Saturday, April 25, 2020

The Yellow Fever Epidemic of 1878: A Case Study

                                                        Yellow Fever Hospital

The worst outbreak of Yellow Fever in American history hit the Mississippi River Valley in 1878.  The region recorded 120,000 cases and some 20,000 deaths.  Here is how it looked to the people on the ground:

In August 1878, news reached Holly Springs, Mississippi that the neighboring town of Grenada was in the grip of the yellow fever epidemic that was sweeping the South.  The fever had stricken some one hundred and thirty one Southern towns that summer. 

Yellow fever is an acute infectious disease of tropical and sub-tropical regions, which is capable of invading the temperate zones as devastating epidemics during warm seasons.  A typical attack of yellow fever has a sudden onset with headache, backache, fever prostration and congestion of the face during the first few days.  Later there may be vomiting of black blood, bleeding gums, kidney disease and jaundice.  Mortality varies greatly, sometimes running to over fifty percent.
Yellow fever is transmitted by the bite of certain types of mosquitos, a fact unknown in 1878.  Ignorance bred fear, and those who could fled any district touched by the fever. 

On August 7, the mayor and council of Holly Springs set up a Board of Health which advised, that to protect the town, a rigid quarantine should be imposed.  The mayor and council rejected the resolution on the grounds that it would be cruel to turn away refugees fleeing from the disease.

Men, women and children, from Grenada began arriving in Holly Springs on August 17.  A Mr. Downs became ill on the day of his arrival.  As illness overtook one after another of the refugees, fear spread through the town.  In the early hours of Sunday, August 25, Mr. Downs died.  Hoping to keep Downs’ death a secret from the public, his body was removed through a back window and buried in the darkness. 

More and more of the refugees began to die, and cases of “bilious fever” developed among local citizens.  The diagnosis changed as the number of cases grew.  On September 4, yellow fever was declared “epidemic” in Holly Springs.  Streets to the train depot were jammed with townspeople trying to refugee north.  Colonel H.W. Walters took charge of relief measures.  

By September 6, Father Anacietus Oberti and twelve nuns from Bethlehem Academy had set up a makeshift hospital. There was little, in fact, that could be done to treat the yellow fever other than to provide quiet surroundings, water, and to withhold food during the height of the disease.  Six of the nuns quickly became ill and died, as did Father Oberti.  Doctors, nurses and other volunteers from New Orleans arrived in response to an appeal for help, but the death list continued to mount.

The yellow fever spread across the entire town and to nearby farms.  W. J. L. Holland, who became Chairman of the Relief Committee after Colonel Walters died from the fever,  wired the press, “The situation is worse.  It looks like every man must go down.  Only ten out of the first hundred cases live.  Two days ago, thirty news cases and ten deaths; yesterday, twenty three new cases and eleven deaths.  After having recruited five times, the Relief Committee yesterday numbered one.  Five hundred persons now lie stricken.  We pray for friends and frost.  We have a safe full of keys and valuables belonging to families that have all been swept away.”

On October 19, 1878, Mr. Holland issued the following message to the press, “Today there have been six new cases and one death.  Your correspondent happens to be one of the new cases, after having struggled with ‘Yellow Jack’ from the beginning of the epidemic, he desires, through you, in the name of this people, to express their lasting gratitude to our friends in every part of the Union who have generously contributed to us in so many ways.”

October 25, 1878.  Funeral notice: “W. J. L. Holland, late Chairman of the Relief Committee, departed this life at 2:30 A.M. aged thirty six.

November 1, 1878: “Four new cases, no deaths.  Heavy frost last night and business houses open.”

Out of a population of 3,500, some fourteen hundred citizens of Holly Springs were stricken with the fever.  Of these, three hundred and four died.

An effective vaccine for Yellow Fever was not developed for another sixty years.

