildings on the east side of Church Street between Union and Water Streets.
There, on July 30, the epidemic got a foothold in Norfolk.
As soon as the first case was reported the Norfolk Board of Health ordered all Barry's Row families, "well or sick," removed and all the streets and buildings in the vicinity boarded up.
Then the Norfolk health authorities made another mistake, a mistake which was a result of the then-current belief that yellow fever was spread not from person to person but by contact with infected houses or decaying matter.
Accordingly, the authorities removed the patients to improvised hospital facilities in Oak Grove but permitted the well to go at large. Thus it was not long before new cases of yellow fever began to turn up in various sections of the city.
The mood of the times is reflected in the fact that when some poor families moved back into the tenements in Barry's Row in defiance of the Board of Health someone set the buildings afire and while 8,000 Norfolk citizens looked on Barry's Row burned to the ground.
But it was too late. Pandora's Box had been opened and the Deathstorm had escaped.
A physician of the period described the spread of the epidemic in Norfolk:
"The epidemic wave," he said, "extending in a circle as the ripple from a stone thrown into the water, day by day invaded house after house and street after street."
Thus moving outward from its initial focal point—and each successive focal point—the disease progressed about 40 yards a day, a mile in five or six weeks.
Now the citizens of Norfolk, too, began to flee in all directions from what historian W. S. Forrest described as "the frightful scenes of disease, wretchedness and woe—amazed and horror-struck at the ravages of the unsparing agent of destruction."
Now ever train leaving Portsmouth, ever steamer leaving for Baltimore or Richmond, was filled with refugees.
Then the hammer-blow of quarantine fell.
First New York, then other cities and towns declared a quarantine against fugitives from Norfolk and Portsmouth. Suffolk imposed a $100 fine for each day a refugee remained within the town limits; Elizabeth City refused to allow a stage load of Portsmouth residents to enter, and at Old Point refugees were kept aboard ship at bayonet point.
If anything the terror increased, as those seeking to get away found the doors to other areas barred.
But not all doors were barred. The people of the Eastern Shore opened their homes to the refugees, as did the people of Mathews County, Fredericksburg, and other communities. Virginia's Governor-elect Henry A. Wise not only took some of the refugees into his home but equipped his outbuildings to accommodate as many of the poor as possible.
Within two weeks of the first case of yellow fever in Barry's Row, half of Norfolk's 16,000 people had fled, but ministers, doctors, undertakers and nurses stayed on, almost without exception.
Wrote the Rev. George D. Armstrong:
"The physician and the Christian pastor are, by their profession, called to minister to the sick, the dying, and the afflicted, and certainly a time of pestilence, when their services are most needed, is no time for them to flee."
August 14 was set aside as a day of mourning and prayer but the Deathstorm was not deterred. The fever continued to spread.
With thousands of citizens gone, the sick were ill-tended and wanting for food, medicine and drink.
Soon Norfolk had attracted the attention of the entire country. Public meetings were held in many cities and some $85,000 was contributed to the relief of the sufferers.
Nurses came from various parts of the land, many of them destined to die here in the service of the sick.
"On the 16th of August," wrote historian Forrest, "when the danger was fearful, Miss Annie M. Andrews, a young lady from Syracuse, New York, arrived here and offered her services to Mayor Hunter Woodis (who was soon to die of the fever) as a nurse.
"She immediately entered upon her martyr-like labors at the hospital in the true spirit of self-sacrificing, generous and heroic devotion; and hither she was soon followed by others, whose kind attention to the sick and suffering will ever be gratefully remembered."
Nurses who followed Miss Andrews came principally from New Orleans, Charleston, Mobile, Savannah, Richmond, New York, Philadelphia and Baltimore.
Historian Forrest continues:
"The Howard Association of Norfolk and the Relief Committee of Portsmouth had been fully organized, and had commenced their career of great usefulness. The utility of these timely organizations was strikingly apparent. The citizens of Norfolk were soon falling at the rate of 60, 70 and even 80 per day, and from 20 to 30 per day in Portsmouth.
"It was then," Forrest added, "that some were appalled and chilled with fright, while others were apparently callous, careless and reckless, and went about their work of boxing up and removing the dead with but little appearance of fear or agitation."
Corpses were piled aboard furniture wagons, vegetable carts, drays and even fish carts, and hurried to the burying grounds.
