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YELLOW FEVER IN JEFFERSON COUNTY, MISSISSIPPI

by Sue B. Moore

Rodney and surrounding Jefferson County endured the ravages of yellow fever numerous times and in varying degrees of severity in the nineteenth century.  The Natchez area was struck in 1817 and 1819. Its visitation is recorded in Jefferson County as early as 1823, when it commenced on August 5. The Richmond Inquirer of Sept. 26, 1823 recorded these deaths: “Mr. Seth Cocks, formerly of Jefferson County; he was an industrious man and died regretted.  In Greenville, day before yesterday, of the yellow fever, Mr. Alfred Cocks, son of the late Seth Cocks, aged almost 19 years.” There is little information which remains on the effects of that particular year on the county, although 90 died in nearby Natchez.

The first major epidemic occurred in Rodney in 1843 and was so dire that its destruction made national newspapers. The deaths began in early September.  The Cleveland Herald on Oct. 25, 1843, reported, “Up to the 12th Inst., the yellow fever was on the increase at Vicksburg and was very malignant with foreigners.  It was also prevailing at Rodney.” The Philadelphia Inquirer and National Gazette, Oct. 26, 1843, noted, “The Fever at Rodney – The last New Orleans papers say that at Rodney, Miss., the yellow fever continued to rage in its most fatal form.  All the physicians, without exception, have been taken down with the disease.  The death of Dr. J. H. Savage is reported, and Dr. Hulser, Dr. Pickett, Dr. Williams, Dr. Todd, and Dr. Andrews were all down sick.” According to the New England Historical and Genealogical Register, Dr. John Towsell Hathorne Savage was the son of Ezekiel Savage and Ann Hathorne.  He was born Mar. 10, 1801, and died Oct. 6, 1843. He was married to Elizabeth Griffin of Mississippi, and they had no children. He attended the Salem, Massachusetts, schools. About 1821 he went to Mississippi, and in 1831, was living at Natchez. He became physician and was later appointed a professor of chemistry at Oakland College. Evidently Dr. Williams and Dr. Andrews listed as being ill with the fever survived because they soon published “An Account of the Yellow Fever at Rodney in 1843” in which they theorized that the disease did not originate from local causes, but rather was introduced from New Orleans.

 

The Mississippi Free Trader and Natchez Gazette of October 7, 1843, ran the following article: “Rodney, Miss – This village, about 40 miles above Natchez, has been visited by the yellow fever.  A number of deaths, and a still greater number of well marked cases have occurred – in consequence of which, we are informed by a Natchez physician and another Natchez gentleman who visited Rodney two days ago, the village is almost depopulated.  Even the only Apothecary’s shop in the place is closed, as are all the stores. Of course, there will be no need of quarantining against a village having no business and no inhabitants.” Evidently there was a partial quarantine of Rodney, or at least on boats stopping there. Their issue of Oct. 25, 1843, told of the Natchez quarantine being lifted. “We learn that the quarantine will be remitted today or tomorrow, having been in full force for two months upon boats coming from New Orleans, and a part of that time against boats coming down the river and connecting with Vicksburg and Rodney – in both of which places the fever has prevailed. We shall no more hear the old Mississippi, that watchdog of the bluff, howling the stern command to every passing steamer to do obeisance to our quarantine laws.”

 

Marie T. Logan in Mississippi-Louisiana Border Country, summarized the story told by Horace Smith Fulkerson in his Random Recollections of Early Days in Mississippi. Fulkerson survived the visit of the “demon king” in the 1843 epidemic in the town of Rodney.

 

Logan says, “When the fever got well established, early in September, Fulkerson went by packet to Rodney, to see how his friend John McGinty was faring, as Fulkerson had had no response to his letter previously written him.  He found McGinty in bed, a victim of the fever just a few hours before Fulkerson’s arrival.  He had not seen a physician, so Fulkerson obtained one for him. 

