by Tim Gilmore, 6/17/2012
In the 1800s, Yellow Fever frequently came to town. It stepped off the train and boarded at a wooden-plank hotel. It walked casually off the steamship, up the docks, and amongst the populace. It didn’t know it was Yellow Fever. Usually it was trying to escape an epidemic in Savannah or Tampa, and often after it worked its death here in Jacksonville, it fled by train or steamer or even on foot, a yellow skeleton walking through the primitive highways in the woods, until it came to some other town and spread itself there. Wherever it went, hundreds or even thousands of people who passed it in the streets would soon find themselves in bed, bleeding in their intestines and out of their rectums, bleeding from the nose and gums and eyes, their livers shutting down and giving them the jaundice from which the disease took its name.
The last Yellow Fever epidemic in Jacksonville was the largest one, 1888, and the New Orleans epidemic of 1905 was the last one in the United States. Successful mosquito eradication programs aimed at the Yellow Fever mosquito, Aedes Aegypti, the primary vector, prevented any further outbreaks. The Yellow Fever mosquito was almost totally eliminated in the Southeastern United States, the Caribbean, and Central and South America early in the 20th century. But funding for the program disappeared toward the middle of the century, and now the mosquito population is what it was at the height of the Jacksonville epidemics. The vectors are here, but they would have to bite someone already infected in order to spread the disease to someone else.
In 1857, Patient Zero lived in a wooden house on a bluff at Bay and Broad Streets in land that would become the town of LaVilla after the Civil War. Like most Jacksonville residents, Nathan Vaught found himself covered in mosquito bites in the summer. He lived near McCoys Creek, now mostly submerged between streets and buildings, but then wide open and pestilential. McCoys teemed with filth and sat stagnant, merging into the lowlands around it. In the next century, nearly all the low land in what would become downtown Jacksonville would be filled in with dredge and river spoil, but before this leveling, much of it was cesspit, marsh, swamp. In the summer of 1857, it rained nearly every day. The heat became unbearable. A pungent smell of decay filled the air. Nathan became sick, then the McFalls next door, then the Currys living on the bank of McCoys. All twelve members of the Mott family died.
When news spread, so did panic. A tall gaunt man had walked into town from St. Marys, Georgia, and found the streets deserted and grass growing tall on Pine Street, Laura Street, and Julia Street. The heat didn’t bother him. The mosquitoes didn’t bite his yellow skin. His arms and his face appeared gaunt, even skeletal, so that it even seemed the bones came through the skin. He did nothing but walk about. The townspeople saw him outside the Judson House at Julia and Forsyth and in the Public Square. They thought he was very old. No one heard him speak. They imagined that all he did was walk, from town to town, covering great distances, and that he had been doing so for thousands of years.
As long as the gaunt man remained, Jacksonville was under quarantine. No transportation left the city, and none came. In its suffering, the town was completely cut off from the rest of the world.
When yellow fever infested nearby towns like Fernandina and Baldwin in 1877, armed guards stood post at the city limits of Jacksonville, making sure no one entered the city. Somehow someone slipped by. He had been here 20 years before. City health authorities officially announced the presence of Yellow Fever in the city when a man named Jared Keen died. Keen got sick in November, and the first frost was less than 30 days away. Health officials thought the frost killed the microbes. It killed the mosquitoes instead. This time, the epidemic took only 22 lives. Two decades before, it had taken 127 of the 600 people it infected.
In 1888, it got an early start. It was already killing people in the early spring. In early August, the Board of Health put forward a proclamation of epidemic. Residents instantly crowded beyond capacity all trains and boats leaving the city. Mobs of terrified people left on foot, heading up Pine Street toward St. Marys, and walking out Kings Highway toward the town of Alligator. Many of them left the city as vectors themselves, and sickened outlying farmers and residents of nearby towns. Many fleeing wanderers came to towns guarded by armed sentries who refused them entrance. Some of them got sick in the woods and died in the swamps. In Waycross, Georgia, the townspeople threatened to rip up the railroad tracks if trains from Jacksonville were to come through, even at high speed. Mail from Jacksonville was fumigated in nearby towns and returned.
The city bore its apocalypse. Stores empty. Streets turning to fields of grass and weeds. Hundreds of men scavenged, picked up trash and decaying vegetation and burnt it in piles on street corners. Death carts rattled along the plank roads. The air filled with the smell of disinfectants and death. For about 10 years, certain health officials had believed in “Atmospheric Concussion as a Means of Disinfectant.” Heavy cannons were fired in the streets, and though the concussion didn’t kill the microbes, it did shatter windows in churches and public buildings. Armed guards patrolled the outskirts of Jacksonville, LaVilla, and South Jacksonville to enforce quarantine.
One old man walked by the bayonets of the quarantine guards and walked among the concussions of cannonfire and walked in and out of alleys between houses and looked in at windows. Though he seemed to do nothing but walk, he sewed death on the principle of compost. As the soil of a garden is richer and as the harvest of the garden bears healthier nourishment from the decay of leaf matter and banana peel and egg shell and human hair and chicken bone and fireplace ash, so the accumulation of death in the ground of a city implants therein energies and powers. As the universe itself is the aftermath of explosion, the creativity and evolution of the Earth made potent in the burnt-out remains of cosmic fire, so does the tomato and the pole bean grow more heartily and productively in vegetal decay and fireplace ash and chicken bone, and so does the Earth fester with assemblages of powers when filled with the bodies of those burning up with fevers. All those living in the future of this moment will contain in themselves these dead. The tall gaunt man did not relish his responsibility. He merely understood it. Amidst all the panic and emergency and suffering, he walked about and oversaw his undertaking.
