The Ghosts of Yellow Fever

COVID-19 has been a wakeup call for the World - but it wasn't the first pandemic, or the most deadly

Civilization is no stranger to epidemics and pandemics for that matter. Throughout history, we have seen entire populations decimated by disease and pestilence. Europe saw the Black Death in the mid-1300s, which took the lives of more than 20 million people over the course of five years. The 19th century gave the U.S. a raging case of Yellow Fever. Now we have COVID-19 on a world tour and we are all ticket holders. What is the one thing that all of these population wrecking balls leave behind? Death. And what follows death? Hauntings.

The Ghosts of Disease

There’s a widely accepted theory in the paranormal community that spirits, ghosts, energies, whatever your favorite reference is, linger because of trauma and or violence in their life. This theory seems to be even more applicable to those who die a tragic or heinous death.

Muscle aches, bleeding, yellowing of the skin, and black vomit, quickly progressing to delirium, coma, and finally death. It’s called Yellow Fever, sometimes referred to as Yellow Jack or Bronze John, the deadly disease that scientists believe has plagued our planet for 3,000 years. Its prevalence in the United States during the 18th and 19th centuries was frightening - today it’s eye-opening.

If the criteria for haunting is to die in a less than civilized manner, then it’s no wonder cities like New Orleans and Savannah are consistently rated as America’s most haunted cities. The two charming port towns in the south were at one time Yellow Jack’s favorite destinations. With pirate Jean Lafitte’s home, Galveston, being a close runner up in deaths caused by the relentless disease.

Savannah’s Yellow Fever Hauntings

1820 was a tough year for Savannah. Yellow Fever had started its reign of terror ten years earlier, but 1820 was the year that the disease went into overdrive. Dr. William R. Waring states that Yellow Fever took the lives of 4,000 people between 1807 and 1820; 666 of the reported dead all perished in 1820. In fact, Savannah’s population had gone from 5,000 to 1,500 before the year ended.

One couldn’t escape the Yellow blanket in the city. It draped itself over Savannah with hot and humid fervor. Homes as well as hospitals were impacted by the Saffron Scourge, with lives being lost daily to the mysterious murderer. Colonial Park Cemetery, Candler Hospital, and homes in the Historic District still report sightings and paranormal experiences. Are these spectres the spirits of those who were ruthlessly killed by Yellow Fever?

Colonial Park Cemetery marker where the victims of Yellow Fever are buried.
Colonial Park Cemetery, the site of mass burials from Yellow Fever

Colonial Park Cemetery: Mass Burial Sight

Colonial Park Cemetery was established in 1750. It is the home to the 1820 mass grave of hundreds of Savannah’s Yellow Fever victims. Visitors to the cemetery consistently report seeing a shadow figure lurking, skulking between the headstones and burial plots. Is he one of those taken by the disease? Is it the same ghost that people see, or are they many apparitions who roam the cemetery still searching for a cure?

Haunted Candler Hospital

1820 wasn’t the only year devastated by Yellow Fever. In 1876, Yellow Jack assaulted Savannah with its final attack. Just east of Forsyth Park is Georgia’s first hospital. Candler Hospital opened its doors in 1803, but nothing could have prepared it for the amount of diseased and dying who would fill its rooms in 1876.

People were dying fast and the living couldn’t keep up. The two doctors on staff at Candler Hospital were overwhelmed and the bodies were literally piling up. Something had to be done, so they began to dig tunnels out below the hospital and under the surrounding area to fill with the dead. Could this be true? Or is it local legend and lore?

The Savannah Morning News reported in 1884 that construction of a tunnel below Candler Hospital was underway to “replace the aboveground morgue.” If you look hard enough, you can always find some truth in legend. Perhaps this legend explains the paranormal activity experienced in the building that once was Savannah’s Yellow Fever hospital.

Yellow Fever in the House

One of Savannah’s most respected and inspirational historical figures is Isaiah Davenport. Davenport was considered a master builder and constructed some of the most exquisite homes and buildings in Savannah during the late 18th and early 19th centuries. In 1827, Isaiah Davenport fell into the grasps of Yellow Fever and died.

