NEW ORLEANS, LOUISIANA– Here’s a hometown horror story not about ghouls or ghosts. It’s not about witches or monsters. However, it involves a rather monstrous epidemic that sent thousands of souls to the grave. Like a reoccurring nightmare, the yellow fever epidemics returned every summer.
New Orleans was a bustling city of promise throughout much of history. During the 1800’s, scores of people visited the city and some made it their new home, as they do today.
Soon the sinister onslaught of a cloud of winged fiends would kill an estimated 41 thousand people over years of mosquito bites.
Amanda McFillen, the Associate Director of Museum Programs at the Historic New Orleans Collection says, “the first epidemic or outbreak of yellow fever started in 1796. There were many outbreaks of yellow fever throughout the 19th century. All the way to the latest one happening in 1905.”
The worst was experienced in the summer of 1853. Over eight thousand people died because of the disease.
In 1826, St. Anthony of Padua Chapel, known today as Lady of Guadalupe was built in front of the St. Louis Cemeteries, specifically to handle funerals.
Soon the church developed another name… the mortuary chapel.
Yellow fever was very much unpleasant for those afflicted. Upon the first day or two of contraction, nothing seems to be happening. The next phase of the disease is known as the acute phase, where symptoms can include dizziness and sensitivity to light.
The final phase of the disease is called the toxic phase. At this point, jaundice, or the telltale yellowing of the skin occurs, along with bleeding from the mouth and eyes, a slowed heart rate and organ failure.
McFillen says, “many would recover from it, but in many cases, it did go on to become fatal and this would happen rapidly over the course of four to eight days.”
The city did not know what caused yellow fever and to combat the disease, the city would burn tar so the smoke would disperse the miasmas thought to be in the air.
Poor souls afflicted would be treated with bloodletting.
Nothing worked. There was no cure or treatment for yellow fever, just as there is no cure for yellow fever today. However, there is a highly effective vaccine to prevent it.
In the later 19th century, New Orleans started improving sanitation, and inadvertently cleaned up some of the long-standing water. They discovered standing water is breeding ground for mosquitos.
With fewer mosquito bites the yellow fever epidemics ceased.