The Epidemic Arrives
In 1855, Norfolk was a prosperous city of some 16,000 residents with one of the busiest harbors on the East Coast, five large hotels, five newspapers, and eight banks. Ships were often lined up five or six deep at the wharves. Portsmouth, just across the Elizabeth River with a population of 10,000, was similarly flourishing. The region appeared poised for major growth, due in part to Norfolk’s reputation as a healthy southern city, clean and virtually free of yellow fever, which had plagued southern ports sporadically since the late 1700s.
On June 7, 1855, the steamer Benjamin Franklin arrived in Hampton Roads for repairs after a two-week voyage from St. Thomas in the West Indies. The port’s health officer visited the ship and the captain assured him that there was no disease onboard, despite the fact that two crew members had died on the journey. After a twelve-day quarantine, the Benjamin Franklin was allowed to go to the Page and Allen shipyard in Gosport, near Portsmouth. That fateful decision would lead to one of the worst yellow fever epidemics in U.S. history, with thousands dead and thousands more fleeing the two cities.
On July 5, a laborer working on the ship fell ill with what appeared to be yellow fever; he died on July 8. The first cases of yellow fever in Portsmouth appeared in a tenement called Irish Row that housed shipyard workers and then spread into Portsmouth. When the health authorities closed the tenement, Norfolk took in some of the displaced residents and housed them in a wharf-area tenement known as Barry’s Row, where the disease soon appeared and then spread into Norfolk. City leaders were reluctant to announce an epidemic, fearing that residents would panic and that shipping to Portsmouth and Norfolk would be halted. When the boards of health in Portsmouth and Norfolk finally confirmed on July 30 that there was an epidemic, residents panicked, as was feared, and fled the city, jamming ships and trains. Within a few days a third of Norfolk’s white residents had left, while almost none of the estimated 5,000 Black residents, of which nearly 1,000 were free Blacks, had the liberty or means to leave. Similarly, in Portsmouth, about a third of the residents who had the means to leave town did so.
Although it is now known that yellow fever is caused by a virus transmitted to humans through the bite of the Aedes aegypti mosquito, the way that yellow fever spread was not understood at the time. Many physicians thought that it arose from “bad air” given off by swamps and filth, which was known as the miasma theory. Others thought it was a contagious disease that was either passed person to person or through contaminated materials, such as bedding. Most people who contract yellow fever experience a relatively mild illness, with fever, muscle pain, headache, fatigue, and vomiting. Patients usually improve in three or four days, though they may remain weak and debilitated. But about 15 percent of patients move into a toxic phase with recurring fever; jaundice—the yellowing of the skin and eyes that gives the disease its name—caused by liver damage; abdominal pain; bleeding in the eyes, mouth, and gastrointestinal tract; vomiting of black blood; and often delirium. Roughly half of those with the toxic form die.
The lack of knowledge about how yellow fever spread added to the panic, as newspapers reported on the growing outbreak with alarm. Richmond and Petersburg quickly set up quarantine zones to prevent refugees from Norfolk and Portsmouth from entering. New York City and Baltimore would not let steamers from Norfolk or Portsmouth land. Refugees attempting to board ships at Point Comfort were turned away at bayonet point, although they were welcomed in some places, including Northampton, Mathews, and Princess Anne Counties, and parts of the Eastern Shore. Because many ports would not allow ships from Norfolk or Portsmouth to land, some refugees first took steamers to the Eastern Shore and then boarded ships bound for other ports.
By August both cities were largely shut down, with businesses, stores, and churches closed and the streets deserted. The ferries between Portsmouth and Norfolk ceased operation. Left behind were the sick, those who could not afford to leave, virtually all Black residents, and people who felt a duty to stay, such as doctors, clergymen, and city leaders.
The death toll rose to its peak in late August, and the epidemic continued to decimate both cities throughout September, with the ill and dying in almost every house. In two adjacent buildings in Norfolk, thirty-four of the thirty-six occupants died. During the worst of the epidemic, virtually every family had some member sick with yellow fever; sometimes no one was well enough to provide care. The disease decimated entire families. In Norfolk, the Reverend George Armstrong, pastor of the First Presbyterian Church, one of the largest Presbyterian congregations in the state, stayed behind with his wife, Mehetable, three daughters, a nephew, and his wife’s sister. Armstrong worked tirelessly aiding members of his congregation and fellow citizens, often spending fifteen or more hours a day among the sick. His entire family caught yellow fever, and by the end, his wife, one daughter, his nephew, and his sister-in-law had died. In Gosport, a typesetter for the Richmond Dispatch named Mills Godwin lost his entire family within a few days, including his brother and brother-in-law, his sister and her son, and finally his father and mother. The toll in the Portsmouth Navy Yard, where the epidemic originated, illustrates the fierceness of the epidemic: seven of the twelve sparmakers who had stayed died, as did nineteen of the thirty-four workers who remained in the smithy.
