Down came the rain
Savannah is no stranger to rain, but no one knew in the spring of 1876 that the upcoming deluge was an omen of death. At first the precipitation replenished the swamps, ponds and lowlands. But as summer approached and temperatures swelled into the high 90s, the extra water became menacing.
The rains fell so heavily that at one point in June, Savannah was soaked with 18 inches of rain in only 16 days. J.C. Hardy, M.D., wrote that the accumulated waters broke through the dams protecting the low grounds on the west side of the city and that land remained partially flooded for the remainder of the summer. He added that the dampness wreaked havoc on everything, even causing mold to constantly grow on boots and shoes. “Guns and swords rusted in their cases,” he wrote, “and surgical instruments required constant attention.”
In the working class neighborhoods on the eastern and western slopes of the city, the rain and standing water made life even more wretched. “…The houses wooden, small, decaying, built in tenements, with miserable ventilation; the yards small, with high plank fences, and filled up with offal of all sorts; their privy vaults badly closed; stables, pigeon and poultry houses, etc., all huddled together,” writes Dr. Hardy. “Such a combination was quite sufficient to produce filth-diseases; but it had existed for years, and although it was not, in my judgment, an efficient cause for yellow fever, yet during an epidemic it could aggravate its ravages.”
Along came an epidemic
Local physician Louis A. Falligant, M.D., knew something bad was on the horizon when the feverish patients he visited from Aug. 15-20 had increasingly severe symptoms. The advance of the disease was so rapid that he told his friends that “we were on the threshold of a pestilence more terrible than that which had devastated our fair community in 1854!” His dread over the 1854 epidemic was well founded. According to Robert L. Usinger of the United States Public Health Service, “The years 1821, 1827, 1831, 1839, 1850, 1852, and 1853 each had a more or less severe [yellow fever] epidemic, the last three culminating in the sad year 1854 with 580 deaths and an unknown number of cases.”
James J. Waring, M.D., calculated higher death rates for the 1854 epidemic. He reports 1,040 deaths “in an average population of 6,000 for the period of four months or a death rate of one to six.”
By 1876, the source of the disease was still unknown. It would be 24 more years before U.S. Army physicians proved that mosquitoes were to blame. Their tiny bites delivered a virus that assaulted and often shut down the victims’ vital organs – hearts, liver and kidneys. Meanwhile, the rain-soaked areas in and around Savannah were fast becoming prime breeding grounds.
Without any official reports to rely on, the Savannah Morning News was cautious about declaring yet another epidemic in the city that was just beginning to recover from the Civil War. On Aug. 31, it published the following statement, “ …we did not choose to give color and circulation to the vague and exaggerated rumors that were flying about. Utter and complete demoralization has made itself apparent upon the streets and at the railroad depots.”
News about the potentially devastating situation was in high demand. On September 1st, the newspaper reprinted a telegram it received from Atlanta. “The wild and injurous rumors afloat in all directions will do Savannah great harm .… We know the truths cannot be one third as bad as the rumors now circulating in this part of the state. The report of the quarantine on the Central and Gulf roads are not true. It is estimated that two thousand persons left the city since the panic.”
The suffering begins
After being infected with the yellow fever virus, Savannahians suffered with headaches, muscle aches, fever, loss of appetite, vomiting and jaundice. These symptoms usually subsided after a few days, and some patients recovered. Others sank back into illness with more dire symptoms: burning thirst, high fevers, delirium, jaundiced skin, headache, blood-crusted nasal cavities, raw and bleeding lips, and tongues covered with “a light brown fur.” If blood leached into the gastrointestinal tract, gastric acids oxidize the iron in blood. As a result, patients suffering from this symptom threw up a dark and grainy substance that looked like coffee grounds.
Sailor Schull was the first to die of yellow fever, and quickly was followed by many others. The Savannah Benevolent Association, formed during the 1854 yellow fever epidemic to help the sick and indigent during epidemics, jumped into action. A notice in the Savannah Morning News stated that 150 association nurses were attending the sick.
Some Savannahians were dying rapidly. Father J.B. Langlois, a rector of the Catholic Cathedral died after being sick three days.” William Thorne Williams died after five days.
“By the first week in September the cloud of suffering hung like a pall over every district,” Dr. Falligant writes, “and misery and woe found echo only in the wail of the mourner and the dull thud of the coffin.”
