In any language, there is a short list of specific words that are reserved for the direst situations. They’re as powerful and as frightening as weapons. The words “Fire!” and “Snake!” will trigger instant panic and clear a room or an area in an instant. During the Civil War, no phrase inspired as much fear as “The Yankees are coming!” The word “hurricane” still sends everyone packing.
In 1867, that list of words reserved for the scariest of circumstances included another terrifying phrase at the very top: “Yellow Jack.”
The virulent disease, also known as yellow fever, claimed thousands of lives from the mid-1800s to 1900 during the eight epidemics that swept through Galveston in just 31 years. The summer of 1867 was particularly devastating.
At first, the year 1867 looked promising. It was just after the Civil War, and Galveston had begun recovering well. Galveston was becoming a leading port in the nation, and there were about 20,000 citizens living on the Island.
Rail lines were coming in, and it was one of the first towns in Texas to have gas illuminations on the streets. Galveston was entering its Golden Age, which would continue until the destruction of the Great Storm of 1900.
But in July of 1867, “Patient Zero” arrived in Galveston from Indianola. That town was in the beginning stages of its own fever outbreak. With no idea how the disease was carried or spread, the unwitting patient came to the Island in the incubation stage of the disease and within a few days, fell seriously ill. He soon died in a building on 21st and Postoffice, attended by local doctors - most of whom refused to acknowledge that this was actually a case of yellow fever.
Raising the considerable wrath of Dr. Ashbel Smith, a Yale-trained physician and the Surgeon General of the Texian Army, many doctors dismissed the yellow fever diagnosis as “absurd” and “alarmist,” saying this was nothing more that a common “bilious” fever (fever that is combined with vomiting) with no consequence to public health.
Dr. Smith, known as the first historian of yellow fever in Texas, had published a remarkably detailed account of the Island’s first epidemic in 1839, entitled Yellow Fever in Galveston, Republic of Texas. It included his clinical observations and theories regarding pathology and therapeutics.
He was convinced the fever was not contagious and that its origins were the noxious trash thrown in the city’s swamps. Still, medical professionals at the time could not be persuaded that the disease was not contagious, causing Dr. Smith to remain constantly at odds with his colleagues on this topic.
Although the true culprit for the spread of the disease (mosquitoes) remained yet unknown, it was believed that Yellow Jack was a highly contagious tropical disease brought to Galveston on the sailing ships from Mexico and South America. With the best of intentions, the Galveston Board of Health acted upon this incorrect hypothesis by quarantining ships from that part of the world for several days in the Port of Galveston, until they were able to prove no one aboard was suffering from yellow fever.
In so doing, they intermittently shut down Galveston’s burgeoning maritime economy. Fear of doing business in Galveston was a factor in Galveston losing some of its commercial leadership prior to 1900.
When neighboring communities or cities reported yellow fever outbreaks, the Galveston Board of Health would spring into action to protect the Island. Enforced by Dr. J.W. Haden, who was president of the Island’s Board of Health, quarantines were thought to be the only way to contain outbreaks.
When there were outbreaks to the south in Brownsville or Matamoras, the Board of Health would quarantine the train station and stop all train passages. Mail from New Orleans, where outbreaks occurred often, would be stopped, “disinfected” with sulfur fumes, and quarantined as per the orders of the Postmaster General in Washington. Travel between infected districts would cease.
Although the Island’s drainage was notoriously poor and many areas were swamps filled with garbage and infested with mosquitoes, rudimentary efforts to address these problems were not enough to make a difference. In an effort to curtail trash dumping in the swamps, ordinances were posted stating dumping must be done outside city limits.
Citizens and doctors alike were confused that these measures did not result in any noticeable decrease in fever infections. Most unfortunately, the direct connection between mosquitoes and these terrible fever epidemics was still decades away from discovery.
