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Yellow Fever


Yellow Fever Epidemic of 1873
Shreveport, Louisiana


           In mid-August of 1873 men dropped dead on Texas Street for unknown reasons.  Then at least five people died each day. 1 Reverend Dr. W. T. D. Dalzell of St. Mark’s Episcopal Church, who had visited Savannah, Georgia and cared for the victims of in the 1857 yellow fever epidemic there, tried to warn the officials that they had an epidemic on their hands. 2 Officials, who ignored Dr. Dalzell, tried to calm the panic-stricken city, but Shreveporters packed up their belongings and headed west to Texas and north to Arkansas. The population shrank to about 4,500.  East Texas communities set an embargo on traffic arriving from Shreveport, intercity commerce was halted, and all trains to the city stopped running. 3


            In the 1790s influential doctors Benjamin Rush and Noah Webster first believed that the disease came from contagion, but eventually denounced this idea.  In addition, they denounced that it was imported, finding quarantine methods unproductive.  They determined that yellow fever came from local miasms spawned by decaying plants and animals, especially when exposed to heat and water.  Sanitation was deemed the best way to rid the infected area of the disease.  Many physicians felt that it came from harmful fumes, known as noxious effluvia, which spread the disease. By the early 1800s travelers in New Orleans pronounced the vapors rising from garbage that was exposed to heat as the direct cause of the disease. 4 When an outbreak occurred, many fled the area, but some were unable to do so.  Several of those who stayed behind believed that breathing through cloth that had been soaked in garlic juice, camphor, or vinegar would help protect them from the disease. 5

            Dr. Benjamin Rush felt that the disease was not contagious, but was caused from rotting vegetable matter, duck ponds, privies, and old books.  He believed that the best way to cure a victim was to give them jalap and calomel, to perform bloodletting, to throw buckets of ice water on them to reduce the fevers, and to give them ipecac to induce vomiting. 6  English physician Colin Chisholm believed the disease to be contagious in personal contact and through clothing and other articles. In 1817 Drs. Gros and Gérardin felt that the epidemic in New Orleans was spawned by heavy rains, excessive heat, and travelers. 7 Physicians continued to agree, for the most part, that the disease was caused by noxious effluvia.

            Sanitation was a big problem in Shreveport.  The city had unpaved streets, no sewage system, and inadequate drinking water.  People in tenant houses on the edges of St. Paul’s Bottoms lived near the stagnant swamps of Silver Lake with water flowing beneath their stilt-raised homes.  Water usually came in the form of uncovered cypress cisterns behind homes since wells were impossible so close to the river, and drinking water came from Currie’s Spring, located where Line Avenue once intersected with Louisiana Avenue between Howell and Cotton Streets. 8

            However, John L. Riddell, a professor of chemistry at the Medical College of Louisiana, felt that microorganisms were the cause of yellow fever, although sanitation may have had a hand in it. 9 In 1848 Dr. Josiah C. Nott of Mobile, Alabama published his hypothesis. Dr. Nott noticed that the disease traveled along the rivers and the coast and that it was most frequent in cities visited by ships and trains. He stated that insects, such as the mosquito, were the most likely culprits. 10

            But in 1873 Shreveporters believed that heavy rainfall or humidity caused the outbreak of yellow fever; some believed it came from a circus that had traveled through the area. 11  Still others believed it came from the steamboat cargo and passengers that had made their way up the rivers. 12  Dr. Henry Smith, who cared for the sick first-hand, believed that the disease came from the miasmatic vapors from downtown’s Silver Lake. He also saw the city garbage, which baked in the streets under the afternoon sun, to be a cause; moreover, just prior to the outbreak, the steamboat Rugby had wrecked on the river, drowning the cattle that were aboard. 13  These were skinned and left to rot on the banks of the river. 14



            Yellow Jack attacked the heart, lungs, kidneys, and sometimes the central nervous system and affected each person differently in terms of symptoms, which were usually evident within three to six days after exposure to the disease. 15 The destruction of cells in the liver causes yellow bile pigments to accumulate in the skin. 16 Jaundice often set in with the skin bronzing in many cases, attributing to the fever’s nickname “bronze john,” and then yellowing. 17 Dr. Smith reported that the pulse often declined from 140 to eighty, seventy, and sometimes even fifty. In the worst cases, the skin was often covered by bluish patches, bloody vomit was expelled, and urine often took on a dark reddish color. 18 Delirium, convulsions, and comas were feared in extremely serious cases. Sometimes the gums, nose, eyes, ears, and even toes would hemorrhage. 19 Temperature reached at least 102 degrees, sometimes progressing much higher. Severe headaches, backaches, and nausea were known to plague the ill. Often patients experienced a fear of light. 20 One of the most serious signs was what was known as black vomit: this occurred when stomach acid acted upon blood that hemorrhaged from the stomach and was vomited, looking much like coffee grounds. The vomit often was expelled from the victim without any effort on the victim’s part. 21

            No cures existed, but cold presses were used to break fevers, ice was crushed for nausea, and liquids were vital to keep kidneys from shutting down. 22 Dr. Smith also suggested warm baths, bed rest, and warm teas.  Stimulants such as cognac were also used on occasion. 23 Within a week to ten days, the ill were either cured or dead. 24 If the disease made its way to the kidneys early on, victims died after three or four days from urine suppression; this was known to be worse than black vomit. 25

