Fever Excitement: A Historical Outbreak Hits Augusta

Bonny Gregory


Before the Coronavirus, and before the 2020 Flu, Arkansans in 1878 had something else to worry about: yellow fever. The world is buzzing about the outbreak of the Coronavirus, in what many say is going to become a pandemic, but it is hardly the first illness to sweep the world. The flu has hit hard this year, with schools and local businesses closing because of it. Even one of the RiverWind branches in Augusta closed due to the flu outbreak! But did you know that like the quarantines for the Coronavirus, there was a quarantine in Augusta for Yellow Fever in 1878?


One thing to pay attention to: excitement ran rampant, though no cases were reported at the time and the President of the Board of Health, Dr. J.W. Burley made the statement above to the newspaper to reassure folks that Yellow Fever had not actually hit Augusta or Des Arc yet.


However, by the fall of 1878, Yellow Fever had claimed the lives of 20,000 people in Arkansas, Louisiana, and Mississippi. Yellow Fever is transmitted by an infected mosquito, which is basically the honorary Arkansas state bird. The name derives from one of the many wonderful side effects of the fever, which causes the skin and eyes to turn yellow and appear jaundice. There is no specific treatment for yellow fever, instead modern doctors treat the symptoms, and there is now a vaccine to prevent it all together. Symptoms include jaundice, fever, pains, headache, vomit darkened by blood, and more.


Helena saw the brunt of cases in Arkansas, but the mass hysteria and fear spread far and wide. Just like what we are beginning to see in our own time with the Coronavirus, the people of 1878 demanded a quarantine for Yellow Fever, and Augusta had mixed feelings about it after a prominent local grocer, Mr. Freeman, seemed to be the first casualty of yellow fever in Augusta.


The Arkansas State Archives, a division of the Department of Arkansas Heritage published an article about Yellow Fever on November 26, 2019:


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.

Today, Yellow Fever is considered to be extremely rare, with most cases linked to Africa.


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