"The corpses accumulated so rapidly that coffins could not be supplied for them," Forrest wrote. "Hearses were driven rapidly out to the graveyards with two, three and often four at a load, and the coffined dead were piled upon the ground awaiting the opening of the graves and pits by the insufficient force at work. In that memorable week (the first week in September) four hundred of the citizens of Norfolk were buried!"
Pit burial became commonplace. The bodies were shoveled into common graves—many of them into ground on City Hall Avenue where the Armory was to be built years later and where Rennert Garage and the Maritime Tower now stand.
The dread symptoms of yellow fever were soon part and parcel of life in Norfolk and Portsmouth—first a strange and unnatural expression about the eyes, sometimes a reddish color but more often a deep yellow ting.
Severe pains in the back, arms and legs.
Tongue furred white or brown.
Vomiting, at first colorless, then soon mixed with blood.
Death. Nearly 50 years later Dr. Walter Reed learned from experiments in Panama that yellow fever is an infectious disease transmitted by the mosquito aedes aegypti.
Dr. J. N. Schoolfield of Portsmouth, who like other doctors stayed on to devote heroic, although largely ineffective efforts to coping with the disease, left a touching vignette of the period:
"Even before the poor sufferer had breathed his last," Dr. Schoolfield wrote, "his coffin was engaged. Within an hour or two after his dissolution, his body, without shroud or winding sheet, was placed in a common stained coffin and hurried to the cemetery. Nor were any religious services had over his grave."
Dr. Schoolfield survived the summer of 1855, but many of his medical associates were not so lucky. In Norfolk, 10 resident physicians died, and 25 and 45 others who came here to attend the sick also perished in that horrible summer.
By the first of September business was at a standstill. In Portsmouth the Navy Yard was closed. Telegraph offices were deserted. No longer did the harbor bustle with commerce.
"There is now not one single vessel to be seen afloat, from the drawbridge to Town Point. There are the two slender masts of a fishing-smack sunken in the country dock; and here, in this shipyard, there is a vessel drawn up as if for repairs but there is no shipwright to work upon her . . . The only boat which enters our harbor now is the little steamer J. E. Coffee, run to meet the boats from Baltimore and Richmond in Hampton Roads. By her our mails are carried, and all our commerce done. Yesterday she came in with her whole deck piled with empty coffins; and coffins for the dead are one main article of import now . . . Poor desolate Norfolk! The coming of a ship into her harbor now would cause as much surprise . . . as the coming of the first ship . . . to the Indians, who then dwelt here. The sun shines as brightly, and the sea-breeze seems as balmy, as at other times; and yet this, one of the finest harbors on the Atlantic seaboard, the unseen pestilence has made to be shunned by the mariner more than if it were full of quicksands and sunken rocks."
But if the harbor was empty, businesses closed and homes of the absentees boarded up, there was activity of a sort on the streets.
". . . And though there was the perpetual din of carriages, continually passing, from early dawn till a late hour of the night—the physicians' carriages, the hacks conveying nurses and members of the Howard Association, and the hearses, and the ever-moving 'sick-wagon'—rattling and rumbling to and fro in every direction, there was no sign of wholesome animation."
Of the 6,000 people who remained through those terrible 90 days, "every man, woman and child, almost without exception, had been stricken with the fell fever, and about 2,000 had been buried."
Through September and into October the disease continued to ravage the city, but finally the autumn frosts put an end to the blacked 90 days in Norfolk and Portsmouth history.
On November 11, the Rev. Dr. Armstrong, who had been taken ill with the fever but recovered, held services for the first time:
"In all the congregation," he wrote, "I noticed by three families that were not clad in mourning. And in every part of the house there were vacant seats which, as the eye rested on them, called up to memory the forms of those accustomed to occupy them.
". . . In one part of the church sat the orphans, now gathered under the protecting care of the Howard Association. There they sat, some 60 in number, ranging from 14 to two and three years in age, all made parentless by the terrible pestilence. SOme of them, when found, were in the house alone with the dead body of their remaining parent; and they, poor little things, so young that they did not know their own names.
". . . Through the assistance sent us from abroad, in connection with what we can do at home, I hope we . . . can provide comfortably for them all."
