A shrine to Father Francis Seelos in St. Mary's Assumption Church and Our Lady of Guadalupe (formerly the Mortuary Chapel) at the edge of the French Quarter are two relics of yellow fever's century-long hold on New Orleans.
Yellow fever went by many names in the nineteenth century: The Saffron Scourge, Yellow Jack, Stranger’s Fever, Bronze John on his Saffron Steed. The virus earned all these names during its century-long stay in New Orleans, while doctors, governors, and generals argued over what it was and what to do about it. History paints tableaus of deeply haunted lives during this century—citizens fled the toxic summers, immigrants were buried or burned, and newspapers danced around the trenches for far too long. And finally, at the turn of the twentieth century, another war brought a concerted effort to solve the mystery, banishing the fever from the city for good.
But for that hundred years, no matter which government staked claim to it, Yellow Jack was the undisputed and unreported king of New Orleans.
Between 1796 and 1905, sixty-seven yellow summers transpired in New Orleans, during which roughly fifty thousand people died. During the worst years, the dead were stacked on top of each other in the ever-expanding cemeteries, and the smell filled the streets.
The first signs of the disease were headaches, soreness, fever, vomiting, dizziness, and jaundice. Some cases involved a remission period, wherein the person might recover, but if it returned, it was often fatal. That final stage brought liver and kidney failure, internal hemorrhaging (signified by “black vomit”), seizures, and delirium, before the body failed and death became imminent.
The scourge wasn’t, however, lethal to everyone. In the early days of yellow fever especially, native Louisianans were less likely to die of yellow fever, as were slaves and free people of color, earning it the nickname the “Strangers’ Disease.” To the medical community in the early nineteenth century—and even moreso to the civilian population—the virus’ ability to hop, skip, and jump its way around New Orleans, only to disappear for entire summers, even decades if it so pleased, was deeply troubling and difficult to understand. New Orleanians found themselves in a pit of fear come summer, and those who could afford to flee the city did, for places like the Mississippi Coast and Grand Isle. Summer homes across Lake Pontchartrain made ideal escapes for the upper crust, where the rich could be found pranking each other and holding rowdy, inebriated parties.
Those without the luxury of summer homes—the poor, the immigrants, the destitute—remained to face Yellow Jack, and in the early days of the fever, there were few real defenses against it. Some swore by soaking themselves in vinegar, carrying camphor, or chewing on quinquinia (quinine). Others drank herbal tea concoctions and sarsparilla. Physicians treated the fever with bloodletting, leeching, purging, and mercury consumption, the latter of which fatally poisoned scads of ill military men in 1812. When the epidemics grew in severity as the century wore on, officials would burn tar at night in an attempt to purify the air. Once, in 1853, cannons were shot throughout the city aiming for a similar result.
The illness first became epidemic in New Orleans under Spanish rule in 1796. When the city fell back under French dominion in 1800, then passed into American hands in 1803, the population swelled from eight thousand to nearly twenty-five, and the vast amount of new blood was a boon to the disease.
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Money, Politics & the Board of Health
In response to 1817’s death toll of eight hundred in New Orleans alone, the state legislature passed an act allowing for the creation of a board of health in New Orleans. But when the barely-funded board’s quarantine measures failed to stop the disease in 1819 (and two thousand people died anyway), the legislature rescinded the act, declaring it useless. In 1834, a group of New Orleans doctors interested in researching the disease founded the Medical College of Louisiana—which would later become Tulane University—but the doctors were mostly on their own until 1855, when the Louisiana Board of Health became permanent.
The Louisiana State Museum exhibit, Two Centuries of Louisiana History, asserts that the Whig and Know-Nothing politicians controlling New Orleans during this time were not keen on funding efforts for prevention: “After all, they reasoned, most of the people dying from yellow fever... were Irish, German, and French immigrants who usually voted Democrat.”
The vast commercial interests in New Orleans, decimated during yellow fever summers when thousands fled the city, weren’t keen on education, either; the further profit margins shrank, the more they attempted to convince officials and newspapers not to release news of the scourge to the public. That might have something to do with how the press handled—or didn’t handle—news of yellow fever.
