Tuesday, November 26, 2019

‘Yellow Jack’ Plagues Arkansas, Sparks Fears

Arkansas Democrat, 1878,
Arkansas State Archives
On Aug. 13, 1878, Kate Bionda died in her bed in Memphis, Tenn., and became one of the first deaths that year from Yellow Fever, a disease that quickly spread throughout Memphis, the Delta and the southeastern U.S.

Yellow Fever, also called “Yellow Jack,” eventually killed about 20,000 people in the fall of 1878 in states that included Arkansas, Louisiana and Mississippi. Symptoms included fever, pains, severe liver disease that yellowed the skin and vomit blackened by blood. Arkansas residents were mostly spared from the deadly outbreak, but towns, such as Helena, were hit by the disease.

The mechanism by which Yellow Fever spread remained mostly unknown as late as 1898. Medical consensus held the disease, like the common cold, was spread through air. H.R. Carter, a surgeon at the United States Marine Hospital, wrote in a pamphlet about the treatment of the disease and said it was known to spread by air 220 meters from the carrier.

However, Carter made an important observance: The disease happened to be most frequent in swamps or wetlands. Carter and his colleagues dismissed the idea that mosquitoes carried and spread the disease, even after Dr. Carlos Finlay published findings of such in 1881. Finlay’s theory was not recognized fully until 1900, after a U.S. commission investigated. 

During the 1878 outbreak, doctors and medical experts agreed the best way to protect people from Yellow Fever was to quarantine affected areas and refuse to allow people in or out. In areas unaffected by the disease, such as Little Rock, this quarantine plan received hearty approval from the public.

Often the demand for quarantine came from the general public. On Aug. 26, 1878, a citizens group met in Little Rock to demand the State Board of Health implement quarantines against Memphis and New Orleans. They demanded no boats use the rivers from Memphis or Louisiana. Further, they insisted no trains operate over the Little Rock-Memphis railroad. Sensing the State Board of Health might resist such harsh demands, the citizens resolved, “that any members of the Board of Health who are not in accord, fully and heartily, with these resolutions in their language and their spirit, are most cordially invited to resign.”

Over the course of 1878, there were only a handful of Yellow Fever cases reported in Arkansas. In those few instances, the town was immediately placed under quarantine. When a case was reported in Washington, Arkansas, in Hempstead County, police surrounded the city to prevent any coming and going.

As the death toll mounted in Memphis, panic spread in Arkansas. On Oct.  2, 1878, T.F. Freeman, a prominent grocer in Augusta in Woodruff County passed away after suffering symptoms similar to Yellow Fever. Rumor had it a box of dry goods slipped through the imposed Memphis quarantine and made its way into Augusta where, like a Pandora’s Box, its contents quickly spread Yellow Fever in the town. Once the rumors spread, the citizens of Augusta and all towns along the railroad’s route from Memphis packed their belongings to flee.

Alarmed, the State Board of Health convened an emergency meeting on Oct. 8, 1878, to formulate a plan to combat the spread of the disease. On the same day the State Board of Health met, another person passed away from what seemed to be Yellow Fever.

Doctors in Augusta rushed to the bedsides of the victims to assess whether the sickness was a result of Yellow Fever. Dr. James E. Lenow agreed: It was Yellow Fever. He said there were three deaths in Augusta from the disease.

Some doctors, however, disputed whether the deaths were from Yellow Fever. Many townspeople claimed Freeman, whose death set off the panic, was an alcoholic and succumbed to liver damage from years of alcohol abuse. Nevertheless, after much discussion, the doctors agreed Augusta should be quarantined and railroad traffic ceased through the town.

Despite the quarantine, many Augusta residents fled on foot. Those who avoided armed pickets set up on the roads to prevent them from escaping found themselves wandering the countryside looking for shelter. As these refugees began to forage for food, many farmers in the White River Valley established armed guards around their farms to prevent possibly infected people from coming onto their property. Some farmers went so far as to set fire to unoccupied buildings on their farms to prevent squatters from taking up residence. By Oct. 15, an estimated two-thirds of Augusta’s population had fled town.

Weeks later, the first hard freeze came, killing the mosquitoes that had been spreading the disease. The epidemic was the last major outbreak of Yellow Fever in the Mississippi River Valley.

Even after the discovery that Yellow Fever is spread by mosquitoes, Arkansas maintained its quarantine policy. During an outbreak in Louisiana in 1905, Gov. Jeff Davis ordered the Arkansas National Guard to block every major entry port and prevent anyone from entering from the south. There were no reported cases of Yellow Fever in Arkansas, and the quarantine was lifted in about three months.

Despite the critics of the quarantine policy, the disease did not spread in Arkansas like it had in Memphis. The outbreaks in Arkansas also led to an increase in sanitation laws in towns throughout the state, which kept the mosquito population down as a result. New state and federal laws and medical advancements also helped combat Yellow Fever outbreaks.

For more information about Arkansas history, visit the Arkansas State Archives at archives.arkansas.gov, email state.archives@arkansas.gov or call 501-682-6900. Visit the Arkansas State Archives' online catalog to find books about Yellow Fever in Arkansas.