Davenport left behind a large family. He had ten children, however, four of the ten never made it to adulthood. Though we don’t know for certain the causes of their death, it is safe to assume that one, if not all, were also taken by Yellow Fever.

Today, visitors and staff of the Davenport House Museum report a variety of paranormal activities. Some have seen a shadowy figure lurking in the dark, and others have heard disembodied whispers in their ears. Who the ghosts are is best left to your imagination.

During the month of October, the Davenport House Museum hosts a journey through the ravages of Yellow Fever. By showcasing the gravity of the epidemic, the Museum speaks to the many lives that were lost in 19th century Savannah. Surely, October 2020 will be an unexpected and not so subtle parallel to what is happening to cities across America in the wake of COVID-19.

New Orleans and the Saffron Scourge

New Orleans is a city that loves their dead, and death has proven to love New Orleans. 1853 was a prosperous year for death in New Orleans; Yellow Fever took 8,000 of the city’s residents that year.

It was a battle to stay alive in 19th century New Orleans. Historians estimate that the number of lives lost to Yellow Fever in New Orleans is over 41,000. Two hundred years later, tourists flock to the city searching for the ghosts who lost that battle and are stuck roaming the streets of their beloved Vieux Carre.

  • At the gates [of the cemetery], the winds brought intimation of the corruption lurking within. Not a puff was not laden with the rank atmosphere from rotting corpses. Inside they were piles by the fifties, exposed to the heat of the sun, swollen with corruption, bursting their coffin lids. ~ 1853, New Orleans Daily Crescent
  • Some of the most haunted hotels in New Orleans played integral roles in Yellow Fever’s one hundred year terror. Their doors faced the streets where the death wagons rolled by, ringing their death bell and asking for folks to bring out their dead.

    The Haunted Bourbon Orleans Hotel

    It wasn’t always the sophisticated statement of elegance on an otherwise decadent street in New Orleans. The Bourbon Orleans Hotel was an orphanage and convent during the years that Yellow Fever stole the summer from so many innocent lives. And many of the children had become orphans when Yellow Jack struck their family, violently taking their parents from them.

    The Sisters of the Holy Family’s convent, girls’ school, medical ward, and orphanage may no longer be operating on the corner of Bourbon and Orleans, but they have definitely left a few “things” behind. The most common paranormal report comes from hotel staff and guests, alike: a little girl is seen rolling her ball down the hallway on the sixth floor and then chasing after it until she vanishes into thin air.

    The apparitions of women and children are frequently reported, as well as the sounds of soft footsteps heard throughout the hotel’s hallways. There is also the occasional rustling noise of drapes in the ballroom as if someone is playing a game of hide and seek. Could these all be the ghosts of the orphaned children whose parents were taken from them during Yellow Fever’s siege on their city? How many of these orphans also became victims of the disease?

    Colonial Park Cemetery marker where the victims of Yellow Fever are buried.
    The Haunted Andrew Jackson Hotel, in New Orleans

    The Ghosts of the Andrew Jackson Hotel

    Ghost City Tours has had the good fortune of conducting a few ghost hunts inside the Andrew Jackson Hotel and would say, with absolute certainty, “it’s haunted.” Originally a boarding school and an orphanage for young boys who lost their parents to Yellow Fever, the Andrew Jackson has seen its share of trials and tribulations. All of which live on inside the hotel.

    Televisions in rooms turn off and on without explanation, disembodied voices are heard, and seeing full-body apparitions are not uncommon at the Andrew Jackson Hotel. Some speculate that the ghostly pranks and whispers are the boys who once lived there when it was an orphanage, and who perished in an awful fire that raged through the French Quarter in 1792. Nobody will ever know who the ghosts are, but what we do know is that it is just one of the many places where Yellow Fever left its jaundiced mark in New Orleans.

    The Old Mortuary Church

    As hundreds of people a day were dying, the predominantly Catholic city, appointed one particular church to hold the responsibility of sending the diseased dead bodies to be with their Creator. The Old Mortuary Church was established in 1826 after an 1821 law was passed forbidding St. Louis Cathedral to continue displaying the dead.

