Thoughts on Yellow Fever

A few days ago, husband John and I were on our way somewhere, probably out to eat, when I noticed, flitting around the car’s dashboard, a mosquito.

Normally, a mosquito wouldn’t cause me great amounts of alarm. After all, it’s July, I live in the South, and it was hot and humid. It’s expected, once in a while, to see and even be bitten by a mosquito.

But instead of my usual annoyance at having a mosquito in the car, I had a moment of abject terror. Why? Because at the time I was reading a book about the yellow fever.

In case you’re not familiar with yellow fever, which arrived in the United States from Africa, thanks to the slave trade, it sounds terrible.

Yellow fever is spread by mosquitoes — the Aedes aegypti variety, to be exact. The symptoms include headache, fever, delirium, vomiting black stuff and literally turning yellow. If death comes, and it often does, it’s swift.

Yellow Jack Monster
This drawing, “Yellow Jack Monster,” by Matthew Somerville Morgan, 1839-1890, depicts “Yellow Jack,” another name for yellow fever, attacking a woman. Library of Congress.

In 1878, a particularly awful yellow fever epidemic hit the Mississippi River valley. According to some reports, it infected about 120,000 people, killing somewhere between 13,000 and 20,000. People were hysterical and everyone was worried about where “Yellow Jack” might strike next.

On this website, you can read more about the 1878 epidemic and look at drawings and other documents related to it.

One of the places yellow fever hit in 1878 was Hinds County, Miss. For those who read this blog regularly, Hinds County is one of the places I’m researching for a book I’m writing about a particular story from the overland slave trade.

Without going into lots of details, a few months ago, I was trying to find one of the “characters” in my book, a man named Beverly Mitchell. And by “find” I mean I was trying to find evidence of him, somewhere in the public record, after 1849. After much searching, I was having no luck.

After reading about the 1878 yellow fever epidemic, however, I had a thought: “Maybe I can’t find Beverly Mitchell because he’s dead.” So, I tracked down a list of people who died of the yellow fever in Hinds County in 1878.

Sorry, Beverly, but I sincerely hoped you had died of yellow fever so I could move on to something else, but after scouring the list, I was disappointed — again, sorry, I’m a terrible person — not to find Beverly Mitchell among the dead.

In looking over the section on Dry Grove, one of the communities in Hinds County, I noticed lots of people with the same last names: five members of the Caston family, four Flewellens, five Stewarts and as many Williamses.

The same was true for other areas of the county. I can only imagine how terrified people were.

So, think about that the next time you see a mosquito fluttering around your car! You’re welcome!

Architectural tour at Presbyterian Cemetery July 2

On Sunday, July 2, Lynchburg’s Presbyterian Cemetery will host its fourth “Sunday Stroll” of the year. The hour-long, guided tour, which has an architectural theme, will begin at 2 p.m. at the cemetery office. The cost is $5.

lily closeup
A lily of the valley carved into a stone at Presbyterian Cemetery.

The tour, given by Judy Harvey, will highlight architectural elements at the historic cemetery. Participants will learn about tombstone carving techniques and care of stones and symbolism used.

Presbyterian Cemetery was founded in 1823 on land purchased from Edward Lynch, son of the city’s founder, John Lynch. Notable people buried there include Max Guggenheimer Jr. (local “merchant prince”), Otway Anna Carter Owen (great-niece of George Washington), Emma Serena Dillard Stovall (the folk artist commonly known as “Queena” Stovall) and others.

There also are more than 200 Civil War soldiers buried at Presbyterian Cemetery.

I have written other posts about the “residents” of Presbyterian Cemetery, including five girls who died in a fire at the Presbyterian Orphanage and the Stephens children, who are buried together under four little stone lambs.

Thoughts on a Book: ‘Thirteen Moons’

Thoughts on a Book: ‘Thirteen Moons’

Recently, I finished reading “Thirteen Moons,” a 2006 novel by Charles Frazier. Frazier also wrote the novel “Cold Mountain,” which was made into a 2003 movie starring Jude Law, Nicole Kidman and Renee Zellweger.

