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Lafayette Cemetery No. 1 & Yellow Fever

Updated on March 25, 2013
The gates of Lafayette Cemetery
The gates of Lafayette Cemetery

The Terror of Yellow Fever

Yellow Fever was a constant fear in New Orleans for 150 years. The cause was unknown, and it made people very nervous- "miasmas" were sited as the cause. Basically, it meant they had no idea how it was transmitted, it seemed to just be in the air around everyone.

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? How could you possibly protect yourself?

They tried all kinds of things, including shooting cannons off throughout the city and burning tar to purify the air- a notion that seems counterintuitive to say the least!

On the other hand, 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 of blood
  • Inability to urinate (to the point of being painful)
  • 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

In 1878 the warning signs came early, when Cuban boats had Yellow Fever cases among their sailors as early as May. No one knew what caused people to get sick, but they did know it struck primarily in the hottest months- most deaths came in August and September.

When news of the approaching plague reached New Orleans, those who could afford to left the city. 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.

Everyone knew that the next time Yellow Fever came to New Orleans, it was going to take a terrible toll, and it looked like this was going to be the summer they'd dreaded

1878 had all the signs of being a 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, everyone was in danger. It wasn't unusual to have entire families die within a day of one another.


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.

"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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