Meanwhile, Islanders in 1867 died of the Yellow Jack so quickly that the city cemetery had to create more space for the dead. That year, the local sextons - those who are charged with maintaining the grounds of a church and with digging the graves for the dead - were unable to dig quickly enough, with newspapers reporting coffins awaiting burial being so numerous, they were stacked like cordwood.
Deaths of yellow fever dominated local news. Long lists of the names of the dead were added to the sexton’s report of interment on a daily basis.
The Galveston Daily News reported that local charities were overburdened, doctors could not care for all the afflicted, and that hasty, scant burial ceremonies with “Unknown” on the markers were becoming frequent. The Howard Association, which was the predecessor of the Red Cross, was stretched far beyond its limits to render assistance to ailing citizens. At the fever’s height during the summer of 1867, nearly 200 people died in the course of one week.
Still, some local doctors dismissed claims that this was yellow fever. It was believed that eucalyptus trees “absorbed” malaria and that planting more would help “clear the air” of floating particles containing yellow fever. No one saw the connection between cooler weather and the decrease in rate of yellow fever infection, and many doctors thought that people of color were less susceptible to the disease.
The treatment of the day often actually hastened death. Calomel - known today as mercury - was a common “cure,” as was quinine, castor oil, bleeding, mud plasters on the stomach, brandy, and withholding water. None were effective against the Yellow Jack.
Still, some were able to survive the disease. Its onset was innocent enough - with just a fever, backache, or headache. But soon, the afflicted patient would become extremely ill. Then, a turning point would occur after the third or fourth day.
The patient often seemed to be getting better, but in fact, the liver was being attacked and would cause the skin to look jaundiced - hence the name “yellow” fever. Then, as a result of internal bleeding, the final stages of the disease would be marked by uncontrollable black vomit, followed inevitably by death.
The year 1867 was truly catastrophic in Galveston. Nearly every Island resident had at least one afflicted person in their house, and that summer, over 800 people died. Dr. Haden, whose efforts to protect the public health were ultimately in vain, died himself in the epidemic that summer, and has a special memorial in Galveston’s cemetery in remembrance of his work.
On October 2, another disaster struck on the heels of the epidemic - a hurricane made landfall in Galveston. The immediate decrease in yellow fever infections after that storm was not connected to the fact that the heavy rains and storm surge had cleaned out the swamps of mosquito nests.
Once again, in 1881, the mosquito theory was advanced, but dismissed. The newspaper continued to describe Yellow Jack as Texas’ “most terrible enemy.”
Finally, in 1900, the United States Army Yellow Fever Commission, often called simply “The Reed Commission” after its leader, Dr. Walter Reed, added to its list of great medical breakthroughs. At experimental stations near Havana, Cuba, Dr. Reed and his assistants proved that a certain mosquito called aedes aegypti was the vector for the yellow fever virus.
Reed’s work definitively destroyed the widely-held notion that yellow fever was spread by contact with infected people or “contaminated” objects such as mail, and focused efforts where it belonged - on eradicating these mosquitoes from swamps and waterways.
Today, there is a vaccine available that prevents yellow fever and the last serious outbreak of the disease was in 1905 in New Orleans. The “most terrible enemy” of Texas has been virtually eradicated in North America.
Yellow Fever Notes: In 1839 - the year Galveston was founded - there was a yellow fever epidemic that claimed 1,000 lives.
Gail Borden, of dairy fame, was an eccentric inventor and Galveston resident during an epidemic. He lost his wife Penelope and one of his children to the disease and attempted to come up with a plan to eradicate yellow fever on the Island using large-scale refrigeration.
The Sisters of Charity of the Incarnate Word were called to Galveston to lead St. Mary’s orphanage to care for the many children left orphaned by yellow fever in 1866, and then established St. Mary’s Infirmary, the first Catholic hospital in the state, in 1867.
Dr. Ashbel Smith was so convinced that yellow fever was not contagious, he actually tasted the black vomit of a victim of the disease. He did not become ill.
A Civil War soldier was five times more likely to die from a mosquito-borne disease than on the battlefield.