Drink Whiskey, Pray, and Set the Bed on Fire: A Glimpse into Pandemic Life 120 Years Ago

This was originally posted in my personal blog a few years ago, but besides being a glimpse into how people dealt with pandemics 120 years ago, it references a few things some of y’all might find especially interesting, including folk remedies, patent medicines, home and herbal remedies, speculations about cats and/or comets being the cause of yellow fever outbreaks, and rural Alabama life at the turn of the century. Since my personal blog is mostly dedicated to family and regional history, I approached via the avenue of family history and focused on the areas where I had ancestors at the time *and* access to some actual records, which is mostly along the Gulf Coast from Florida to Louisiana.

It looks like the Florida Memory site won’t let you link directly to pages within its exhibits – I tried, but everything seems to spit you out a level or several above where I wanted to link to. Sorry about that.

Florida Memory has an online exhibition called Pestilence, Potions, and Persistence: Early Florida Medicine which is fascinating (and disgusting, too – don’t forget disgusting). There’s a lot of cool stuff here, including sections on midwifery, yellow fever, hookworm, and an outbreak of bubonic plague in Pensacola in the 1920s, which I didn’t know about ’til I read this. But poking around that got me thinking about how huge a presence yellow fever was in so many of my ancestors’ lives.

Yellow fever, so called because of its tendency to cause jaundice, could be a killer, and medical understanding of it in the 1800s still had a ways to go. If you grew up around it — as you might if you lived in East Africa or Barbados — it might only make you mildly ill for a few days. But if you didn’t have acquired immunity — if, say, you were a European colonist in Barbados, or New York, or Philadelphia, or Santo Domingo, or the Mississippi River Valley — it could kill you and half the people you knew very quickly.

And nobody really understood what caused it. Until the early 1900s, nobody knew it was a virus spread by mosquito bite. Medical understanding of it more than slightly resembled medieval medical understanding of plague – maybe the air in an area basically got miasmic, infected, dangerous. [1] Maybe infected people could infect you, somehow, too, so you’d better stay away from them just in case it’s spread that way. Maybe herbs or fumigation could help. Or maybe you should just relocate until the whole outbreak blows over – hope you can afford to!

Some blamed yellow fever outbreaks in the New World on the wrath of God. Some blamed it on newcomers to the area or unsanitary neighbors. Some blamed it on convergences of things like insect populations, filth, global volcanic behavior, the presence of lots of dead cats, the “putrid exhalations” of a coffee shipment spoiled during import, and/or comet activity. [2] Medical colleges advised burning gunpowder and using vinegar and camphor. [3] People were urged to avoid intemperate consumption of alcohol at the same time they were surrounded by newspaper advertisements for things like Duffy’s Pure Malt Whisky, “A Scientific Remedy, not a Beverage!” [4]

During a Florida outbreak in 1888, Dr. John P. Wall wrote of its “having its origin probably in the filth of the slave ship” and warned about “the necessity and importance of sanitation,” explaining that “the atmosphere of the city where it is prevailing sooner or later becomes infected – poisoned with its morbific agent.” [5]

Wall quotes United States Army surgeon Dr. Sternberg who wrote in 1884 that yellow fever, “like cholera, is contracted in infected localities.” He characterized it as a poison: “In infected places the poison seems to be given off from the soil, or from collections of decomposing organic matter.” [5]

This was your prevailing medical opinion – these were the experts. Nobody knew yet. So how did ordinary people deal with yellow fever outbreaks? Well, that could depend on where they lived, whether urban or rural, whether there was any kind of local health official or not, and whether they had the resources to do things like burn all their bedding or relocate for a while or whether they had to stay put and make do.

Here’s what my great-grandmother, Nina Morris, wrote of what she called “one of the most frightening periods during my childhood” of the yellow fever epidemic in 1898. [6] She lived in rural Conecuh County, Alabama at the time. She recounts that Mobile was quarantined, people all over the state were frightened, and nobody knew how it was carried. Her father, who owned a general store in Bermuda, AL, canceled his orders to T.G. Bush and Co. because of fear that the groceries shipped by rail to Repton would carry yellow fever germs. Store shelves were bare. Mail bags at the post office would be fumigated upon receipt. Four cases of yellow fever were reported in Brewton, AL about 40 miles away, so then Brewton was quarantined. People were seriously freaking out, esp. isolated people without a lot of resources.

One night someone called at their front gate at about 2:00 a.m. Her father went outside to see who was there.

We heard a man talking and two women sobbing. It turned out to be Miss Clara Watson who had taught school at Bermuda the year before and had boarded at our house, and her sister Lola. They had hired a man from Brewton to help them slip from under the quaranteen [sic], giving him twenty dollars, which was all they had. They knew no one to go to but my parents.

They weren’t the only ones to slip quarantine. Nina writes:

Will Allen, who lived in Bermuda but worked in Brewton, slipped out of the Brewton quarantine one night and came home to Bermuda.