    Bodies were piling up on the streets, the city was running out of space even with 19th-century versions of pop up morgues in the French Quarter. The disease was blanketing the city, something had to be done with all of the bodies. The Old Mortuary Church, positioned near St. Louis Cemetery #1, shortened the procession of the dead with the hopes that would prevent the disease from spreading in and out of the cemetery.

    Family members were not allowed inside the church. Only the dead and the clergy entered the Old Mortuary Church’s threshold. Thousands of dead bodies were held inside the church, until being interred. Is it hard to believe that there are residual energies stuck inside the Old Mortuary Church? Perhaps New Orleans is no longer plagued by the Yellow Scourge, but plagued by the ghosts of its victims.

    Galveston’s Ghosts of Yellow Fever

    A favorite spot for pirates and hurricanes, Galveston, Texas was also one of America’s cities ravaged by Yellow Fever. Reports state that there were at least nine Yellow Fever epidemics recorded in Galveston from 1839 to 1867. In 1839, Galveston had lost 250 citizens to the disease. In 1853, 60% of the city’s population had contracted the disease, fatal for 523 of them.

  • Sickness, sickness all around and many deaths. ~ 1839, Houston Diarist
  • Galveston’s Haunted Cemetery

    Galveston’s Old Cahill Cemetery, established in 1867, became known as the “Yellow Fever Yard.” The deaths were happening at such a rapid pace that many were buried unidentified in unmarked graves. To this day, there are hundreds of nameless victims still residing in what is now known as the New City Cemetery

    The sightings in Galveston’s cemeteries are not unique. There are the ubiquitous shadow figures that are common in graveyards around the world, but most are speculated to be a particular person. In Galveston’s Yellow Fever Yard, the ghosts are nameless. Anonymous spirits roaming the grounds after being laid rest without the dignity of their identity. The trauma of the disease has followed them into the afterlife and all we can do is acknowledge them when they appear under the moonlight beside the lucky ones who received headstones.

    Galveston’s Orphans

    What we know is that Yellow Fever didn’t discriminate. And the one casualty that seems to be repeated throughout its terror are the children who were left without parents after Yellow Fever’s uninvited visits.

    The Sisters of Charity of the St. Mary’s Orphan Asylum had taken in ninety-three children between the ages of two and thirteen, from all over the country. Many would arrive on “orphan trains.”

    These children were put in the care of the Sisters, but nobody could have predicted that these poor children would be faced with more tragedy. In 1900, a hurricane gutted St. Mary’s Orphan Asylum and took the lives of ten nuns and ninety orphaned children.

    One hundred bodies were found from the St. Mary’s Orphan Asylum, their wrists still wound with ropes. In an attempt to save as many children as possible, the Sisters of Charity fastened themselves to the orphans. A clothesline was used around the wrists of the children and wrapped to the waists of the nuns. They bravely tried to withstand the storm.

    Some “were found with their cinctures tied round a few orphans, manifestly, in their efforts to save them.” Three survived. They “clung to a tree, and by some mysterious way which they cannot explain came through with their lives, bruised and scarred and crippled.” The remaining one hundred lives were lost. Only now to reportedly haunt the structures where St. Mary’s once stood.

    The Ghosts of the Future

    Paranormal investigators may be able to tell us if a place is truly haunted, but they can’t tell us if it will be. As we look back at epidemics and pandemics that have left their mark on history, we can see patterns that repeat-with the living and the dead. And as we explore haunted locations, researching the past, looking for historical relevance, we inadvertently see similarities.

    Are we living in a time destined to be another diseased speed bump in history?

    The hauntings that are explored in this article are purely examples of hundreds, if not thousands, of locations that are paranormally active. How many were touched or affected by pestilence and disease? That would take a lifetime of research. But we can bet on the fact that it’s not over. The current pandemic we are in is surely creating hauntings and ghosts that we will have the privilege to meet in the future.

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