The Fever, Chapter 5:
By LON WAGNER, The
© July 14, 2005
At the Barry’s Row fire, George Armstrong had wondered about
human nature, what madness the pestilence might bring out. Now, a new
divisiveness showed its face.
The quarantines, along with the mass exodus, made some of those who had
stayed bitter. The owners of the steamer Joseph E. Coffee were rumored to
be suing the commandant of Old Point Comfort for preventing the ship from
Many people around town thought that
donations from Richmond and Petersburg should be sent back. “We ask not,
nor will we receive such sympathy from such narrow-hearted and
un-Christian Virginians,” the Southern Argus wrote.
By the end of August, 10,000 people had fled Norfolk; only about 6,000
remained. Portsmouth was down to just 3,000 residents from 10,000. A
witness saw a family leaving two sick sons behind, another group of
children walking away from their parents.
The night of his letter, Dr. John Trugien stayed up with a sick friend,
then called on patients throughout the next day. The day after, he
complained about mild pain and another physician took him to the Naval
increased when those who had risked their lives began dying. The most
stunning news was Norfolk Mayor Hunter Woodis’ death. It added chaos to
the expanding epidemic and disheartened those struggling through it. Even
someone with the constitution of a young man, with determined spirit, had
succumbed. N.C. Whitehead became acting mayor, but he was older, also had
to run one of the banks and couldn’t devote every minute to the task as
The sacrifice of leaders such as Woodis, physicians such as Trugien and
ministers such as Armstrong stood out starkly against the public flight.
In a late August story, the Richmond Dispatch’s Norfolk correspondent,
under the pen name VERDAD, praised those who had stuck around – before his
words turned venomous. He spat most of his poison at the minister of Free
Mason Street Baptist Church, the Rev. Tiberius G. Jones.
“He left the city shortly before the epidemic broke out, and has kept
himself safe away ever since. As a Christian minister he should have
returned immediately to minister to the spiritual wants of his
congregation, but in place, he wrote, we learn to know whether it would be
safe for him to return.”
Armstrong had been preoccupied tending to his nephew, comforting sick
members of his church and burying the dead , so he hadn’t had time to read
the newspapers. One morning, he walked to the post office, which had been
moved away from downtown to the military academy, and opened a letter from
an old classmate in Philadelphia.
His friend informed him of widely circulating press reports that the
Protestant clergy in Norfolk had deserted their posts. Personally,
Armstrong wasn’t concerned with the reports – the pestilence had made
priorities clear, and he scarcely had time to fret over his
But there were others who could not take time to defend themselves, and
he wanted to set the record straight. He wrote back to his Philadelphia
friend. He saluted the Rev. Matthew O’Keefe, the Catholic priest in town,
who had ventured into Barry’s Row, Leigh’s Row in Portsmouth and other
infested Irish tenements.
What of the Protestants? Armstrong listed the 10 churches that he was
familiar with, and counted that seven pulpits were staffed – and one
minister had traveled to Germany and another had resigned before the fever
That left VERDAD’s primary target, Jones, who Armstrong reported was
out of town with his sick wife.
“I will venture to say that in our city there is not one class of the
population – not even the physicians or the undertakers – of which so
large a proportion have remained at their posts, as of the clergy,”
Already, a Portsmouth minister had taken the fever. In recent days, it
had attacked two others in Norfolk.
“Unless a miracle preserve us,” Armstrong wrote his friend, “when the
pestilence should have passed there will be more than one green mound in
our cemetery to bear witness to the falsehood of this report.”
Armstrong had begun to think that he might be among them. Lately, he’d
had an odd feeling, almost a premonition, that he would die before his
42nd birthday. That was Sept. 15, just two weeks away.
Reach Lon Wagner at (757) 446-2341 or