Yellow Fever in in Texas during the 1900’s

 

by Susan Rektorik Henley

Originally published in "The Storyteller's Notebook"

Ceský Hlas/The Czech Voice, Volume 17, May 2002, No. 2

 

It was a cool morning in March when I had an opportunity to visit the Old City Cemetery in La Grange. Old cemeteries and the “folk culture” elements found there are a draw to me. The Old City Cemetery in La Grange seemed promising because of the relative age of the town and the cemetery.

La Grange was platted in 1837,” according to the Handbook of Texas Online; and, “when the Congress of the Republic of Texas established Fayette County that year, La Grange became its seat of government. The county had been named after the Marquis de Lafayette, and the county seat took its name from his chateau. A post office was established there in 1838, and that same year the Texas Congress passed a bill intended to place the capital of the Republic of Texas on a site contiguous with La Grange, but the bill was vetoed by Sam Houston. La Grange grew as a trade center for the area's developing plantation economy…The ethnic composition of La Grange began to change during the 1840s and 1850s, as increasing numbers of Germans and Czechs immigrated to Fayette County…Though many of the German immigrants in the area were against slavery, the plantation economy of Fayette County influenced many La Grange residents to support southern rights as they understood them in the years leading up to the Civil War.” [Information excerpted from the Handbook of Texas Online: LA GRANGE, TX http://www.tsha.utexas.edu/handbook/online/ ]

Although the symbolism found on the old markers and grave sites is fascinating, at La Grange, it was the (previously) unmarked graves and what appeared to be mass grave sites that made me extremely curious. Thinking back over my readings on the history of La Grange, Yellow Fever, Cholera, and Influenza did cross my mind as possible causes; but, only briefly.

The E-mail Group (or Chapter) of the Czech Heritage Society of Texas (CHS) has had my membership for several years now. Since I live on a farm in a rural area, this group of folks has become one of my communities. Via the CHS E-Mail Group, much information is shared. There are around 300 members in the E-Mail Group; and, the members have diverse interests and are willing to share knowledge and information. This group willingly shares genealogy research tools and methods, recipes, personal accounts of growing up Czech, photos and narratives of trips to the Czech Republic, history tidbits, and a whole lot more. Knowing there is considerable depth in the knowledge base of the members of the list, I asked if anyone knew what had happened in La Grange that gave rise to all those unmarked and mass graves. It didn’t take long for someone to step forward with an answer.

Ms. Bea Rost, resides in the area of La Grange. Her messages to the group are something I look forward to because she has such broad-brush knowledge. In request to my inquiry, Ms. Rost posted the following information:

In 1867, the "Yellow Fever Scourge" befell the small town of La Grange - from August through November the epidemic ran its course and left 204 dead, nearly one fifth the population of the town. Many deaths went unreported; bodies rudely prepared for burial stood in piles within the cemetery fence. Mass burials took place, with six or seven bodies to a grave;” and,

In the midst of corrupt political conditions, (following the Civil War),in the midst of the general destitution of the country when everything fell short of the least hope, other great calamities struck the people. In 1867 a yellow fever epidemic broke out in La Grange. The same was said to be brought here by a peddler. Another version is that the yellow fever germs were imported into Fayette County in a box of books that was sent from New Orleans to Markmann and Richers, then living near La Grange. These were the first ones to die in this epidemic. Fearful were the losses of life, some families were entirely destroyed; people who could fled from town and lived in tents in the country. Those prisoners who were at that time in the county jail were either removed or discharged. The Commissioners' or rather the Police court held no session from July 1867 to January 1868. The town looked like a grand funeral place; the empty houses stood as grand monuments of wrecked business and fortunes. The town was not cleaned of weeds, they emitted a fearful stench; infected bed cloths were scattered over town. Funerals were not conducted any more with decency; the supply of coffins in the town had given out, and corpses were placed for burial in hastily made, rough, wooden boxes. The names of the physicians who attended the people during their sickness were Drs. Blackmore, McGowell, and White. Nevertheless, the mail went regularly to and from La Grange during this time; it was carried by Charles Helmcamp.”

Ms. Rost compiled the above information from Fayette County :

Past and Present by the Students of La Grange High School, Fayette County Texas Heritage, Volume I, and F. Lotto's Fayette County - Her History and Her People. She also opened the door for my enlightenment as to the cause of the mass and unmarked graves.