And thus it was that Norfolk in its darkest hour dwelt not upon the horror of the past, but looked to the future with a spirit of charity toward its fellow citizens that is still reflected today in its reputation for outstanding support of fund drives for community health and welfare.
U. Va. Archive Traces Yellow Fever Defeat (excerpted)
The "Walter Reed—Yellow Fever Archive" assembled over three decades by the late Dr. Philip S. Hench, Nobel laureate for his work with cortisone, is being presented to the University of Virginia by his widow, Mary Kahler Hench.
The collection will make the University's library the repository for the most extensive assembly of existing materials on the historic experiments, performed in Cuba at the turn of the century, which established the cause and prevention of yellow fever. * * *
The collection contains letters, documents, records and memorabilia which make it the most important archive on Dr. Walter Reed, the Army medical major who led the Army commission which conquered yellow fever by proving it was carried by a mosquito which could be—and was eradicated in populated areas.
The usefulness of the collection for medical scholars and scientists is enhanced by the extensive notes which Dr. Hench made on his interviews with participants in the experiments and with the families of Dr. Reed's collaborators.
At the University the collection will be catalogued and housed in a special medical history section of the new medical library to be built in the next several years with contributions by alumni.
The son of a Methodist minister, Dr. Reed was born in Belroi, Va., Sept. 13, 1851. The family moved to Farmville in 1852 and to Charlottesville in 1866.
Dr. Reed attended private school until 1867 when he entered the University of Virginia. After spending one year in the academic department and another in the medical school, he obtained a medical degree in 1869, before he was 18 years old.
A second medical degree was obtained in 1870 from Bellevue Hospital Medical College in New York. After interning at Kings Country Hospital in Brooklyn, Dr. Reed entered private practice and also worked with the city boards of health in New York and Brooklyn.
In 1874, he decided to leave practice and enter the medical corps of the Army. After passing his examinations, he was appointed first lieutenant and assistant surgeon in 1875 and was promoted to captain in 1880.
Dr. Reed was made a major in 1893 and assigned as curator of the Army medical museum and professor of bacteriology and clinical microscopy at the recently organized Army Medical School in Washington, where Dr. James Carroll was his assistant.
For the next few years, he did research in bacteriology, particularly on erysipelas and diphtheria.
Dr. Reed died Nov. 22, 1902. He was so engrossed in his work, he neglected the chronic appendicitis from which he was suffering. * * *
In 1900 the Army had sent the Special Yellow Fever Board headed by Walter Reed to Cuba to seek the cause of yellow fever. These statistics tell of the victory through eradication of the fever-bearing mosquito: in 1900 there were 1,400 cases of yellow fever in Havana alone; in 1901, 37 in all of Cuba; in 1902, none. * * *
The heart of the collection is the original material and the encyclopedic coverage it gives of the men and the experiments * * * including the Congressional medal for Conquest of Yellow Fever struck in 1929, awarded posthumously to Dr. Reed who died in 1903, and presented to his widow.
In the closing minutes of the 19th century, from the Columbia Barracks at Quemados, Cuba, Dr. Reed wrote to his wife a letter which is now a part of the Hench collection:
"Only ten minutes of the old century remain . . . Here I have been sitting reading that most wonderful book—La Roche on Yellow Fever—written in 1853. Forty-seven years later it has been permitted to me and my assistants to lift the impenetrable veil that has surrounded the causation of this most dreadful pest of humanity and to put it on a rational and scientific basis.
"I thank God that this has been accomplished during the latter days of the old century. May it cure be wrought out in the early days of the new century. The prayer that has been mine for twenty or more years, that I might be permitted in some way or sometime to do something to alleviate human suffering, has been answered."
When Silence of Death Reigned: Yellow fever plague brought
Norfolk to its knees.
By Tom Costa
Norfolk in the mid-19th century was a thriving seaport. The damage to American Trade resulting from the commercial rivalry with the British in the early part of the century had been largely overcome.
Commerce flourished, aided greatly by the establishment of the federal Navy yard across the river at Gosport. Ships of every description crowded the Elizabeth.
By 1853 Norfolk had seven banks, five hotels, five daily newspapers, an insurance company, three shipbuilding firms, an iron foundry, two rope works and other assorted "manufactories." The population was just under 14,500.