Reasoning that extensive coverage would create public hysteria, nearly all publications city-wide avoided printing related news or death tolls. Sometimes a line or two would appear at the bottom of a column declaring that the summer’s scourge was over, and usually prematurely.
Early in 1829, a curious editorial war broke out between several newspapers when the Louisiana Courier printed a letter to the editor which warned that the fever had started, and urged people to evacuate the city. The Price-Current and the Mercantile Advertiser printed words to the contrary, attempting to soothe the public into thinking the city was in fact, “unusually healthy.” Jo Ann Carrigan wrote in her 1961 dissertation, which was later expanded into the 1994 book, The Saffron Scourge: A History of Yellow Fever in Louisiana, 1796—1905: “The subterfuge of the journals, instead of actually helping the situation, ultimately created for them a widespread reputation of hypocrisy and unreliability.”
“THE SUBTERFUGE OF THE JOURNALS, INSTEAD OF ACTUALLY HELPING THE SITUATION, ULTIMATELY CREATED FOR THEM A WIDESPREAD REPUTATION OF HYPOCRISY AND UNRELIABILITY.”
Meanwhile, the epidemic year of 1853 was, by all accounts, the worst yellow fever year of the century. Depending on the source, anywhere from eight to twelve thousand people died of yellow fever in New Orleans that year; one in twelve city-wide. Winters offered brief respite, but the epidemics continued throughout the decade.
New Orleans was thus caught in the middle of its first great public health crisis as an American city, without the full attention of their elected officials, commercial interests, or media. Where, then, could they find the truth about the stench of death enveloping their summers?
The first casualty of war may be truth, but war certainly breeds action.
The Civil War on Bronze John's Steed
In April of 1861, President Lincoln announced the total blockade of all Southern ports, including New Orleans. That year, not quite coincidentally, New Orleans incurred zero yellow fever deaths for the first time in half a century.
On May 1, 1862, General Benjamin F. Butler occupied the city of New Orleans with five thousand Union troops in tow, encountering virtually no resistance. That’s not to say that New Orleanians welcomed the Federal presence in their city—they certainly did not appreciate it, and they took every opportunity to make it known. Knowing that yellow fever was more likely to kill newcomers to the city, New Orleanians prayed for the scourge’s arrival that year, and they didn’t stop their efforts after leaving the church pews.
Carrigan writes of an instance in which one citizen approached a group of Federal soldiers with a measuring tape and a notebook, and began measuring their heights and taking notes. “When asked the meaning of this action, he replied that a contract had been obtained for making 10,000 coffins, which would be needed ultimately for the steady stream of Yankee replacements sent in as yellow fever carried them off, one by one.”
This and other scare tactics—including children taunting soldiers in the streets—had their desired effect: the demoralized soldiers began requesting transfers and crafting excuses to go on leave. General Butler would have none of it.
Instead, he began his own investigation into the disease. He tracked down scientists and doctors in New Orleans and educated himself on yellow fever, its history in New Orleans, and the two warring theories about the disease’s origin: was it coming in from outside, up the river; or was it borne of the filthy “miasmas” of New Orleans?
THIS AND OTHER SCARE TACTICS—INCLUDING CHILDREN TAUNTING SOLDIERS IN THE STREETS—HAD THEIR DESIRED EFFECT: THE DEMORALIZED SOLDIERS BEGAN REQUESTING TRANSFERS AND CRAFTING EXCUSES TO GO ON LEAVE. GENERAL BUTLER WOULD HAVE NONE OF IT.
His course of action ignored the argument and combined both strict quarantine and extreme sanitation measures. Seventy miles below New Orleans, all vessels were stopped and detained for forty days under threat of firepower, while crews were observed for signs of yellow fever. On the other end, Butler sent two thousand men into the city streets to scrub them clean for an entire month, placing special focus on the French Market, which he found particularly disgusting.