The revelation of what killed these people created within me a desire to know more about “Yellow Fever.” I found a detailed definition and historical perspective:

At the end of the 19th century, yellow fever was highly prevalent in the Caribbean area, and a way of controlling it had to be found before construction of the Panama Canal could be undertaken. In 1900 a commission headed by Walter Reed and including James Carroll, Jesse Lazear, and Aristides Agramonte proved in Havana the theory of C. J. Finlay that yellow fever was a mosquito-borne infection. W. C. Gorgas, an army physician and sanitation expert, succeeded in controlling the disease in the Panama Canal Zone and other areas in that part of the world by mosquito-eradication measures. The later development of an immunizing vaccine and strict quarantine measures against ships, planes, and passengers coming from known or suspected yellow-fever areas further aided control of the disease.

Yellow fever begins suddenly after an incubation period of three to five days. In mild cases only fever and headache may be present. The severe form of the disease commences with fever, chills, bleeding into the skin, rapid heartbeat, headache, back pains, and extreme prostration. Nausea, vomiting, and constipation are common. Jaundice usually appears on the second or third day. After the third day the symptoms recede, only to return with increased severity in the final stage, during which there is a marked tendency to hemorrhage internally; the characteristic coffee ground vomitus contains blood. The patient then lapses into delirium and coma, often followed by death. During epidemics the fatality rate was often as high as 85 percent. Although the disease still occurs, it is usually confined to sporadic outbreaks. “ [Information has been excerpted from:http://www.encyclopedia.com .]

Interestingly, Mr. Ray Bacak, another CHS E-Group member, posted a message to the list about a current case of Yellow Fever in Texas: ”Houston Chronicle, 3/28/02: Yellow fever kills Texan after trip to the Amazon: CORPUS CHRISTI -- Health officials say a Texas oil executive died of yellow fever after traveling in Brazil earlier this month…” And, coincidentally, one of my sisters sent me a book, a wonderful gift: Maria Von Blucher's Corpus Christi: Letters from the South Texas Frontier, 1849 - 1879, by Maria von Blucher,. It contains references to Yellow Fever including:

"Corpus Christi, October 20, 1853

Dear Parents,

Your last missive of August 4 I duly received on Sept. 24. You have again gone a very long time without news from us, and I have been constantly bothered by the thought that you feel apprehensive on our behalf about yellow fever, which has this year caused unheard of devastation (worse than living memory). Galveston, Indianola, New Orleans, etc., enough, in the whole area people have early died out. But, Corpus Christi, thanks be to God, has been quite fully spared, a new proof of the wholesome influence of the fresh sea breeze. (62) “

“(62) Yellow fever, caused by a virus, is transmitted among susceptible hosts by several species of mosquitoes. For more than two hundred years, it was one of the great plagues of the world. The tropical and subtropical regions of the Americas were subjected to devastating epidemics, and serious outbreaks occurred as far north as Boston. During Maria's lifetime, epidemics repeatedly swept over the southern United States, decimating populations, paralyzing industries and trade, and holding the people of the South in a state of perpetual dread. Maria's letters reflect the terror that the disease produced in the nineteenth century. The last outbreak in the United States occurred in 1905, when New Orleans and other ports of the South were invaded.”

So by a chance visit to the Old City Cemetery in La Grange, the willingness of kind folks on the CHS E-mail list, and serendipity, a concept of how terrible the Yellow Fever Scourge was to the Texans of the 1900’s came into existence within me. With that realization also crept the thought of how the Czech and German settlers must have feared the disease. Not only did they witness how it cruelly it took lives of those long established in Texas, they must also have contemplated just how far away they were from their support systems back in the Czech homelands.

Most people are not as isolated as I am down here in rural Nueces County and have more research options available; but, I still strongly encourage everyone to visit the CHS E-Mail Group. Although I belong to several other e-mail lists (two of which pertain to raising goats), I have never found a group such as the CHS E-Mail Group. In addition to sharing information, quite often connections are made and friendships develop. This list does not even have moderators, it has “helpers.”

One can visit the CHS E-Mail Homepage and read the messages from the archives to get a flavor of what topics are discussed. If one decides to join, there are options as to how messages from the list are received. They can be sent individually, in digest form, or not at all. This last membership option allows one to post messages and read the mail directly at the web site. The CHS E-Mail Group can be found at Yahoo Groups. The URL is : http://groups.yahoo.com/group/texasczechs/ . And, as for the Yellow Fever, it is one true reason that I would been fearful to live in Texas (or along the Gulf Coast) in the 1900’s.