The Fever, Chapter 2:
1855, the Rev. George Armstrong of Norfolk ventured to Portsmouth to
visit a fellow minister who had the fever. COURTESY OF WALTER B. MARTIN JR.|
By LON WAGNER, The
© July 11, 2005
George Armstrong walked through Norfolk to catch the ferry
across the Elizabeth River. He had gotten word that the Rev. Isaac Handy,
the minister of Middle Street Presbyterian in Portsmouth, was down with
the fever, and he wanted to pay his friend a visit.
It was a bright, early August day, but, at 80 degrees that morning,
milder than usual for the season. Dr. George Upshur had reported the first
cases in Norfolk a few days earlier, but most suspected that the victims
had some connection to Gosport, the section of Portsmouth where the yellow
fever first hit.
Upshur discovered cases in Barry’s Row, a crowded Irish tenement built
where Church Street dead-ended at the river. Many had criticized him for
delaying too long in making the news public, but others had mocked his
diagnoses as fiction that would harm the city’s commerce. Cynics dubbed it
“the Upshur fever.”
Armstrong felt upbeat on his way to the wharf. Norfolk did not buzz
with its usual doings, but he thought there was enough activity that a
visitor to town wouldn’t notice anything different.
He was optimistic that the fever wouldn’t take hold in Norfolk. Since
the last major epidemic in 1826, the city had paved and graded more than
80 streets, helping rainwater wash filth down into the river. Plus, as he
crossed Main Street, he recalled that that street had been the northern
boundary of the fever in the past, and most residents now lived beyond
people had died in Norfolk, but the health board had reported no deaths
yesterday, and one of the city papers was optimistic: “It is sincerely
hoped,” the Southern Argus wrote, “that in a few days we shall have the
happiness to declare every part of Norfolk entirely free from epidemic
Armstrong stepped off the ferry in Portsmouth and after walking just a
few feet, his spirits drooped. He covered nearly the entire length of High
Street and ran into just one white person. He passed the city market,
usually crowded with farmers selling produce, and saw only two carts.
There were no shoppers.
On his way back home, he detoured to see other parts of town. He
watched a man knock at a house and a woman lean from an upper window to
speak with him – afraid that if she got near the man, she might get the
When he did run across people, the only topic was the sickness and
death of friends. An undertaker told Armstrong that he had received orders
that morning for seven coffins.
But the thing that struck Armstrong most was an eerie silence.
Normally, by 10 a.m., the city swirled with the sounds of horse-cart
wheels clattering over cobblestones, hammers pounding on ships, voices
shouting over the din.
Today, all Armstrong heard was the crowing of a rooster. Portsmouth was
the most forlorn place he had ever seen.
The fever was killing a handful of people each day in
Portsmouth, and about a third of the city’s 10,000 residents had fled.
Most people of means caught a steamer to Richmond and trains bound for
the healthful springs resorts in the Virginia mountains. Poor families
packed up what they could carry and trudged to the western fringes of
town. Many camped in the woods.
As the days wore on, those who had stayed began to feel like they might
New York first declared Portsmouth and Norfolk infected and barred any
vessel or person from the two cities.
Within days in early August, Washington, Baltimore and Richmond joined
in, then Petersburg and Suffolk. Old Point Comfort forbade steamers from
Norfolk to touch there, and the commandant of Fort Monroe enforced the
order with armed sentries patrolling the shores.
Mathews County and the Eastern Shore were exceptions, throwing
themselves open to refugees. The governor-elect, Henry A. Wise, had even
invited those fleeing to stay in his Accomack County home and added
outhouses to accommodate more.
But as the options dwindled, fear mounted. The Richmond ban forced the
owners of the steamer Augusta, which plied the James River from Norfolk to
the capital , to stop operating. Rumors flew that each trip of a certain
ship would be its last.
Winchester Watts, president of Portsmouth’s common council, wrote to
his brother, who had fled to Richmond, that he had never seen such panic
as one morning at the railroad wharf.
“Nearly an hour before the departure of the boat the whole wharf was
strewn with trunks, carpet bags and crowded with a dense mass of human
beings of all ages and conditions.”
Word of how the disease tortured its victims elevated the fright.
An attack began with weariness, restlessness and depression, soon
followed by headaches and pain in the back and joints. In the middle of
summer, it brought on a high fever, a symptom for which there was no
The assault on the body often became more grave after three to five
days. Extreme weakness set in, the face and eyes flushed red, then yellow
when the liver ceased working.
In the worst cases, mucous membranes failed and blood oozed from the
ears, nose, mouth or any opening. When the bleeding passed through the
stomach, it became the black vomit.
The fever’s neurological assault made people babble senselessly, moan
and wail loudly and want to tear away anything touching their bodies.
The ferry between Norfolk and Portsmouth soon stopped running, cutting
off the cities from each other . The Portsmouth Transcript ceased
publication. The first powerful resident came down with the fever, Capt.
Samuel Barron, commander of the Navy Yard.
Soon, Barron’s sister-in-law, Imogene, and Lizzie, her 14-year-old
daughter, were struck. Imogene’s youngest son was breast-feeding and had
to be taken from his mother.
In Norfolk, people tried to keep the fever at the city’s fringes, where
it could be managed.
The city had set up a temporary hospital away from the air of the
infected district and carted the sick from Barry’s Row. Healthy residents
were evicted, and volunteers were sent to the Irish tenements to remove
bedding and disinfect the rooms.
The row houses were three-story brick buildings, and the foundations
sat on a creek that had been filled in. During heavy rains, water rushed
to the low land, often draining into the basements, then rising through
the floor boards.
The Norfolk Beacon reported that Barry’s Row had been so crowded that
in one tenement, 16 workers had shared a room. The fever was certain to
germinate in places like that, most thought, and respectable homes in
better parts of town ought to be safe.
Just to be sure, Norfolk residents quarantined themselves from the
tenements: A 24-foot wooden wall was erected around Barry’s Row.
Armstrong now faced a decision: Should he stay and comfort the
sick, or should he get his wife and girls out of town?
His family had already decided to stick together, so if he stayed, he
could be putting them in danger. How bad it would get, he could only
Many thought that with the measures now in place, it would end soon.
The Southern Argus wrote that the fever “seems to have spent itself in
Barry’s Row, and upon some of those hapless residents of those damp,
filthy and unventilated tenements.”
But soon, the fever breached Main Street.
Armstrong knew that in Savannah, Ga., and in Charleston, S.C. – New
Orleans and Philadelphia before – the only guaranteed antidote to the
fever had been to escape town.
That was for others to decide. His choice became clear.
“The physician and the Christian pastor are, by their profession,
called to minister to the sick, the dying and the afflicted,” he thought.
No personal danger, or threat to his family, should influence the
He would stay in Norfolk, and face whatever came his way.
Reach Lon Wagner at (757) 446-2341 or