“Cold Mountain” also has been produced as an opera.

I’ve never read “Cold Mountain” or seen the movie or opera. No real reason why. I just haven’t.

My mother-in-law gave me “Thirteen Moons” as a Christmas gift, along with another novel, “The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry,” by Gabrielle Zevin. I read the latter a few months ago and loved it.

Without spoiling much, if anything, it’s the sweet story of a middle-aged bookstore owner and widower, A.J. Fikry, who unexpectedly acquires a child.

“Thirteen Moons” is the story of Will Cooper. Will is an orphan and indentured servant — he calls himself a “bound boy” — sent to the North Carolina mountains, just outside of the Cherokee Indian territory, to run a trading post in the early 1800s.

When he tells his life story, Will is an old man. The story follows Will through the 19th and early 20th centuries, during which he has lots of adventures and misadventures, and one lifelong love.

The book, for which Frazier appears to have done his research, also deals with the Indian Removal Act, a law signed by President Andrew Jackson in 1830 with the goal of moving Indians from the southern U.S. to Oklahoma and points west of the Mississippi.

There were two passages in “Thirteen Moons” that struck me, so much so that I took time to write them down on a note card I was using for a bookmark.

In this one, Will is looking back on his life and how he lived it:

But I’d rather think I made my way more like a highwayman, by being willing to pull a pistol — or something metaphorically like it — on the world when I needed to. 

I liked that one a lot. It’s an empowering reminder that sometimes you have to take matters into your own hands and fight for yourself because no one is going to save you but you.

And this one, on how one might spend their last day:

If you knew that tomorrow afternoon the sun would flame up and consume all the world, would you spend the time between now and then praising the beauty of creation or would you sit in a darkened room cursing God with your last breath? 

I’d like to think that if I ever found myself in that situation, literally or metaphorically, I’d make the most of that last day.

It brings to mind times when husband John and I are on vacation, often in New Mexico or somewhere else in the American West. On our last day, we usually take a long drive, trying to make it to some far-off place we haven’t been yet, cramming it all in, like we might never have another chance to do it.

Realistically, morbid as it sounds, we might never have another chance. For the most part, I think life should be lived like that  like at any point, literally or metaphorically, you could be hit by a bus.

In short, though, I enjoyed “Thirteen Moons” very much and recommend it.

The black-and-white featured photo, used above, is of the Blue Ridge Mountains in North Carolina, taken between 1895 and 1910. Citation: Detroit Publishing Co, P., Jackson, W. H., photographer. [Over the mts. from Mt. Toxaway, Sapphire, N.C]. Blue Ridge Mountains North Carolina Sapphire, None. [Between 1895 and 1910] [Photograph] Retrieved from the Library of Congress, https://www.loc.gov/item/det1994013352/PP/.

‘The mysterious disappearance of Paul Massie’

As many of you know, I’ve been transcribing and researching the letters William Macon Waller wrote home to his family over the fall and winter of 1847 and 1848, while he was walking a coffle of slaves from Amherst County, Va., to Natchez, Miss.

Once in Mississippi, he sold the slaves to settle some debts.

In the letters, Waller writes about lots of things: a family of dwarfs he saw in Southwest Virginia, the fact that sweet potatoes were a big crop in a particular area he was passing through, that he ran into so-and-so and his wife, who is a terrible cook.

Like I said, lots of stuff.

In one of the letters Waller writes home to his wife, Sarah, he mentions someone named Paul Massie. The Massie and Waller families knew each other and lived in the same general area.

Dr. Thomas Massie, Paul’s father, was a prominent physician and slaveholder. At some point, he also married Waller’s sister, Lucy. Here’s what Waller said about Dr. Massie’s son, Paul:

… in another paper [I read about] the mysterious disappearance of Paul Massie. … His fathers [sic] anxiety must be excruciating.

