Stories



YELLOW JACK YEAR

     One of the annual terrors of life along the Gulf Coast were the outbreaks of yellow fever, popularly called the "Vomito Negro" and the "Yellow Jack." The first name being from symptoms associated with the illness and the latter probably from the yellow quarantine flag. No defense was known against this infection until after the tireless work of Dr. Gorgas of Alabama, which showed up the mosquito Aedes Aegypti as the villain. Up to that time the threat of Yellow Fever, like the threat of the terrible hurricanes every ten years, hung like the presence of sudden death over everyone's head.

     In 1878, the worst year ever remembered, the yellow and black quarantine flag flew all along the Gulf Coast from Key West to Corpus Christi and for several hundred miles inland. Passenger trains were sealed as far north as Atlanta and Memphis and armed guards stood on the platforms of the cars. People were allowed to get off but no one could get on. At depots mail and freight were literally thrown off. Volunteer guards, all able marksmen and veterans of the Civil War, mounted barricades on roads leading from infected areas and no one was allowed to leave. Yellow fever, the Southern Horror, came out of nowhere, killed where it pleased, and no one knew why. Worse than war, carpetbaggers or taxes, it threatened the whole population. Under the risk of pestilence no one had neighbors, for all were caught up in a stark fight for survival. Facing the danger men panicked in startling and often cruel ways. But here and there people reacted with heroism and compassion still remembered nearly a century later. Theirs was no courage for a day or a week. They often lived under sentence of death for months — in fact, until the first hard frost, which killed the mosquitoes and thus the infection.

     Many strange stories came out of the great epidemic of 1878. This was a long siege for the first freeze did not come until early December. Nearly a hundred people were dead in the small city of Mobile and hundreds of others had been deathly ill. Yellow Fever broke out in Bon Secour, too. It was bound to happen. Its seafaring citizens loaded cargoes wherever they could find them and ranged in their schooners from Havana to Key West and from New Orleans to Vera Cruz in search of a living. At first the captains and their crewmen had felt safe and content about their families.

     Unexpectedly a medical doctor settled in Bon Secour. This man, who called himself Dr. John, had appeared suddenly the previous spring. He had sailed into Bon Secour River in a trim little schooner named the MARIE THERESE with a beautiful lady companion and two old servants. The servants, a man and a woman, spoke only broken English. They said they were from New Orleans. It was first thought that the lady was the doctor's wife, but, from hints dropped by the servants and from gossip picked up in New Orleans waterfront taverns, it was soon clear that the pair had run away together. There was no divorce then and the lady had deserted a brutal husband for love of the doctor.

     The eminently respectable matrons of Bon Secour felt no sympathy for such "shenanigans". They carefully ignored the lady even though they eagerly engaged the professional services of Dr. John. He seemed more than ordinarily competent and was quite willing to engage in all forms of general practice including the pulling of teeth. The only anesthesia available for the latter, or indeed for anything, was a stiff shot of whiskey administered impartially to doctor and patient.

     By mid October when the Yellow Fever finally reached Bon Secour, the doctor and his lady-love had become an accepted, though somewhat unwelcome, part of local life. The beautiful lady, with her magnolia skin, her raven hair and large black eyes was secretly admired by the young folk. Her given names were those painted on the schooner but the doctor called her "My darling Molly". A cheerful, pleasant person she made herself happy in her restricted life. By strange coincidence, she was the first person infected. The doctor nursed her devotedly, tending her himself through the weeks of her illness. He left her only when it was necessary to treat the seriously ill.

     Then he visited and prescribed for the thirteen-year-old son of a nearby family. On the third visit he told the father that the boy had yellow fever, and that he must be isolated from the rest of the family. The father and mother were furiously angry. They insisted that Dr. John had brought the disease to the child from his sick lady-love. They even called her some very plain and ugly names.

     Just at that moment the doctor's old manservant came to tell him that Molly had become worse and was dying. The doctor rushed back to the skiff, and he and the old servant rowed for the schooner in desperate haste. For four days the Bon Secour residents did not see Dr. John. Then the old servant came ashore to ask for help. He said that Molly had died in the doctor's arms three days earlier and that Dr. John was raving drunk and would not let his servants bury her body. Instead he sat by the bunk, weeping and calling to Molly to come back to him.

     In the meantime, the sick boy had died and the people felt more strongly than ever that Dr. John had carried the plague abroad. However, an unburied corpse was a virulent source of infection and something must be done at once. So three big schooner men, captains all, who were sure that they had already had yellow fever in Havana, went back aboard the MARIE THERESE with the old servant. They were prepared to knock the doctor out if they had to. No violence was necessary, however, for the brandy had done its work and Dr. John lay sprawled on the floor beside the bunk in drunken stupor. The already decomposing corpse was quickly but decently wrapped in a heavy blanket and loaded into the skiff. Accompanied by the two servants, the men rowed ashore and carried their sad burden up the path to the graveyard. They had brought spades and began to dig a grave. Just then the mother of the dead boy with several other matrons came up and demanded that "that woman" be refused burial within the graveyard. There was a short, furious exchange, but in the end the men gave in and a grave was dug just beyond the east border of the graveyard. And the errant lady, who had shown the bad taste to seem so happy in her sinning, was buried.

     It was many days before the doctor was fully himself again for he too was ill with high fever. When he finally recovered enough to go ashore and visit the grave, he was shocked to find his darling buried outside the graveyard. It was too late to attempt to transfer the body. He had the best local boat-builder carve out a large wooden cross with the legend "My Darling Molly" across it for the head of her grave. And daily he visited the spot.

     There a delegation of Bon Secour folk found him when they came to reproach him for letting the yellow fever loose among them. Seven had died already and many were ill, strangely some had been sick a long time; the yellow jack usually killed quickly.

     Dr. John sat beside Mollie's grave quietly and listened to their complaints. When the last one had finished he sat silent for a moment, but finally he answered them. Molly, he said, had died of typhoid fever contracted from the well water brought aboard to drink. The others who had been ill so long probably had typhoid, too. When he reminded the men who had buried Molly of the fact that all of her long, beautiful black hair had fallen out, typical of typhoid, a sudden light of understanding broke over their faces and they hung their heads in shame. Then Dr. John turned to the father of the dead boy and told him that he had exposed his own son to the yellow fever when he took him aboard the lugger out of Cuba, which had sought safety in Bon Secour river from a storm. One sentence more and the father, too, was hanging his head in bitter shame and sorrow. Dr. John said to him, "I told you that men were sick aboard and it wasn't malaria as you thought, but you would have that jug of rum. Well, it has cost you your son."

     All the people present now realized that they had misjudged the doctor, but no amount of apologies seemed to help the situation. Dr. John agreed to stay and tend their sick until a freeze came. Then he would leave for ever. He said that he respected medicine and his profession too much to have spread contagion and that he could not continue to serve any people who had accused him of such a deed. The fear of yellow fever had curdled the milk of human kindness among them, he said, as he pointed to the grave of Molly outside the graveyard fence.

     It was apparent that he meant what he said for on the clear crisp morning, following the first freeze, the MARIE THERESE lifted anchor and sailed out of Bon Secour River. Later, once or twice a year during the next five years, a fast sloop sailed in at dusk and anchored. Next day the local folk found the grave of "My Darling Molly" freshly raked, tended, and covered with quantities of florist flowers.

     Written in 1965 by Charley and Meme Wakeford for their book “Food, Fun, and Fable.” The assistance of Mr. George Brown is gratefully acknowledged.