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Yellow Fever in New Orleans

Updated on November 5, 2017
Map of the 1905 Yellow Fever outbreak in New Orleans
Map of the 1905 Yellow Fever outbreak in New Orleans

The Terror of Yellow Fever

For 150 years Yellow Fever terrified New Orleans, killing tens of thousands. Because no one knew what caused it, it made people especially nervous. Doctors determined that it was a "miasma," or simply in the air around everyone, and how can you protect yourself from air?

There seemed to be no reasonable explanation- you didn't have to come in contact with someone infected to get sick yourself, but it wasn't unknown for entire families to be struck down by the plague. Was it contagious or not? Were the dead bodies still infectious? No one could say for sure, but corpses piled up outside of graveyards as sextons were reluctant to put themselves at risk and the workers who remained were unable to keep up. Coffins piled up outside cemetery gates and the ungodly stench of the city was described in newspapers around the world.

All kinds of things were tried, including shooting cannons off throughout the city and burning tar in an attempt to kill any airborne contaminates.

Although these methods sound ridiculous today, if these were the symptoms you saw your friends and family struggling with, I'm sure we'd be willing to try anything at all:

Phase 1 (lasting three to four days):

  • Very high fever
  • Headache
  • Muscle aches, particularly in your back, legs and knees
  • Nausea, vomiting or both
  • Loss of appetite
  • Seizures
  • Dizziness
  • Red eyes, face or tongue

15% of the infected worsen into Phase 2:

  • Yellowing of your skin and the whites of your eyes
  • Abdominal pain and vomiting blood
  • Painful Inability to urinate, leaving the toxins to build up in your body
  • Bleeding from your nose, mouth, eyes and vagina.
  • Heart dysfunction (arrhythmia)
  • Liver and kidney failure
  • Brain dysfunction, including delirium, seizures and coma

20% of those in Phase 2 died, and those who survived took six months to a year to fully recover but had immunity for the rest of their lives.

Ferguson Tomb in Lafayette No. 1, in New Orleans' Garden District
Ferguson Tomb in Lafayette No. 1, in New Orleans' Garden District

The Plague of 1878

The warning signs came early in 1878, when Cuban boats had Yellow Fever cases among their sailors as early as May- something not usually seen until late July or early August.

When news of the approaching plague reached the city, those who could afford it left. More than 1/5 of the city's population abandoned New Orleans for the summer and were glad they did- 23,707 cases of the plague were reported in those 3 months, leaving at least 4.600 dead in its wake.

1878 had all the signs of being a major disaster- there hadn't been a real outbreak in eight years, and that added up to a lot of people who hadn't had a chance to build up immunity. Young children and immigrants were particularly susceptible, and (although they didn't realize it at the time) when the plague-carrying mosquitoes got into the house and bit multiple family members, everyone was in danger.

Yellow Jack visits the Ferguson family

The Ferguson children died in just that way, with 1 day old Sercy and 22 month old Mary Love dying on August 30th, followed by their big brother Edwin, nearly 5 years old, the next day.

The sad daily calculations

The newspaper posted daily tallies of the dead, infected, and cured. Many people died at home, but those deaths in the hospital included information about where the afflicted was born, and a quick scan shows the vast majority were immigrants.

The column for August 31 1878 (reflecting the events of the day previous) is posted below with the Ferguson children highlighted.

It's interesting to note that the baby Sercy was listed as dying from premature birth after only 6 hours, but it's not hard to place the blame squarely on Yellow Jack's shoulders- a pregnant mother, possibly sick herself, with 2 dying children to care for?

Hard to imagine. Neither she nor her husband died in 1878.

The culprit is discovered!

When Dr. Walter Reed proved that Yellow Fever was mosquito-born, it was still many years before a vaccine was developed. In the meantime, people set about killing as many as they could, using any method available,
When Dr. Walter Reed proved that Yellow Fever was mosquito-born, it was still many years before a vaccine was developed. In the meantime, people set about killing as many as they could, using any method available,

"Miasma" translates to "bad air," and that turns out to be not too far off the truth- mosquitoes were found to be the culprit in 1901 and 1905 saw the end of Yellow Fever in the United States.

Too late for the Ferguson family, and so many others.


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