New Perspective Add to the Fascination: Yellow Fever at the Davenport House in October

August 8th, 2013

101The Davenport House Museum will refresh Savannah’s perception of the deadly 1820 yellow fever epidemic and hopes to entice those interested in the port city’s frightening and fascinating past to attend a performance of the 2013 production of Dreadful Pestilence: Savannah Epidemic of 1820. The program is offered every Friday and Saturday evening in October at 7:30 and 8:45 p.m. Attendees will become involved with a town hall meeting debating the very existence of the fever; see bereaved residents, hear about healing and the unrecorded mortality in the African American community and – new this year – visit a doctor treating an afflicted patient. All of this takes place in and around the 1820s historic house which was nearing completion at the time of the epidemic. “People ask us what could there be new to say about yellow fever year after year,” says Director Jamie Credle of the living history program the museum presents every October. She responds, “Because there is such a wealth of sources and information, there are still unexplored perspectives to the catastrophe. The museum changes the show every year to spotlight something new.”

Last year, the DH stumbled upon Savannah doctor William Coffee Daniell’s 1826 book on the treatment of the disease which he believed was caused by “qualities imparted by marsh miasma to an atmosphere, which thus impressed, impairs the capillary action of the skin and affects the equilibrium of the circulation.” Though a sincere and learned man, Daniell did not know that the aedus egypti mosquito was the culprit and disease carrier! Though fevers were common in the summer and fall before the first killing frost, yellow fever was known but sporadic. And, when one spoke of yellow fever there was a real sense of fatality, similar to what our thoughts used to be when we thought of cancer. Just as doctors in our time struggle and sometimes misidentify causes of diseases, the doctors during Savannah’s epidemic had different theories and treatments. DH performers will discuss and demonstrate historic treatments such as Dr. Daniell’s.

At the time there was a ferocious debate between the editors of the two Savannah newspapers over whether there was an epidemic happening during the summer of 1820. Considered a disease of the tropics, it was not a given that the disease could happen here with the veracity it did at the time. Searching for answers Savannahians blamed poor sanitation as well as maritime commerce with sailors and immigrants coming in and bringing with them disease! “All of this has the ring of familiarity with Savannah today and with how people handle a crisis – there is questioning, searching for answers, blaming, exasperation and loss. We will convey this in our show this October,” says Jeff Freeman, DH Assistant Director and living history performer.

“The topic may seem creepy and the past is sometimes creepy. Isn’t that why people enjoy ghost tours, to be creeped out?” offers Credle. Davenport House performers also realize that Dreadful Pestilence is a show which demands entertainment quality as well as good history. “The interior of the museum by candlelight is a fantastic stage set and a wonderful opportunity. We want our guests to learn something and have a good time doing it,” states program creator Raleigh Marcell. Characters portrayed will include the mayor of Savannah, a free man of color, newspaper editors, mothers of lost children, concerned residents and frightened young people.

Also new this year will be an eight minute DVD which will provide the basics of the disease that the program does not cover. This will be available for viewing in the DH garden before and after each presentation weather permitting. It will also be available on YouTube.

Please call 912/236-8097 or email info@davenporthousemuseum.org for questions, additional information or to make a reservation!

044Dreadful Pestilence: SAVANNAH’S YELLOW FEVER EPIDEMIC OF 1820
Friday and Saturday nights in October 2013
DATES: October 4, 5, 11, 12, 18, 19, 25, 26
TWO PERFORMANCES: 7:30 p.m. and 8:45 p.m.
ADMISSION: $15 in advance for adults, $10 in advance children (ages 8-17) and $17 for adults and $15 for children at the time of the performance