So, of course I wanted to know what happened to Paul Massie. I hit the Internet and it didn’t take long for the story to unfold. On Nov. 30, 1847, under the headline “Missing,” the Richmond Enquirer reported the following:

The New Haven Courier says that Paul Massie, of Virginia, a member of the Freshman Class of Yale College, left that city on Monday, under circumstances that create anxiety; and any information communicated to his brother here, P.C. Massie, or to his father, Dr. Thomas Massie, Tye River Mills, Nelson Co., Va., will be gratefully received by them. He is about five feet eight or nine inches high — stout built — black hair — dark complexion; and had on a brown frock coat, dark green pantaloons, double breasted black vest, and cloth cap.

Upon reading the article, I was even more intrigued. Had Paul been kidnapped? Was he a drunk? Was he crazy? Was he ever heard from again? So I got on FamilySearch, a great (and free) genealogy website, to see what I could find.

In the 1850 U.S. Census, I found out that three years after Paul goes missing, he’s not listed with his family in Nelson County, Va.

I kept poking around on FamilySearch, looking for Paul Massies of the right age, who were born in Virginia, etc., and eventually, I found him. In the 1850 census, he shows up at Mount Hope Hospital — described as “An Asylum for the Insane and Invalids” — in Baltimore:

Paul Massie, 19, student, born in Virginia, insane, entered hospital in 1849.

Sadly, I also found Paul at Mount Hope in the 1870 and 1880 censuses. He died in 1894 — possibly at Mount Hope, because he’d been there so long already — and is buried with his family at Blue Rock, the family home in Nelson County. He was 63 years old.

At the Virginia Historical Society, in its Massie family papers, there are more clues about what led Paul to Mount Hope.

On Nov. 6, 1847, Dr. Massie writes Paul, then at Yale College, a letter. Among other things, he encourages Paul to “study well and take exercise enough to keep your health good and your mind clear” and to try and tolerate the college’s rules, which are “necessary to preserve order among so many different kinds of young men collected from every portion of our wide country.”

In the next letter I read — I admittedly did not read the entire Massie family file — Paul’s brother Patrick, also a student at Yale, writes his dad, saying that Paul has disappeared.

In the letter, dated Nov. 16, 1847, Patrick writes that “Paul has seen proper to leave college, and has not been heard of since yesterday noon.” Later, he explains that Paul has “for some time expressed his dissatisfaction with this kind of life and that he wished some more active kinds.

“He had been melancholy for a few days before his disappearance, and frequently expressed to some of his class mates [sic] his intention of leaving.”

Also, according to this letter, Paul has withdrawn all of his money from his bank account and, as Patrick puts it, “His conversation and conduct for several days past would lead one to conclude that his mind is somewhat affected.”

When Dr. Massie writes back, it’s apparent that Patrick has gone looking for his brother, but is now back at Yale and attending his classes. This pleases his father, who also writes, “It is useless to hunt for Paul as no one can tell what course he took.

“I have [sic] no idea there was any mental derangement in his case. But that the act was deliberate and premeditated, although its excessive folly would lead to the belief that no sane person would do it.”

In the same letter, perhaps more telling, Dr. Massie writes about Paul:

Boys whose heads are cold to natural affections, and who of course have no experience to guide them, are prone to go wildly wrong and the only medicine that can cure them is suffering.

Eventually, Paul is found — where and how I don’t know — and he lands at Mount Hope.

In 1871, more than 20 years after Paul’s disappearance, his brother Patrick gets a letter from the hospital about the bill for Paul’s care. Among other things, the writer, a nun named Sister Catherine, informs Patrick that “I take great pleasure to report that [Paul’s] general health is good.”

More about Mount Hope:
Mount Hope Hospital, also called Mount Hope Retreat, was founded in 1840. When I searched for Mount Hope on Chronicling America, the newspaper archive of the Library of Congress, and also on Newspapers.com, I found interesting stories about other people sent to Mount Hope.

