Well, congratulations on surviving the Y2K “doomsday.” If you are like me, you came out of it with only slightly frayed nerves, and a slightly larger appreciation for a lot of things usually taken for granted.
What could wide-spread fear and panic have done to our state? That’s open to conjecture, but there is a historical event to gauge its potential — the yellow fever epidemic of 1878.
In 1878, not only did folks have no clue how to treat yellow fever, they didn’t even know what caused it. Today we know it is mosquito-borne, but back then it was a terrifying, mysterious killer. This one outbreak in 1878 killed more than 13,000 people.
Below is excerpts from unpublished letters written by my great-great-great-grandfather, Albert Buford, in Water Valley, and his wife, Mary.
Seeking to save family property on the Coast which had fallen into arrears on taxes, Mary left Water Valley and traveled to Ocean Springs that fateful summer. While separated, yellow fever descended on Mississippi, paralyzing business, causing panic and terror and stranding Mary far from home. The letters offer a fascinating glimpse of our state in the grip of fear, and a most heart-wrenching conclusion.
• August 2 — Dearest Husband, I arrived here yesterday evening by sail boat from Biloxi. The board of health of Jackson County has quarantined the whole county against New Orleans and will not permit the train to cross the bridge [over Biloxi Bay]. Only the engine and the mail car are permitted to pass. I have never felt as warm weather than on the Coast. And mosquitoes are now biting me.
• August 4 — Dear Wife, (A) letter never came at a better time. Some of your friends have been very much exercised on your account. Poor little Robt. Simmons died Thursday morning of a congestive chill. Old Sam Means died the day before. I feel very anxious about you.
• August 15 — Dear Wife, Our town is almost depopulated.
The Grenada people are suffering dreadfully. Dr. Peoples, Dr. Melton, Mrs. [name illegible], Gray, & Wm. Peacock, the merchant, are dead, & many others that I knew.
You can’t get home now, & no use in attempting it. You will be compelled to remain until winter.
I never saw such tension in my life.
• August 19 — Dearest Husband, Well the excitement has reached us at last. Mr. Strout, one of the proprietors of the hotel, died last night, and Dr. Dunlap dispatched the board of health this morning, that he died of black vomit (internal hemorrhaging). The citizens have protested against his remains being carried through town and he will be buried in the hotel yard. Now the Mobile train will stop and we will be shut out both ways. I don’t know whether it is so or not as everything is sensational.
• August 21 — Dear Wife, Booker is still alive but he is so low that I have no idea that he will recover.
Some cases in Canton. Grenada is depopulated. Four deaths in Holly Springs. Two hundred cases in Vicksburg.
• August 25 — Dear Husband, After I returned from seeing Mr. Clark I felt overcome with heat. Had a severe pain in my head behind my right ear which continued at intervals all night. I had some fever in the night, but sweated it off. Feel rather weak today.
• August 28 — Dearest Wife, I have one more case of fever to report, an engineer. I deeply regret the cause that is giving us so much trouble.
The desolation. The distress. Whole families swept off.
• August 30 — Dear Wife, I don’t know that there is any mail from Jackson to Meridian. Don’t spend a cent of your money for it is all that you will have to bring you home.
Take care of yourself for my sake. What would my life be without you?
P.S. Noon, the sick engineer is dead. All excitement & confusion.
• September 1 — Dearest Husband, I am sorry to tell you that there is a good deal of sickness — 5 cases. Miss Huntington at the hotel is very low. There is a case next door to us at Mrs. Hubbard’s, and the priest Father Charles is very ill at Shanahan’s on Mrs. Bartlett’s street, and a case very near Mrs. Bartlett.
• September 2 — Dear Wife, Eight cases in Holly Springs among the citizens. I fear it.
There is a strong police out at night to guard people’s property. Everything is excitement. What changes will take place in the next 60 days no one can tell.
Grenada is destroyed.
• September 4 — Dear Husband, The fever is gaining on us pretty fast. There are now 13 cases and not one who has gotten it is yet well and three deaths.
• September 5 — Dear Husband, There is another case this morning — Mary Keefe — just beyond us. The young girl at the Shanahan house died last night.
I am not feeling well today but hope it is only excitement. It looks like I am floating away from you forever.
• September 6 — Dear Husband, We are ready to start to the country. Fever on the increase. Mary Keefe died last night. Several more cases. I am tired and excited. Hope I feel better when I rest.
• September 6 — Dear Wife, Dr. McCampbell died on the 1st. Dr. Gillespie & mother died on the 4th. The Pastor & and all the Elders in our Church but Guy Kendall have fallen & he is now sick. Surely the hand of God is resting heavily on the South. God is sending His judgment on us to humble us. The [Civil] War failed to do it, for there is now more wickedness than was before the War.
• September 12 — Dear Wife, Your note of the 6th is the last from you. In it you said you were not well. If you can’t write, get Young to do it.
I am at home sitting by my desk, & oh how solitary. Everything is in place. Nothing wrong. If only I knew it was so with you…
An alarm at the door. The door is opened. A messenger presents four telegrams at 11 o’clock a.m. 8/78 — Your wife is down with the fever.
Second dispatch — Your wife is passing the crisis. Third dispatch — Without a miracle change, your wife cannot live till morning. Fourth dispatch
— Your wife died at 9 o’clock p.m.
Great God, what darkness.
Wally Northway is a staff writer for the Mississippi Business Journal. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.