St. Augustine and the Black Vomit
By Geoff Dobson
In the summer of 1821 following the transfer of East Florida to the United States, Spanish subjects who preferred living under Spanish rule were evacuating their belongs to Cuba.
Americans from further north were inundating the city. Among the vessels used to evacuate the Spanish and their goods were the schooners Florida and Alexander.
In the late summer, the two ships returned to St. Augustine.
After the Schooner Florida crossed the bar, clothing was brought ashore to be cleaned by a laundress.
Shortly thereafter, the laundress, her husband, five children, and two boarders came down with the Yellow Fever, the “Black Vomit.” Four died.
Shortly thereafter, the Schooner Alexander crossed the bar. It was more startling, the ship’s entire crew was dead. The schooner was brought in by two Spanish sailors who were passengers. The crew had died from the Black Vomit.
Soon the two Spaniards caught the malady.
The clothing and other items on board were ordered burned and the ship fumigated. With regard to one item, however, a mattress, the order was disobeyed. The mattress was thrown overboard, where it soon drifted ashore to be recovered. The finder of the mattress soon came down with the dreaded disease.
Yellow Fever causes, among other things, hemorrhaging of the stomach. The blood is then vomited up, resulting in its common name of “Black Vomit.” The disease was fatal about 80% of the time. Death occurred within three or four days from the onset of symptoms.
Soon, St. Augustine was suffering from an epidemic, primarily affecting the Americans who had recently moved to the City. It was believed that the natives had developed immunity to the disease. The only treatment for the disease was blood letting. However, it generally was not effective.
The Huguenot Cemetery just outside the City Gates was formed for Yellow Fever victims, Protestants, and others who were not permitted to be buried in consecrated grounds. With the advent of the first frost in the fall, the epidemic waned.
Following the transfer of Florida to the United States, Florida had two territorial capitals, St. Augustine and Pensacola which had served as the Spanish colonial capitals of East and West Florida respectively. In 1822, it was Pensacola’s turn to host the territorial legislative council.
A yellow fever epidemic broke out in the capital city and the council was forced to adjourn their meetings to Cantonment north of Pensacola.
The devastation caused by yellow fever is indicated by the fate of Saint Joseph, Florida. Saint Joseph had been the site of Florida’s first constitutional convention. In 1841, it had a population of 6,000. The following year, Yellow Fever appeared. In one year, the population fell to 600. The town was abandoned.
At the same time during the latter stages of the Second Seminole War, yellow fever appeared again in St. Augustine. Among those who caught the fever was the military’s post sutler, William Alexander Carter (1818-1881). Carter survived but left Florida and returned to his native Virginia. As a result of friendships made in St. Augustine, he later became post sutler for Fort Bridger, Wyoming.
Yet again in 1877, Yellow Fever swept the state. The cause was generally unknown. Thus, in August of 1888 when yet another epidemic hit Jacksonville, various bizarre preventive remedies were suggested. One popular belief was that the disease was caused by a miasma which arose out of swamps. Another was that it was an airborne disease and that the germs could be killed by concussions. St. Augustine to help control the Jacksonville epidemic sent cannon to Jacksonville to “concuss” the deadly airborne germs.
It was also believed that the disease was highly contagious. Those suffering from symptoms were immediately quarantined. One unfortunate guest at a Jacksonville hotel suspected to have the dreaded disease was removed from the hotel and sent to the City’s “pest house,” and accused of endangering the entire state.
Residents of Jacksonville started fleeing northward. The New York Times, August 11, 1888, reported from Atlanta that trains were heavily loaded from persons attempting to get away from the stricken localities. Atlanta was reported “full of refugees from Jacksonville.”
To prevent spread of the contagion the federal government set up stations in Waycross where mail from the south was fumigated.
The Surgeon General telegraphed the Presidents of the Boards of Health in Tampa and Jacksonville authorizing the burning of infected bedding and clothing. Orders were given for additional fumigation stations in Norfolk, Dupont, Georgia, Chattahoochee, and Fernandina. As the panic spread, a proposal was made by Florida Senator Wilkinson Call for the destruction of any house deem infected.
Refugees were barred from entering various cities to the north. In Charleston, passengers and fright from the steamship Seminole from Jacksonville were barred by policemen from landing. The ship sailed for New York with its Charleston passengers and freight. Persons coming from Jacksonville and places to its south were barred from entering Wilmington, North Carolina. Red Cross workers coming to Jacksonville to relieve the suffering of the inhabitants were forced to leap from their moving train when the engineer refused to stop. It was, of course, all needless.
As early as 1829, a naval surgeon with the Royal Navy, Robert McKinnal on the HMS Sybille established that the disease and clothing and effects were not directly contagious. Dr. McKinnal to prevent panic amongst the crew, on deck and in sight of the entire crew, drank a glassful of the black vomit.
As early as 1881, American trained Cuban physician Dr. Carlos Juan Finlay established that the disease was spread by the Aedes Aegypti mosquito. He was ridiculed and it was not until after the end of the Spanish-American War and the establishment of the Yellow Fever Commission that his findings were given any credence.
The Commission placed soldiers in a screened room filled with “infected” clothing, bedding, etc. and did not come down with the disease, whilst soldiers with clean clothing, bedding, etc. in a room that was not screened came down with the disease. Each of the soldiers volunteering to expose themselves to the potentially deadly disease was given a $100.00 gold coin. Two members of the Commission itself died from the disease.
During the war, itself, casualties from the disease far exceeded those from Spanish bullets. Nine hundred sixty-eight American soldiers were killed in combat. Over 5,000 died from disease.
In Cuba, American troops coming down with the disease were given the conventional treatment of quarantine. To prevent the disease from spreading, troops suffering from fever were divided into “well” and “sick” camps. Those who came down with the fever were not permitted to return to the United States but were, instead, hospitalized at Siboney.
Indeed, the situation with regard to Yellow Fever in Cuba, even before the destruction of the Spanish Fleet on 3 July 1898, was such that Gen. Miles determined that he could use none of the troops in Cuba in the subsequent Puerto Rico campaign and that entirely fresh troops from Tampa would be utilized.
The last yellow fever epidemic in Florida was in 1905. The state sanitary engineer began in 1906 a campaign for mosquito control. Dr. Finlay was vindicated. Although, Walter Reed gave credit in his writings to Dr. Finlay, it is Dr. Reed that it usually given credit for the discovery that the black vomit was spread by the mosquito. Reed received honorary degrees from Harvard and the University of Michigan. Although, Dr. Finlay was nominated multiple times for the Nobel Prize, it was never awarded. He is instead remembered on a Cuban postage stamp and by a statue in Panama.
Most coastal counties of Florida where yellow fever and malaria were once rampant now have mosquito control districts such as the Anastasia Mosquito Control District in St. Johns County.
Geoff Dobson, a St Augustine resident for the past 33 years, is a western and Florida history writer and was former General Counsel for the Florida Department of Transportation. He is a former president of the St. Augustine Historical Society and a regular contributor of nostalgic memories to Historic City News. Before his parents moved to Florida, his father was a Black Angus cattleman. Geoff has written extensively on Wyoming history (“Wyoming Tales and Trails”). When Geoff was in high school, his family lived in the cattle country of eastern Sarasota County. The family spread, which his parents called “Wild Cat Slough,” was reachable only by a pair of ruts over the sand hills and through a snake and gator infested slough. Now, it is an area of four-lane roads, expensive subdivisions, shopping centers, and office parks. . His undergraduate degree is in history. Geoff received his post-graduate degree from the University of Florida. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org