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Historical St. Augustine Cemetary

Yellow Jack!

Yellow fever, or yellow jack, struck terror in colonial America and the dread plague continued to rage up to the beginning of the 20th century all along the Atlantic coast and in the Caribbean. St. Augustine did not escape.

Perhaps one of the worst outbreaks of yellow fever in the town's history occurred in the very year it became a territory of the United States. Until 1821, St. Augustine had enjoyed nearly 100 years of immunity to virulent diseases and had acquired a reputation for a healthy climate, but in the summer of that year a chain of circumstances brought a rude awakening.

The town was filled to overflowing with strangers who flocked into the new territory to seek their fortunes. They moved into dilapidated old houses where conditions were far from sanitary and became less so, since most of the new residents were gay bachelors more interested in drinking, gambling, and cockfighting than in cleaning up.

In addition, the town was littered with debris left by the departing Spaniards. It is reported that a dead cow putrefied in the fort's moat, and an odorous hog carcass slowly disintegrated behind the Court House.

That summer, the inlet at the southern end of Anastasia island silted up and closed, turning the Matanzas River into a fresh water lagoon in which all the salt water sea life perished, wafting a horrible odor up to St. Augustine on the southeast breeze. It rained a lot and the mosquitoes were awful, though at this time no one realized there was any connection between mosquitoes and yellow fever. Also the heat went on and on, and it did not cool down until November.

The 1821 yellow fever epidemic began with the return of several local ships from Havana (yellow fever never really abated there) where they had taken the Spanish citizens and their goods. They came into the harbor with no effort being made to hold them in quarantine, even though one ship had to be brought into port by just two men. Everyone else had died, but the cook, and he perished shortly after they docked.

One of the first victims was the newly appointed justice Thomas Fitch. The boatmen who were taking him to his plantation north of the city fished some bedding off the infected ships out of the river, and he fell victim to the fever along with the unfortunate laundress who washed up the salvaged linens. Several young men who boarded another of the fever ships soon were ill, and the disease spread rapidly through the town.

One of the most terrifying aspects of yellow fever was the speed at which it struck a man could be healthy on Tuesday and dead by Friday. Native Floridians seemed, for some reason, to be less susceptible, but the newcomers fell sick by the scores.

There were six doctors practicing in St. Augustine at the time, and they struggled to cope with the epidemic. Many of the victims were destitute, so the city hired nurses for them at $2 for a 24 hour day. Kindhearted local people did what they could, and several were especially cited by the City Council for their good deeds, among them Mrs. Maria de Burgos, a Colonel Johnstone from Charleston, and Mrs. John Drysdale.

Also a boon to the stricken city was the arrival of Rev. Andrew Fowler who had been sent from Charleston to open up an Episcopal Church. He arrived in October when the epidemic was at its height, but insisted on going ashore to comfort the ill and dying. He apologized to the local priest, Father Crosby, for giving the last rites to a number of Catholics, but the good man told him that he was glad that some religious comfort had been given them, since many died with no Christian rites at all. Before he left to go back to Charleston in November, Rev. Fowler had officiated at 95 funerals.

Finally, with the arrival of cool weather, the horrible fever abated. But epidemics of yellow jack continued to ravage Florida, striking particularly hard in the 1880's. In 1900, the mosquito Aedes Aegypti was identified as the carrier, and with modern methods of mosquito control the fearful plague was conquered.

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