Yellow Jack. Bronze John. The Yellow Death.
It would strike suddenly, first with a crippling headache. Then the whites of the eyes turned lemon yellow and a bloody ooze seeped from the gums. If the black vomit followed, death was almost certain.
Yellow fever epidemics struck Texas repeatedly form the colonial era to the turn of the twentieth century. It killed one out of ever ten Galvestonians in 1853.
During the 1910s, Dr. Samuel Oliver Young wrote a weekly column for the Houston Chronicle about early days in the city. Here are his reminiscences of yellow fever days.
The present agitation over meningitis reminds me of some of the really exciting times they used to have in Houston when that great enemy, yellow fever, made an invasion.
For the first few days pandemonium broke loose, and then people settled down and waited, in grim desperation, for the inevitable, knowing full well that only a complete exhaustion of material or a frost could stop the ravages of the fever.
Of course no one knew anything about the mosquito causing the disease, and some of the methods used to kill the “miasma” that was regarded as its cause, were novel.
For instance, every exposed place was inundated with lime and, at night, huge bonfires, composed largely of tar barrels and tar, were burned at the street crossings.
I remember, when I was a child, seeing those bonfires, which were ordered by the city authorities. Now, no doubt, both the lime and the fires did good, the first preventing the breeding of mosquitoes and the second by driving them away with the smoke.
The present generation cannot appreciate the horrors of a yellow fever epidemic. One case would appear, then a few, and then people would be taken down by the hundreds. In a week the death roll would begin to swell and business, except at the drug stores, would be suspended.
Those who had had the fever became nurses and looked after the sick. One good thing was that yellow fever requires nursing rather than medicine, and as there were numerous nurses and few doctors, the patients generally got along pretty well.
The doctors were so overrun that when they found a patient in the hands of a competent nurse, that they knew to be such, they turned the case over to the nurse and went elsewhere, where conditions were not so favorable.
I will never forget the time I had the fever, and as my case will give a fair idea of how the disease was treated, I give a short description of my experience.
It was in 1858, on a Sunday morning, that I was stricken. I got up that morning feeling as well as ever, dressed, ate a good breakfast and started to Sunday school.
On the way to Sunday school I was stricken suddenly with a terrible pain in the back of my head and then my head began to ache so terribly that I could scarcely see. It was with great difficulty that I managed to walk the two or three blocks home, and when I got there I was in such pain that I could scarcely talk.
My mother knew at once what was the matter, for she had had much experience with the fever. I was hurried to bed and given a hot mustard footbath, and then blankets were piled over me.
They gave me a dose of castor oil. That is one feature of the treatment I shall never forget, for after I had taken it they found I had eaten a large breakfast and they gave me a mustard emetic, made me throw it all up and then repeated the dose of oil.
The weather was warm, but they kept the bedclothes piled on me and the only thing they allowed me to drink was orange leaf tea. There I lay and sweated and famished for water for three days, or until the fever left me.
There was no ice in those days, and if there had been any, the man who tried to give a yellow fever patient any would have been looked upon as a would-be assassin.
It was tough treatment, but it did the work, and wherever people got the same treatment and nursing that I got they got well. Where patients could not get proper nursing, they died like sheep, and they died in a hurry, too.
I remember the great epidemic of 1867. I had come home from college during the summer vacation and just about the time I was getting ready to go back, the yellow fever broke out and I could not go because Houston was quarantined again at once and travel ceased.
Since I had already had the fever, I was safe in going everywhere and saw a great deal of the devastation.
I remember four young men who had just come to Houston from the North. They were not the least afraid of the disease and laughed at their friends who warned them against exposing themselves to the night air.
I remember Mayor I. C. Lord telling them of the danger and warning them to be careful. They had rooms in the Kennedy building on market square and were over at the market at the time the conversation took place.
That night the oldest one was stricken, the next morning the others were down and four days after Old Man Pannell buried all four of them.
Song of the Texas Rangers
Here is a verse from a song written by Maude Jennie Young in 1862 in honor of the 8th Texas Cavalry, better known as Terry’s Texas Rangers. She was the mother of Samuel Oliver Young who wrote the yellow fever piece above.
(Set to the tune of The Yellow Rose of Texas)
Oh! who’d not be a Ranger,
and follow Wharton’s cry! And battle for their country,
and, if needs be, die?
By the Colorado’s waters,
on the Gulf’s deep murmuring shore,
On our soft, green, peaceful prairies,
our home we may see no more,
But in those homes our gentle wives,
and mothers with silvery hair,
Are loving us with tender hearts,
and shielding us with prayers.