Texas Epidemics

Our ancestors lived in a world of routine epidemics. When a child took ill, parents looked at each other with dread. One third of children born would not see adulthood. Our forebears were familiar with death.

The most feared epidemic disease of the nineteenth century took young and old alike: Yellow Fever.

We’ve known since 1900 that it was spread by mosquitoes. That bit of knowledge that quickly put an end to it.

Before that most people thought it was caused by “miasmata,” invisible particles spread on the air from stagnant ponds, garbage heaps, and decaying vegetation.



Yellow Fever was no coronavirus. It turned a healthy person of any age into a corpse in about three days. It would progress from lethargy to fever to pain in the extremities to vomiting blood clots (the black vomit) and finally to jaundice, delirium, and death.

During the 1839 epidemic, Dr. Ashbel Smith tried to ease minds by proving it wasn’t contagious. To do so he ate the black vomit. The motivation was noble and the act brave, but it does not seem to have calmed the panic.

This illustration shows the progression of the Yellow Fever –
And the panic was justified. Like I said, this was no coronavirus. Yellow Fever killed 10% of Galveston’s population in 1853. Think about that. Not 10% of those infected. 10% of the population. The people were literally decimated.

Those who recovered were immune and nursed the sufferers in later epidemics.
In several Texas communities, men who had acquired immunity formed Howard Associations. They were following the example of British social reformer John Howard in personally taking steps to improve the welfare of their fellow citizens.

The Howards nursed the sick themselves, and if there were too many cases for them to tend to, they paid for nurses, usually mixed race women who had themselves acquired immunity.
The Howards also paid physician bills and buried the dead. They were a beacon of light amid the suffering.

Texas Epidemic Quote
When a suspected person (of having Yellow Fever) is found on the train going to Galveston, he is summarily seized at the muzzle of a six-shooter and tumbled off the train on the open prairie. If he is sick there is no shelter, no hospital, no bed, no preparation for medical treatment, no anything to keep him from dying like a dog. If he is well, there is no house, no food, no place where the necessities of life are to be had, and if he approaches a human residence he is driven off by an excited and fear stricken people armed with shotguns. Every house has its separate quarantine, any hamlet or village takes the responsibility of turning back trains, stopping the mails and disorganizing the commerce of an entire state. Human pity is extinguished, human mercy abolished, and insane panic armed with a shotgun rules supreme.

– Houston Daily Telegram, 1878
(not everyone was like the Howards)

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