WILL NOW ACCEPT HELP
JACKSONVILLE UNABLE TO PROTECT ITSELF ALONE
THE FEVER SPREADING AND NO PLACE TO WHICH TO FLEE
“JACKSONVILLE, Fla., Sept. 5.—That the situation here is now very grave all acknowledge. The new cases are beginning to be so numerous as to fairly overwhelm the doctors and some of them have fallen ill under this overwork. Dr. F.H. Caldwell of Sanford will arrive to-night to take charge of St. Luke’s Hospital, and Dr. Porter of Key West has been telegraphed for also. This will help out some, but more physicians and nurses are needed. The few here demand prices that the majority of the people cannot pay. As all business is dead there is a scarcity of money.”
“A most pitiful case came to light to-day. Mrs. Storck, who died at 120 East Forsyth-street, died of what was said to be heart disease yesterday. This morning her body was still lying in the same condition in which she died with the rest of the family, except a boy, ill in the house. The boy stood at the door crying for food. A gentleman hearing the child went to a neighboring house and begged food for him. It is now ascertained that Mrs. Storck died of yellow fever and the body remained unburied for 30 hours.”
Dr. Guiteras admitted the members of the Board of Health and U.S. Surgeon General John Hamilton to his makeshift office, a former telegraph station, in the retention camp outside of town. The surgeon general appeared surly, his back stiff, and frowned at the doctors crowded around him. Dr. Mitchell, president of the Board of Health, stood up when all the others sat down. “Gentleman, the object of this conference and the position of the people of Jacksonville will be represented to you by Vice President McQuaid of the Citizens’ Auxiliary Sanitary Association. McQuaid stood. “Sit down,” the surgeon general said, waving his arm impatiently at him. “This meeting is informal.”
McQuaid sat down. “I’m here on behalf of Colonel Daniel, president of the association, whose sickness has kept him at home. The first thing to understand is that what’s done is only a preface to what needs to be done.”
“Whatever it is,” the surgeon general snapped, “it had better be got at at once.”
“I know that,” McQuaid said, making no effort to disguise his annoyance. “I’m coming to the business right now. It is highly important, we think, to depopulate the city as far as possible. Many of our people won’t come here into this camp. They have the means to go where they wish, and they desire an opportunity to do so, that is, to such places as are willing to receive them.”
Everyone considered the camp “wretched.” It was filthy, the rationed food was awful, and white children were forced to sit at table with black children.
The surgeon general said that surrounding towns did not want Jacksonville’s residents.
The camp, several representatives said at once, was not a fit place to send respectable people.
The surgeon general stood. “Your people will all have to come to this camp at present if they want to get away. I came here upon invitation and don’t propose to be bulldozed one bit. I have been here now two hours and want to get away at once. I have been abused and berated by the people of Jacksonville and called all sorts of names by your newspaper—”
“But Dr. Hamilton,” said Mr. McMurray of the city’s Executive Committee, “Citizens, in their indignation, may have criticized you, sir, but this association has never done so.”
The surgeon general assured them loudly, that “all the criticisms in the world won’t influence my official conduct one particle!” He began to speak of improvements the camp needed, including wood-frame housing instead of tents, sanitary supplies, and guards. After 10 days in the camp, refugees should be given two or three days’ rations and sent across the St. Marys River into Georgia. There, they could go wherever they wanted.
“Now,” said the surgeon general, “each of you gentlemen must understand that the character and good name of this camp depend very much upon the class of refugees which your city will send there.”
To this admonition, Mr. McQuaid, against the opinions of most of his peers said, “Mr. Surgeon General, we should have Civil War in Jacksonville if we attempted to draw the line between respectable people and those who are not.”
There were 282 members of the Jacksonville Auxiliary Sanitation Commission, and that year, 67 of them caught Yellow Fever; 16 of them died.
McCoys Creek turns out of the turn the St. Johns River makes at the Acosta Bridge, downtown. The creek runs between concrete pillars beneath a parking deck at the headquarters for The Florida Times-Union, and officially disappears from the map. It flows, however, underground. Since the last Yellow Fever outbreak in Jacksonville, it’s been fouled by an incinerator, meat packers, poultry processors, and other industrial polluters. The McCoys Creek Tunnel hides the waterway underground beneath the big cube Times-Union building, the snakings of Riverside Avenue up into bridges crossing downtown and the river, and the dead end of May Street, before the creek emerges beneath metal girders underneath the Western terminal of the Skyway, the always empty commuter rail system that loops downtown and connects to nothing else. Here, McCoys Creek stands open, enshrouded by oak trees, vines, and pines. You could almost forget you were in the middle of a city here, except for the occasional rumble of a nearby train or the 100 year-old metal sewage conduit, upheld by concrete columns, reaching from bank to bank across the creek at the height of a tall man. McCoys runs beneath Interstate-95 and eventually parallels McCoys Creek Boulevard north of Riverside, between Mixon Town and Lackawanna. Here, the creek shows visibly brown, and you can smell it from several streets away.
The gaunt old man lives in the creek. The bones of his face broke through the skin centuries ago. No one has seen him in Jacksonville, among the public squares and where the general stores used to be, for 120 years. Governmental authorities nearly killed him, but they ran out of money and time and political will and allowed him to recuperate. Now he’s as strong as he ever was, but right now, he’s got no reason to go into town. He’s got time. It’s been centuries since they brought him from Africa aboard the slave ships. Now he’s content to breed himself down in these dark waters, but at some point, he’ll climb up the banks of the creek like he did all those decades ago, and introduce himself once again to the townsfolk.