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Yellow Fever and Mardi Gras

Updated on April 5, 2013

It's hard to imagine today how yellow fever molded the social events of the South; yet we still arrange our celebrations unwittingly around the old yellow fever season today.

Also called Yellow Jack as well as yellow fever, this mosquito-borne disease held the deep South in a grip of fear that lasted months, due to the warmer climate and ignorance of the actual cause. Those with the money and means to do so left the cities during the summer and early fall months to summer in Virginia, Saratoga Springs, or close to home. New Orleans emptied its wealthy to nearby resort towns in Mandeville, LA or Bay St. Louis, MS. In fact, all along the Mississippi Gulf Coast were lovely antebellum second homes belonging to New Orleanians, before Katrina. Mobilians took ferries across the Mobile bay to Point Clear or up in the hills to the west of the city, to communities such as Cottage Hill, Forest Hill and Spring Hill. Today, many of these areas still are fashionable places to live due to these ingrained patterns of living. Point Clear's Grand Hotel dates from the mid 1800's and is still much loved, and many old families own second homes along the boardwalk.

Those who stayed dealt with thieves and sometimes arsonists who took advantage of those too weak to resist. While the wealthy could afford to leave, others could not; it must have been quite like gambling when the odds could roll out death to one out of three people. It's hard today to imagine the stagnation that must have occurred when many of the businesses were closed and the owners were elsewhere. Important decisions were delayed for months at a time.

Camellia Ball debutantes wear pink, which is based on a local Camellia flower.
Camellia Ball debutantes wear pink, which is based on a local Camellia flower. | Source

Debutantes and Mardi Gras

Why do the Gulf Coast areas of Texas, Florida, Mississippi, Alabama and Louisiana celebrate Mardi Gras today? It's a wet, cold miserable time of the year. Many times I have been on both sides of the barricade and wondered at the silliness as it is cold more often than not. Why not a focus on lazy, hazy summer days at the beach? The answer lies with yellow fever and the deathly hold it cast over everyday life.

It is traditional in the South to bring forth your daughters to meet eligible bachelors. No father would have risked bringing his family from April to September to a large group gathering or city due to the fear at that time of exposure to the "miasmic vapors" believed to cause yellow fever. Mardi Gras has always been celebrated in the French colonial cities and towns of the Gulf Coast. New Year's Eve was also a major party night during the 1800s; it first began as a long evening of neighborly calls on friends, and later featured parading in Mobile, Alabama which spread to New Orleans and other cities. Mardi Gras mystic societies or Krewes were in the beginning, groups for men, many of whom were fathers or uncles. The parties during this small window of time became venues to present these debutantes to be potential brides. Indeed, Thanksgiving, Christmas, and Mardi Gras bring an exhausting round of parties even now.


The Yellow Terror

When the epidemic hit hard, which was usually around every four years, samaritans formed groups such as the Can't Get Away Club in Mobile to keep total chaos from enveloping the city. Brave volunteers many times found whole families had died. As it is a hemoraghic disease, it causes bleeding on the inside and out. Victims regurgitated black blood and bled from their eyes and ears. It was a frightening hell on earth. Everyone prayed fervently for the first frost which they knew would somehow end the contagion. Once the first frost had occurred, carriages rolled back in to town ready to socialize with the only holidays available to them: Christmas and especially Mardi Gras. Dr. William Crawford Gorgas of Mobile is credited with discovering the true reason for the disease while he was Chief Sanitation Officer on the construction of the Panama Canal. My great grandfather's company was responsible for the plumbing on the canal; I might not be here if it wasn't for Gorga's discovery.

Dr. Gorgas in Action

Resurgence of Fever

We are fortunate today to have two important things: air-conditioning and better education about diseases such as cholera, yellow fever and typhus. Today, with the knowledge of the true cause and prevention of yellow fever, we no longer have to worry about epidemics, right? You would be wrong. Mosquito-borne diseases such as West Nile Virus are on the rise in the United States particularly since the early 2000's. There have been several cases of even Yellow Fever brought into the United States by people who had been on vacation in South America. It's important to be vigilant with standing water, proper clothing, and even a yellow fever vaccination if you plan to travel to tropical areas. The last big epidemic was in 1905, but was curtailed by the discovery of the true cause of yellow fever. Things have changed dramatically in the last 100 years, but our traditions somehow have not.


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