Norfolk's prosperity had been slow to develop for a number of reasons: The Revolutionary War, the War of 1812, and competition from the cities of the interior had all conspired to retard economic progress. But by the mid-1850's, most of these problems had been put behind her, and Norfolk at last seemed to be on the road to economic success.
Such, however, was not to be the case, for on a hot afternoon in June, 1855, the steamer Ben Franklin, bound for New York from St. Thomas, put into Norfolk harbor badly in need of repair. Unknown to the authorities, who usually kept an eye out for such things, yellow fever was on board.
It is difficult to imagine, in these days of advanced medical technology, the terror inspired by outbreaks of communicable disease 100 years ago. A seaport such as Norfolk was particularly fearful of such outbreaks. Some progress had been made: for example, by 1800 the use of vaccinations for smallpox had become widespread; this virtually eliminated the disease which had caused so much trouble in Norfolk before the Revolutionary War. But other diseases remained, and of these the most feared was yellow fever.
Little was known of the cause of this dread disease in the 19th century; medical men were not far off, however, in attributing it to damp, unhealthy ground. Such areas were the prime breeding ground for the Aedes Aegypti mosquito, the carrier of the disease. But this discovery had to wait another 50 years, until the work of Walter Reed (born in Gloucester County) pinpointed the carrier.
Norfolkians had done their best over the years to combat yellow fever, with limited success. In 1795 an epidemic resulted in 500 deaths, and an outbreak in 1802 killed almost 1,000. These outbreaks were confined to the crowded tenements near the river, and the town as a whole was unaffected. By 1855, there had been no major outbreak of yellow fever for 29 years; thus, it is perhaps understandable that the authorities allowed the Ben Franklin to put into Gosport for repairs. It was a decision they would later bitterly regret.
The steamer was taken to Page and Allen's shipyard, near the site of the present naval shipyard in Portsmouth. There, in early July, a laborer working on machinery in the hold contracted yellow fever and died a week later. The ship was put under quarantine, but too late to stop the spread of the disease.
The first cases were confined to a group of houses near the shipyard, small buildings, overcrowded and needing repair. Portsmouth authorities erected a fence around the area, and it was hoped that this would check the disease. Soon, however, cases were reported in other parts of Portsmouth, and it was apparent that a full-scale epidemic had broken out.
Up to this point Norfolk had remained free of the disease, and her citizens hoped that it would confine itself to the far side of the river. These hopes too were dashed, for on July 30 the fever appeared in Norfolk, to a group of houses on the river known as Barry's Row. Norfolk authorities had foolishly allowed some poor families from Portsmouth to leave their infected homes and come to Norfolk. The sick persons were taken to the sick house. A few days later Barry's Row was burned to the ground by persons unknown.
The disease now began to spread through Norfolk, and the townspeople were faced with an agonizing decision: whether to flee to safety, leaving personal property and business interests, or to remain and take the chance of catching the fever.
Thousands chose the first alternative, then were faced with a new problem: other cities began to turn them away. New York, Baltimore, Washington, Richmond and Petersburg were among cities which prohibited entry. Even Hampton and Suffolk joined in keeping Norfolkians out.
Fleeing citizens were forced to adopt ruses such as journeying to the Eastern Shore in the morning, then returning in the afternoon and boarding the steamer for Baltimore, as if one had come directly from the Eastern Shore.
The Eastern Shore was one of the few areas which remained open to those fleeing the disease. The citizens of Mathews County, to their everlasting credit, also threw open their homes to the fugitives.
For those who chose to remain or were too poor to flee, the city soon became a grim place. Business came to a standstill; traffic ceased, except for the uninterrupted passing of carriages: carriages full of the sick, carriages of doctors and nurses, and the ubiquitous hearses with their grisly contents.
The once busy harbor became deserted. An observer, the Rev. George Armstrong of the Presbyterian Church, noted that the waterfront was empty of all craft save two: one was a small fishing smack, the other a larger vessel drawn up as if for repairs— only there was no one left to repair her.
The cemeteries were the only busy areas left. The Rev. Armstrong noted: "Instead of a resting-place for the dead, the cemetery looks more like a camping-ground being got ready for a coming host of the living. The city and the cemetery have exchanged characters. The latter now wears the busy aspect which belongs of right to the former; and almost the silence of death reigns in the desolate streets."
