Yellow fever—also known as hemorrhagic fever, saffron scourge, Yellow Jack, Bronze John, and the “yellow Tyrant of the tropics”—spread destruction and fear throughout Mississippi from colonial times until 1905, when the last epidemic occurred.
A tropical and subtropical acute arbovirus infection, yellow fever initially caused its victim to suffer a sudden onset of fever, usually between 102 and 104, with bloodshot eyes and chills. Following the initial symptoms, the victim’s health appeared to improve as the fever subsided. However, dramatic jaundice often ensued. The victim also experienced nausea, constipation, headache, and muscular pains in the legs and back. In severe cases, passive hemorrhaging and vomiting of semidigested blood (“black vomit”) occurred. Damage to the liver, kidneys, and heart could also occur, generally leading to death from renal failure, heart failure, toxemia, or internal infection, if a low white blood cell count left the victim’s body unable to fight the disease. Mild infections of yellow fever, however, often were undiagnosed. If a person contracted a mild case, recovery began within a week or two, eventually requiring stringent nursing care to achieve full recovery.
Possibly the earliest reference to yellow fever in Mississippi was when Pierre Le Moyne, Sieur d’Iberville, recorded on 22 August 1701 that Gov. Sauvole had died of the disease along the Mississippi Gulf Coast, two years after permanent French occupation began. Mississippians experienced many epidemics throughout the ensuing years. In 1841 city authorities in Natchez appointed a temporary board of health to combat yellow fever. A particularly virulent epidemic occurred in 1853 with subsequent ones in post–Civil War years. Not until 1877 did the Mississippi legislature organize the State Board of Health. However, it was only as an advisory agency, with no quarantine power or appropriations to sustain it.
During 1878 Mississippians experienced perhaps the worst epidemic of yellow fever, with 16,461 cases and 4,118 deaths. Commerce halted as localities imposed quarantines. By the end of the epidemic, donors across the United States had contributed $522,632.42 for the relief of Mississippians suffering from disease. The strain of the disease that year was particularly virulent, and increased railroad traffic helped spread the disease in spite of quarantine efforts. In 1879, in response to the preceding year’s epidemic, Congress created the National Board of Health, and it subsequently proposed Ship Island, a barrier island off of the coast of Mississippi, as a quarantine station for the Gulf of Mexico between New Orleans and Pensacola, Florida.
The exact origin of the disease is unclear, but historians generally believe that yellow fever originated in Africa and was introduced to the Western Hemisphere as a result of colonial contact. The disease is transmitted from person to person by the female Aedes aegypti mosquito, a species that has a propensity to breed in manufactured containers such as water casks, calabashes, holds of ships, or cisterns. The mosquito could remain on board maritime vessels for months with a human host who could not escape and comfortable breeding area.
Prior to the mid-nineteenth century, when germ theory became popularized and investigated, the medical profession did not understand how yellow fever was transmitted. In the 1840s and 1850s some doctors believed that the disease spread via human-to-human contact or by contact with bodily secretions from an infected person. Others believed that miasma, or the foul emanations from putrefying animal or vegetable matter, spontaneously generated yellow fever. In 1881 a Cuban doctor, Carlos Finlay, first proposed that yellow fever was transmitted by mosquitos. In 1900, after yellow fever had ravaged US troops during Spanish-American War, surgeon general George Sternberg asked army doctors led by Walter Reed and James Carroll to investigate Finlay’s theory, and they isolated the species of mosquito. By 1905 the mosquito vector theory had gained wide acceptance, and when yellow fever appeared that year, Mississippi and other southern states destroyed mosquito breeding grounds, fumigated houses, and screened patients. Mississippi and the rest of the United States have not had a yellow fever epidemic since.
- Robert Berkow, ed., The Merck Manual of Diagnosis and Therapy (1977)
- Jo Ann Carrigan, The Saffron Scourge: A History of Yellow Fever in Louisiana, 1796–1905 (1994)
- Henry Rose Carter, Yellow Fever: An Epidemiological and Historical Study of Its Place of Origin (1931)
- Margaret Humphreys, Yellow Fever and the South (1992)
- J. L. Power, The Epidemic of 1878 in Mississippi: Report of the Yellow Fever Relief Work through J. L. Power, Grand Secretary of Masons and Grand Treasurer of Odd Fellows (1879)