 

“McGinty had organized a band of faithful nurses and was, himself, constantly on duty.  When the people learned that McGinty was a victim of the dread disease, it seemed to paralyze the whole town and panic resulted. Many of the well took flight; a few shamelessly abandoned their sick friends.  Still, the country planters welcomed them into their homes; and though those already infected fell ill, the disease did not spread on plantations during the 1843 epidemic as it did in later years.

 

“Fulkerson, himself, never conceived the idea of leaving his sick friend.  However, conditions were sufficient to panic anyone.  There was a shortage of doctors, of nurses, and of help of any kind; and sounds connected with the sick, dying or dead, could be heard at all times.

 

“Fulkerson nursed his friend for six days through high fever, delirium, and chills.  On the ninth day, Fulkerson, himself, fell ill and was nursed by Dr. Pickett of Rodney, James W. Coleman, and McGinty, who had recovered.

 

“Fulkerson remembered the frenzy, excruciating pain in his head and back, and the agonizing cupping treatment in the region of his spine which was part of the treatment for many years.

 

“When he could be moved, Colonel Thomas Dobyns sent his carriage for Fulkerson, and he recuperated at Dobyns’ beautiful home on the banks of Cole’s Creek; but it was six months before his normal strength returned.

 

“The fever at Rodney ran its accustomed course until frost, or until the victims were exhausted.”

 

An article in the Mississippi Free Trader and Natchez Gazette of November 22, 1843, records some of the deaths.  “The Late Mortality in Rodney – The hand of the ‘yellow tyrant of the tropics’ was sore and heavy upon our neighboring city of Rodney, especially when it is considered that most of the inhabitants fled, and that, during this mortality, the population of the village, white and black, did not exceed one hundred souls.  The following list of the names of the victims was politely furnished us by Mr. A. G. Carpenter, who volunteered, as Druggist, to accompany Dr. Benbrook, who went up to Rodney in the darkest of the night of their peril, to risk life in the fearful combat against a disease which has prostrated nearly every physician in the place.  Mr. Carpenter staid much longer than Dr. Benbrook, and did not leave until every vestige of the epidemic had vanished.  These gentlemen deserve the highest commendation for their self-sacrificing zeal in favor of suffering humanity.  The only reward they have yet obtained (as far as we know) is the approbation of their own consciences and the applause of their fellow-citizens, who trembled for their safety while they were absent on their perilous errand of mercy.

 

“Mr. Carpenter derived the following list of the dead from Mr. Thornsbury, the mechanic, who assisted in making the coffins: it is probably as correct as the disturbed and frightful state of affairs in the depopulated village could permit anyone to furnish:

 

 

LIST OF THE DEAD

 

Dr. James Andrews’ daughter                 Mr. Wood, of the firm of Murray, Wood & Co.

Mrs. Montgomery                                  James Ricks

Messers. Busk, Jeter, Ira                        Harrison Logan

Mrs. Skinner                                         Robert Logan

William Ballentine                                 Mrs. Logan

Mrs. Ballentine                                     Mrs. Green T. Martin

John Groves                                         John Evans

Mrs. Earls                                            Dr. John H. Savage

Mrs. Love                                            James M. Berry

Anthony Cokelin                                   John Whitworth

Gertrude Martin                                    Charles Stewart

Mrs. Divine                                          Mr. Josiah Lawton

Four Negroes

 

 

Yellow fever revisited Rodney in 1847, but it was less virulent than in 1843. This time, it began around the first of October and was over by November 26th, and consequently was of much shorter duration. The American Medical Association in its 1848 Transactions stated, “The village of Rodney was scourged by a severe epidemic of yellow fever, for the first time, in 1843, and by a milder one in 1847. Grand Gulf (in Claiborne County, but nearby Rodney on the Mississippi) has, so far, been entirely exempt, excepting such cases as were brought there on steamboats, and these have occurred every year when the disease prevailed in New Orleans; but no instance is known of its having been communicated to the inhabitants of the place. There has never been any quarantine either at Rodney or Grand Gulf. As before stated, yellow fever has prevailed at the former place, but never at the latter.”  The Semi-Weekly Natchez Courier of Nov. 12, 1847, carried this worrisome news after the first frost and late in the yellow fever season: “In those communities which were visited this summer by yellow fever as an epidemic, especially, will they be rejoiced to taste the approach of his Honor, JOHN FROST, as there certainly continued a fear on the minds of most of the citizens who had returned to them that the new food for the epidemic might renew its appetite. In Rodney, Miss., the yellow fever broke out afresh, last week.  Four or five cases were pronounced upon by physicians there who decided them to be yellow fever. On the best authority, however, we are happy to state that all those cases are doing well, and that no new cases have broken out since Friday last – a week ago this day.”