By the end of August the city resembled a vast charnel-house. The bodies accumulated so rapidly that there was a shortage of coffins; victims were interred in the same blankets in which they had died. The depleted work force struggled night and day to keep up with the large numbers of dead. Many were hastily buried in large pits. To this day a rumor persists that such a mass burial site exists on the corner of Hampton Boulevard and Princess Anne Road.
Amid the horror there were many instances of heroism. At the beginning of the epidemic the entire country was galvanized by Norfolk's plight. Public meetings to raise funds for the stricken city were held in many cities, north and south. Nurses and doctors came from as far away as New Orleans and Syracuse to minister to the sick. Many of them succumbed to the disease; 13 doctors from Philadelphia alone died.
With the first frost the mosquitoes disappeared, and the plague abated. Norfolk's citizens, stunned and uncomprehending, dully took stock of their losses. Of those who had remained in the city, nearly one-third had died, some 2,000 people. Almost every man, woman and child had suffered in some way from the plague. Many of Norfolk's finest citizens, including Mayor Woodis, had fallen. Doctors were particularly hard hit. Ten local physicians died, as well as 26 out of 45 who had come from other areas.
Norfolk remained stunned for a time after the catastrophe. Not since the burning of the city in 1776 had such a disaster befallen her people. But soon the natural zest of the citizens reasserted itself. The very next year the Opera House was opened with lavish entertainment. In 1859 the Atlantic Hotel was built and was soon one of the finest on the East Coast. Norfolk was getting back on her feet once again when another event occurred which was to cause her much suffering an misery: the Civil War.
The Colley-Mottu-Johnson House, as it appeared in 1959, was built by John Colley sometime before 1850 on land between Smith's Creek (now the Hauge) and Fort Norfolk Road (now Colley Avenue). During the yellow fever plague of 1855, Colley and three of his children died within a few weeks.
Courtesy of the Murdough Collection, Sargeant Memorial Room, Kirn Library, Norfolk, VA.
Yellow Fever Memorial OK'd by City Council
By Tony Wharton
NORFOLK—Countless victims of the yellow fever epidemic of 1855 will be remembered with a memorial and gardens of lilies, daffodils and other flowers over the mass grave on Hampton Boulevard, the City Council decided Tuesday.
"We saw a need to finish some business that had been undone for 150 years," said Brenda R. Scanelli, leader of Brownie Troop 328.
Six members of the troop presented their proposal to the council for its blessing. They explained the epidemic's history and reasons for the memorial.
The epidemic ran its course over three months in 1855, after a steamship brought the disease from St. Thomas, Virgin Islands. At the outset, victims were buried traditionally in city cemeteries, historians say.
But as the toll mounted, eventually claiming one-third of Norfolk's population, there was no time for conventional burials in coffins. A mass grave was dug at what is now the northwest corner of West Princess Anne Road and Hampton Boulevard. No records were kept, but the plot almost certainly contains hundreds of remains.
The stone marker will say, "In Memory of the Victims of the Yellow Fever Epidemic of 1855." It and many flowers were donated. McDonald's Garden Center designed the landscaping. The project is expected to cost about $6,700.
The Brownies' proposal said, in part, "In addition to paying homage to the suffering and loss of life . . . we also hope to create a sense of public awareness that these people did not live and die in vain."
The Brownies did the historical research for the project and will be involved in establishing it, including the stone-cutting, Scanelli said.
They hope to plant the flowers and dedicate the park by this fall. The city will maintain it.
The 9-year old girls who brought the project to fruition are: Lindsey Butler, Kaitlin Padden, Carrie Perkins, Melissa Popadiuk, Mary Reynolds and Maria Scanelli.
* * * * *
Junior Girl Scout Troop 328
of the Girl Scout Council of Colonial Coast
requests the honor of your presence
at the dedication ceremony of
YELLOW FEVER MEMORIAL PARK
Sunday, April 18, 1993, at 3:00 p. m.
at Yellow Fever Memorial Park
West Princess Anne Road and Hampton Boulevard
Reception following ceremony.
* * * * * *
Yellow Fever Victims' Park at Last a Reality
By Mike Knepler
After months of work, Ghent's old mass grave of yellow fever victims has become a suitable memorial.
Junior Girl Scout Troop 328, which organized the effort, will dedicate the Yellow Fever Memorial Park at 3 p. m. April 18.