It’s pretty amazing, the gossipy, scandalous things that newspapers used to report.

For example, under the headline, “Insane Through Religion,” an Oct. 25, 1884, story in the Sacramento (Calif.) Daily Record-Union, tells of a 19-year-old Baltimore woman, “Miss Igo,” who was “found in her bedroom Wednesday evening, wholly nude and a raving maniac.”

According to the story, Miss Igo had long wanted to be a nun, but her family disagreed with her plans. So, she “thereupon became somewhat sullen with disappointment. Her troubles weighed on her mind to such an extent that she gradually showed signs of a weakening intellect.

“She went to her bedroom and, taking off her clothes, lay down on the floor and commenced to scream. It has been found necessary to remove her to the insane asylum at Mount Hope. Miss Igo is of attractive appearance and graduated last year at a prominent private school.”

A second article, in the Alexandria (Va.) Gazette, said that Miss Igo was the niece of a Baltimore grocer named Michael Igo.

I’ve done a little online research, in an attempt to determine exactly who Miss Igo was, but I’m not sure if I’ve found the right person. There was a 16-year-old girl, living in the household of grocer Michael Igo and his wife, Mary, in Baltimore in 1880 who might be her.

According to local newspapers, she also graduated from a local Catholic academy, which goes along with the nun story.

I hesitate to assign this bizarre behavior to someone erroneously, though. If nothing else, I’d hate to get nasty emails from her descendants. So, for now, the identity of Miss Igo will remain somewhat shrouded in mystery (unless, of course, you look her up yourself).

In searching Newspapers.com, I found numerous stories, written between the 1880s and early 1900s, about people being sent to Mount Hope Asylum. Like Miss Igo’s case, the stories often included information about the strange behavior that led the person to be committed to the hospital.

Perhaps I will share some of them in a future post.

Learn about ‘Victorian Times’ Sunday, June 4, at Presbyterian Cemetery

Learn about ‘Victorian Times’ Sunday, June 4, at Presbyterian Cemetery

On Sunday, June 4, Lynchburg’s Presbyterian Cemetery will host its third “Sunday Stroll” of the year. The hour-long, guided tour, “Victorian Times,” will begin at 2 p.m. at the cemetery office. The cost is $5.

The tour, given by Judy Harvey, will highlight mourning practices during the Victorian era. The time period, named for Britain’s Queen Victoria, runs from 1837 to 1901, the length of her reign. The tour also will include stories of people buried at Presbyterian Cemetery during Victorian times.

Augustus Winfield Scott 1843-1905
The weeping angel atop the grave of Augustus Winfield Scott (1843-1905).

Presbyterian Cemetery was founded in 1823 on land purchased from Edward Lynch, son of the city’s founder, John Lynch. Notable people buried there include Max Guggenheimer Jr. (local “merchant prince”), Otway Anna Carter Owen (great-niece of George Washington), Emma Serena Dillard Stovall (the folk artist commonly known as “Queena” Stovall) and others.

There also are more than 200 Civil War soldiers buried at Presbyterian Cemetery.

I have written other posts about the “residents” of Presbyterian Cemetery, including five girls who died in a fire at the Presbyterian Orphanage and the Stephens children, who are buried together under four little stone lambs.

‘Babes Die in Flames’: The Presbyterian Orphanage fire

At about 4 a.m. on Tuesday, Oct. 26, 1909, a fire broke out at the Presbyterian Orphanage in Lynchburg, Va., killing five girls, ages about 5 through 10. Stories about the tragedy appeared in newspapers as far away as Texas and Kansas, and perhaps even farther afield.

Under the dramatic headline, “Babes Die in Flames,” the Baltimore Sun reported that the fire erupted in Shelton Cottage, a girls’ dormitory. It was first detected by the orphanage cook, a “Mrs. Priest.”