The Savannah Morning News kept its readers apprised of the situation on a daily basis. “… the past two days are very unsatisfactory, showing the fever is not abating and the general health of the city is very bad. The total interment for the past two days are 34 of which 23 are yellow fever. Our physicians are working with but little rest. We wonder how long they can hold out like this.”
People from around the world helped fund the Savannah Benevolent Association efforts. Hugh Dempsey, the superintendent of the Southern Express Company, one of the largest overland rail-based shipping companies, even offered to transport all contributions free of charge. Yet it was not long before the association’s resources were drained, and hard decisions had to be made. One new resolution read: “Whereas many of our absent citizens have left servants in basements and out buildings as caretakers during their absence who are destitute and many are sick, in the future no food will be issued to those living upon the premises of those primarily able to support their own employees.”
Other charitable organizations were suffering as well. A. Bonaud, president of the Societe Francaise de Bienfaisance, published a plea for help. “Having exhausted its resources, together with the spare means of its members, … [we] feel constrained to ask you of your assistance as your generosity may prompt.”
Doctors did their best
Many local physicians answered the perilous call for medical help, like Richard Joseph Nunn, M.D., and Dr. Waring, as well others from out of state, including Dr. Hartwig Bunz of Wilmington, N.C.; Dr. O. A. White of New York; and Dr. Henry Smith of New Orleans. Some medical professionals who came to Savannah to help did not return home alive. Jon J. Ward came from Charleston, S.C., as a volunteer druggist. He died of yellow fever, leaving a widow and five children behind to grieve for him.
Physicians struggled with exhaustive workloads. Dr. Falligant notes that in September he averaged 80 visits a day during the second week, 90 a day during the third week and 100 a day during the fourth week. “The highest daily round being 106 visits on Sept. 30th”” His dedication did not wane, despite the fact that on September 11th, a thief stole his horse and gig from in front of his house.
Patients received a variety of medicines, often containing aconite, belladonna, nux vomica, cinchona, arsenic, quinine, ipecac or sulfuric acid. The Savannah Morning News reported that city authorities would pay for doctor’s prescriptions and that “the druggist are allowed 25 cents for each prescription furnished for the poor.
Many doctors recommended isolating patients. “Conversation should be avoided, as it makes the patient nervous; when unavoidable, it should be cheering, and no mention should be made of the sickness or death of others,” Dr. Falligant writes. “The sick bed of a yellow fever case is no place for a prayer meeting. Gloomy forebodings exercise a most baneful influence.”
Time of great sorrow
The Savannah Morning News reported who suffered, who recovered and who died. There seemed to be no end to the sorrow as families were decimated. Major E. W. Drummond lost three children – two sons and a daughter—then died himself a week later, leaving a widow and his eldest son behind. William R. and Ella V. Conant lost their four children. Reverend R. Webb lost the last of his five boys, eldest son Charles Finch, a few weeks short of his 12th birthday. The epidemic took victims of all ages, from 3-year-old Vallie E. Vereen to 70-year-old William Ryan.
Some citizens sought relief through drugs or religion. A friend found Louis Salvetera overdosed on laudanum due to the grief caused by his wife’s death Pastor H.L. Houston offered an alternative. “Under the distressed condition of Savannah, the First Baptist Church will be open Monday afternoon from four to six for the purpose of prayer to Almighty God for relief for His people.”
As noted in the obituaries published in the Savannah Morning News, Savannah lost many of its outstanding
- Dr. Juriah Harriss’ “… frail body sank under the pestilential wave, but the mantle of glory shrouds his tomb.”
- James W. McCall, “was a drug clerk at O. Butler and Co. and worked side by side with Mr. Butler up to the
- moment he was taken sick. He fell at his post, a martyr to his duty, having returned to the city from his leave of absence on the breaking out of the fever. A good and true man has gone.”
- The Cotton Exchange closed for a couple hours in honor of Major Henry E. Backus. “His fine social qualities and high traits of character always won for him the highest places in social life.”
Fever affects business
Succinct notices published in the Savannah Morning News drew attention to the morbid round-the-clock needs of the time.
- “W.D. Dixon, undertaker, has removed to 85 Liberty Street corner of Abercorn where all night calls will meet prompt attention.”
- “Richard Morgan, 139 Congress St. Mourning goods, crepe veils, and crepe.”
- “Mr. R. Schaefer, apothecary, corner of Drayton and Broughton Streets, has answered every night bell during the epidemic, and in a notice this morning informs the public he will continue to do so.”
