When Yellow Fever struck Selma

Published 12:00 am Sunday, January 23, 2005

One of the joys of being a museum curator is the opportunity to look through ancient documents, such as letters, newspapers, diaries and journals of those who settled the Black Belt region more than two centuries ago. Having a few spare minutes just the other day I opened an old file and found treasure.

Lying on top of the yellowed and crumbling contents was a small booklet, gray in color and beautifully preserved. Across the front was the title “Report made by Dr. A.G. Mabry to New Orleans Sanitary Commission, 1853.The slim volume held only six pages, but those six pages held a wealth of information about the early city and an epidemic of Yellow Fever and its resultant life toll.

Its victims, so many, many of them infants and children, may be found in Old Live Oak Cemetery, the burial place from 1829 to 1856, when Elmwood became the city cemetery for a time. After realizing that sections of Elmwood were prone to flooding, the city purchased the land between King Street and Valley Creek and combined it with the older section, creating Live Oak Cemetery.

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Anyone who has walked through the original section has surely noted the tiny markers, some with the figure of a small dog at its foot or some with the figure of a dove resting on top of the headstone. And the inscriptions are heartbreaking:

A very tiny stone is inscribed simply “Little Annie Bowman,” who died at age 2.

Another headstone, for a child less than a year old, is inscribed, “There was an angel band in heaven that was not quite complete,

So God took our darling baby to fill the vacant seat.”

And on some of the oldest of the family plots there may be found clusters of tiny stones marking the burial sites of infants for disease and epidemics took a dreadful toll.

Dr. Mabry’s report is dated Nov. 5, 1853, a year that coincides with many of the headstones.

His report first names the location of Selma in proximity to the river, gives the makeup of the soil, “chiefly sand intermixed with an occasional saratum of clay resting upon a bed of rotten limestone,” and describes the “concave bed for the immense deposit of sand on which the town is situated.”

The report continues with information about the town wells, “dug at the depth of eighteen to twenty-six feet,” and comments on “the abundant supply of the most delightful freestone water.”

Mabry writes that there are “no canals, ditches, pools or other places that contain stagnant water within or near the limits of town.” He also mentions the “considerable swamp land which has been reclaimed,” and the “large and deep gully” which has encroached on Broad and Water Streets “so as to make it an object for the last fifteen or eighteen years not only to arrest its further progress but also to repair the damage already done”

According to his report, these repairs were done by using “immense quantities of brush, shavings, logs and everything of the kind that could be conveniently obtained ” to be thrown in and covered with sand and dirt. However, he goes on to explain that “a company of gentlemen, having purchased the end of Broad Street where it terminate on the river bluff, including the gully, commenced their excavations for the foundation of a building 120 by 100 feet.” These excavations reached more than 20 feet below the surface, giving room for two stories underground and embracing this gully.”

Therefore, Mabry writes, all the deposits heretofore made in the gully had to be exhumed and removed, then spread out upon Water Street and upon vacant lots nearby and exposed to the sun.

Mabry writes also about a decayed old wooden building torn down on the corner of Broad and Water “and much filth exposed” and the dirt from the excavation deposited on the vacant lots. Wood from the building was sold to a man living on Water Street and piled in his yard. Then the middle of July 1953, Mabry describes other large excavations on Water and Green Streets and all the way to Lauderdale. So now, five pages into the booklet, the reader wonders at the purpose of Dr. Mabry’s report as he adds weather observations during that summer and fall – “hot and dry” although the spring he considered a wet one. However the last of July that year five weeks of rain set up and the river rose “considerably.”

He at last gets to the meat of his report, writing of “the usual intermitting and remitting fever prevailing to some extent but the year was unusually healthy until the middle of September when the first change took place with cold east winds blowing. The cases of fever became more numerous and around the first of the month John Erhart, who had purchased the wood from the decaying building died with symptoms of yellow fever.

Quarantine regulations were established on the 13th of September and Drs. Barnum and Blevins appointed health officers. In the same month Mr. Miller, a northern man and moulder in the iron foundry, died at his boarding house on the corner of Water and Green streets of yellow fever.

Although Selma was quarantined, on Sept. 20 a family which had yellow fever, came up from Mobile and eluding the health officer landed and recovered. Within the month of September, the family of Erhart, his wife and two children, died of yellow fever. Other deaths followed in rapid succession: a young lawyer named Mitchell, who lived on the corner of Broad and Water, a Water Avenue clothing store clerk, a grocer in a Water Avenue building and Mr. Blevins who lived on the corner of Broad and Alabama “in a new brick building.”

Col. Burr, a boarder in the Dallas House on the corner of Water and Washington streets fell ill, but recovered. The deaths continued: Major Gee, an architect named White, an exchange banker named Atkinson and Dr. Barnum all died of the yellow fever.

And Dr. Mabry writes:

“Our citizens took fright and many fled. Our little city contains a population of three thousand. At the time the fever commenced five hundred were probably absent on their summer tours. It is thought a thousand fled the fever, leaving us a popular the balance of the season of fifteen hundred.”

He describes in horrific detail symptoms and physical effects of yellow fever, which he wrote, “prevailed so extensively in New Orleans, Mobile and other places on the Gulf Coast during the past summer.” And to the careful reader of his words, it becomes obvious he is appealing to the Sanitary Commission to find the cause of yellow fever.

He concludes the report, “Judging from my own experience I should say that one out of every five of those attacked died.”

The small tombstones, the tiny grave markers and the family monuments in old Live Oak Cemetery give truth to his words.

On the family gravesite of Dr. A.G. Mabry a small marker is inscribed for “Daniel Riggs Mabry, son of A.G. and M. Mabry, aged 2 months and 2 days.”