 

The next serious epidemic took place in 1853.  Hundreds died in the South. According to A History of Yellow Fever by John M. Keating of the Howard Association, the total number of cases was around 30,000, but the death rate was only about 1 in 3.58. The 1853 epidemic began in Rodney on August 9.  No ending date was given by Keating.

 

Many believed that the port of New Orleans was the source of the killer disease, while others blamed foreigners or their neighbors for spreading the fever. Doctors theorized that it could be spread not only by infected people but also by well people through their clothing. Ordinary citizens had their own ideas. As late as 1874, Mark Twain’s magazine, The Galaxy, published the following letter: “According to a correspondent of the ‘Scientific American,’ who writes from Fayette, Mississippi, thunder and lightning in that latitude accompany nearly every rain. But prior to outbreaks of yellow fever he has observed a remarkable absence of such phenomena, rain filling in abundance without any indication of electric disturbance; a state of things which continues during the prevalence of the epidemic, and which he thinks may have something to do with its origin and continuance.”

In the Transactions of the American Medical Association, Vol. 7, 1854, one doctor wrote, “I may remark that Grand Gulf is a small town, immediately on the Mississippi river, between Natchez and Vicksburg. It was severely scourged by the epidemic of 1853, the first time yellow fever ever prevailed there. The town of Rodney, about thirty miles below, was visited by epidemic yellow fever in 1843 and 1847; but, strange to say, it escaped in 1853, notwithstanding five or six cases of the disease were introduced. In the country, about six miles back of Rodney, the epidemic broke out at the house of Mr. Israel Coleman, from which it appeared to spread to the neighboring plantations with terrific violence. I find in the New Orleans Medical News and Hospital Gazette for June and July, 1854, a very interesting account of the epidemic in that neighborhood, by Dr. A. P. Jones (Jefferson County). The author seems to be decidedly of the opinion that the disease was brought either from Port Gibson or Natchez to Mr. Coleman's place, and from there spread through the neighborhood by infectious communication. This is the leading idea intended to be illustrated by Dr. Jones' narrative of the course of events; but, in his efforts to establish its truth, he overdoes the thing completely, and proves too much. He would make it appear that yellow fever is the most highly infectious and communicable disease in the whole catalogue of nosology. Take, for instance, the following:— ‘A Jew peddler, recently from Port Gibson, was seized with fever while on his rounds, and evidently infected three families. He was literally driven from one to the other till he got to Heath's, where, being too ill to get back to town, he was put in a back shed-room of the dwelling, and died of black vomit on the 20th of September. So much were the people of the house alarmed, that the corpse was hurried into a coffin without dressing; his pocket-book of papers, purse of money, and everything on his person, were buried with him. The weather- boarding and gable-end of the room were knocked off to let in air and rain; the bedding and furniture were burned, and only a few pieces of the latter were allowed to lie out one or two hundred feet from the dwelling for two weeks; meantime, no one sickened. At the end of two weeks, the bedclothes were brought in, boiled, wrung out, and dried about the house, Mrs. Heath seeing to it. Within eight days from that time, and about twenty from the burial of the poor peddler, Mrs. Heath, her husband and son, the woman who washed the clothes, and several other servants, sickened; the first two died, and the others recovered." The peddler communicated the disease on another plantation to a black boy, who was seized sixteen days after the former had left. Sixteen days after the time of his death, his mistress was attacked and died similarly.’”

