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GOING VIRAL: Gwenyfar takes a look at pandemics that have reached ILM throughout history

Oakdale Cemetery has a whole section dedicated to those who lost their lives to yellow fever in 1862. Photo by Jeff Oloizia


In the late 1980s, my mother assembled pieces of several different Haggadas—or “order of the service” for the Passover Seder—to retell the stories of the Israelites’ Exodus from Egypt She aimed to make one Haggada that combined all the important parts, but still moved the event along at a good pace to make it accessible for the many guests of different faiths invited to join our family for the holiday. She dubbed it “The Rohler Family Haggada.”

During the first year we used it, we realized she had forgotten several pieces of the service, which she subsequently added in a very fun and piecemeal sort of way. Among the things she forgot was the recitation of the Ten Plagues. So she added a pop-up-book style, with a note that instructed each participant to “lift for plagues,” written in her careful ballpoint-pen script. Jock attributes it to two decades of considerable discussions on plagues past and present.

Particularly, I was fascinated by the Black Plague, partly because of the impact it had on daily life in Medieval England (later during a recurrence, my favorite playwright suffered mightily from the closure of theaters due to the plague). In the early 2000s, there was a small outbreak of plague in the American Southwest around the same time as the Anthrax scare. If pressed, I can go on at great length about the different strains of plague and their origins. But both the modern outbreak and the Anthrax scenario were good reminders the point of studying the past is to be prepared for and understand the future.

And, so, here we are: The coronavirus has arrived in North Carolina (though not Wilmington—at least as of press). It’s not the first epidemic to threaten us. Our history includes two pretty significant epidemics of plague-like proportions: the yellow fever outbreak during the Civil War and Spanish flu outbreak during World War I. Now, I fully recognize HIV/AIDS hit nationally in the 1980s and early ‘90s, and polio and tuberculosis were terrifying ongoing health emergencies. The drinking water issues in our area and Camp Lejeune are serious public health concerns. I am not dismissing or ignoring them, by any stretch of the imagination. Both yellow fever and the Spanish flu carved a path through this city that changed it forever.

Just visualize for a moment: It is the Civil War; North Carolina has separated from the Union and is part of the Confederate States of America. It is a hot, sticky August in 1862—40 years before the invention of air-conditioning. Fort Fisher has been under a Union Naval Blockade for over a year. Blockade runners dart in between the Union warships to make it into the port with supplies and cargo, then reload them with goods for export. This is essential to keeping the Confederate cause afloat and preserving the livelihood of the city and its residents.

It is believed a blockade runner named Kate, arriving from the Bahamas, brought yellow fever to Wilmington that August. It took almost six weeks to identify yellow fever as the cause of residents’ unusual fevers and mortality. Working backward, doctors determined it showed up first at the docks near the site where the Kate unloaded. Jack Fryar points out in his book, “The Yellow Death Wilmington and The Epidemic of 1862,” the first official death from yellow fever that year was a gentleman named Lewis Swartzman. His business was located near the dock where the Kate was moored. Fryar, however, is not convinced the Kate was the culprit. As he points out, the epidemic came to Wilmington many times before—just not with the intensity this particular 1862 outbreak brought.

Once word was out, families who were able to evacuate did quickly: Those who had the means left—approximately 6,000 of 10,000 living here, to be exact. Yellow fever spread with a rapidity that gave rise to concern and conspiracy theories. One went something along the lines of the fever being sent intentionally by the Union to hasten the collapse of the Confederacy. Of the 4,000 people who did not evacuate, at least 600 died from yellow fever.



It was a serious public health crisis at a time when resources of the newly declared Confederate States of America were directed toward a war effort. Oakdale Cemetery off 15th Street has an entire section known as the yellow fever section. While it is not quite as ominous as the “plague pits” of England, it is still sobering to realize the immensity of a public-health crisis that stumped medical professionals and folks responsible for the disposal of infected bodies. The had to quickly address the disposal of the dead, which led to many unmarked graves. There simply was not enough resources, time or people.

It took about six weeks to identify the illness and mobilize a response. In the end, the shift of seasons to winter weather that killed off the mosquito population, combined with a public sanitation campaign, were probably the two factors most responsible for bringing the outbreak under control. In November The Charleston Mercury newspaper reported a decrease in the number of new cases and deaths from the illness in Wilmington. The city fathers and Confederate government requested medical assistance from Charleston; Fort Fisher and Wilmington were strategic ports for blockade runners, essential for provisioning the war effort and exporting cotton to bring money into the Confederate economy and war machine. So addressing an outbreak here was priority.

As Fryar points out, Wilmington was the largest city in North Carolina and the same size as Atlanta. Other cities in North Carolina forbade evacuees from Wilmington, out of fear they would bring yellow death with them. Because Wilmingtonians were persona non grata, and vessels did not want to risk exposure by coming into the port, Fryar says food and medical supplies dwindled quickly. So, the few people left in town who were able to tend the sick also risked starvation (sounds like Chester’s Mill from “Under the Dome,” doesn’t it?).

Among those trying to fight the good fight was the editor of the Wilmington Messenger, who was determined to get information to the public regarding the plague and what they could do to help their families and neighbors. (The Messenger would become famous in 1898 for the role it played in the editorial battle with Alex Manley’s Daily Record.)

Similarly, during World War I, a ship returning from France would bring the Spanish flu here on September 19, 1918. The North Carolina Department of Cultural Resources note in its online exhibit that within a week the city had reported 400 cases. Think about it: Most able-bodied young men were at war or working for the war effort, building ships. Young women were on the move in a way previously not experienced. Twenty percent of the state’s population was infected.

According to the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services, nearly 14,000 North Carolinians died from the illness. Eventually, almost 10 times the number of people who were killed in combat in World War I would die from the Spanish flu in America—10 times. Wow.
Harry McKown, in his October 1918 article, “North Carolina and the Blue Death” describes the experience:

“The lungs of victims filled with fluid and their skin turned a dark blue, as their respiratory system failed and their tissue was starved for oxygen.”
The spread followed the rail lines and clustered in densely populated areas. Training camps for soldiers were “hot spots.” NCpedia points out the slow response to the illness contributed greatly to the spread.

“Other diseases, like typhoid fever and tuberculosis, were affecting the state at the same time. North Carolina, along with the rest of the nation, was slow to respond with basic measures like temporary hospitals and quarantine areas and relied on volunteers to treat the sick.”

It actually was the impact of Spanish flu that led to the reorganization of the state health service, and a building and expansion campaign for hospitals across the state.

Over the years we have been a location for convalescence for a variety of illnesses. The now-defunct Babies Hospital, once located near Wrightsville Beach, was a pediatric sanatorium, especially for tuberculosis

The fears and worries of a major outbreak here are not groundless. Indeed, we have seen this before, but we have learned a lot about public sanitation, preparedness and transmission. With the current virus in the news, it is impossible not to think about what would happen if it came here.

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