Friday, April 17, 2020

Northern Virginia’s "George Washington Air Junction"


     Under the heading, “What might have been”, it should be noted that one bold entrepreneur once had the dream of bringing the largest airport in the world to Northern Virginia.  In the late 1920s, Henry Woodhouse purchased 1,500 acres in Fairfax County’s Hybla Valley, with the dream of converting the existing dairy farms into the "George Washington Air Junction".  Woodhouse was convinced that Zeppelins were the future of aviation, and conceived of gigantic runways and mooring fields to accommodate trans-Atlantic Zeppelin flights.  An article in the March 3, 1938 issue of the Herald Times proclaimed, Hybla Valley, flat as a table and 3,800 acres in extent, lies 3 miles south of Alexandria, flanked by U.S. Highway #1.  On it could be located the largest runways in the world, and it could be converted into the largest airport in the world.”  Nothing came of the plan, and not a single aircraft ever operated from the site.  Woodhouse succumbed to his creditors, and the land was eventually purchased by the government in 1941 for use by the military.  In 1975 the land was sold to Fairfax County for $1 to be used "exclusively for public park or public recreation purposes in perpetuity”.  The land is now known as Huntley Meadows Park.

Tuesday, April 07, 2020

Arlington House and Arlington National Cemetery

Arlington House

     George Washington Parke Custis, aged three, inherited eleven hundred acres of land overlooking the Potomac River, when his father, the stepson of General George Washington, died in 1781.  Young “Wash” and his sister “Nelly” were raised at Mount Vernon by George and Martha Washington.  Upon reaching legal age in 1802, the young man began building a lavish house on a high hill overlooking the Potomac which was to be not only his house but a living memorial to George Washington (who died in 1799).  Originally the name “Mount Washington” was considered for the house, but in the end it was named after the Custis family estate in the Virginia tidewater area and became known as “Arlington House”.  The house took sixteen years to complete.

    Custis married and had one daughter, Mary.  Mary Custis, one of wealthiest heiresses in Virginia, fell in love with a penniless soldier, Robert E. Lee.  Although Lee came from a prominent family, at the time of his birth there was no family fortune left.  Lee had only his army pay and his person to offer a bride.  One afternoon, while taking a break from reading aloud from a novel by Sir Walter Scott, Lee proposed to Mary.  Mary’s father reluctantly agreed to the marriage.

     In 1857 Custis died.  His will allowed Mary to live in and control Arlington House for the duration of her life, at which point the house would pass to her eldest son, George Washington Custis Lee.  Mary and Robert E. Lee lived in Arlington House until 1861 when Virginia seceded from the Union and Lee went south to join the Confederate army.

     Union troops moved into Virginia in May, 1861, immediately taking up positions around Arlington House.  Two forts were built on the estate including Fort Whipple (now Fort Myer) and Fort McPherson.  The property was confiscated by the federal government when property taxes were not paid in person by Mrs. Lee. The property was offered for public sale Jan. 11, 1864, and was purchased by a tax commissioner for "government use, for war, military, charitable and educational purposes." More than 1,100 freed slaves were given land around the house, where they farmed and lived during and after the Civil War.

     At this point Brigadier General Montgomery C. Meigs, commander of the garrison at Arlington House (and Quartermaster General of the Union Army) enters the picture.  Meigs and Lee had served together many years earlier as military engineers on the Mississippi River.  Lee was a 1st Lieutenant and Meigs his subordinate, a 2nd Lieutenant.  Did Meigs bear Lee a personal grudge?  Some historians think so, or perhaps he was just embittered by the war itself, or by Lee’s defection from the Union army.  In any event, tasked with finding additional burial grounds for battle casualties, on June 15, 1864, Meigs wrote to Secretary of War Edwin Stanton that “the grounds about the mansion are admirably suited to such a use.” Meigs himself reported his “grim satisfaction” of ordering twenty six Union dead to be buried near Mrs. Lee’s rose garden in June, 1864.  Meigs had graves dug right up to the entrance to the house.  The entire Rose Garden was dug up and the remains of some 1800 soldiers recovered from the Manassas Battlefields buried there in a huge burial vault.  Such an unusual positioning of graves was malicious.  Meigs intention appeared to be to prevent the Lee family from ever again inhabiting the house.  By the time the Civil War ended, more than 16,000 Union soldiers were buried on the grounds of the estate.  Ironically, Meig’s own son, John,  was killed in October 1864 and sent to Arlington Cemetery for burial.  