As the cities emptied out, food became scarce. The wharves were closed, farmers would no longer bring their provisions into town, stores ran out of supplies, and bakeries closed. People began to go hungry, and fears of famine were justified. Newspapers ceased publishing after the death of James Finch, the editor of the Norfolk Southern Argus, the last newspaper to continue publishing. The sole telegraph operator fled Portsmouth, cutting off communication. Under the weight of the calamity, city governments broke down. The Portsmouth City Council couldn’t convene a quorum to conduct business because of illness, deaths, and absences even as food supplies dwindled and local undertakers couldn’t keep pace with burials. A group of citizens formed the Portsmouth Relief Association to organize caring for the sick, finding and distributing food, and overseeing burials. The town was divided into wards, each with its own relief committee. Stores were rented as distribution centers, each with a “storekeeper” who distributed food and clothes under the association’s direction. Norfolk faced the same breakdown of local government following the death of the mayor, the head of the Board of Health, and several city council members. The remaining officials and prominent citizens created the Howard Association to oversee and coordinate relief efforts.
News of the epidemic spread quickly along the East Coast and then throughout the country. Relief committees were set up in East Coast and Gulf Coast cities to collect money and to buy supplies that were sent to the Norfolk and Portsmouth relief associations. Clergymen preached sermons about the suffering and dire conditions and urged their congregants to donate—Trinity Church in Washington, D.C., raised $325. There were major relief efforts from New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Richmond, but money, as well as essential supplies like food and coffins, came in from many other areas. Norfolk received $160,000 from twenty-four states.
Ships carrying supplies did not dock at the city wharves but stayed out in the harbor and shuttled the supplies to shore. The Baltimore Steam Packet Company continued to travel between Baltimore and Portsmouth and without charge brought volunteer physicians and nurses and a wide range of provisions. The Seaboard and Roanoke Railroad Company continued rail service to the city, often carrying relief supplies.
Caring for the Sick
Care of the sick fell to family members and volunteers, since Norfolk and Portsmouth had no hospitals at the time. The first temporary hospital in Norfolk was established at Julappi Racecourse about three miles outside of town. Later, the City Hotel and the National Hotel were turned into hospitals; both filled up quickly. Anne Herron, a wealthy woman who owned a large home on Church Street in Norfolk, opened her home to patients and to the Sisters of Charity, an order of Catholic nuns who came from Maryland to nurse the sick. Herron died of yellow fever in September as the epidemic was peaking, with some eighty deaths per day. She left her house and her entire estate to the Sisters of Charity, who founded Norfolk’s first public hospital there. The federal government allowed the town to use the Norfolk Naval Hospital and its staff of six doctors. Between July 25 and October 10, 1855, a total of 587 patients were admitted and 208 (35 percent) died.
There were ten regular physicians and two homeopathic practitioners in Portsmouth when the epidemic broke out. They were almost immediately overwhelmed; nine of them caught the virus and four of them died. A physician in Portsmouth was reported to have treated 100 patients in a single day, moving from house to house. Norfolk had at least twenty-one physicians when the epidemic struck. Of these, eleven were infected and recovered, while ten died. Physicians volunteered from up and down the East Coast: forty-five came to Norfolk, of whom twenty-five died, and twenty-seven came to Portsmouth, of whom eight died. Women from across the country also volunteered as nurses, many of them from areas plagued by yellow fever, such as New Orleans, Mobile, Charleston, and Savannah. The Philadelphia Relief Commission reported that it sent sixty volunteers; fifteen died: a medical student, two druggists, two doctors, a student, and nine nurses.