The park at West Princess Anne Road and Hampton Boulevard, has been transformed from an anonymous grassy field into a garden highlighted by 1,000 yellow crocuses and daffodils. The flowers are symbolic markers to scores of unknown victims from Norfolk's 1855 epidemic.
At its peak, the fever ravaged Norfolk so greatly that the death rate outpaced coffin production and the ability of workers to dig individual graves. About 2,000 Norfolk residents died, many thrown into open pits and forgotten.
The anonymity of the mass grave and lack of a decent burial had bothered Brenda Scanelli, a current West Ghent resident and the girls' assistant troop leader. "It seemed like an open wound that needed to be closed," she said.
The dedication ceremony will help, she said. It will include blessings by the Rev. J. Shepherd Russell of the First Presbyterian Church.
One of Russell's 19th-century predecessors was a hero of the epidemic. In 1855, Dr. George D. Armstrong ministered to the sick while risking his own health, Scanelli said.
Penny Lewis, who has researched the history of yellow fever in Norfolk, will be the keynote speaker. The ceremony will include remarks on Scouting and environmentalism by a representative of the Girl Scout Council of Colonial Coast. A granite plaque, donated by Seaboard Memorial, will be unveiled. Numerous others also volunteered.
"It's wonderful that it's finally coming together. It's been a satisfying experience for the girls . . . They learned how to accomplish change and to do something for the quality of life," said Scanelli, who guided the troop through research, a presentation to the City Council and park planning.
History Neglects Slave's Heroism in Yellow Fever Epidemic
By George Tucker
JOHN JONES, affectionately known as "Yellow Fever Jack" during his latter years, has been a sadly neglected Norfolk African-American hero. I discovered Jones' activities recently while browsing through the updated "Virginia; A Guide to the Old Dominion" that was originally "Compiled by Workers of the Writers' Program of the Works Projects Administration in the State of Virginia" in 1940.
Unfortunately, the scanty information on Jones that appears in that otherwise valuable compilation is largely inaccurate. But I struck gold at Kirn Memorial Library.
The guide says that Jones was eventually "struck down by the plague," but I discovered that he lived until August 1868. At that time the Norfolk Virginian newspaper marked his passing with a three-paragraph obituary, then an almost unheard of honor for a African-American.
Anyone familiar with Norfolk is aware of the 1855 yellow fever epidemic, referred to by contemporaries as "The Death Storm," which wiped out about 2,000 of the city's population. The names of any number of white heroes of the epidemic are readily available. Even so, all contemporary or later local accounts of the fever fail to mention the beyond-the-call-of-duty heroism that Yellow Fever Jack played during that time.
Although Norfolk's newspapers were forced to cease publication during the height of the epidemic, a now-unknown correspondent furnished Richmond papers with regular reports on the progress of the dread disease. In one of these communications, dated Aug. 28, 1855, I discovered the following:
"Among those who have rendered themselves conspicuous for faithful services in these trying times, we have to notice John Jones, a mulatto slave, employed by Messrs. O'Brien and Quick, who in his humble, but now highly important capacity of hearse driver, has by the unwearied and faithful performance of his really laborious duties, won for himself, the esteem and regard of the entire community. From the commencement of the disease, Jones has been actively employed night and day, in driving the ill-fated fever victims to the Cemetery. In many instances having to shoulder the coffins in which were the bodies of the dead, and place them in his hearse without any assistance whatever. All the friends of the deceased having fled panic struck from the corpses.
"Night and day the rattling of the dismal 'car of death1 could be heard rapidly driven by Jones, who sat in his seat 'solitary and alone,' (except the silent passenger within,) puffing away at a long nine, and looking as cool and unconcerned as if he was driving a gay party to a festive picnic! So he has continued up to this hour - and it is fearful to contemplate how many poor wretches he has driven to their last homes since the sixteenth of July. Probably not less than five hundred! And with the prospects ahead, if he survives the epidemic, he bids fair to "charioteer' 500 more before the close of the awful drama! The people intend, by public subscription, to purchase the freedom of Jones should he be so fortunate as to pass safely through the fever, as a reward of his courageous, cheerful and faithful conduct in his 'particular line,' throughout the epidemic."
Contrary to the WPA guide, Jones did not die of yellow fever, but lived until Aug. 10, 1868, at which time his obituary stated: "The citizens of Norfolk after the pestilence proposed buying John his freedom, but as the laws of the State required all manumitted slaves to leave the State, he preferred to stay as a slave."
