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Yellow Jack

A Yellow Fever Epidemic Hits Jacksonville


Yellow Jack

Artist Matt Morgan's drawing in Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper personified yellow fever dragging down Florida.

Image courtesy State Library and Archives of Florida
It sounds like a scene from a Hollywood movie. But in 1888, the tragic scenario was all too real. An epidemic of epic proportions hit the River City. Before it was all over, Yellow Fever would claim the lives of some 400 Jacksonville residents and push a nation into panic.

In a 1940 interview conducted as part of the Federal Writers' Project, William Hawley, resident of Jacksonville's Arlington district, described the pandemonium that ensued when word of a yellow fever epidemic spread.

"The trains were packed to the limit. Even the roofs of cars were crowded with terrified citizens. Some people in their haste left their homes with fires burning, food in preparation for the noonday meal, and doors wide open."

Yellow Jack

They gave it a name -"Yellow Jack"- personifying the oft-fatal, infectious disease with editorial cartoons depicting yellow fever as a screaming, skeletal figure ravaging "Lady Jacksonville." Investigators traced Yellow Jack’s entry into the River City to a customer at the Mayflower Hotel who had recently traveled from Cuba. The visitor was quarantined at the Sand Hills Yellow Fever Hospital while armed guards surrounded the hotel that soon would be ordered burned to the ground.

Desperate measures guided by the science and superstitions of the day followed. Agents burned barrels of tar in the streets to disinfect the air and sprayed sulfur and lime mixtures into the homes of infected. Cannons borrowed from St. Augustine’s Castillo de San Marcos were hauled into Downtown Jacksonville and shot off at night in the belief that gun powder would dispel airborne toxins.

Yellow flags marked hundreds of homes across town where victims lay sick and dying. Black bunting covered their doors. And hearses, called "death carts" then, were sent to pick up the dead in the dark of night, so as to avoid spreading even more panic.

Hawley and a friend embraced one particular myth with gusto.

"One idea was promulgated that champagne was a preventive," Hawley recalled. "I purchased a half dozen bottles and told a friend about it. He said he did not mind becoming 'vaccinated' so he went with me to my room, placed some ice in a large goblet and helped himself. I do not now remember whether he contracted the fever, but I know he had a large headache the next day."

Public Enemy

Fear spread far beyond the city limits. Waycross, Georgia residents threatened to destroy tracks if a train from Jacksonville dared to pass through and Montgomery, Alabama’s mayor offered a $100 reward for anyone who apprehended a Jacksonville escapee. All the while, death and desperation dwindled Jacksonville’s population from 130,000 to 14,000 in a span of just a few days, as thousands found ways to slip past shotgun-bearing sentinels standing guard at every roadway.

After months of misery, relief came with a late November dip in temperatures. The fever finally lifted with winter's first frost. Still, it would be another decade before people understood why. Turns out our visitor from Cuba wasn't the only culprit. Army Pathologist Walter Reed, namesake of Washington, D.C.'s Walter Reed Hospital, proved that mosquitoes spread the disease. When the cold killed them, it killed Yellow Jack too.

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