                                                 The Grave of John Meigs        

     Neither Robert E. Lee nor his wife ever set foot in Arlington House again. General Lee died in 1870.  Mary Custis Lee visited the grounds shortly before her death in 1873, but was overcome by emotion and unable to go inside the house.  After the death of his parents, George Washington Custis Lee claimed that the house and land had been illegally confiscated and that, according to his grandfather's will, he was the legal owner. In December 1882, the U.S. Supreme Court, in a 5-4 decision, returned the property to George Washington Custis Lee, stating that it had been confiscated without due process.

Would the dead have to be transferred to a new site?  General Lee's son diffused the crisis by selling the house and land to the government for its’ fair market value.

Arizona’s Superstition Mountains are mysterious, forbidding, and dangerous.  The Superstitions are said to have claimed over five hundred lives.  What were these people looking for?  Is it possible that these mountains hide a vast treasure?  Is it possible that UFOs land here?  Is it possible that in these mountains there is a door leading to the great underground city of the Lizard Men?  Join us as we recount a fictional story of the Superstitions and then look at the real history of the legends that haunt these mountains in our new book:  Gold, Murder and Monsters in the Superstition Mountains.

Friday, April 03, 2020

War Comes to Manassas Virginia (1861)

The Grave of Judith Henry

     On July 21, 1861 the eighty four year old, invalid Judith Henry lay in her bed, as the battle began around Pittsylvania, her childhood home.  Shells from Union artillery began to fall around the widow’s house, “Spring Hill”.  Mrs. Henry’s two sons, shocked to find Union troops on their doorstep, decided to move their mother to safety.  Mrs. Henry was unwilling to leave, but after several shells struck the house, the terrified woman gave in.  The two sons placed the old woman on a mattress and carried her out of the house, intending to carry her to the Reverend Compton’s house, about a mile away.  The small party was soon caught in the open in the midst of a furious battle.  Terrified and hysterical, the old woman begged to be taken back to her own home.  The three Henrys returned to the house, and Mrs. Henry was returned to bed.  She was only there a short time before a shell burst in the room where she lay.  She was struck by seven shell fragments and lived for several agonizing hours, dying about nightfall.  Rosa Stokes, a young slave who had been caring for the old lady was wounded by the same shell that killed Mrs. Henry.

     At nearby Folly Castle plantation, Betty Leachman put her five small children under a large sideboard where they stayed huddled all day.  The house was struck by cannon balls several times.  Early on the morning after the battle, young Mr. Henry made his was to Folly Castle and asked Betty and her sister-in-law to return with him, to prepare Mrs. Henry’s body for burial.  They went with him, cutting across fields strewn with dead soldiers.


     The Lewis family of  Portici” found themselves at the center of the battle.  Confederate officers notified the Lewis family that a battle was imminent and that their house would be exposed to fire.  They evacuated, taking everything they could with them, but left valuable and heavy furniture behind.  The furniture was stored in a small room in an angle of the house, and the room securely nailed shut.  The only shot that struck the house during the battle struck this room and destroyed all of the furniture.  Furniture was a trifling matter however.  Fannie Lewis was in her ninth month of pregnancy and went into labor as they began to evacuate the house.  Servants found a nearby ravine and dug a small earthen hollow into the bank.  They covered this with greens.  It was here that Fannie Lewis delivered her first baby, John Beauregard Lewis.

     After the battle, Portici became a grisly field hospital.  The wounded, dead, and dying covered every floor in the house.  There were two piles of amputated legs, feet, hands and arms, all thrown together.  At a distance they looked like piles of corn.  Many of the feet still had boots on them.  Wounded men lay on tables while surgeons carved away like farmers in butchering season.  

The Hard Hand of War

     After an interlude of little over a year, the horrors of war again returned to Manassas in August, 1862 with the Second Battle of Manassas.  After the second battle, Manassas faded into obscurity.  Times were now very hard for the civilian population.  There were no real horses left, only those that were battle scarred, lame or blind.  Women were forced to run farms with the help only of old people and children.  To make matters worse, the farmers ran short of tools and implements, for it was impossible to replace the metal parts of plows, wagons, hoes and scythes.