Sometime later, Will Allen came down with Yellow Fever. His next door neighbor, Frank Keper, was away from home, so his wife and her house guest came running to our house to get someone to carry them to Pineapple, Ala., their former home. They had wads of asafetida tied up in cloths and hanging around their necks and sulphur and turpentine all over them. Each had a bottle of turpentine in her hand which she sniffed ever so often. One of my brothers hitched up a team of mules and took the weeping women to safer ground.

Mr. Jay, the county health officer, came over and quaranteed [sic] the Allen home. A plank shelf was put on a post at the quarentineline [sic]. When the family needed anything, someone would bring a note, put it on the shelf, and ring the very large dinner bells the Allens owned. One of the four boys in our family would go get the note, fill the order, carry it and their mail to the post, and ring the bell so one of the Allens could come back and get it.

Papa’s stock of sulphur, turpentine, and asafetida was soon sold out. Every home had a trivet or a couple of bricks with an old pan partially filled with sand. They kept live coals in it and sprinkled sulphur over the coals, keeping it smothered down with green pine twigs so it would smoke for hours  and send off the most gosh awful smell one ever had to endure. The smoke pot was carried from room to room until the whole house was full of this horrible odor.

Readers (and especially descendants, I’d imagine!) will be pleased to know that Will Allen survived and the quarantine was lifted. [7]

In the Pensacola side of the family, Dr. Robert Hargis, as president of the Escambia County Board of Health, published the 1889 quarantine rules in the Pensacola Daily News. Here’s a letter he wrote to Governor Perry about quarantine. He also owned or ran several hospitals in Pensacola and was an important influence on contemporary Pensacola’s handling of yellow fever outbreaks. [8]

And here’s a fun historical tidbit from the era of colonial Spanish medicine — a remedy for yellow fever (and other things) concocted by a Dr. Rafael Ramos de Vilches, who’d served with Bernardo de Galvez during the American campaigns of 1779-1781 and who died in 1809 en route to his new post as an accountant in the Treasury Department under Intendant Juan Buenauentura Morales (1756-1819), who was chief economic officer of the Treasury Department in Pensacola. Jack Holmes, in his “Spanish Medicine in the Old South in the 18th Century,” [9] writes of Dr. Ramos’ remedy that “it was so popular with Carlos IV that it was published in Mexico City in 1793 and circulated widely throughout the Spanish Empire” (26). It was a “cure-all” containing sarsaparilla, sassafras, lignum vitae, senna, herb of grace, and cream of tartar. [10]

Militia commander Joseph Xavier Pontalba said that Louisiana Governor-general Carondelet and his wife took it during the 1796 yellow fever outbreak in Louisiana. [9] He also reported that New Orleans residents would carry garlic on their persons and burn a range of things, including tar and animal skins and/or hooves, in an attempt to keep the pestilence at bay. Pontalba himself relied on carrying camphor, sprinkling his apartments – and his servants – liberally with vinegar, and chewing quinquinia (Cinchona bark). [11]

In early 19th century Pensacola, though, tar and sulphur were the dominant official ingredients for fumigation, and barrels of them would be lit at the edges of quarantined neighborhoods to drive away “the vapors.” [12] But Pensacola residents in the 1870s also had “remedies” and patent medicines available to them, as well, and they used them – medicines like Bosso’s Blessings, purported to cure pretty much anything. After all, while some medical professionals considered them quackery, the truth is that the medical professionals had no idea what caused it or how to treat it, either. It was hard to sort fact from fiction when nobody knew what was going on. [14]

Many doctors lost faith in their own field’s approach. It was more like an act of God or a natural disaster than a treatable illness – when a tornado’s coming, you don’t try to control the tornado. You just figure out how you can best ride it out. So seriously, it’s not at all difficult to imagine how someone could decide that you might as well just drink whiskey and pray as anything else. [15]

And I’m not making fun of these people, seriously – in 100 years, new generations will be analyzing our approaches to pandemic life and pointing out some of the crazy shit some of us believed. There will probably be studies published about how whole groups of Americans contributed to the spread of the pandemic by simply refusing to believe what health officials and people with scientific training and education told them about social distancing and mask-wearing. And for all that we might know what causes yellow fever now and have a vaccine in the 21st century, we’re also hot-gluing rose quartz to our foreheads, dunking our butts in coconut oil, and guzzling colloidal silver in between kale superfood shakes to treat our Whatever. We’re doing herb cleanses to get the “toxins” out of our bodies, because some of us don’t believe in kidneys and livers, I guess. So we have absolutely no room to sit here passing judgment on these people. [16]

bossos blessing 6 aug 1905 pensacola news journal
Bossos Blessing clip 22 April 1883 Times Picayune page 5

First from Pensacola News Journal, 6 Aug. 1905. Second from Times Picayune, 22 Apr. 1883.


[1] To be fair, this isn’t even medieval. This miasma theory of bad air is straight out of second-century Graeco-Roman medical theory.

