By Donald J. Mabry
Yellow Jack! That scourge of the tropics and subtropics visited Duval County, Florida
in 1888, coming on July 28th without warning, sickening rich and poor alike,
and killing and killing. Many died. There seemed to be no stopping it, no cure. People
fled if they could. Death was everywhere. The city's population dropped from 130,000 to
14,000. Dwellings flew yellow flags to warn of the presence of yellow fever.
Other places tried to isolate Jacksonville. Roads were sealed. Guards
stopped people from sneaking out of town. Steamboat traffic was suspended. Trains were
fumigated or prevented from passing from Jacksonville to other towns.
People theorized what caused yellow fever. "Ironically, when yellow fever
broke out in Jacksonville in 1857, the railroad builders, clearing and draining the marshy
areas for the tracks, were accused of having released malarial miasmas which brought on
the dreaded plague." The Florida Dispatch explained the theory of
"Wiggins, the Canadian weather prophet crank" who said:
The cause of the fever is astronomical. The planets were in the same line as the sun
and earth and this produced, besides cyclones, earthquakes, etc., a denser atmosphere
holding more carbon and creating microbes. "Mars had an uncommonly dense atmosphere,
but its inhabitants were probably protected from the fever by their newly discovered
canals, which were perhaps made to absorb carbon and prevent the disease.
Some from Jacksonville exploded guns and cannons to "concuss the
microbes." On August 14, 1888, the Florida Times-Union suggested:
Keep indoors from an hour or more before sunset 'til an hour at least
Avoid the night air
Avoid exposure to the sun
Eat no meat
Eat no cabbage
Eat before leaving your house
Have faith in your doctor
American scientists did not know the causes or means of transmission. They had
not read the work of Dr. Carlos Finlay, the Cuban medical doctor who had figured out how
the disease was transmitted. It was not until the aftermath of the Cuban-Spanish-American
War of 1898 that Finlay's work became known to U.S. scientists and experiments were
conducted to prove Finlay was right. Walter Reed was enough of a scientist to understand
Finlay's theory, test it with experiments, and prove it. Mosquitoes were the culprit.
Those concerned with public health then sought to control the mosquito population.
Some twenty miles from the city lay the little village of Mayport, sitting at
the mouth of the St. Johns River; its residents were not so concerned with the cause of
the disease. They wanted to keep this scourge away from their little resort and fishing
village. Vacationers and working people conspired to prevent those westerners from
spreading the disease in Mayport. To keep residents of Pablo Beach in the south from
coming north, they patrolled with guns. Mayport people established a "gunshot
protection" against residents of Pablo Beach. To counter the more serious threat from
Jacksonville, Mayport people would make "contrary statements" about when the
train would run between Mayport and Jacksonville. The people who could afford to vacation
in Mayport or were permanent residents knew the fluctuating train schedule but hid it from
others. They would ride the little train to and from Arlington, just across the river from
the city only when absolutely necessary. They refused help from refugees. Mayport
successfully isolated itself and survived the epidemic.
Frost came on November 25, 1888 and killed the mosquitoes. The epidemic died as
well. No one knew why the disease occurred but they knew it would not infect mighty
John W. Cowart, "Yellow
Jack in Jacksonville," says: "On July 28, 1888, Yellow Jack invaded
Jacksonville, Florida." <br>
"Yellow Fever's Victims, New York Times, September 17, 1888.<br>
Herbert J. Doherty, Jr., "Jacksonville As A Nineteenth-Century Railroad Center,"
Florida Historical Quarterly, 58:4, p. 374.<p>