The Hinds County Gazette reported on October 12, 1853, the following: “Fever in Jefferson Co., Miss. – The Fayette Watchtower of the 21st ult., reports about forty cases of yellow fever, and six deaths, as having occurred in the neighborhood of Cane Ridge, 10 or 15 miles from Fayette.  It says there is no yellow fever in that town (Fayette), and has not been for three weeks.

In 1855, Susan Sillars Darden, of Jefferson County, Mississippi, recorded almost matter-of-factly that year’s yellow fever scourge as it took its toll among her friends and neighbors. (The rest of the diary can be viewed elsewhere on this site.)

“Sept 11: Buckner wrote they are all well. Had out 3225 bales packed.   The yellow fever is in Rodney; everybody has left that can do so.

 

“Sept 23: We went to church in Fayette. Mr. McDonald preached a sermon on the Yellow Fever being sent as a judgment to humble us.

“Sept. 24: Got a dispatch from Natchez; there was 15 deaths in the city the two last days.

“Sept. 30: Mr. Darden & the girls went to church in Fayette, Mr. Booth preached. There is 24 cases fever in Rodney.

“Oct. 1: Mr. Darden went to Fayette. They had a dispatch that Mr. Fly, the Methodist preacher in Natchez died this morning with yellow fever. Good deal sickness in Fayette, Dr Fox had the fever today; his little boy had fever last night.

“Oct. 3:  The Rev. Mr. Williams that lived on Pine Ridge, but now pastor of the Presbyterian Church in Vicksburg died last Wednesday with Yellow Fever. I was so sorry to hear of his death; he was such a good Christian, an excellent preacher.

“Oct. 9: John Fleming eat dinner here; says they have all got well in Fayette. He met John Collier, told him that Dr Baldwin’s wife was buried yesterday; died with yellow fever. 

“Oct 10: Mr. Darden went to Fayette, got the Natchez paper. There is 30 deaths reported last week with yellow fever.

“Oct. 13:  Olivia got a letter from Virginia Torrey; they are well at Jeff Briscoe’s, She wants the girls to go home with her to Bolivar. There have been 6 deaths with yellow fever in Rodney this week.

“Oct. 14: ... Coz. Margaret Darden. She had two letters from Put. There was plenty yellow fever on the boat he went on to Oxford.

“Oct 15:  Mr. Darden sent Major to help clean off the yard at the new church in Fayette. George Torrey, Prosper Montgomery & Blount Stuart were the only persons sent hands to clean it off. There was a boy went by at nine o'clock after Daniel Smith to see his sister, Aunt Patsy Truly die. (Mrs. James Bennett Truly-nee Martha Smith)  Major says she was not dead when he left Fayette this evening. Mrs. Mundy had black vomit yesterday; thought she would die, sent for Dr. Brandon. The Baptist preacher (Vaughan) died with (yellow fever); took it from going to Mrs. Mundy’s. They buried by torch light.

“Oct 16:  Mrs. Truly is not dead but very low.

“Oct 17:  Mr. Darden went to Fayette; Presbytery met there in the new church. Rev. Mr. Price of Rodney preached the opening sermon. There was but few ladies, good many gentlemen. The Presbytery adjourned till the 2nd Wednesday in Nov. on account of yellow fever. The preachers could not attend.  Mr. Darden went in to see Mrs. Truly; she is gradually sinking. She is very much reduced.  She was coughing, did not notice anything, She is at Bradford Truly’s in Fayette. Dr. Sanderson of Natches died with yellow fever.

“Oct. 18: Mrs. Truly died last night at 11 oc. They sent us a ticket. Mr. Darden, Martha & Olivia went. She was buried at the grave yard in Fayette; there was a very large procession. Rev. Mr. Baxter made some remarks. She said a few weeks ago that she was perfectly resigned to die. She does not leave any young children.

“Oct. 19:  The yellow fever is on Mr. Batchelor’s place near Rodney.

“Nov 13: Mr. Darden & Olivia went to Fayette; they heard the fever has been worse in Rodney. There is a case black vomit in St Joseph, La. They have given out going. The fever has become worse in town. There has been 8 deaths in Port Gibson.

