Yellow Fever in Huntsville, Texas

On September 5, 1867, shortly after Huntsville declared the recent string of yellow fever attacks an epidemic, “a general panic ensued.” By the end of the month, families hid in their homes or had fled to the country, schools had dissolved, businesses had closed, plantations had gone under quarantine, churches had fallen silent, and mail had become irregular. Up on the hill at Austin College, young men hid in fear of contagion. Accompanying the panic was a near total collapse of social hierarchy, as the disease wiped away status to reveal character.

When the epidemic struck, a small number of people remained in Huntsville and helped to aid the sick. Martha Ann (Nolley) Otey, who described the scene in a letter likely written from the bedside of an infected friend, her younger sister Eliza Thomas Nolley, who worked for the Andrew Female College, Dr. D. W. Mormond, Dr. Pleasant Williams Kittrell, Sub-Assistant Commissioner for the Freedmen's Bureau James P. Butler, Jean Baptise Coutard, Dr. Charles G. Keenan, Drs. T. W. Markham, H. C. Oliphant, and Josiah Prince all stayed to tend to sick . On the other hand, many notable citizens including Mayor Micajah Clark Rodgers, the Justice of the Peace, and other civil authorities escaped or hid away on their plantations outside of town. One group who had no choice to leave or to stay, were the prisoners. Trapped within the brick walls of the Huntsville Prison Unit, at least forty inmates and two prison officials contracted the yellow fever. After September 5th, everyone left in town was essentially a prisoner as a quarantine went into place. When Margaret Thornton triedto break the barrier, she was forced to stay up until three in the morning after tramping through ankle high mud and water. She eventually arrived into town in mid-September. By then, for those “obliged to go to those who are sick” there was “no business going on of any kind but coffin making and grave digging.”

Deaths occurred quickly and there was not enough aid to care for all those infected. Prior to the epidemic, Huntsville had at least eight local physicians. Having never been hit by a yellow fever outbreak before, the town was considered a center of refuge and it is unlikely that many of the doctors or citizens had encountered its symptoms. Therefore, treatments were often provided by trial-by-error. The only physician who for certain who would have had knowledge of the disease was Dr. Charles Gradison Keenan. Previously infected during the Cincinnati, Texas epidemic of 1853, Keenan had immunity. In a word on his service after the epidemic it is reported that “of Dr. Keenan it would be attempting to add perfume to the rose, to say more than that knew no such word as ‘fail’.”

Other doctors, however, unsure of how contagion was spread, feared assisting patients. At least one doctor reportedly believed that the “only danger of contagion is by sleeping in the same atmosphere with patients.” Others, such as Dr. Joshua A. Thomason, believed it to be caused from ‘miasmas of the night.’ In effort to protect himself, Dr. Thomason remained on his plantation outside of Huntsville continuously burning smudge sticks to keep the sickness away. He even reportedly went as far as to remove all his mail, delivered in a box half a mile from his house, with tongs and an oven glove.

There were four doctors, Drs. Markham, Mormond, Oliphant, and Prince, who while attempting to help also caught the disease, but luckily they recovered and gained immunity. Unfortunately, not all the town’s doctors were so fortunate. “Our citizens are in great distress. Dr. Kittrell is at the point of death. We much need physicians and nurses,” read a telegram received by the Howard Association station in Houston, Texas and published in the Flake’s Daily Galveston Bulletin. The next day Dr. Pleasant William Kittrell, one of the town’s most notable doctors, passed away. Mrs. Otey tried unsuccessfully to nurse him back to health during his final hours. The following day, September 30, another doctor, Dr. Gabriel Moore Baker, originally from Galveston, Texas, too passed away. It is likely that he became infected while saving the life of the Huntsville Item founder. According to Mrs. Otey, Dr. Baker had done a “great good” in Huntsville. He was the last of three Huntsville medical officials to die trying to save the lives of others. The first, Dr. J. A. Moore, died at only 31 years of age on September 10. He lived with his wife, younger brother, and two other relatives. Only his wife and the legacy of his drug store, Messers. J. A. Moore & Bro., survived. While death ravaged, not all of life’s big moments stopped. At least eight marriages occurred during the epidemic and even more rushed to marry after the epidemic ended (there are no birth records to discern an exact count of how many children were born during the panic).

The Howard Association did send aid to Huntsville. Just a few days before the passing of Dr. Kittrell and Dr. Baker, a train arrived in Huntsville with at least five nurses and precious supplies, such medicine and ice. At some point, two doctors, Dr. Hasies and Dr. Williams, also arrived and were “never-tiring soldiers in the fight with death.” Unfortunately, the names of the nurses who helped to serve in Huntsville are lost to history, but they too are “worthy of special mention.” Their assistance brought comfort and joy to those in Huntsville who realized they were not facing the crisis alone.

“It would make the heart sick to read all the distress of [this] place,” wrote Margaret Thornton. Estimates put the total number of deaths at one-hundred and thirty. Evaline Yoakum, wife of Henderson Yoakum, passed away on October 1, 1867 with Mrs. Otey’s sister, Eliza, there to help alleviate Mrs. Yoakum’s distress in the final stage of the disease. The early days of October 1867 claimed the lives of several prominent town members including members of the Gibbs, Smither, and Wynne families. During the early morning hours of October 14, 1867, the epidemic claimed one of its final victims, dedicated Martha Ann Otey. Reverend J. M. Cochran, the pastor of Huntsville’s Presbyterian Church, was by her bedside as she passed away from yellow fever symptoms and wrote the announcement to her parents. The next summer, Reverend Cochran ordained Eliza’s marriage to Captain Thomas Jewett Goree. Thus, the epidemic, while tragic, subsided almost as quickly as it had come around. The quarantine was lifted and slowly the population returned, though now no longer under the illusion that Huntsville was a refuge from yellow fever.