The Fever, Chapter 6:
Treatments for yellow fever varied depending on which part of the country the
attending physician was from. The first step was usually a cathartic to empty
DELORES JOHNSON PHOTO / THE VIRGINIAN-PILOT|
By LON WAGNER, The Virginian-Pilot
© July 15, 2005
On the first day of September, George Armstrong went to
yet another burial, this one of a friend. The Rev. Anthony Dibrell had
remained in the city, comforting his parishioners, when he was stricken.
What Armstrong saw at Dibrell’s service
underscored the city’s destruction. So many of Dibrell’s congregation had
fled, so many were sick or nursing family, that there were barely enough
to conduct the normal funeral rites. Dibrell’s own son, with Armstrong’s
help, had to hoist the coffin into the hearse.
The epidemic had entered a phase common to every great calamity, Armstrong
thought. People watched friends and family die, and they waited for the next
family member to succumb. The city had fallen under a collective spell of
The most important people in town now were doctors,
nurses and gravediggers. Treatments varied depending on which part of the
country the physician came from, but the first step was usually a cathartic such
as mercury chloride to empty the bowels. A few hours later came a dose of castor
If those steps worked , and in many cases they did not,
the doctor then gave the patient a dose of mercurous chloride every hour,
perhaps with opium, and used mustard poultices on the arms and legs.
Case study from the files of Dr. J.D. Bryant, courtesy of the Library of
Mr. J_________ ,
aged 45 years; a native.
Saw the patient in the first instance of attack; had excessive rigors, or
rather chills; he trembled sufficiently at intervals to shake the bed; severe
pain in head, back, and knees; epigastrium very tender; stomach irritable, with
nausea and occasional retching and vomiting; eyes injected, red, and watery;
face much flushed; conjunctiva and skin tinged with yellow; pulse 90, somewhat
full and round, but soft, and disappears under slight pressure; tongue has a
thick yellow coating, deeper in shade in the centre, and fading into almost
white at the margins, while the tip and edges of the tongue were of a fiery red;
the mouth and fauces were also remarkably red, and moist, or rather had a glairy,
viscid matter adhering to them; bowels constipated; mind wandering; speech at
times incoherent; spirits much depressed; anxiety strongly depicted in the
countenance; extremities cold, and towards the end of the day somewhat
shriveled; a strong, fetid, sickening odour pervaded the body, and diffused
itself throughout the chamber.
The patient was accustomed to an excessive use of alcoholic drinks;
occasionally became intoxicated. Ordered the mild  chloride of mercury and
jalapa, see grs. x; if no action within four hours, castor oil, see; mustard
pediluvia and sinapisms to extremities; bladder with ice to the head. Called
again in five hours; had had one copious evacuation of very dark, almost black,
extremely offensive bilious matter; had also thrown off very disagreeable
ingesta from the stomach, about one hour after having taken the calomel; had
taken and retained the oil well, but nausea and retching had returned when the
action of the cathartics commenced; ordered mustard poultice to the epigastrium,
with directions to apply a fly blister, if the former proved ineffectual in
allaying the gastric irritation. Called again in the evening; found the fly
blister applied, and drawing powerfully; denuded a portion of the surface, and
sprinkled it with a quarter of a grain of acetate of morphia; left a similar
portion to be applied in the course of the night, if needed; directed acetate of
lead, see; opium, gr. j; divide chart. 15, one every hour; renewed mustard baths
and sinapisms to extremities.
Even with a physician friend by his side, Dr. John Trugien died.
Trugien had treated the first victims of the fever in Gosport. At his
funeral service, the gravedigger cried.
Soon, three other doctors died, and a fourth was
Aside from Dibrell, two other Methodist ministers were
down with the fever.
Portsmouth Councilman Winchester Watts nearly died, but
in early September got back on his feet and wrote to his 12-year-old niece in
Richmond: “Our population daily is decreasing. The reverse may be said of the
fever. It is slaying our people right and left, and its poisonous effect may be
seen in the face of everyone you meet.
“I am afraid that nearly all our people who remain will
The teller of the Exchange Bank died, along with the mail
carrier in Portsmouth.
The Norfolk and Portsmouth Herald stopped printing. The
Norfolk Beacon, which had downplayed the fever, announced its suspension: “Two
of our hands are down with the fever, the pressman is sick, foreman intends to
leave town. It is impossible to employ compositors for love or money.”
The Southern Argus editor was down with the fever and so
was the reporter, but its foreman, James Finch, and one compositor kept
So many people were now ill that Norfolk couldn’t remove
the sick quickly enough to the Julappi hospital at Lambert s Point. The Howard
Association took over the City Hotel on Main Street and turned it into “Woodis
Like much of the city, the new hospital was run by
volunteers from out of town, with Henry Myers, the nurse from Richmond,
organizing the hospital and a doctor from Charleston, S.C., dispensing medicine.
A New Orleans man was called in to run the Norfolk Police Department.
Most of the East Coast cities had now lifted the
quarantines, but it was too late: Those who remained were either too poor or too
sick to leave. If any could, the Sea Bird’s owners aimed to profit from the
misery. They doubled the fare to Richmond to $4.
The Philadelphia committee had sent four doctors and
seven nurses to Norfolk, five doctors and five nurses to Portsmouth, but
Armstrong knew that wasn’t enough.
He had visited a house in which there were two families,
with every member sick. Armstrong had looked out the front door, seen a passing
physician and called out to him. Come in and write prescriptions for the dying,
Armstrong had asked. The doctor had opened his appointment book and waved it.
“I have already so many cases in hand that I cannot
conscientiously undertake another,” he had said, walking on.
The bakeries had all shut, and Armstrong couldn’t find a
loaf of bread anywhere. The city was a sad case: The poor had begun to suffer
for food, the sick couldn’t obtain the right nourishment for recovery – and the
well couldn’t procure coffins enough to bury the dead.
The Rev. Tiberius Jones of Free Mason Street Baptist
Church returned VERDAD’s assault with his own letter to the Dispatch. Jones
unveiled the writer as being R.T. Halstead and said he was greatly offended at
the personal and unjust attack.
“Not a few editors indiscriminately praise as saints or
heroes all who continue in its midst, although in many instances, ignorant of
the true motives and circumstances which induce them to do so,” Jones wrote.
“With equal ignorance of motives and circumstances, they
cast reproach on all who pursue a different course.”
Jones explained that by the time he could have returned
to Norfolk, most of his congregation had left and there would have been little
to do other than funerals.
Unfazed, VERDAD worked another slight into a Sunday
report, referring to a lack of services with “every deacon of the Free Mason
Street Baptist Church having stampeded.”
He didn’t stop there. He took on the Custom House
collector for evacuating to Hampton and rooted for the fever to spread at the
city jail. A man accused of killing another stood a fair chance of avoiding
justice, VERDAD explained, because the witnesses against him had died of the
“It would be an act of retributive justice if Goslin,
imprisoned there, awaiting his trial for the murder of Murphy, could fall victim
to it,” VERDAD wrote.
Without saying so, Armstrong had always wished that those
who fled had stuck around, if for nothing other than to suppress the panic. But
after the past few days, he had changed his mind.
Had everyone remained, and a proportional number been
stricken, he didn’t know how the city could have handled it. Six hundred, or so
he guessed, were now sick in Norfolk and dozens a day dying.
“In the flight of those that have gone I see most clearly
God’s good providence,” Armstrong thought.
The panic, he reasoned, must have been God scattering
people in order to save them.
Reach Lon Wagner at (757) 446-2341 or
Next: Chapter 7, Orphaned