Houston's Lost History: 1867 Yellow Fever Epidemic
By H.G. Welch
Houston's Medical Center is one of the most impressive and respected facilities of its type in the world. Between UTMB, M.D. Anderson, Texas Children's Hospital and many more hospitals we are at the forefront of medical science. However Houston's position on the Gulf of Mexico and it's location surrounded by bayous meant Houston was once home to many diseases that are unknown here today. In the last century Space City was hit by episodes of cholera, malaria and yellow fever. In 1867 our susceptibility to tropical disease killed a tenth of the population.
Yellow fever, also known as yellow jack, bronze john, yellow plague or el vomito negro is a virus spread primarily through mosquitoes. Originally of African origin, the virus came to the Caribbean through slave ships. From there it was spread to coastal parts of the mainland. An insidious disease with hard to identify symptoms in its early stages, it often appears to be a cold until the full onset. After a few days the disease hits full force, damaging the kidneys and causing jaundice, giving the disease its name. In its final stage the victim begins expelling the contents of his stomach, tinged blood, giving the disease its Spanish name: the black vomit.
Houston in September 1867 was the military capitol of Texas, fresh off the civil war and in the second year of the Reconstruction. General Charles Griffon arrived in Galveston to take command of Texas, but moved his headquarters inland to Houston. At the time Houston was actually much smaller than Galveston, and was known as just a mercantile city in a swamp. Yellow fever was common at the time, but nobody knew how it spread. It picked its victims seemingly at random, and the vector had yet to be determined. When Galveston started showing signs that year of an especially bad yellow fever outbreak Griffon's aides suggested he quarantine the island, but Griffon staunchly refused. It would be a fatal mistake.
Houston's life blood was the railroads, and cotton was still king. In the bales mosquitoes would nest, and the trains would take the disease to new locations. Despite Galveston in the thick of one of the worst yellow fever outbreaks in years, trains still kept running and the yellow fever was transported via rail straight into Houston. The early symptoms were everywhere, but since they were often confused with the common cold, nothing was done immediately. Then the jaundice started appearing.
As the plague spread, the dead piled up quickly. Among them was the hero of the Battle of Sabine Pass Dick Dowling. Hospitals were overwhelmed with cases, though only 20% of the infections proved fatal, the sheer number of infected stretched the hospitals past the breaking point. The dead were dumped into a mass grave where West Dallas runs now. People got on the trains to escape the epidemic, but many were infected and spread the disease as far as Austin and Nacogdoches. Snake oil salesmen pedaled false cures on street corners. The city depopulated itself as people fled as best they could.
As fast as the epidemic started, it stopped. When the first cold snap hit the city the mosquitoes died and with them the spread of yellow fever ended. In a city of 6,000, 492 were confirmed dead, with another 200 deaths unconfirmed or suspected. In today's numbers it would be as if 300,000 Houstonians died in just two months. Among the dead were General Griffon and his son, as well as the county tax assessor and postmaster. The death toll was the worst epidemic in the city's history, and at the time people still had no idea of the true cause. Though a few years later when Galveston showed signs of a yellow fever outbreak, Griffon's successor wasted no time placing a military quarantine around the island.
A few decades later Walter Reed famously determined the cause and spread of yellow fever during the construction of the Panama Canal. Houston in response created the Mosquito Control Board, and gave us the buzzing trucks in the middle of the night we all know and love. Yellow fever has been eradicated from the United States, but the price extremely steep.