Butler mandated that all household waste was to be taken out to the street on a few specified days per week—essentially, organized trash pick-up—and made it illegal for anyone to dispose of anything in public areas. (He once put a man in jail for three months for spitefully throwing a paper ball in the gutter in front of a group of soldiers.)
New Orleans, possibly cleaner than it ever had been, suffered only a handful of deaths for several years after that. “After the Civil War, even the most acrimonious rebel was willing to admit that General Benjamin F. Butler had been ‘the best scavenger we ever had among us,’” wrote Carrigan.
Years of Quarantine
As quickly as it left, the fever returned to claim three thousand lives in the summer of 1867. The Louisiana Board of Health—the first state health board in the nation—dispatched public health officers to afflicted homes, overseeing fumigation with sulphurous acid gas, which happens to be poisonous to mosquitoes, and placed red and yellow quarantine flags on homes housing cases of the fever.
That year and throughout the next decade, other cities in Louisiana were decimated by the fever; New Iberia and Shreveport were hit the hardest. In the fall of 1873, Shreveport reported that they were no longer having funerals for the dead.
The New Orleans Picayune notably reversed its policy of avoiding yellow fever coverage during the epidemic of 1878. “What is not announced here has been known abroad,” the editor’s statement read, “and the very precaution taken to avoid needless alarm…has had a result the reverse of what was intended.”
As Carrigan wrote, the journalistic revolution had finally come.
The hurdle of the lack of real public information had been cleared, and historically speaking, the worst of yellow fever in New Orleans had passed. Unfortunately, the general public’s new awareness of the situation, paired with strict quarantine rules in the streets of New Orleans, compelled many of them to fear, classism, and anger. On that front, the worst had not yet come.
When a single yellow fever death—among a handful of cases—was reported in New Orleans in 1897, the Louisiana Board of Health rolled out a policy of house quarantine, under armed guard and threat of prison time, and citizens became concerned about their personal freedoms. They began to sneak out the back doors of quarantined houses, and otherwise avoid the rules.
THEY BEGAN TO SNEAK OUT THE BACK DOORS OF QUARANTINED HOUSES, AND OTHERWISE AVOID THE RULES.
That year, the mayor of New Orleans ordered a temporary yellow fever hospital in the Beauregard School building, and hundreds of citizens gathered outside to protest.
“Some left, others arrived, and late into the night they milled about on Canal Street in front of the school, built bonfires in the street, and continued to talk angrily about the proposed hospital,” wrote Carrigan. “Some of the comments overheard... reflected an undercurrent of class-consciousness; for example, ‘Why don’t they make a hospital out of some of those schools up in the rich and stylish neighborhood?’” Later that night, a few protesters attempted to burn the school down.
The smaller cities and towns affected by earlier epidemics began to utilize their own methods to protect themselves. At least one train was turned away at the Acadia Parish line by armed citizens from Rayne. A bridge on the Southern Pacific Railroad east of Lake Charles was burned under mysterious circumstances, shortly after a group of Calcasieu citizens had assembled and decided that no trains should enter the parish. These actions, and others like it, caused endless trouble for mail and trade.
Another War & the Missing Piece
After the Spanish-American War in 1898, the military occupation of Cuba—where yellow fever had natively existed for many years—gave a team of military surgeons the opportunity to visit Cuba explicitly to study the disease. There, they found evidence for the lone culprit of transmission: the Aedes aegypti mosquito.
As these things go, it took one last epidemic for public opinion to sway toward scientific fact. The first cases of 1905 were announced in New Orleans on July 21; and by July 26, a coordinated public health effort was underway, bolstered with cooperation from clergymen, government, and newspapers. The Board of Health reached out to previously alienated audiences of women, African-Americans, and even children to spread awareness of preventative measures. People began oiling and screening their cisterns to eradicate the offending mosquito, sleeping under mosquito nets, and wearing lapel pins advocating cistern health.
AS THESE THINGS GO, IT TOOK ONE LAST EPIDEMIC FOR PUBLIC OPINION TO SWAY TOWARD SCIENTIFIC FACT.
