The History of Yellow Fever in Mobile

An airtight coffin is the ominous symbol of a city paralyzed by a fearsome disease.

cast-iron coffin
Child’s Cast-Iron Coffin: An airtight coffin is the ominous symbol of a city paralyzed by a fearsome disease.

Published in “A History of Mobile in 22 Objects

This ornate cast-iron coffin was made to be used by an affluent family to bury an infant in the mid- to late-19th century. Patented by Almond Dunbar Fisk in 1848, this type of coffin was sculpted to fit the body and had a glass window so that the face could be viewed during the funeral. Its airtight design enabled the body to be transported long distances and prevented odors and germs from escaping. A Fisk coffin would have been especially desirable for interring a victim of yellow fever, one of the most common and fearsome communicable diseases in Southern coastal cities throughout the 19th century. 

Caused by the Flavivirus that is found in some mosquitoes, yellow fever can result in jaundice, severe vomiting, hemorrhaging, organ failure and death within six days of infection. For centuries after it was first reported, physicians were unable to agree on its origin or method of transmission. The disease spread rapidly and traveled far inland, frustrating many attempts by public health officials to contain it.

It is generally accepted that yellow fever originated in Africa and was introduced to the New World through the Atlantic slave trade by Christopher Columbus in the 1490s. The virus crossed the ocean on Columbus’s ships inside desiccated (but still viable) eggs of the Aedes aegypti mosquito. It adapted to other mosquito carriers and flourished in the rainy, temperate subtropics of the Caribbean and the Gulf Coast. Yellow fever was one of many communicable diseases of the Columbian Exchange that proved devastating to Native Americans.

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For the next 350 years, outbreaks shaped the history of Mobile. In 1704, the French ship Pélican arrived at Fort Louis. On board were 23 unmarried women who were to be matched up with male settlers at the request of Governor de Bienville. Tragically, the ship was contaminated with yellow fever. The virus ravaged the colony, killing 40 of the 225 settlers, including Henri de Tonti (“Tonti of the Iron Hand”), the Italian soldier and fur trader. One hundred years later, a yellow fever epidemic in Saint-Domingue (present-day Hispaniola) discouraged Napoleon Bonaparte from following through with his planned conquest of North America, instead selling the Louisiana Territory to the United States at a bargain price of $15 million. 

Church Street Graveyard
To accommodate the many victims of yellow fever, the city established the Church Street Graveyard. Image courtesy Library of Congress

As Mobile grew, outbreaks of yellow fever became more frequent and intense. In addition to smaller outbreaks nearly every year, there were 11 epidemics from 1819 to 1853. It was during the 1819 epidemic that the city hastily purchased land to establish the Old Church Street Graveyard, in which many yellow fever victims were laid to rest. In 1853, an epidemic in New Orleans killed as many as 9,000 residents and spread across the Gulf Coast region. When the epidemic hit Mobile in August, it claimed 1,191 lives, about seven percent of the summer population. 

RELATED: What pandemics have previously affected Mobile?

Such outbreaks gripped Mobile with fear. Crew and passengers on trains arriving from other southeastern towns were often not allowed to disembark, and those who did spent time in a quarantine station while cargo was fumigated. Individual houses or areas within the city might be forcibly quarantined, too, and houses with yellow fever victims often displayed a yellow flag to indicate the presence of the disease. 

In 1841, a small group of physicians led by Dr. Josiah Clark Nott (1804 – 1873) formed the Mobile Medical Society to address the growing threat of epidemics. The City appointed the members of this organization to a new Board of Health, an appointment that was affirmed by the General Assembly in the 1841 – 1842 session. 

The Society’s efforts to contain yellow fever focused on improving sanitation. The prevailing view among physicians was that the disease spread through “miasmas,” poisonous vapors that emanated from decomposing refuse. Quicklime was spread in the streets and barrels of tar were burned to disinfect the night air. Elite families migrated to summer homes in rural settlements such as Spring Hill, where they believed they would be free of disease. Others stayed in the city and formed the Can’t Get Away Club, which provided food and medical care to yellow fever patients.

After studying yellow fever for years, Dr. Nott began to diverge from the views of his colleagues. For treating the disease, he recommended an antiseptic made from creosote, rather than the purgatives calomel or quinine that were most often prescribed. In an 1848 paper, he mused that yellow fever might be carried by an insect such as a mosquito. This was the first time that any physician had proposed vector transmission. Nott’s hypothesis was roundly rejected. But subsequent work by Louis-Daniel Beauperthuy (1854) and Carlos Finlay (1881) independently identified the Aedes aegypti mosquito as a yellow fever vector. In Nott’s later years, he became better known as the founder of the Medical College of Alabama in Mobile — and as a leading promoter of now-discredited theories of scientific racism — but he continued to study and debate yellow fever through the 1850s. 

Yellow fever reached its peak in Mobile with the 1853 epidemic, which was depicted in Augusta Evans Wilson’s novel “Beulah.” The virus spread to Citronelle and Spring Hill, challenging the widespread belief that these areas were safe. Nott’s family became infected while spending the summer at his father-in-law’s home in Spring Hill, causing the deaths of four of his children and his brother-in-law. 

In the later 19th century, epidemics were somewhat milder and more sporadic due to improved methods of quarantining and vector control. However, despite the development of an effective vaccine in 1937, yellow fever has been difficult to eradicate in an age of air travel and rapid urbanization. Strains of the virus are still endemic in Africa and Latin America. While yellow fever may have receded permanently from Mobile, it still poses a grave public health risk to more than 80,000 people around the world every year.

Daryn Glassbrook, Ph.D., is the executive director of the Mobile Medical Museum. Born and raised in New York’s Hudson Valley, Dr. Glassbrook has lived in Mobile with his family since 2011.

“A History of Mobile in 22 Objects” by various authors
Click here to purchase

Released in conjunction with the History Museum of Mobile exhibit, this photo-heavy compendium delves into the city’s history through the analysis of 22 artifacts by Mobile’s leading researchers.

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