By Wesley Harris
As we face many unknowns regarding the current situation with coronavirus, or COVID-19, our current medical technologies have advanced far beyond what our ancestors had available in mid-19th century Louisiana.
The angst experienced in Louisiana during Reconstruction after the Civil War was not limited to physical violence and political turmoil. Outlaws and assassins rampaged across the state, and the carpetbag government was under constant assault by local citizens. North Louisiana was also imperiled by several deadly epidemics.
America is fortunate to avoid most of the deadly epidemics that still afflict much of the world. Modern medical techniques, including vaccinations, have all but eliminated the most frightening diseases that once terrorized the country. But 150 years ago, the spread of fatal illnesses instilled panic in a community like nothing else. Three contagious diseases struck the north Louisiana in 1873, the same year hundreds were slaughtered in the infamous Colfax Massacre. While smallpox, cholera, and yellow fever rarely worry Americans today, they frequently ravaged communities in the 19th century.
Smallpox struck northwest Louisiana early in 1873. The epidemic occurred in pockets throughout Louisiana as it was spread by infected carriers traveling between communities. One household a few miles from Arcadia experienced seven cases with two resulting in death. A nearby family suffered five cases with one death. In the Brushy Valley community southwest of Arcadia, five others were afflicted with two victims dying.
In Mansfield, an official named John Wiggins died of smallpox. Wiggins had returned from New Orleans where he apparently contracted smallpox while caring for his brother who died from the disease. When Wiggins became ill, he and his family were taken to a house about a half mile outside Mansfield where he died.
Despite Wiggins’s standing in the community, no one was willing to touch his body to bury it properly. Such was the terror created by smallpox that his friends deserted him in his death. His family left the death scene and he lay unmolested for three days. A large sum was offered to entice someone to bury him, and after much difficulty, two men agreed to take the job. He was buried near the house where he died, and the building burned down.
Eventually the outbreak subsided, as all epidemics do, only to be followed by another dreaded disease.
In May and June, an epidemic of cholera replaced smallpox as the scourge of the summer. While the bacteria that causes cholera was discovered in 1854, most people would not learn for decades that it spread through contaminated water and food. While it is no longer a significant problem in the U.S., underdeveloped countries with poor water sanitation still battle the disease.
At first, 1873’s outbreak was mild and sporadic, although it ranged from New Orleans to Monroe to the northwest Louisiana hills. As summer progressed, however, the number of cases and their severity increased. Over the course of ten days, about ten persons, young and old, died on a single plantation in Concordia Parish from the dreadful disease.
By mid-July, Monroe had experienced 85 cholera deaths. A Monroe newspaper lamented that the summer had been “the sickliest known for ten years” but seemed relieved that cases were reported throughout the state and “there is no special local cause to which the sickness can be attributed.” From May 1 to July 15, 25 adult males and 20 adult females died in Monroe, but the disease hit children the worst with 40 deaths. Black victims outnumbered white ones 65 to 20. The number affected statewide is unknown.
A virus carried by mosquitoes, yellow fever still kills 30,000 worldwide each year, mostly in Africa. Many yellow fever epidemics struck America from the 17th to 19th Centuries, including the 1873 scourge that killed one-quarter of Shreveport’s population.
The first indication of an illness began on Aug. 20, 1873, when the Shreveport Times reported three men had died three days earlier, one dropping dead in the street. A host of incorrect causes were blamed as people speculated, including congestive fever, bilious fever, diarrhea, malaria, and other diseases. No one even suspected the mosquito as the mode of transmission for the deadly virus.
Since yellow fever had struck Shreveport twice before 1873, the population knew its dangers. As much as a third of the populace may have fled before quarantines were enforced. In her book, “The American Plague,” author Molly Caldwell Crosby describes yellow fever as “the most dreaded disease in North America for two hundred years. It did not kill in numbers like cholera or smallpox, and it was not contagious; yet it created a panic and fear few other diseases, ancient or contemporary, can elicit.”
The outbreak, killing as many as 33 people a day at its peak, caused a quarantine of the city and an almost total cessation of business and social life in the region. Federal troops attempting to enforce Reconstruction pulled out. People rushed to leave Shreveport by any means possible. Those who fled early toward Dallas by train were lucky because word spread as rapidly as the disease. Texas cities soon established quarantines against Shreveport. A train was stopped at the Dallas city limits by armed citizens who told the engineer he would be shot if he continued. Cities on the Red River south of Shreveport refused to permit boats to dock.
Although yellow fever was known to be extremely virulent and fast spreading, doctors and nurses and others from towns as far away as New Orleans courageously volunteered to help Shreveport fight the epidemic. Many died.
Lieutenant Eugene Woodruff of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers was working on the Red River supervising clearance of a logjam when yellow fever struck Shreveport. The dense logjam formed a formidable obstruction to river navigation. Woodruff left his workboats and crew on the Red River to visit Shreveport to recruit a survey party. When he arrived, Woodruff learned of the yellow fever epidemic. Fearing that he might carry the disease back to his men if he returned to camp, Woodruff elected to remain in Shreveport and tend to the sick.
Volunteering his services to a Louisiana disaster relief charity, Woodruff traveled house to house in his carriage, delivering food, medicine, and good cheer to the sick and dying. He contracted yellow fever himself and died in Shreveport on September 30.
Woodruff’s commanding officer wrote, “He died because he was too brave to abandon his post even in the face of fearful pestilence, and too humane to let his fellow beings perish without give all the aid in his power to save them.”
Five Catholic priests died nursing the sick, including one from Monroe and one from Natchitoches. Two nuns from St. Vincents Academy who volunteered to minister to the sick also died. These servants have been memorialized in wall portraits and stained glass windows of the Holy Trinity Church at the corner of Fannin and Marshall Streets in downtown Shreveport.
A quarter of Shreveport’s population that remained died of the disease. The cases numbered close to 3,000 with about 1,000 deaths. Many families were wiped out completely. Most of the dead were relatively young and healthy. The epidemic led to the establishment of a board of health in Shreveport and completion of a charity hospital. Nearly 800 of the victims are buried in “Yellow Fever Mound” in Shreveport’s Oakland Cemetery.
While America’s health issues still exist, they present themselves in different forms, sometimes related to lifestyle and bad habits. Substantial strides in medicine and sanitation have largely defeated the insidious communicable diseases that once claimed unsuspecting victims. While no one in 1873 knew yellow fever was carried by mosquitoes, today we know enough about the coronavirus to take life-saving precautions.