Mrs. Priest, they say, was awakened “by the roar of the flames.”

In one eternally long sentence, the newspaper goes on to describe the scene:

“When [Mrs. Priest] saw that it was then impossible to get the children out by the stairway, the entire basement and first floor at that time being enveloped, and that it would be but a few minutes before the whole building would fall, she rushed to the third story and brought 15 children down to the second floor, leading them to the veranda roof, where they were taken down a ladder, several of them dropping into the outstretched arms of the older boys of the institution.”

As described in “Feed My Lambs: A History of Presbyterian Homes & Family Services, Inc., 1903-2003,” by Mary Jo Shannon, “Boys in nearby Paxton Cottage rushed to bring a ladder to rescue the frightened children. Some of the smallest girls jumped and were caught by the older boys.

“Tom Bowles, a sixteen-year-old crippled boy who lived on the first floor of Shelton Cottage because he could not manage stairs on his crutches, caught five or six of the girls before he collapsed, exhausted.”

The little girls who died that fall morning were Ruby and Lucile Moorefield, sisters from Lynchburg; Mamie Reynolds of Bath County; Marie Hickman of Campbell County; and Mary Poole of McDowell County, W. Va.

Beneath the exceedingly morbid headline, “Five Children are Cremated in Nursery,” the Louisville, Ky., Courier-Journal reported that Ruby Moorefield had initially been rescued but, upon learning that her younger sister, Lucile, was still trapped inside ran back into the inferno and “lost her life.”

Wanda Carpenter photo - graves of girls killed in pres home fire
Five little graves. Photo by Wanda Carpenter, Presbyterian Cemetery.

A funeral for the girls was held two days later at Westminster Presbyterian Church. The Washington Post reported that the church was “crowded” and “the bodies were held in five little white caskets.”

The girls are buried at Presbyterian Cemetery on Grace Street in Lynchburg.

As for the cause of the fire, Charlotte’s Evening Chronicle reported that there “seems to be no doubt but the fire was started in the furnace from which the building was heated.”

The Baltimore Sun said a coroner’s inquest, held the day after the blaze, “threw no light on the cause of the fire, but the verdict included a statement fully exonerating the Home authorities from blame.”

The Bryan, Texas, Eagle, reported that the building “caught fire in a manner that made the rescue impossible.”

Despite that dire description, 24 of the 29 girls were helped to safety, many by the aforementioned Mrs. Priest and possibly Sue Gamewell, another Shelton Cottage matron.

They did this without the benefit of a fire escape and neither escaped unscathed.

According to accounts in the Washington Post and Baltimore Sun, Gamewell, a widow in her late 40s according to 1910 U.S. Census, “contracted pneumonia while escaping from the fire in her night attire.”

As reported in the Evening Chronicle, Mrs. Priest — who was likely 20- or 21-year-old Ohio native Edna Preas, according to the 1910 census — had numerous injuries, including a dislocated shoulder, sprained back and a scalp wound.

“Mrs. Priest, after seeing the children in the main part of the building out safely, was compelled to jump,” the newspaper said, adding, “She will recover.”

There was even talk of nominating Mrs. Priest for a Carnegie medal for heroism. (Either she wasn’t nominated or didn’t win, as she’s not listed among the honorees for 1909 or 1910.)

Despite that, the Baltimore Sun had this to say about the bravery displayed by the women:

“Dr. R.H. Fleming, the superintendent, was away at the time of the fire, and there were no men about except some distance away in the farmhouses. When they arrived at the burning structure it was too late to save the little tots.

“The women could not have save[d] them, as they barely succeeded in saving 24 of the other girls.”

All I have to say to that is, “Really, guys? The lady saved 15 girls and then jumped out a second-story window, probably in her nightgown. Obviously, your editor was not a woman.” 

And special thanks to Wayne Fitzgerald for posting an article about the Presbyterian Home fire last October.