By Ryan Zickgraf
It’s only a coincidence that an infant-sized, cast-iron mummy will be on display at the History Museum of Mobile starting the eve of Halloween.
The 150-year-old artifact surely could pass as a Halloween prop. The so-called “Fisk Mummy” is a metallic coffin molded in the shape of a burial shroud with an oval-shaped glass window instead of a mask. Imagine a steampunk version of an Egyptian sarcophagus or a baby Iron Man from the Victorian era.
Fisk mummies were initially designed to protect people, not freak them out. Contagious diseases were very prevalent in the mid-19th century, and the airtight design quarantined the remains of the dead during traditional viewings.
The museum chose the mummy to appear in “A History of Mobile in 22 Objects,” opening October 30. It’s a haunting reminder of the city’s long and bloody battle with yellow fever. Thousands of Mobilians died from the virus over the 18th and 19th centuries, and many more were terrified of the possibility of catching it.
It’s a history that’s nearly been forgotten, according to Daryn Glassbrook, executive director of the Mobile Medical Museum.
“It’s just not in our living memory because we haven’t had to go through something like this for 100 years,” he said.
Until March, that is. Now in the era of COVID-19 — the first significant pandemic in nearly a century — maybe it’s worth revisiting this Ghost of Viruses Past.
Photos from Church Street Grave Yard, which was created to bury the many who died of Yellow Fever. “Fisk mummies” (center bottom) were used to bury those who died of contagious diseases.
In September 1839, a Spring Hill clergyman wrote a letter describing yellow fever’s steep toll on Mobile that summer:
“The yellow fever has prevailed here with unusual severity. It really is frightful. We’ve had about 16 funerals a day and this week it’s run as high as 23 or 24, and that’s out of a population one-fifth of what we had last March. Everyone that could get away has left the city.”
It begs the question: If yellow fever was terrible enough to kill dozens a day in a town of thousands and lead many others to evacuate as if a Category 5 hurricane was coming, why don’t we know this history better?
Regionalism, perhaps. Devastating diseases such as tuberculosis, smallpox and the Spanish flu were a nationwide menace. Yellow fever targeted port cities on the Gulf Coast, including the Port City, incredibly hard because of the subtropical climate and the fact it was a global trade hub. Similarly, it was brutal in New Orleans, killing approximately 150,000 people in the 60 years between the Louisiana Purchase and the Civil War.
Blame the mosquito. Or Christopher Columbus, if you like. Glassbrook credits the explorer with first bringing the mosquito-borne virus, among other infectious diseases, to the Americas via desiccated mosquito eggs quietly incubating aboard 16th-century slave ships from Africa. In the New World, almost no one had built an immunity to it.
Yellow fever got its colorful nicknames — Yellow Jack, Bronze John, Black Vomit, the Saffron Scourge and the Yellow Plume of Death — from dramatic symptoms produced in the worst of the afflicted.
“It’s much like COVID in that it affects people differently. You could be a lucky one, or you could be among the small percentage that developed stage two or three symptoms a week after infection,” Glassbrook said.
The early stages brought symptoms such as high fever, nausea and muscle aches. For the unlucky: internal bleeding, dramatic jaundice (hence the “yellow”) and severe vomiting of semi-digested blood, called “black vomit.”
“If it went beyond that, you’d die,” Glassbrook said. “It was very scary.”
The mystery of the virus’s origins only increased the fright factor. No one quite knew how it worked or spread. Colonial doctors believed the virus was a kind of blood poison spread by miasma, a noxious form of “bad air,” emanating from rotting organic matter. Physicians would treat yellow fever by bloodletting (by leeches, or a sharp cut to a vein from early scalpels) or purging, essentially inducing the patient to vomit up the “poison.” The treatment could kill those the disease didn’t.
Nineteenth-century Mobile physician Josiah Clark Nott’s discredited work promoting scientific racism in defense of slavery has overshadowed the fact he was among the first to suggest an alternative origin for yellow fever. In 1848, Dr. Nott, who lost four children to yellow fever, published “Yellow Fever Contrasted with Bilious Fever,” a paper speculating the virus and malaria spread through insects.
But it took decades for that theory to catch on. It did so in part due to fellow Mobilian William Gorgas, who served as the U.S. Army’s chief sanitary officer in Havana at the turn of the century under Walter Reed. Gorgas ordered the draining of ponds and swamps and the fumigation of mosquitoes in Havana. As a result, yellow fever cases dropped to nearly zero.
