Bringing 'panic-stricken people to some sense of reason'
In days past, people in south Louisiana dreaded August not only for its heat, but also because this was a month when fearsome yellow fever epidemics began to spread across the countryside
In most years it appeared first in New Orleans and was spread into smaller towns by travelers who had been infected in the city. Yellow fever was a threat in New Orleans and south Louisiana virtually every year during the warmest months. The contagion struck New Orleans in 67 of the 100 years between 1800 and 1900. The 1853 outbreak, the worst of them, claimed 7,849 people in the city alone. In August of that year, 1,300 people died each week from the fever.
Small towns tried to block the contagion by quarantines such as the one adopted by the Vermilion Parish board of health on July 28,1905, “against all infected places where yellow fever exists, or may hereafter become infected, and all persons coming into the (parish) … without first showing a health certificate stating that (he or she had) not been in an infected area within five days.”
In days when steamboats were the principal means of travel, quarantines were enforced by simply refusing to let boats from New Orleans or other suspicious areas travel on south Louisiana waterways. By 1905, however, travel aboard trains that stopped at every little community made enforcement much more difficult.
For example, The Abbeville Meridional of Aug. 5, 1905, reported that Southern Pacific had adopted “the strictest requirements,” especially on passenger and freight traffic coming from New Orleans.
According to the news report, “A circular has been issued by the railroad company to its agents forbidding the sale of tickets or checking of baggage from New Orleans to any point on the Southern Pacific lines in Louisiana or any point west of this state, and also discontinuing the sale of tickets … to points in Mississippi where passengers would have to pass through New Orleans.”
Still, reports of the disease caused panic in the small communities, and some of them apparently reacted so forcefully that the state board of health had to issue a statement that “unreasonable and senseless parochial and municipal quarantines … will be stopped. If the State troops have to be called out to bring the panic-stricken people to some sense of reason.”
The state officials said some places “have absolutely stopped all traffic” into town and “imposed quarantine restrictions amounting to an embargo on the movement of railroad trains, thereby depriving their own people and their neighbors of supplies necessary to life, preventing medical officers … from reaching infected localities, and otherwise inflicting hardships at once senseless and cruel upon unoffending people.”
Some of the panic was created by what was an apparently erroneous report from Morgan City, which was the entry way to much of Acadiana for trains and ships from New Orleans. The health committee there was compelled to send notices to newspapers across south Louisiana, disclaiming “exaggerated reports … relative to the health conditions of our city.”
The notice said “that up to the present time, but one case of fever was reported (and that pronounced suspicious), that no other case has since developed, and that no death from any cause whatsoever has taken place inside a month.”
By 1905 it was generally known that yellow fever was transmitted by infected mosquitoes, not human contact, but that didn’t seem to matter to some officials. They worried – with a little bit of justification – that humans could bring the mosquitoes into a community in their clothing or baggage. A deadly outbreak in one community had been started by mosquitoes that got there in a mail pouch.
And, despite the new treatments and contrary to state health official claims, it appears that there was still some cause for worry in 1905. The last known yellow fever epidemic in the United States struck in south Louisiana that summer.
Mosquitoes brought to New Orleans in a shipload of bananas infected dock workers and the disease began to spread through the town. Health officials had the town fumigated and required all open sources of water to be emptied, sealed or screened — including even the holy water fonts in churches. Still, more than 450 people died of the disease during that hot summer.
A collection of Jim Bradshaw’s columns, “Cajuns and Other Characters,” is now available from Pelican Publishing. You can contact him at email@example.com or P.O. Box 1121, Washington LA 70589.