In summing up Yellow Fever Jack's community service during the epidemic, the obituary writer added: "John has now passed away from all earthly care and a monument should record the good deeds he did whilst living." No record of such a manorial exists, but it is not too late to remember him now, even though 139 years have come and gone since that terrible summer of 1855.
Landmarks the Tour Books Never Mention
Stop No. 16: Quiet reminder of plague that ravaged city
By Earl Swift
Norfolk's history is stuffed with heartache, but none so complete or terrifying as the yellow fever epidemic that killed more than 2,000 of its citizens in 1855.
Today, a patch of grass in the city's West Ghent neighborhood conceals a byproduct of that pestilence: a mass grave.
An exact count of the dead buried beneath the park is unavailable, but survivors of the 90-day plague reported that the half-acre plot at Hampton Boulevard and Princess Anne Road was home to several burial pits, each containing bodies laid eight abreast and four deep.
The mosquit0-borne fever arrived in June aboard the steamer Ben Franklin, which tied up at the Gosport yards on Portsmouth's Elizabeth River waterfront.
By early July the disease was racing through tenements near the yard. By month's end, it had jumped the Elizabeth to Norfolk. Business halted. The streets emptied, as 10,000 residents fled inland and to the Eastern Shore.
One in three of those who remained were felled by the sickness. The city quickly ran through its stock of coffins, and took to interring victims in their blankets. When the three local cemeteries filled, Norfolk carted piles of bodies into the farmland ringing its core.
One destination was the farm of Capt. Francis Tarrant, Sr., who maintained a small family burial ground on his property. The captain's departed relatives soon had plenty of company.
Despite the fact that so many of its forefathers were buried there, the city did nothing to commemorate the park's role in the epidemic. It remained unmarked until April 1993, when a Girl Scout troop placed a plaque there.
A Tale of Two Families: Disparate Groups Unite as 1855 Fever Rages
By Alan Flanders
Throughout history, disease has taught us that it does not discriminate.
It strikes the rich and the poor. The well-known and the unknown.
And sometimes it brings the two together.
Portsmouth ship constructor John L. Porter had the wealth and the out-of-town connections to move his family out of harm's way during the Yellow Fever Epidemic of 1855.
But he stayed behind and joined the relief effort, converting his home into a refuge for the poor.
Before leaving town, his youngest daughter, Martha Buxton Brent, had seen enough of the devastation of the disease to write about it in her memoir.
"I remember very clearly peeping through the slats of the closed front windows at the procession of people, ill of the disease, carried by, in carts, on their way to the pest houses. . . ," she wrote.
"Hundreds died of it. Everybody went away who could get away. All business stopped; people were fed by contributions sent by neighboring cities and towns.
"A citizens' relief board was formed to look after the poor and sick and bury the dead, and at one time people died so fast they could not make coffins enough for them. They were buried in boxes of any sort which could be found."
Having earlier served as Portsmouth's Council President, Porter recognized his duty to his fellow citizens and chose to stay and join in the relief effort although as his daughter described, the cure was basic and often not successful.
"A patient was put into a hot mustard bath, in a bath tub, then taken out and wrapped in blankets. If this broke the fever, the patient recovered; if not, there was no other remedy, he died, and with little delay."
During the Yellow Fever Epidemic, Porter brought his slave family, the Hodgeses, to his home and treated them as patients, she wrote.
"He had so much trougle getting Willis Hodges to come that he left him alone in the little white-washed house on the edge of town.
"Then Willis was taken with the fever, and no conveyance could be found to bring him home to the necessary bath tub. Finally my father thought of a wheelbarrow . . . "
The man was rolled home where he got well. But by then, Porter had come down with the disease, and Hodges turned around and took care of Porter, the daughter wrote.
For three days and nights, Willis stayed by Porter's side, she said, "never changing his clothes, never neglecting him one minute in his helplessness, with all his people away, until the fever broke and the danger was past, and a day afterwards the Washington paper contained an item that Mr. John L. Porter was recovering nicely from an attack of yellow fever."
Finally after the first frost of winter, Porter was able to return to Washington and retrieve his family, who welcomed him with a new son, James.
