Monday, September 25, 2006

Yellow fever blues (Part 2 of 2)

"The present generation can not appreciate the horrors of a yellow fever epidemic. One case would appear, then two or three, and then people would be taken down by the hundreds. In a week the death roll would begin to swell and everything like business, except at the drug stores, would be suspended."

The next time you want to read up on Houston's pre-oil boom days, check out Dr. S.O. Young's "True Stories of Old Houston and Houstonians." It's not available at any bookstore, or at Amazon.com, but it can be found at either the Harris County or Houston public libraries.

Young perhaps left us with some of the best descriptions of how Houstonians reacted to a yellow fever outbreak.

"For the first few days pandemonium broke loose, and then people settled down and waited, in grim desperation, for the inevitable, knowing full well that only a complete exhaustion of material or a frost could stop the ravages of the fever," he writes.

"For instance, every exposed place was inundated with lime and, at night, huge bonfires, composed largely of tar barrels and tar were burned at street crossings."

It's interesting to imagine these bonfires -- designed to keep the mosquitoes away -- burning in what we today consider downtown.

Young also mentions that rumors would spread of the dead coming back to life.

"Dr. Massie died and was laid out. All preparations were completed for burying him, when he came to life. He was placed in bed again and heroic efforts were made to save him, but all in vain. He lived 24 hours and died, the last time for good."

On Sept. 17, 1867, the Houston Daily Telegraph offered some advice for anyone who might begin to feel the effects of yellow fever:

"Have mustard, castor oil, orange leaves, or some other materials for making a sweating tea, on hand, ready at a moment's call."

And finally:

"Let nobody enter the room, from first to last, but the doctor and the nurse. Visitors and friends who come to see the patient and talk with him or her are messengers of death."

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