“Nov. 21: The girls & myself spent the day with Mrs. George Baldwin. Belle Sillers was there, Coz. Sarah & Mr. Stowers called in the evening. Coz. Sarah is to let the girls know when she goes to Bolivar.  Mr. Darden went to see Mr. Montgomery; he has been sick a week, is worse this morning. Dr. Fox is visiting him.  Anne & Blount Stuart came at 3 o’clock this evening. There has been 2 deaths of yellow fever in Rodney this week.”

 

Few years passed without some deaths from yellow fever, but not all years were considered epidemic years.  A letter written by Mary Varnado Herlong, wife of David Herlong, of Claiborne County to her daughter, dated October, 5, 1858, begins, “Dear Daughter, I take this opportunity to drop a few lines to inform you that our families are well at present. But Sarah Ann McGrew’s baby is very sick. It has not been clear of the fever in 21 days & there in not much likely now of it ever recovering. There has several of the Negroes been sick.  Millers family have all been sick but are better at present.  It has been very sickly here among our neighbors.  Cuff Wells buries one of his children today and Pack Wells, his only daughter.  The yellow fever is at Rodney, but it is not in P. G. (Port Gibson).”

The 1878 yellow fever epidemic was the most devastating in the history of the South.  However, not much is recorded either in books or newspapers about its effects in Jefferson County.  Nearby cities and towns, such as Port Gibson and Vicksburg suffered greatly, and there were many deaths. One who did die during this time of yellow fever was George Boyer Vashon.  He was a teacher, a poet, the first African-American graduate of Oberlin College, and the first African-American lawyer in New York, and later in the District of Columbia. He served as a professor of language Avery College in Pittsburg.  When Dr. Hyram R. Revels resigned, Vashon acted as temporary president of Alcorn College. He died in Rodney On Oct. 5, 1878.

In 1898, the plague returned once more to Mississippi. This time, however, it produced only 84 deaths in the entire state.  In 1905, it struck the state, but feebly, again.  This time the fatality rate was about 8% and resulted in around 54 deaths. Better understanding of the origins and treatment of the disease banished the “Demon King” to the wings of the new century.

DIED IN THE SEASON OF THE YELLOW FEVER

 

The yellow fever season in the South was generally from August through November or until the first hard frosts which killed the mosquitoes that carried the dread disease.  Using cemetery records, I have attempted to compile a list of those who died during that period of time in epidemic years in Jefferson County.  Whether each individual listed below died of yellow fever is not known anymore, but the probability is great, especially if more than one in a family died during a given period.

 

taken from Ann B. Brown’s Jefferson County, Mississippi, Cemeteries, etc., Vols. 1 & 2, J&W Enterprises, Shreveport, LA, 1996.

 

Name

Dates

Cemetery

Comment

Engbarth, John

1834 – 29 Sep 1878

Rodney

 

Marthin, Henerick

21 Nov 1855

Rodney

34 years

Marthin, Paulina

12 Nov 1853

Rodney

17 years

Worthington ---

20 Sep1815 – 29 Sep 1847

Rodney

b. in Philadelphia

Vickers, Nathan N.,MD

10 Feb 1811– 26 Nov 1847

Rodney

b. Burke Co. GA

New, Sarah Nutt

27 Apr 1819– 29 Aug 1853

Laurel Hill

Wife of  Charles

New, Sophia E.

25 Jul 1839 – 24 Oct 1853

Laurel Hill

d.. C. B.& S. N.

Griffing, Edwin F.

21 Sept 1853 – 14 years

Griffing

s. W.R.& M. A.

Griffing, William B.

27 Sept 1853

Griffing

38 years

Tullis, infant

1843

Tullis

Son of Martha

Watkins, Oliver Perry

2 Oct 1827 – 27 Nov 1853

ChinaGrove

 

Wallace, Edward

15 May 1811-12 Sep1853

Brasfield*

 

Caldwell, Samuel

23 Jun 1852 – 1 Sep 1853

Brasfield*

 

Brown, Whitfield

3 Sep 1803 – 24 Sep 1853

Brasfield*

b. in S. C.

