The Fever, Chapter 8:
the doors and windows of nearly every home, George Armstrong saw
plague flies hovering.|
By LON WAGNER, The
© July 17, 2005
The pestilence held Norfolk firmly by the throat.
Wails of death echoed down the streets. The council approved the
digging of trenches for burials at Potter’s Field. When it seemed as
though the situation had hit bottom, the fever broke out at an asylum of
William Ferguson, head of the Howard Association, wrote to the
Baltimore relief group pleading for more aid: “Continue your supplies
until you are broke.”
VERDAD returned to his reporting and continued assailing the absentee
residents. The Howard Association, he had learned, had received letters
requesting that the officers look after servants left behind.
“But not a dime do these absentees – many of them rich in this world’s
goods – send as a contribution to our afflicted and destitute poor,” he
wrote. He intended to help the association expose them once the epidemic
at the city jail, VERDAD got an earlier wish. A man named Goslin, accused
in a slaying , died of the fever.
The Rev. William Jackson of St. Paul’s seemed to shock everyone by
remaining healthy, despite ministering to half of the city and helping run
the orphan asylum. He and George Armstrong often ran into each other at
It was a mild day, in the mid-70s on Sept. 6, when Armstrong headed to
another burial. The carriage he rode in and another followed the hearse,
rattling over the cobblestone streets.
The Richmond Dispatch estimated 800 deaths so far in Norfolk. Reports
were that 80 people a day were dying, but as Armstrong thought through it,
there had to be more.
He had been to the cemetery the day before at 4 in the afternoon and
asked the gravedigger how many graves were ordered for the day.
“Forty-three,” the man said. Across the way, at Potter’s Field, Armstrong
saw crude boxes piled as high as a man could reach and watched men nearby
digging a pit. A supervisor told Armstrong that they had to bury 40. And
he knew that for the past week they had buried the dead until 10 at night.
Certainly, more than 90 a day were falling, and this didn’t take into
account those buried at St. Mary’s Catholic Cemetery.
Elmwood had opened two years earlier, when plots in Cedar Grove began
to sell out, and a small bridge over Smith’s Creek linked the two
cemeteries. With the epidemic, Elmwood began filling quickly.
When the carriages arrived, the head gravedigger opened the gate.
Instead of silently pointing them to the grave or politely whispering to
ask the name of the deceased, he demanded, “Who’s this?”
He directed them to the family’s plot, but no grave had been dug. The
hearse couldn’t wait, the carriages had other appointments. The men
wrestled the coffin from the hearse, sat it on the ground and Armstrong
held a short prayer.
Before leaving, he paused to look around.
Usually, in September, the grounds were lush and a quiet befitting a
resting place settled under the old cedar trees. Now, men labored in every
part of the cemetery, the sound of a shovel crunching into earth rang from
all directions, the lawn looked more like a plowed field.
“The city and the cemetery have changed characters,” Armstrong thought.
“The latter now wears the busy aspect which belongs to the former; and
almost the silence of death reigns in the deserted streets.”
On his way home that night, Armstrong walked past his house and
toward the river to look over the harbor at sunset.
Around the doors and windows of nearly every home, he saw plague flies
hovering. The flies had materialized a few days earlier, and although
disturbing brought about optimism. During epidemics in other Southern
cities, they had signaled the climax of the crisis.
Blacks thought that plague flies ate the “matter which constitutes the
immediate cause of the disease.”
Plague flies were nearly identical to blow flies, Armstrong thought,
the main difference being the texture and color of the wings. He had tried
to collect some for a physician in another city to examine. He put them in
a vial and corked it, but when he looked again in a few days all that
remained was dark dust.
Armstrong walked out onto the drawbridge and squinted. It was a cool,
clear evening, and the sun backlit the city’s waterfront. The wharves
jutted into the water, their names painted in bold white on the sides:
Colley’s, Campbell’s, Butler & Camp’s, Ferguson & Milhado’s, all
the way up to Hardy’s at Town Point.
“All appear as usual, saving that their doors and windows are closed,”
Armstrong noticed, “and there is no living thing to be seen about
Many of the names were those of dead or dying entrepreneurs, and
Armstrong thought that several would have to be repainted.
During much of the year, vessels would line up and wait at the wharf
heads five or six deep. Armstrong saw two ships in the entire harbor – a
fishing smack sunken at the county dock, its mast sticking out of the
water, and a ship drawn up for repairs in an abandoned yard.
The only working ship that dared enter the harbor these days was the
small steamer the Joseph E. Coffee. Steamer operators from other cities
were too frightened to touch in Norfolk, and the Coffee met them in
Hampton Roads, loaded their supplies, then shuttled into the inner
Armstrong had seen it sailing in yesterday, its entire deck piled with
the city’s main import, empty coffins.
The city’s transformation, in just a few weeks, staggered Armstrong.
One of the East Coast’s finest harbors, saws buzzing and hammers banging a
month earlier, was more forsaken than if it were full of submerged
“The coming of a ship into her harbour today would cause almost as much
surprise to the beholder as did the first ship whose hull rippled the
surface of her waters to the Indian who then dwelt here.”
Armstrong walked back home, and after a 15-hour day went straight to
bed. But he was irritable and nervous. He couldn’t get to sleep.
Reach Lon Wagner at (757) 446-2341 or