Savannah GA is a city rich with history. Simply walk the streets, and you are surrounded by it. In Colonial Park Cemetery, there is a marker commemorating a dark time in the city’s history – the Yellow Fever Epidemic of 1820. In this historic cemetery is a mass grave where nearly 700 victims of the deadly virus are buried. On this episode of Stories Secrets and Sagas, we explore the cemetery and the epidemic that brought many Savannahians here well before their time.
Interesting Facts About The Yellow Fever Epidemic
1Close to 700 people, some say exactly 666, lost their lives to the Yellow Fever Epidemic of 1820 and are buried in this mass grave in Colonial Park Cemetery.
2By historical accounts, the name “yellow fever” was first used in 1744.
3The yellow fever virus is transferred and carried by mosquitoes and first occurred in the U.S. in the late 1690s.
4Savannah GA suffered three separate outbreaks of Yellow Fever, first in 1820, then again in 1854 and the worst of all in 1876.
5Yellow Fever was also known as “Stranger’s Disease” because it seemed to afflict newcomers in the port.
A trip to Savannah has to include a walk through the Colonial Park Cemetery. Established around 1750, many distinguished Savannah natives sleep for eternity here. Unfortunately, many ended up here, way before their time!
1820 was a bad year for Savannah. In January, a fire, pushed by high winds, burned most of the downtown area, leaving many homeless. The rubble left behind collected spring rains, and when the warm months and humidity arrived, created a perfect spawning place for mosquitoes. These mosquitoes would create a nightmare for the Savannah population from June to October of 1820. Called the “Dreadful Pestilence,” I’m speaking of the yellow fever epidemic of 1820.
The sickness more than likely came to Savannah from slave ships originating in Africa and docking on River Street. Mosquitoes, biting the infected passengers, spread the virus rapidly through downtown Savannah…almost as fast as the January fire that preceded this nightmare. For those who contracted the disease, the first symptoms were flu-like in nature. Until the hemorrhaging and black vomit began.
Many times there was liver failure and when this happened, the eyes and skin turned a yellow color, hence the name “Yellow Fever.”
During the 19th Century, there was really very little that physicians could do to fight this horrible illness. Victims were given strange concoctions laced with opium, while others went through purging and bleeding. One doctor, probably in frustration, fired a cannon down one of the Savannah streets…hoping to scare away whatever evil that had possessed the town. Many, who could afford to leave escaped the city and moved to higher ground. Those who couldn’t died a horrible death.
And here in the Colonial Park Cemetery, is a mass grave where about 700 of these victims are buried.
It wasn’t until the onset of the 20th Century before an understanding of the source and prevention of this disease would be discovered.
I’ll see you next time on Stories, Secrets & Sagas!