History Behind the Living History

September 20th, 2010

From Washington Ward to Yamacraw . . . .

The Evolution of Savannah’s Epidemic of 1820.

For the past eight years the Davenport House has sought in its afterhours programming to reveal components of Savannah’s history from the 1820s that show historical trends, evoke empathy or beg remembrance so that the past is enlivened and understood a little more clearly. With closer examination and familiarity early 19th century events become vivid and sometimes even scarier.

That is the case with the museum’s premier living history program “Yellow Fever: Savannah’s Epidemic of 1820.” As they prepare for the upcoming production which will be held on Friday and Saturday evenings in October, creators research more deeply and reconfigure what the public will see and experience. “We would not be true to the events we recreate if we did not continually re-examine the story and besides, we want our repeat visitors to experience something new,” explains museum director, Jamie Credle.

The story is real and the story is sad. And, for the players, the villain was of unknown origin! We know the culprit but they never will – the mosquito (the Aedes aegypti), which prefers breeding in clear, standing water such as in uncovered barrels and buckets. It also it likes to be near humans in order to suck their blood! These bloodsuckers are the ole time and new time vampires that aren’t as cute or as romantic as Edward and Victoria (vampire characters in the wildly popular Twilight series that are making teen hearts skip beats this summer).

There were always fevers in the summer and through the fall with names such as bilious fever, intermittent fever and remittent fever. But, in 1820 with the remnants of the calamitous fire which took place in January, Savannah’s already rough summer environment was thrown off kilter and a pestilence lurked. In August ominous signs of what was to come were noted in the Savannah Republican, “In addition to the ordinary existing causes of disease [climate and topography], others have been superadded, unavoidably arising from the fire in January, which all your industry and attention could not obviate– Moreover, the state of the weather is well fitted to increase them, and to produce a malignity in the character of fever, which will baffle the best medical skill.”

Throughout the “sickly season” newspapers, as a matter of course, reported deaths and the causes of deaths (i.e. – Fever 12, Lockjaw 2, Colic 1, Cramps -1 – July 20, 1820) as delivered to them by the Board of Health. The Mayor Thomas U. P. Charlton in consultation with the Board of Health Medical Society informed the populace of any news. In August tragedy was at the door step with rumors and clamoring all around and all without official confirmation. The editor, Frederick Fell, of the Savannah Republican called his colleagues with the competing Savannah newspaper, Columbia Museum, “impudent erratic scribblers” for reporting that there was yellow fever in town without “the slightest foundation.” (August 15, 1820)

In response the mayor proclaimed:

Having received reports from the permanent Com. of the Corporation, and a Com. of the Med. Society, I feel myself authorised to announce that no pestilence prevails in the city. One Ward, or section of the city 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.
August 15, 1820. Savannah Republican.

The “unusually unhealthy” section of the city was Washington Ward, the easternmost ward bordering on the river, which was one of the “poorer” sections of town. It was also an area spared by the January fire and where “strangers” – new residents who were unaccustomed to the climate – found housing. Many of these “strangers” were laborers who came to the city to help rebuild. After examining the houses and the sick of Washington Ward, the committee was “of the opinion that the cause of the diseases in that part of the city, are owing to the poverty of many of the inhabitants, living too crowded with few conveniences, and considerable filth dirt in the yards increased by the late rains. Your committee could find no other causes, than these local ones, to account for the late sickness and morality.

Victims were often blamed in the mortality of the fever. It was those not used to the climate that were most susceptible.

Many fevers, particularly among foreigners and strangers to our climate, commence as Intermittent; from carelessness, ignorance of treatment by those whose houses they occur, and want of proper nourishment, they change to Remittent, and terminate fatally.

There is , at present, in our city, an unusual proportion of laborers, who are unaccustomed to the climate, and who are much exposed –when attacked by fever, they often remain so long without seeking medical assistance, as to render it ineffectual when obtained.
August 22, 1820, Savannah Republican.

Locals understood who were susceptible and when:

The most healthy and vigorous, are most liable to the disease of the climate, which is the remittent form of fever, making its appearance in July, increasing in August and September, and becoming more dangerous or malignant in October.

Aliens to our climate are most apt to have an attack from this unfriendly native, the first summer of their residence; though I have known many who escaped the first, and were attacked the second.
September 16, 1820. Savannah Republican.

A variety of suspected “local” causes were identified including the chinaberry tree, also known as the Pride of India, decaying fish and vegetable substances and the most common culprit was miasmata or miasma – bad air — arising from the low lying areas including rice fields. In a vain attempt to stem the progress of disease, trees were cut down throughout the city causing consternation to those who disagreed with the stance.

Nature is so discreet in most of her operations, that the wisest of men cannot with all their desire and perseverance penetrate into her secrets. The interior of her tabernacle is hidden to the eyes of men, and only those that study her laws, a glimpse of her temple is now and then permitted.

It is in vain to pretend to know the real cause of the prevailing malady, but it is believed that it is owning to the bad state of the atmosphere, and taking this for granted, let me ask, what may be the cause of this? I give it as my humble opinion, the want of violent actions in the atmosphere, which we have missed ever since the beginning of August, neither a severe gale nor thunderstorm having occurred since, and I flatter myself now with the pleasing hope, that this present gale has swept away the poison.

It is a well known fact, that after the severe gale of 1804, Savannah was remarkably healthy.

Our poor trees (Melia Azedarach) have undergone the same persecution as the witches of yore and that, with the same justice. O.
October 12, 1820. Savannah Republican.

