Yellow Fever, now a disease that is exclusively found in Africa and South America, was once a disease that struck American cities with a vengeance, leaving hundreds, if not thousands dead. In 1793 Philadelphia, yellow fever plagued the city, then the seat of our federal government and the home of President George Washington; concerns arose about the running of the government and the health of the President and other government officials. In 19th century New Orleans, yellow fever was a yearly epidemic.
Because the physicians of the 19th century did not know the cause of yellow fever, some assumed it had to do with unsanitary conditions, foreigners, or "sin", and physicians varied in their ideas of how to treat this disease. Philadelphia physician, Dr. Benjamin Rush, treated his yellow fever patients by "bleeding" them. His "cure" would involve purging the patient by inducing vomiting and bowel movements. Then he would administer bloodletting so to drain them of four-fifths of the blood in their system. A cure that was in many cases, worse than the disease.
Ideas abounded about how to avoid the disease. During the 1793 Philadelphia epidemic, postmasters dipped letters originating in Philadelphia in vinegar, in an effort to fend off the disease. It was not until the early 20th century that it yellow fever became recognized as a viral disease transmitted between humans by mosquitoes (http://www.cdc.gov/ncidod/dvbid/yellowfever/).
Yellow fever epidemics hit American cities hard. A person could be fine one minute and dead by the next morning. Cemeteries and their grave diggers became overwhelmed with the numbers of dead to be buried. One of the results of yellow fever was the overwhelming problem of burying large numbers of the dead on a daily basis during an epidemic. Because this was so overwhelming, the afflicted were buried and not always identified, leaving no tombstone to mark their final resting place. During one of New Orleans yearly bouts with yellow fever, a bystander wrote, " As we passed the cemeteries, we saw coffins piled up beside the gate and in the walks, and the laborers at work, digging trenches in preparation for the morrow's dead."
Was your Ancestor a Victim of Yellow Fever?
One epidemic timeline that can assist you in matching your ancestor's death year with relevant epidemics is found on the Bowerman Genealogy web site at http://hawkshome.net/misc_items/events/epidemic_timeline.htm.
On the newspaper web site, The Olden Times (http://theoldentimes.com/yellow_fever/yellow_fever.html) there is a transcription of the 1879 book, History of the Yellow Fever Epidemic by J. M. Keating. This transcription includes names of yellow fever victims in the Mississippi cities of Summit in Pike County and the cities of Bolton and Terry in Hinds County. The following places in Tennessee are also represented, Rossville and Williston in Fayette County; Covington in Tipton county, and McKenzie in Caroll County.
For those with Shelby County, Memphis ancestors, the Shelby County, History and Genealogy Indexes available through the Memphis Public Library, http://www.history.memphislibrary.org/, may be useful in learning about an ancestor's death, including those who died during the 1878 yellow fever epidemic. This free, online, searchable database includes the name of the person, death date, race, and address.
To understand the scope of the yearly yellow fever epidemics in New Orleans from 1817-1905, one can access the statistics on yellow fever deaths from the Louisiana Division of the New Orleans Public Library at http://nutrias.org/~nopl/facts/feverdeaths.htm. While this won't provide you with any genealogical information, it will give you an idea about the devastation that New Orleans faced from yellow fever. This web site includes suggestions on finding your ancestor's death information.
A transcription of the burials in the Yellow Fever Cemetery of Grenada, Grenada, Mississippi can be found on Iterment.net. While some of those buried are from the epidemic of 1878, there are other burials in this cemetery.
When researching your ancestor who may have died from yellow fever, don't neglect to look at the Mortality Schedules for the U.S. Federal Census. Ancestry.com's census database includes the schedules for 1850-1880. To search them, from Ancestry's home page click on the "Search" tab and then the "U.S. Census" link, and then choose the "Mortality Schedules" link towards the end of the list of available census records. These schedules include the person's name, cause of death, age, sex, place of birth, month the person died, their profession, and number of days the person was ill. The Mortality Schedules, while useful to many, only cover those who died in the year prior to the census year.
To learn more about yellow fever and its affects on early Americans, check out the following books:
Yellow Fever: A Deadly Disease Poised to Kill Again, by James L Dickerson
An American Plague: the True and Terrifying Story of the Yellow Fever Epidemic of 1793, by Jim Murphy
Fever 1793, by Laurie Halse Anderson and Lori Earley.
All three books are available through Barnes and Noble (www.bn.com).