Burying the dead became a major problem in both cities; there were 400 burials in Norfolk in one week alone in early September. Bob Butt, an enslaved man who dug graves and supervised a crew of gravediggers, played a major role in helping Portsmouth keep up with the tide of burials, reportedly overseeing the burial of 1,159 citizens. Afterward, the Philadelphia Relief Commission started a fund to purchase his freedom, although it’s unclear whether it succeeded. In Norfolk, the Howard Association hired twenty-five additional gravediggers, and martial law was declared so the city could requisition private vehicles to collect the dead. At one point, Father Matthew O’Keefe of St. Patrick’s Catholic Church worked alongside the gravediggers. Because the supply of coffins ran out early on and the gravediggers couldn’t keep pace with burials, people left the dead, sometimes wrapped in the bedclothes in which they died, next to undug graves and alongside the roads that ran through the cemeteries. During the worst weeks, the dead were buried in long trenches, often in two layers, in Potter’s Field.
Children Orphaned by the Yellow Fever Epidemic
This lithograph depicts the Portsmouth Orphan Asylum dedicated to the care of children orphaned by the 1855 yellow fever epidemic that devastated Portsmouth and Norfolk. This image serves as the frontispiece for the Report of the Portsmouth Relief Association to the Contributors of the Fund for the Relief of Portsmouth, Virginia, During the Prevalence of the Yellow Fever in That Town in 1855 (1856). On March 15, 1856, the Virginia General Assembly passed an act to incorporate the Portsmouth Orphan Asylum so that the "said society" could establish "an orphan asylum for orphan children, and for connecting therewith, if it should be found expedient and proper, an asylum for widows and single women of good character." The trustees of the corporation were also permitted to bind out the children as indentured apprentices.
A small notice in the August 25, 1856, edition of the Richmond Dispatch noted:
PORTSMOUTH ORPHAN ASYLUM.—The Trustees of this institution have purchased the residence of M. David Bain, for the sum of six thousand dollars, situated on the point between Portsmouth and the Naval Hospital.
The Jackson Orphan Asylum in Norfolk also tended to the orphaned victims of the pandemic.
This is the first of a six-page list of children—372 names in all—who were orphaned as a result of the yellow fever epidemic that devastated Norfolk and Portsmouth in 1855. On this page the ages of the children range from three-months-old Isaac Anderton to nineteen-year-old Joseph Cherry. In some cases the father survived, but apparently gave over his children to an orphanage as he felt unable to raise a child by himself. This list was published in the Report of the Portsmouth Relief Association to the Contributors of the Fund for the Relief of Portsmouth, Virginia, during the Prevalence of the Yellow Fever in that Town in 1855 (1856).
Mourning the Epidemic Victims
The illustrated masthead of a January 1, 1856, broadside depicts horrific events that took place around the world in the previous year: at right, Elisha Kane's failed attempt to find the members of Sir John Franklin's expedition lost in the Arctic; in the distance at left, a bombardment taking place during the Crimean War; at center, a tragic railroad derailment near Burlington, New Jersey, that resulted in twenty-four deaths; and in the center, far distance, the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius in Italy. At the forefront of all the tragedies, however, is a mourning figure leaning against a tomb commemorating those who died in Norfolk and Portsmouth from the yellow fever epidemic of 1855.
This poem titled "The Norfolk and Portsmouth Dead" commemorates the victims of the yellow fever epidemic that devastated both of those Virginia cities in 1855. One stanza reads:
NORFOLK and PORTSMOUTH! cities doom'd!
Your streets were still'd, your people tomb'd!
For the Death Angel rode the blast,
And broke his vials as he pass'd.
Penned by the anonymous poet, "Peasant Bard," this poem was included on a broadside depicting the tragic events that took place worldwide in 1855—among them, the lethal yellow fever epidemic in Norfolk and Portsmouth.
The yellow fever epidemic that struck Norfolk and Portsmouth in the summer and autumn of 1855 was one of the worst in U.S. history. An estimated 3,000 people died in Norfolk, about one-third of the entire population, while more than 1,000 died in Portsmouth.
Norfolk and Portsmouth recovered slowly. Norfolk regained its pre-epidemic levels of businesses and population within a few years, but this only put the city back to its status in 1855, not the optimistic flourishing that had been predicted. Furthermore, Norfolk and Portsmouth had acquired a reputation as unhealthy, blighting hopes for growth from outside investment and increased shipping. The epidemic, combined with the effects of the(1861–1865), caused the two cities to stagnate. They did not recover until the twentieth century, when growth was spurred by activity at during World War I and World War II. Yellow fever wasn’t brought under control until Walter Reed’s discovery in 1900 that it was transmitted by mosquitoes and the eventual development of a vaccine in 1938.