The official word came on September 14 when the mayor proclaimed there was a pestilence in the city and for all those who could to leave.

I feel it my duty to announce to my fellow citizens, and to all whom it may concern, a mortality prevails in this city, never before experienced; and that the character and type of the fever, is of malignancy, which renders it prudent for any person, who can make it convenient, to remove beyond the limit of the citys atmosphere.

I feel myself also authorized to say, that the fever which is carrying off our people, is not contagious, and that no apprehension ought to be entertained of its being communicated by persons leaving the city. T.U.P. CHARLTON, Mayor
September 16, 1820. Columbia Museum.

In response to the distress and death, large funeral processions and the use of drum and fife were deemed inappropriate.

Recommend to the Volunteer Companies, when they accompany a fellow soldier to the grave, to dispense with the `pomp and circumstance,’ of parade. Let the shrill pipe and martial drum be reserved for gala days; and let the approach of the house of mourning with silent steps, as best suited to the occasion; especially in a season of sickness.

Few, indeed, who are on the bed of sickness, possess a firmness which produces an insensibility to a sound which is known to be the harbinger of death; and which, perhaps, is accompanying a beloved friend, or a dear companion, to his last and dreary abode: Besides, in disease, there is often a morbid `sensibility’, especially in females, which is easily excited by every sound. To quiet this, is an important part of a cure. Who is so ignorant as not to know the importance of tranquility in the cure of acute diseases; and that the abstraction of all the ordinary external stimuli, forms an essential part of the curative plan?

Every decent respect can be paid by the Volunteer Companies to deceased members, without (to the sick) the appalling sound of the drum and fife. Good sense has long ago put a stop to the tolling of bells, as a funeral rite; and what good reason can be assigned for marching to the graves, or to the house of the deceased with full toned martial music; at a time, perhaps, when others are groaning under fever, alive to every sound calculated to alarm and to disturb?
August 12, 1820. Savannah Republican.

If it could possibly comfort with the respect we owe to the dead, large funeral procession ought to be dispensed with. By attending them, and some times at improper houses at this season, we may have to mourn over the loss of some precious lives. Religious ceremonies can be performed at the house or residence of the deceased, and the subsequent interment can also be conducted with all the circumstances of honor, respect and decency, which afflicted hearts may desire. But should these suggestions be disregarded, and procession continued as usual, their order and solemnity shall not be interfered with by a concourse of blacks, attracted on these occasions by a merely idle curiosity. Their noise, conduct and manner, evincing any other feeling than that of sympathy. The Marshal is hereby directed when apprised of a procession about to take a place, to adopt such measures, with the aid of the other police officer as may be the best calculated to disperse all idle and disorderly blacks and people of colour, who may be found near, or attending .
September 15, 1820. Savannah Republican.

The city that once teemed with 8,000 residents by October was diminished to a quarter of its size. Charlton reported, “It is conjectured, not more than 2000, or 2300 souls remain, the desertion, or emigration occasioned by the prevailing malady, and other causes may be equal to 6000.” Yet there was still death. “It is generally supposed, that the white population of our city at this time, cannot exceed one thousand; and it is therefore calculated that one out of every hundred dies daily.

A great mortality also prevails among the blacks but as they are not noticed in the official eports, we have not data on which to found an estimate of their number.” [October 17, 1820. Columbia Museum.]

It was known that the first killing frost would ease the dying but in mid-October the mortality prevailed:

That season of the year has now arrived, to which we have long and anxiously looked forward, with a hope that it would bring some abatement of the dreadful disease which has ravaged the city. But the 14th of October has come, and on every side of us we still behold the dreadful march of the pestilence – we still hear the groans of the dying, the despairing shrieks of the living; and our eyes are yet pained with the sight of the hearse – the solemn yet slow and lonely tread of woe.

We can yet learn of no abatement of this dreadful pestilence. The average number of deaths continues nearly as great as when the population of the city amounted to nearly ten times its present number. And as the season approaches when our citizens are usually flocking to their homes, we are fearful that many victims will be thrown within its reach.
October 14, 1820. Columbia Museum.

Then relief came:

We believe the health of our city, to be now pretty generally established. We hear of no new cases of sickness among those who have returned; and the little apprehension that was entertained, at the beginning of the week, has entirely subsided. The weather continues very favorable, and ice of considerable consistency was observed in several part of the city yesterday morning.

Vessels from European and northern ports, are every day arriving, freighted with merchandize and crowded with passengers. Our wharves are again lively with the hum of business –and our streets present the gladdening spectacle of a cheerful and renovated population.
November 7, 1820. Columbia Museum.

And though there was relief, recovery took years. 1820 ushered in a time of transition from a brief period of optimism following the war with England and until the rumblings of the coming of the railroad in the 1830s. Parallels and comparisons can be draw between this time and today – economic downturns, Savannah in the 1820s and New Orleans in the 2000s – with lick after lick being administered by the cruel hand of fate, a population in the midst of disaster trying to figure a way out – and the resilience of the “cheerful and renovate population.” Life goes on.

There is much to be gleaned from newspapers and reports, but the “feel” of the time is missing. The Davenport House’s living history offers a glimmer of the epidemic experience – enough to be fascinated at the dreaded nature of the disease and what our forebears endured.

Plan to attend Yellow Fever! Savannah Epidemic of 1820 on a Friday or Saturday nights in October. Call 912/236-8098 for information or reserve a place.