Yellow Fever: Savannah’s Dreadful Pestilence

Photo: Davenport House Museum

Excerpt of an article written in 2015 by Jamie Credle, Davenport House Museum, Savannah, Georgia 

ALHFAM members can access the full text of this article and thousands more though the A.S.K. database. Not a member? Join today! 

October 2014 marked the twelfth time in October that the Davenport House Museum in Savannah, Georgia, produced a scripted living history program on the topic of yellow fever.

What is yellow fever?

Yellow fever is a tropical virus carried by the Aedes aegypti mosquito, which breeds in clean standing water. The vector and the virus originated in Africa and their existence in the Western Hemisphere is a legacy of the Atlantic slave trade. The incubation time for the fever is three to six days, with most cases causing only a mild infection with fever, headache, chills, back pain, fatigue, loss of appetite, muscle pain, nausea, and vomiting. In these cases, the infection lasts three to five days. In 15 percent of cases, however, victims enter a toxic phase with recurring fever, which is accompanied by jaundice due to liver damage, as well as abdominal pain, and bleeding in the mouth, eyes and gastrointestinal tract. The toxic phase is fatal in about 20 percent of cases, making the overall fatality rate for the disease three percent. In severe epidemics, the mortality may exceed 50 percent. It often fells those in the prime of life.

The epidemic of 1820

The years 1819 to 1820 were a terrible time for Savannah. First came the financial crisis of 1819, which sent cotton prices tumbling. Then, on January 11, 1820, there was a catastrophic fire that took out the heart of the city, some 463 buildings, leaving the population of 7,500 reeling. After the fire, there was a mild winter followed by a wet spring and summer, making the exposed privy vaults and foundations of houses ideal locations for the breeding of the mosquito that causes yellow fever. In August 1820 the mayor made a public announcement – as the seasonal sickness seemed to be raging:

“Having received reports from the Committee of the Medical Society, I feel myself authorized to announce that no pestilence prevails in this city. One Ward has been rather unusually unhealthy, but the disease has been, and is confined principally to strangers and people of intemperate, dissolute habits; and is no more than the ordinary bilious fever of the climate.”

Which newspaper do you trust?

The most useful sources for the Davenport House’s program have been the competing newspapers in the city at the time, the Columbia Museum and the Savannah Republican. Their contentiousness was much like FOX News and MSNBC as they differed at every corner: on whether there was an epidemic and whether the city government had the citizens’ best interest at heart. The two papers went back and forth all summer. Mr. Barlett, editor of the Columbia Museum, wrote:

“Although our Health Committees and Medical Societies are silent upon the subject, we are induced to believe that a pestilential disease rages to a considerable extent in certain portions of our city. Why is it endeavored to keep the fact a secret? And why is not the public fully informed of the matter, by those whose duty it is, to give full information upon this subject?”

Mr. Fell, editor of the Savannah Republican, replied:

“When an ignorant fellow bawls out “mad dog!” in the streets, or when a simpleton hears that the yellow fever is in any of our wards: You may make it appear as plain as the nose on his face, that there is no “mad dog” or that no fever `rages’ – he will still believe it probable. Why do we say this? Because the remarks in this morning’s Museum touching the health of our city, are replete with misrepresentation and falsehood. It is true, a small part of the inhabitants of Washington Ward, have been visited with disease but we deny that it ’rages to a considerable extent’ – or that it is a pestilence.”

Photo: Davenport House Museum

This is an excerpt of an article that first appeared as: Jamie Credle, “Put Yellow Fever in Your Toolbox: The Evolution of Savannah’s Dreadful Pestilence” in Nancy Egloff and Ron Kley, ed., Proceedings of the 2015 ALHFAM Conference & Annual Meeting, 83-88. 

If you would like to read the full article, which includes a description of Davenport House Museum’s educational program based on the yellow fever epidemic, check out the A.S.K. database. Not a member? Join today! 

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