For nearly 200 years, Mobilians approached the summer months with fears of an outbreak of yellow fever or, as it was commonly called, yellow jack. The first epidemic struck as early as 1704, and the city lost a third of its population to the disease in 1819, leading to the creation of the Church Street Graveyard. Victims were being buried there before the sale of the property had been completed.
Twenty years later, in 1839, that cemetery reached capacity as 450 citizens fell victim to the fever. The city hurriedly obtained additional acreage to create a new cemetery: Magnolia. Yellow fever showed no favoritism, and among the dead that year was Henry Hitchcock, one of the wealthiest and most generous citizens of Mobile. It was Hitchcock who funded the construction of Government Street Presbyterian Church, Barton Academy and a home for destitute widows.
A Club is Formed
After the plague subsided, a group of Hitchcock’s friends began meeting regularly for lunch. In discussing the tragic circumstances of 1839, the friends established the “Can’t Get Away Club” — a group of men who could not and would not flee during the next outbreak. Even the hint of a single case of the disease caused a mass stampede to trains and ships out of the city before a quarantine could be put into place. These men pledged to stay behind and help the stricken.
The members privately raised funds to pay for nurses and doctors for the sick and to provide food for their families. Each ward or district had a board set up to begin work as soon as a quarantine was declared. Donations came from Mobilians from all walks of life, as well as from generous people around the country.
An advertisement during the devastating 1853 plague stated: “Grocers and others are authorized to furnish provisions and anything necessary for the comfort of the sick and destitute upon the order of any physician, minister or member of the club.”
And in another column entitled “To the sick”: “Ice can be obtained at all hours of the day or night at the Infirmary of the Can’t Get Away Club opposite the public square on Conception Street.”
It was not until the devastating outbreak of 1853 that the “Can’t Get Away Club” formally incorporated. Their charter specified that it was a “charitable and benevolent organization to relieve the destitute sick of epidemic fevers, ” while specifying that “no member shall receive any pay for his services.”
The group even obtained a burial lot within Magnolia Cemetery in which to bury unfortunate victims who had nowhere else to go. As most of the burials took place during Mobile’s rainy summers, the gravediggers often placed the coffin in the water-filled grave and then used poles to hold it down until it was covered with earth.
A Mysterious Plague
No one was sure where the disease came from or how to stop it. Symptoms of chills and headaches were followed by nausea and jaundice, thus the name yellow fever. Entire families were stricken. One of Mobile’s most prominent physicians looked on in helpless horror as he watched four of his children aged from just 3 to 19 succumb to the fever and die in September of 1853. They were just four of more than 1, 300 victims in a city with a population of 25, 000.
When a fever outbreak was discovered in a home, a yellow flag was affixed to the door. In some cases, victims were stacked outside the house, awaiting removal by undertakers wearing masks and gloves. The bodies were described as being dark and mottled, their faces having a “sad and sullen” look. Veins bulged “as if about to burst.”
Survivors recalled the eerie sound of funeral bells tolling from a dozen churches at a time and the sight of the mortuary carts slowly passing by. Gravediggers had to work by lantern light to keep up with the burials. All of this took place in the stifling humid heat of late August and September.
Newspapers had strong ties to commercial interests and did their best to keep publicity about an outbreak to a minimum. Plagues were bad for business, after all. The arrival of yellow jack killed trade, progress, personal liberties and interstate commerce.
Panic and Quarantine
Even rumors of an outbreak could lead to panic as citizens attempted to board trains or steamers out of town. Railroads forbid passengers from carrying anything more than a handbag, and the station was often crowded with stacks of trunks left behind in haste.
When the fever outbreak was official, a quarantine was put into effect. Mobilians attempting to flee northward were put into a quarantine station at Mount Vernon where they were kept for observation for up to 10 days. If a passenger fell ill on the train, they were ordered off. In one instance, when a New Orleans man died, his body was unceremoniously thrown from the moving train.
Mobilians would stand beside the tracks hoping to be able to board, but the trains would speed by, ignoring former stops. Some citizens opted for camping out in the woods beyond city limits until the plague ended.
Eastern Shore residents could come to Mobile for business as long as they departed by nightfall when the fever was assumed to be contagious. A Mobilian could not even place his foot aboard a gangplank.
The city resembled a ghost town. Even the horse-drawn streetcars stopped running.
As early as 1848, local physician Josiah Nott theorized that insects were the culprits, but few believed it. “Experts” convincingly announced that the plagues were caused by fogs rising from the earth after nightfall. In 1858, a New York doctor declared that coal brought in from Liverpool “emits a gas which favors the spread of the infection of yellow fever.”
Mobile was not the only city in America to be affected. Northern cities had been stricken in the late 17th century, but during the 19th century, it was the South, stretching from Texas to Virginia, that suffered the most. Louisiana was hit particularly hard and was the first state in the nation to establish a state board of health as a result.
Victims were to be avoided at all costs. It was widely believed that touching their clothing, books or even a newspaper would cause instant contamination.
The Rev. Gardiner C. Tucker, rector of St. John’s Episcopal Church, was a longtime member of the club. When friends and parishioners rushed to evacuate the city at news of an epidemic, he stayed put, announcing that he would not go. He handled countless funerals, but officials required him to stand at least 10 feet away from the graves.
Many years later, he would reminisce that during these times “all evil-minded persons fled and none from outside could get in. I do not recall one instance of robbery until after the quarantine was lifted.”
Apparently, the reverend’s memory got rosier with time. During the 1853 epidemic, the Register reported the loss by fire of the residence of Mr. G.M. Parker on St. Louis Street. Mr. Parker and his family had evacuated, and the home they lost was valued at $4, 500.
The Register followed the story with: “We would warn our citizens against leaving their houses uninhabited, there being a set of scoundrels about who choose this time of sickness for their depredations.”
Not all victims of the disease died, and an incredible list of “cures” was credited. They ranged from sucking lemons to swallowing bitter doses of quinine throughout the day. Coffee mixed with whiskey was thought to be excellent. Many believed that heavy alcohol consumption was beneficial in keeping the disease at bay.
No one dared venture out after dark. Windows were kept tightly shut against the mysterious night air as the occupants sweltered within. Ironically, this method may have helped. The real culprit, the mosquito, was locked out.
The End of the Club
The last epidemic to strike Mobile was in 1897. In December of that year, Peter Burke wrote a fellow member of the club, “It is my most fervent hope that we shall never meet again under such trying circumstances. Wishing you a bright and Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to blot out the memories of the recent past.”
Soon after, yellow fever was eradicated with the discovery of its link to the pesky mosquito. The club then disbanded after 58 years of service to Mobilians. Reverend Tucker was the last member upon his death in 1941. He was 91 years old.