State officials also called in Federal assistance, which flew in immediately. It was the last yellow fever epidemic in the United States.
Yellow fever has not been forgotten in New Orleans; one must only crane the neck to virtually any cemetery or church to find some marker of Yellow Jack’s term.
The neighborhood of Faubourg Franklin was re-christened St. Roch in 1867, when Rev. Peter Thevis petitioned the long-dead plague minister and patron saint of good health, Saint Roch, to protect his parishioners from Yellow Fever. Three-thousand New Orleanians died of the fever that year, but none of Rev. Thevis’s congregation fell ill, so he had a chapel built in Saint Roch’s honor. Visitors now leave their no-longer-necessary medical devices—everything from prosthetic limbs to dentures—inside the chapel in tribute to Saint Roch.
YELLOW FEVER HAS NOT BEEN FORGOTTEN IN NEW ORLEANS; ONE MUST ONLY CRANE THE NECK TO VIRTUALLY ANY CEMETERY OR CHURCH TO FIND SOME MARKER OF YELLOW JACK’S TERM.
One particularly holy man by the name of Father Francis Xavier Seelos, a Redemptorist priest from Bavaria, met his maker on the more unfortunate end of the city that same year while ministering to the sick. He was laid to rest under the floor stones of the ornate sanctuary in St. Mary’s Assumption Catholic Church. Miraculous events surround Fr. Seelos, so much so that Pope John Paul II beatified the priest in 2000, earning him the title of Blessed Father Francis Xavier Seelos. St. Mary’s now hosts a shrine with pieces of Seelos’ bones on display, praying for his future sainthood.
And on the edge of the French Quarter, nestled on the corner of Rampart and Basin Streets, sits Our Lady of Guadalupe, formerly called Mortuary Chapel. Built in 1826 as a burial chapel for yellow fever victims, thousands of bodies were interred there.
But these markers bear no real description of what it was like to be a citizen of New Orleans during the nineteenth century, all of whom lived with death around every corner; nor does it tell any tale of the other side of the coin: the heartbreak of survival.
Territorial governor William C.C. Claiborne came down with the fever in 1804, along with his wife and daughter. He survived, though his wife and daughter succumbed; and five years later, his second wife fell to the disease. His two wives were buried steps away from each other, both tombs bearing nearly identical epitaphs: “For the virtuous, there is a better world.”
In 1853, a woman named Lucy lost her entire family to yellow fever, as a local legend goes. Haunted History tour guide Drew Cothern tells her story:
“There’s a house in the French Quarter; it was owned by a woman named Lucy, her husband, and their two children. Well, in that terrible summer of 1853, one by one, all four of them were stricken with yellow fever. One by one, they all slowly succumbed. After seeing her husband and her children fall ill before her eyes, Lucy began to accept her fate. She knew that death was coming. But unlike the rest of her family, she got better. One morning she woke up, her headache was gone, her fever had broken.
“She was left in a terrible way—a woman, all alone, her husband and children in the ground. She began to drink heavily, wondering why she had been spared when two innocent lives, her children, were taken from her. And then the nightmares began. Lucy would wake up in the middle of the night to see her two children standing by her bedside, black blood streaked down the fronts of their nightgowns. She screamed and cried, and begged for them to take her in their arms and tell her everything would be all right. But whenever she would reach out to hug them, they would disappear into nothing.
Being driven half mad by drink and by the apparitions of her dead children, Lucy saw one way out—to follow them into the grave. So she hanged herself in her room.”
Those interested in the unabridged story of yellow fever in Louisiana should seek out Jo Ann Carrigan’s book, “The Saffron Scourge: A History of Yellow Fever in Louisiana, 1796-1905,” which was most recently published by University of Louisiana at Lafayette Press in 2015.
This article originally appeared in April 2018 issue of Country Roads. Subscribe to their print magazine today.
300 HISTORY APRIL 2018 NEW ORLEANS
March 23, 2018