Businesses struggled with fewer and fewer employees. No profession was safe. The death toll included a druggist, a machine shop apprentice, a police officer, an assistant ticket agent, a plumber, an acting hospital steward, a newspaper printer; and staff of the Catholic Church. Some business owners temporarily closed shop and left town. Alsace immigrant Benjamin H. Levy closed his general merchandise store at the corner of Congress and Jefferson streets from Sept. 1-Nov. 15. The owner of J.A. Doyle & Bros. gave up altogether. His notice read, “Owing to the epidemic and unpropritious season, after November 1, my business will be discontinued.”
Opinions about the cause and prevention of yellow fever flew about as easily as the mosquitoes. In his report for the United States Public Health department, Usinger listed a number of vain preventive methods, including burning tar in the city squares. “Some advocated cutting down all the shade trees but more conservative citizens felt that only the larger branches need be cut, thus allowing some shade during hot summer months.” He also notes that Savannahians disinfected the ballast stones from ships and considered a mixture of “good” whiskey and mustard seed as a good preventive.
Dr. Falligant correctly believed that “the poison” was denser at night than during the day, but strayed far from the unknown truth when he also recommended that all upholstery be removed from railway cars traveling in and out of Savannah. “… thorough scouring of the floors, benches, windows, and inside walls of each car should be insisted upon immediately after every trip.” Savannah authorities even prohibited citizens from bringing animal hides into the city because they might be contributing to the sickness.
All of these remedies were useless in preventing the mosquitoes from breeding and spreading the disease, but the Georgia Medical Society made the most effective changes. They took an unpopular stand against the wet culture of rice within a mile radius of the city.
On Sept. 20, Dr. Waring presented a two-part plan to end the epidemic to the mayor and city council. In addition to clearing and cleaning all city drains, he recommended that, “The trunk of every tree should be whitewashed; so also every wooden fence and old wooden house; scrape old shingle roofs and whitewash them; this would last until frost. Pour gas washings (diluted carbolic acid) upon all damp mouldy yards, and rake them well with iron rakes; add carbolic acid to privies.” The audience shared his confidence in the plan and accepted his proposition. They raised the money for the effort, but municipal authorities soon had disagreements over the project, and the work was abandoned.
Since no one knew what caused the yellow fever, people were suspected as carriers. In a letter to the Savannah Morning News editor, T.M. Hopkins, M.D., the pilot of the steamer Wylly reported that Thomasville, Georgia, 212 miles southwest of Savannah, had cases of yellow fever. “… It was brought there from Savannah by the children of the Episcopal Orphans Home. Two of them reached Thomasville sick with fever and in two days 14 of them had it.”
Charleston, S.C.; Jacksonville, Fla.; and Augusta, Ga., enforced quarantines for passengers from Savannah. “Trains from Savannah by way of Millen will be ventilated twenty miles from Augusta, and there is serious talk of preventing the boats on the river from going to the city.” According to T.E. Davenport, mayor of the Brunswick, Ga., all persons coming from Savannah had to be certified healthy by the health officer in Jesup, Ga., before coming to town. “Those persons from Savannah not having a certificate to be quarantined 72 hours.” Wilmington, North Carolina, banned Savannah citizens from entering town altogether.
Cold brings salvation
When cooler winter temperatures finally arrived, the ravages of the disease began to subside. On Nov. 14, the board of the Georgia Medical Society pronounced the epidemic at an end and encouraged people to return to Savannah, but advised that “they do not occupy their houses and stores until they are thoroughly ventilated and fumigated.” This was good news for businessman J. Weichselbaum. He “guarantees the thorough fumigation of all houses under his process. Leave orders at Solomons & Co.’s Store.”
The final estimates of deaths due to yellow fever vary. Dr. Waring writes, “The record of deaths from this epidemic of 1876 is the best evidence of its mixed character; 922 are yellow fever, whilst the total of deaths is 1,591.” Robert Usinger’s data totals 1,066 deaths between August and December, with 33 deaths on the peak day, September 20th. In her book The Medical Profession in Georgia 1733-1983, Evelyn Ward Gay, writes “In 1876 there were 1,594 deaths from a population of 20,561 in a period of five months, or one in 13.”
One Savannah Morning News reader, acknowledged only as “F,” has an explanation for the discrepancies in the numbers. In a letter to the editor, F. blames the physicians who “followed the unwise system of filling out death certificates naming the terminal symptoms instead of the general disease, yellow fever, do not seem to understand that they are helping to make Savannah appear as a death hole from all sorts of causes; nor do they recognize the fact that the records of fatality in this epidemic will be rendered utterly valueless. Better call all yellow fever cases yellow fever, and let the epidemic poison take the blame for our long list of interments.”