            Those that survived usually had rapid improvement, although jaundice remained for some time afterwards.  Once a person has had the disease, he or she is immune for life. 26



             By mid-September gravediggers could not keep up with the number of burials, and they hastily interred thirty victims each day in community graves. 27 Captain Matthew Scovell’s steamer Royal George was stacked high with coffins and a hearse for use in Shreveport. 28 Through the night, horses were heard in the streets carrying the dead to the cemeteries. 29 The coffins of the prominent and the common citizens were treated much the same as they were shoved in the backs of hearses and rushed to the cemeteries. 30 Blacks, who were apparently immune to the disease, were paid five dollars a day to dig graves and drive hearses. 31

             A sect of New Orleans’s Howard Association formed in Shreveport.  The organization aided the sick, fed the poor, and established a haven for children whose parents died in the epidemic. Daily expenses for the group at the end of September reached $1,000 to $2,000. 32

             Monroe, New Orleans, and Dallas all sent telegrams to the city offering their services of doctors, nurses, and druggists. P. T. Barnum gave $100, the Cincinnati Chamber of Commerce sent $1,000, and President Ulysses S. Grant donated 5,000 rations to the city after General W. H. Emory telegraphed him on October 3 to ask for permission to donate the rations to Shreveport. Ed Jacobs and J. B. Lewis of Shreveport raised $1,000 in Boston for the needs of the sick, and Jacobs also raised $1,000 in New York. 33 New Orleans’s Shakespeare Club and the Orleans Dramatic Association often held performances as fundraisers for Shreveport’s relief.  The Western Union Telegraph Company wired money to Shreveport for free.  34 Blacks also left their work on the steamboats to help the city as nurses. 35

            Also giving their assistance were Reverend John Wilkinson of the Methodist Church, Reverend Adams of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in New Orleans, and Baptist Reverend W. E. Paxton, who moved to the town to help in the epidemic. 36 Rev. Dalzell spent many long hours caring for the sick and wrote articles in the newspaper directing people to hold fast to their faith and avoid blaming God for the epidemic. 37

            The minister of the First Baptist Church died, as did twenty-seven other members of the congregation.  38 Twenty-two people living in a boarding house all died from the disease. 39 Four doctors and the city judge lost their lives in the epidemic. 40 When entire families died, their clothes and houses were burned to prevent the spread of disease. 41 Tar and sulphur was burned as the smoke was thought to purify the air. 42

            Lieutenant E. August Woodruff, the leader of the U. S. Army Corps of Engineers, had been placed in charge of clearing the Red River Raft after it had reformed.  When he learned of the epidemic in Shreveport, he joined the Howard Association, a sect of which had formed in Shreveport to aid the sick. 43 He established a hospital in the Talley Opera House. 44 On September 15 Woodruff caught yellow fever and fifteen days later he died; he was buried in Oakland Cemetery in Shreveport. 45

            Five Catholic priests died during the epidemic while ministering to the sick.  Stained glass windows in
Holy Trinity Catholic Church on Fannin and Marshall Streets in Shreveport commemorate these men. 46 The first was Holy Trinity’s associate pastor, Fr. J. Queremais, who died on September 15.  The church’s first pastor, Fr. J. Pierre, died the following day.  Fr. J. M. N. Biler, the chaplain of St. Vincent’s Academy in Shreveport, died on September 27; Fr. L. Gergaud, a pastor from Monroe, died on October 1, with another priest, Fr. F. LeVezouet, who had traveled four days on horseback from Natchitoches, dying eight days later. 47 Two Daughters of the Cross nuns also died caring for the ill; their deaths came on September 17 and September 23. 48

            By October 1 the death rate dropped to ten victims a day, signifying the height of the epidemic had passed. 49 By November 15 the epidemic had reached its end as cool weather moved into the city. 50  The embargo was lifted, trains began to run to the city, and people returned home. Of the 4,500 people that remained in the city, 759 died in the epidemic. 51 Shreveport’s first Board of Health, along with Charity Hospital, was established after the epidemic. 52 The Susan Constant Chapter of the Colonial Dames XVII Century presented a marker for the mound that covers the graves of hundreds of victims of the yellow fever epidemics. 53



            It was not until the 1881 that Dr. Carlos Juan Finlay of Cuba began experimenting with mosquitoes and human volunteers. 54 He felt that it was possible that the mosquitoes could bite infected people and spread it to others through their lancet.  He chose to work with the culex, which was later known as the stegomyia, and is presently referred to as the Aedes aegypti.  One problem with Dr. Finlay’s work was that he was unsure if his volunteers were immune to the disease. 55  With the Spanish-American War in 1898, the United States took over Cuba and began combating the yellow fever problem. 56 In 1900 bacteriologist Walter Reed headed the U. S. Army Medical Commission and began testing Dr. Finlay’s research, except that they made sure their volunteers were non-immunes. By February of 1901 they had determined that the mosquito required ten to twelve days after it had bitten an infected person before it was able to transmit the disease to another.  The disease was controlled with sanitation, draining mosquito breeding grounds, and quarantining ships that arrived from infected areas. The disease has since been determined to affect monkeys and other animals, but is only caused from the virus spread by the mosquitoes. 57




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