"Yellow Jack's" 1855 Visit Left Thousands Dead in her Wake
By Alan Flanders
Nothing seemed to unusual about the June 7, 1855, arrival of the merchant ship Ben Franklin in Hampton Roads.
En route to New York from St. Thomas, the steamer often made Hampton Roads for minor repairs, fresh water and supplies before heading north.
However this time she carried a stowaway named "Yellow Jack."
Unfortunately, cargo inspectors did not find the death-dealing traveler until it was almost too late. Within a matter of weeks, thousands were dying and countless others were ill. Norfolk, Portsmouth and the entire harbor were shut down in what quickly became the worst disaster in the area's history.
Even had harbor officials seen the lethal passenger, many would not have recognized "Yellow Jack" by its alias—Aedes aegypti"—a breed of mosquito from the tropics that carried "yellow fever."
In a matter of days, the epidemic-laden insects were swarming around the Elizabeth River's tidal pools and swampy inlets.
Today, with ongoing concern in Hampton Roads about an outbreak of West Nile virus being spread by mosquitoes, a look back to what became known as the Yellow Fever Epidemic of 1855 gives a new perspective to that pesky little insect you might have just swatted just a second ago.
Realizing that the Ben Franklin had arrived from an area that was already subject to yellow fever, public health officials placed the ship in quarantine. But in those days, no one knew that the mosquito was the culprit, so they lifted the restriction on June 19 and allowed the steamer to sail for Page and Allen Shipyard adjacent to Gosport Shipyard's First Street Gate — the present site of Portsmouth's nTelos Pavilion. Authorities did, however, insist that the ship's captain not allow the vessel's hold to be opened.
Unfortunately, once the Ben Franklin reached Gosport, the ships's skipper ignored the order and had the hatches opened and the bilges pumped into the Elizabeth River.
It wasn't long until "Yellow Jack" made his presence known as a shipyard machinist named Carter became ill while working in the hold. On July 5, he was diagnosed with the dreaded fever and within three days, became the first to die. In a few more days, the mosquitoes took their toll among poor laborers living in tenements known in Gosport as Irish Row. A day or so later, "Yellow Jack" was paying calls throughout Portsmouth.
The region had experienced Yellow Fever several times in the past, including outbreaks in 1795, 1802, 1821 and 1826 — but the devastation of those years was not close to what was about to hit Norfolk and Portsmouth.
Once "Irish Row" was closed, Norfolk's Irish gave their brethren asylum in their own tenements at the south end of Church Street called "Barry's Row." By July 30, "Yellow Jack" had crossed the Elizabeth and was spreading quickly beyond the confines of Irish neighborhoods. Once word got out, panic spread on both sides of the river with those able to afford it fleeing from both cities. But where to go?
At first, cities like Petersburg, Richmond, Baltimore, Washington and New York opened their doors to refugees. Soon, fear spread among those communities as well with Petersburg leading the group in turning away Hampton Roads citizens. Even nearby Old Point Comfort, an immediate destination for evacuation, was placed off limits by bayonet-wielding militiamen.
Fortunately, Virginia's Eastern Shore, Mathews County and Fredericksburg were exceptions to the rule, providing safe haven to all those who could leave. Meanwhile, heroic men and women of the medical community and clergy remained to fight against the epidemic as best they could, with hot baths recommended as the only cure. Many fell ill and died while providing as much physical and spiritual comfort as possible. Clergy and civic leaders set aside Aug. 14 as a regional day of "humiliation and prayer" as the death toll rose.
Things got so bad toward the end of summer that the only vessel allowed to enter the harbor was the steamer J. S. Coffee, which met boats outside Hampton Roads carrying fresh supplies of coffins. Once coffins became scarce, mass graves were dug like the one on Hampton Boulevard and Princess Anne Road that is marked by the Norfolk Historical Society as a memorial to the scores buried there.
The epidemic finally subsided with the first frosts of winter, but the damage already had been done. According to Harrison W. "Scratch" Burton's "The History of Norfolk, Virginia," every man, woman and child, almost without exception had been stricken by the fever and about 2,000 had been buried." Nor was Portsmouth spared, with 1,050 counted among the dead.
It wasn't until 1900 that Walter Reed, a U. W. Army medical officer from nearby White Marsh proved the mosquito as the "Yellow Jack's" guilty accomplice.
Courtesy of Virginian-Pilot