The Fever, Chapter 9:
Elmwood Cemetery was established two years before the epidemic.
DELORES JOHNSON / THE
By LON WAGNER, The
© July 18, 2005
On Sept. 9, the Richmond Dispatch report was again meager.
The fever had all but silenced VERDAD.
“My physician thinks I will be up in a day or two, my attack, in his
opinion, being a mild one,” he wrote. “I had selected a young man to
continue my correspondence, but he, poor fellow, is down too.”
The papers struggled to find words for
the destruction from the pestilence. During the Great Plague of London,
perhaps history’s most infamous scourge, one out of five died. Here, one
in three were dying. If the population were equal to New York’s, 25,000 a
week would be falling.
“The rich, the poor – old and young – white and colored – all have been
indiscriminately leveled down by the disease,” a correspondent wrote.
One paper described the burials and compared them to methods used
during wartime: “They have dug large pits or trenches, in which coffins
are placed in tiers one above the other, and the whole covered with quick
lime and dirt!”
James Chisholm, known for an unexcitable manner, wrote to a friend from
his hospital bed: “As to the details of the woe presented by our present
condition, I do believe that it is utterly incompetent to any descriptive
power to convey a picture of them.”
And still, no one knew what the enemy looked like.
Many families had friends or relatives lying dead at home, waiting two
days or more for coffins.
Richard Williams became the 13th member of his family to die. Norfolk’s
delegate-elect to the General Assembly died. Dr. William Collins of the
Seaboard and Roanoke Railroad died, and two hours later his brother
In one day, the fever killed five doctors.
Dr. John Trugien’s mother and sister fled to Baltimore but died there.
The Navy chaplain died. Norfolk’s acting mayor, N.C. Whitehead, was so
sick that he made out his will. James Finch, who had single-handedly kept
the Southern Argus running, died, and with that, the last local paper
President Franklin Pierce returned from the springs to consider the
cities’ effort to remove everyone to Fort Monroe, but he said the
logistics of moving 1,500 troops were too great. He delivered the news,
along with a $325 donation from himself and his Cabinet.
Donations and help from around the country continued to flood in.
A woman sent a gold ring. George Custis offered his property on Smith’s
Island for a refuge. A slave from Washington County sent 10 cents and a
note: “Though a ten cent piece is small, it is every cent I possess in
this world, and it may help in buying some nourishment for some of the
many orphans who are parentless and crying for relief.”
Boston, apparently concerned about its image, gathered $3,000:
“Remember, the merchants of Boston know no North, no South, but believe
all are brethren of one family. Although last, we trust she will not be
found least of several cities.”
By the second week of September, more than 1,500 in Norfolk and
Portsmouth had died.
On Sept. 9, at Trinity Church in Washington, the Rev. George D. Cummins
summoned fire and brimstone in a sermon on behalf of the two cities.
Cummins, former minister of Norfolk’s Christ Church, compared the
suffering to that in Rome in A.D. 265, to Constantinople in the sixth
century and the plague during the Middle Ages.
Such afflictions are so severe, Cummins noted, that God allowed David
to choose between seven years of famine and three days of pestilence – and
now parishioners had a nearby example. It could break out anywhere,
Cummins cautioned those gathered, as it had in the two cities.
“Without warning, the air of heaven, unchanged to any human sense,
became loaded with seeds of death,” Cummins preached. “The destroying
angel was on the wing.”
When George Armstrong awoke on the morning of Sept. 12, he felt
sad, lower than any day since the pestilence had first appeared.
Nerve pains in his face had broken his sleep for several nights, and he
knew that physical ailments often came with depressed spirits. For the
past two weeks, he had risen every day wondering, “Whom have I to bury
That morning, he feared he knew the answer. He had become skilled at
talking to the sick, looking at their symptoms and figuring how much time
they had left. When he last saw Eliza Souter, a cornerstone of the church,
he knew she wouldn’t last long.
Yet when he heard the news, he couldn’t believe it. His wishes had
overpowered his intellect. It was often said that it was a blessing when
God took the ripe, but women such as Souter carried a heavy load of the
After her burial, Armstrong walked by the post office at the Norfolk
academy building. When it had first moved from Commerce Street, crowds
gathered when the mail was due to arrive. People chatted on the academy’s
wide porch, or on its steps. Boys chased one another around or played
marbles under shade trees, as the adults swapped stories about sick family
“One by one, men with sad countenances came,” Armstrong noticed, “and,
receiving their letters and papers, turned and went away again, one hardly
having the heart to speak to another.”
Later that night, Armstrong sat down to write a letter to a friend in
Richmond. Whitehead, the acting mayor, had recovered, he wrote, but his
only daughter had died.
After three solid weeks of walking city streets from sunrise until
nearly midnight, of smelling the foul breath of the dying, of burying
friends and church members, Armstrong’s will was deflated and his body
Again, he crawled into bed and couldn’t sleep. He was jittery and
anxious. He got back up and paced the room.
After a few hours of poor sleep, Armstrong woke up with a dull headache
and slight chills.
Reach Lon Wagner at (757) 446-2341 or