Brown, George W.

29 Jul 1833 – 24 Sep 1853

Brasfield*

 

Green, S. C.

8 May 1840– 20 Nov 1878

Cane Ridge

In his 38th year

Miller, Sarah Steen

29 Apr 1805 – 27 Oct 1843

Jefferies

Wife of J. A.

Gilchrist, Malcomb G.

16 Oct. 1878

Stephens

d. of yellow fever

Green, Frank W.

14 Oct 1851 – 30 Oct 1853

Green

 

Steele, John

Sep 1770 – Oct 1843

Christ Episc

b. Maryland

Wood, Robert

27 Dec 1833- 20 Aug 1855

Wood

s.  James & Laura

Woodward, Sarah R.

1 Oct. 1847  42 years

Harrison

b. in S. C.

Montgomery, Franklin

23 Aug. 1823

Greenwood

 

Hoggett, James W.

5 Aug. 1850 – 3 Sep 1855

Greenwood

s. of  S. J. & M.J.

Chamberlain, Thos. J.

1809-1855

Chamberlain

 

Hughes, Margaret

18 Aug. 1853

Harmony

 

McKey, Edwin M.

21 Sep 1817 – 23 Oct 1853

Harmony

 

Burch, Washington, Jr.

21 Sep 1843

Burch

35 years

Dangerfield, Margaret

21 Jun 1846 – 1 Sep 1853

Burch

d. H. W. & M. A.

Dangerfield, Mary F.

25 Dec 1849 – 9 Sep 1853

Burch

d. H. W. & M. A

Dangerfield, H. W.

10 Jun 1806– 24 Aug 1853

Burch

 

Folkes, James, Sr.

1776 – 15 Sep 1823

Folkes I

b. N. C.

Folkes, Susan

5 Oct. 1843

Folkes II

3 years

Doherty, Maria Z.

9 Sep 1824 – 3 Oct. 1853

Stampley

Wife of  P. B.

McCoy, Susan Cole K.

18 Apr 1792– 12 Sep 1843

Salem

Wife of Jas. H.

Armstrong, Mary Cath.

12 Jul 1845 – 28 Aug 1853

Armstrong

d. Geo. C. & A.

Griffing, Asa M.

26 Sep 1853

Griffing

27 years

Carpenter, Ann E.

3 Nov 1853

Fayette

50 years

Fleming, Elizabeth

19 Aug 1804– 21 Oct 1853

Fayette

Wife of H. M.

McCoullum, Ella

12 Jan 1846 – 4 Oct 1847

Fayette

 

Farley, Cheston P.

2 Apr 1840 – 15 Sep 1843

Fayette

 

Eisenhart, Barbara

25 Jul 1833 – 22 Oct 1853

Fayette

b. in Prussia

Schneider, Magdalena

20 Mar 1809 – 4 Oct 1853

Fayette

b. in Prussia

Truly, Martha

27 Oct 1855

Fayette

59 years

Archer, Pamela

16 Nov 1843

Calviton

1 year

Archer, Margaret F.

13 Dec 1846– 18 Oct 1847

Calviton

 

Darden, Walter

13 Sep 1842 – 16 Oct 1843

Sillers

 

Bedford, Mary E.

25 Oct 1814 -27 Nov 1843

Williams

Wife of John B.

Buie, Nancy E.

31 Jan 1852 – 28 Sep 1855

UnionChurch

 

Chamberlain, Mary A.

16 Nov 1844- 30 Sep 1853

U. Methodist

d. of C.T. & P.H.

Marble, Earl

18 Oct. 1823

Marble

Aged 23 years

 

*Brasfield is also called the Yellow Fever Cemetery. Many of those who died in Cane Ridge in the 1853 epidemic are buried here. The burials took place without a church service.  Records at Millsaps College indicate that services were held for the dead that winter and “recognized the uncertainty of life.”

 

compiled and submitted by Sue B. Moore

sbmoore@swbell.net

 

 

 

 

 

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