This breakthrough led to similar measures implemented in the United States, and by 1905, yellow fever was exterminated in the region.
Do the math, and that’s 201 long years of yellow fever in Mobile.
“This is year one of COVID; imagine it lasting a century or two centuries? I can’t,” Glassbrook said.
There are no known ghost stories involving yellow fever victims, but the ravages of the disease, the resulting mass graves and, later, the desecration of those burials generally make Mobile a very haunted city today.
That’s according to “Secret History” tour guide Todd Besen. He tells the story of Mobile’s first outbreak with dramatic flair as part of his weekly walking tours through downtown. While guiding tourists through the dark streets of De Tonti Square, he describes yellow fever’s arrival two years following the colony’s 1702 founding as a kind of accidental Trojan Horse. In this case, the “horse” is a transatlantic ship carrying comely young women from Europe to marry the community’s lonely colonists.
“Because the city was the capital of French Louisiana, the men put in the request to get Parisian women and not the usual batch of criminals,” Besen said.
King Louis XIV agreed and in mid-1704, sent 20 young virgins to Mobile on a ship called Le Pelican. These women were known as Pelican Girls, Cassette Girls or Casket Girls for the boxes (called casquettes) they used to carry their belongings to America.
“They got their wish, but with an ironic twist, they also were carrying yellow fever from a previous stop in Havana, Cuba,” Besen said.
Forty of Mobile’s 225 settlers — nearly 20 percent, including jaunty French explorer Henri de Tonti, the iron-handed father of Arkansas — died of the virus as a result.
Yellow fever kept striking in deadly waves over the next two centuries. In the 1770s, when Mobile was designated part of the British West Florida territory, the fever-infested city was nicknamed a “graveyard for Britons.”
The epidemic in 1819 was particularly devastating, killing approximately 430 out of a population of about 1,000. Suddenly the city had a chilling logistical problem: Where to bury the bodies? The graveyard in the spot now known as Cathedral Square was full. Officials quickly purchased new land for a more spacious cemetery and as a result, Church Street Graveyard was established.
But the work to exhume the bodies from the colonial graveyard was imprecise, Besen said.
“A mass grave area near Conti Street was discovered as late as the 1880s; a mass grave that was probably an unofficial burial site for a yellow fever outbreak,” he said.
Thousands got sick and 600 died in 1839, the year Mobile was also afflicted by a series of suspected arsons that destroyed 1,300 buildings downtown.
“So fast do misfortunes crowd on each other in our sister city that when we set about chronicling them, our soul sickens with sympathy,” the New Orleans Daily Picayune wrote on Oct. 11, 1839.
Fourteen years later, in the fall of 1853, came the most deadly outbreak in Mobile’s history. A wave of yellow fever killed 9,000 in New Orleans and then spread east along the Gulf Coast. The death count: 1,191 — roughly 7 percent of Mobile’s population.
Counting the population during those days was tough because so many residents fled. Wealthy residents flocked to country estates in places like Spring Hill. Those who had nowhere else to go often suffered the most. Some residents with means decided to stay behind and help. A group of philanthropic Mobilians created the “Can’t Get Away Club” to provide food and medicine for the poor, immigrants, African slaves and others most affected.
Like COVID-19, yellow fever exacerbated inequality in Mobile and became a political flashpoint, according to Henry McKiven, a history professor at the University of South Alabama.
“The conflict we are seeing now isn’t new,” McKiven said.
Nativists tended to blame Irish or Chinese for the rise of the virus. And in Southern cities, slaves or immigrants were often tasked with the dirty work of digging canals and levees or burying bodies because the elites considered them expendable.
“It became part of an effort of some cities to ‘whiten’ their population,” McKiven added.
But the public response to yellow fever did yield some positives, such as spurring the creation of public health infrastructures such as City Hospital, the Medical Society of Mobile County and the Alabama Department of Public Health.
Better public health, advancements in medical training and technology and the advent of antibiotics and vaccines ended yellow fever and other past plagues in the early 20th century.
But that’s now coming undone, Glassbrook said, as COVID-19 may be a harbinger of things to come.
“We’re dealing with a combination of climate change, the fact that people are encroaching on new habitats and exposed to new diseases, and some antibiotics are beginning to lose their effectiveness,” Glassbrook said. “We may be looking at a different future.”
That possibility is more frightening than any metal mummy or ghost story.
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