Laid to rest at Evergreen
There is no doubt that many of the Savannah residents who had the means left town during the epidemic. According to a report by Mr. E.C. Richardson, Savannah was home to “about 30,000 inhabitants, 16,000 whites and 14,000 blacks,” but during the epidemic it dropped severely to “5,000 whites and 12,000 blacks,” with most people struggling with illness and starvation. As a result, a majority of the people who died from yellow fever were buried at the public Laurel Grove Cemetery. According to information published in 1870, the price of Evergreen lots was “fixed at 8 1/3 cents per square foot. Money received from the sale of the lots was to be used for the care and upkeep of the cemetery. For an annual fee of $5 per 300-square foot lot, the Cemetery Company agreed to maintain the lot itself.” According to the Bonaventure Historical Society records, the following yellow fever victims were laid to rest in Evergreen Cemetery:
Some of the physicians who came to the aid of Savannah eventually were buried in Evergreen Cemetery. Dr. Waring died Jan. 8, 1888, and was buried in Laurel Grove Cemetery, but on Jan. 25, 1893, his remains were transferred to Sec. A, Lot 210. Dr. Le Hardy was buried Jan. 8, 1907, in Sec. E, Lot 99. Dr. Nunn was buried June 30, 1910, in Sec. O, Lot 52.
One young Savannah resident survived the epidemic and later played an important role in improving the city’s public health. William F. Brunner, M.D., eventually studied medicine and became the quarantine officer for the U.S. Marine Service. In 1888, he returned to Savannah to become its health officer. He died on Jan. 3, 1926, and was buried in Evergreen Cemetery in Sec. N, Lot 86.
While Savannahians did not know the cause of the yellow fever epidemic, they did recognize the generous and heroic nature of the hundreds of people who provided supplies for the city and care for the sick despite the danger. To the ones who lived through the dire situation “all honor should be paid.” No doubt the presence of such heroes provided much comfort each spring as the rains came and the mysterious disease continued to lurk on the horizon.
Learn more about the Bonaventure Historical Society
- This article by Kristine K. Stevens was reprinted with permission from the Bonaventure Historical Society newsletter (Volume 15, Number 2, April, May & June, 2010).
- Bonaventure Historical Society‘s mission statement: “A nonprofit organization comprised of non-salaried volunteers dedicated to the evolution and preservation of the historical significance of Bonaventure Cemetery.”
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Primary resources for this article
- Bonaventure Cemetery, Savannah, Georgia. Index Sections A-H. Savannah: Bonaventure Historical Society, 2000.
- Bylaws of the Savannah Benevolent Association. 1954.
- Falligant, Louis A. A monograph on the yellow fever of 1876 in Savannah, Georgia.
- Falligant, Louis A. Dengue Fever of 1880. N.p.: North American Journal of Homoeopathy, 1881.
- Falligant, Louis A. Report on the Epidemic of Yellow Fever “La Maladie du Diable” in Savannah,
- Georgia, during the months of September, October and November, 1876.
- Gay, Evelyn Ward. The Medical Profession in Georgia 1733-1983. Fulton, Missouri: The Ovid Bell Press, Inc., 1983.
- Hardy, J. C. Yellow Fever: The Epidemic of 1876 in Savannah. Atlanta: Jas. P. Harrison & Co.
- Medical History Georgia Medical Society, Chatham County, Georgia. Bicentennial (1733-1933).
- Official Programe – Savannah Session – April 23-26. Atlanta: The Journal of the Medical Association of Georgia, 1940.
- Savannah Morning News. Savannah, Ga.: 1876.
- “U.S. Army Physicians Discovered the Cause of Yellow Fever.” America’s Story from America’s Library.
- Usinger, Robert L. Georgia Historical Society Quarterly. 1944.
- Waring, James J. The Epidemic at Savannah 1876: Its Causes, the Measures of Prevention. N.p.: Morning News Steam Printing House, 1879.
- Workers of the W. P.A. General Index to Keepers’ Record Books, Bonaventure Cemetery (1850-1938). Savannah, Ga.: 1939.
- Wilson, Amie Marie, and Mandi Dale Johnson. Images of America Historic Bonaventure Cemetery. Charleston: Arcadia Publishing, 1998.