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Yellow Fever: Savannah’s deadly 1876 epidemic

It was bad in Savannah in 1820. It was worse in 1854. It was worst of all in 1876. Dubbed the “Stranger’s Disease” because of its habit of afflicting new arrivals in the port, this deadly viral disease downed more than its proportionate share of Catholics. Zoning in on Europeans, and generally known as yellow fever, it generated epidemics in 1820, 1854 and 1876 that accounted for 60, 650 and 1,065 deaths, respectively, in Savannah. More than one contemporary scholar feels that city officials should have seen the 1876 epidemic coming and that, if they had, mortality rates might have been far lower. Unfortunately, this didn’t happen.

What happened was that the warnings to upgrade Savannah’s miserable sanitary conditions in 1876 weren’t a real concern of many local politicians. The city’s population generally strode through sandy, unpaved streets. Waste, human and otherwise, passed through inadequate and often unmaintained pipe and sewer lines, especially those in poorer parts of town. The actual cause of the fever wasn’t known. Some blamed its contagion on ships that unloaded it along with less deadly freight. Others suspected a mysterious local cause. The Bilbo Canal didn’t help the situation.

Located near the busy road to Thunderbolt, the canal crossed the defunct rice plantation that gave it its name and was meant to drain eastern dry culture lands. Studded with sewer lines, this 1 ½ mile canal meandered its way to the Savannah River. When its floodgates opened to admit fresh water with incoming tides, the canal’s putrid contents were flushed out. Several records indicate that the Bilbo may not have been flushed out for close to a year before the 1876 epidemic hit.

Local politics, near-bankrupt city coffers, and the desire to downplay the possibility of a yellow fever epidemic also factored into the equation. Sub-tropical Savannah, with heavy rains in the spring and soaring temperatures in the summer, was primed for trouble.

Trouble came in August. In the beginning, either from ineptitude or on purpose, earliest cases were diagnosed as “intermittent fever” – a blanket term that covered malaria as well as other diseases. On August 21, young James Patrick Cleary’s death was classified that way. Father J.B. Langlois, rector of the Cathedral, dutifully inscribed the words “Remittent Fever, congestion” in the church’s funeral register, writing what physician, “C. Stone”, considered the cause of death. Later, some unknown hand wrote the words “yellow fever” above the disease that supposedly killed the 12 year-old Bryan Street resident.

But there was no denying what
was killing people as the words
“yellow fever” repeatedly appeared on the church register. Father Edward Cafferty, pastor of Saint Patrick’s Church, contracted the disease on August 13. He was ill for eight days, “his symptoms tallying with severe cases of yellow fever up to, but not reaching the stage of black vomit,” according to one authority. Records of earlier intermittent fever - which totaled 30 - plus actual yellow fever listings accounted for 394 deaths of Savannah Catholics, most of them Irish, during August and September, 1876.

As Father Cafferty’s sickness reveals, lay people weren’t the only ones infected with yellow fever. Charleston, which had much slighter incidence of the disease, sent priests to Savannah to help overburdened clergy. The Catholic Almanac later listed Sisters of Mercy, Mary Berchman Wheeler and Mary Blandina Lysaught as victims of the 1876 Savannah epidemic as well as Sister Mary Martha Manning of the Order of Saint Agnes, and Fathers J.B. Langlois and James A. Kelly. Father Edward Cafferty, who traveled the Thunderbolt Road near the noxious Bilbo Canal while making his priestly calls, and caught yellow fever, evidently fought it off. He died twenty years later and is buried in Savannah’s Catholic Cemetery.

Yellow fever is a hemorrhagic disease that begins with severe headaches, muscle aches, chills and fevers. When these symptoms abate, a small percentage of victims survive. Others go on to the next phase: escalating fever, jaundice, abdominal pain and vomiting. Termed “Black Jack” because of the color of vomiting that characterized its final phase, yellow fever went on killing people until 1900 when - to validate his opinion that mosquitoes caused the disease - Dr. Jesse Lazear allowed a mosquito carrying the virus to infect him. The heroic researcher died soon afterwards.

In 1902, the American Health Association designated the Aedes aegypti mosquito as the cause of the fever. A year later, the American Medical Association followed suit. The last yellow fever epidemic in the U.S. occurred in New Orleans in 1905. Today, a vaccine is available for those who travel to other countries where the disease is still a threat.

 

Rita H. DeLorme is a volunteer in the Diocesan Archives. She can be reached at rhdelorme@diosav.org.

 

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