[2] I mean, people did serious research to arrive at these theories – it wasn’t like it was just lazy superstition. See, for instance, Aldred Scott Warthin’s “Noah Webster as Epidemiologist,” Bulletin of the Society of Medical History in Chicago vol. 3, no. 1, Morris Fishbein, ed., Jan. 1923, Chicago, pp. 191-214. See esp. p. 210-212 for info on Webster’s historical research into how volcano and meteor behavior corresponded with major historical endemics. And he corresponded with plenty of medical doctors during this time, as well – his ideas about yellow fever were not any worse than the ideas of doctors at the time, and his work had an enormous impact on the study and treatment of yellow fever in his day. Dr. Rush of Philadelphia, for instance, blamed the yellow fever outbreak there on “noxious effluvia” of putrid coffee damaged during import (Warthin 207; Rush 12-13 [see n.3]).

This same Dr. Sternberg was optimistic about the disinfection of contaminated clothing and bedding via fumigation and recommended people to burn “three pounds of sulphur for each thousand cubic feet of air space in the room.” Here’s a health committee advising people burn the mattresses and pillows of those who died of yellow fever. And here are some 1894 quarantine regulations and disinfection procedures for cholera, yellow fever, smallpox, typhus fever, leprosy, and plague.

[3] See esp. pp. 22-24 of Benjamin Rush, M.D. “An account of the bilious remitting yellow fever, as it appeared in the city of Philadelphia, in the year 1793.” Medical inquiries and observations, vol. 3. Available at the Evans Early American Imprint Collection.

[4] Jack Sullivan, “How Mr. Duffy Outwitted Uncle Sam,” The Potomac Pontil, April 2008.

[5] Undated reprint of an article from the Florida-Times Union by Dr. John P. Wall.

[6] Nina Morris, I Remember.

[7] These Allens are cousins of my great-grandmother.

[8] He married Merced Bonifay, daughter of Leocardio Bonifay and Irene Gonzalez.

[9] Jack Holmes, “Spanish Medicine in the Old South in the 18th Century,” Ciencia, vida y espacio en Iberoameŕica, vol. 1, Jose Luis Peset, coord. CSIC Press, 1989 (pp. 21-30).

[10] The recipe was printed in Gazeta de Mexico, numbers 1-3 (1794), reprinted as a pamphlet in Mexico by Pedro de la Rosa (1794).

[11] Joseph X. Pontalba, in “Letters of Baron Joseph X. Pontalba to his Wife, 1796” (W.P.A, trans, typescript, Louisiana State University Library, Baton Rouge).

[12] John Appleyard. “Pensacola’s Battles Against Yellow Fever.” Pensacola News Journal, Oct. 2, 2016.

[13] Appleyard, ibid., mentions Bosso’s Blessing, sold in fine drugstores everywhere.

See also George F. Pearce, “Torment of Pestilence: Yellow Fever Epidemics in Pensacola,” The Florida Historical Quarterly vol. 56, no. 4 (Apr., 1978), pp. 448-472.

[14] Other popular remedies included Brandreth’s Vegetable Universal Pills, and see also Brandreth’s 1857 Almanac here.

And Holt’s Prescription and Remedies for Yellow Fever, which included orange leaf tea and a hot foot bath containing mustard, to be followed by senna, barley water, castor oil, crackers, fresh oysters, or boiled eggs. ‘Cause fresh oysters were apparently the perfect light meal after you got done purging all that miasmic effluvium from every available orifice. Hey, more fun than leeches, at least, right?


And a sparkling water called Red Raven.

And once mosquitoes were identified as a factor in the spread of yellow fever, enter things like Dr. G. H. Tichenor’s Antiseptic and Littell’s Liquid Sulphur (to be taken internally *and* added to the bath water).

littrells liquid sulphur

See also Jo Ann Carrigan, “Impact of Epidemic Yellow Fever on the Life of Louisiana,” Louisiana History: The Journal of the Louisiana Historical Association Vol. 4, No. 1 (Winter, 1963), pp. 5-34.

For a criticism of reliance on patent medicines, including reference to an advertised claim that the reason black people didn’t get wiped out by yellow fever like white people did is because they’re smart enough to rely on Johnson’s Chill and Fever Tonic. I don’t have time to do this justice, but it’s absolutely fascinating rhetoric.  Colliers, Oct. 7, 1905, available in this thing where the page numbers don’t seem to work/exist, but you can search it.

[15] I know I’m kinda doing my own false advertising by mentioning prayer since I don’t go into that at all here, but it quickly became something I couldn’t do justice to in an evening, the topic of religious perspectives towards epidemics like this and spiritual approaches and concerns. But I’ll tidy it up one day when I have more time.

Worth reading re. 1. how Southern perspectives on epidemics could differ from Northern ones and the idea of “regional exceptionalism” and “medical distinctiveness,” with reference to a “Creole treatment” involving lots of water, some laudanum, some sponge baths, and some watermelon seeds; 2. a discussion of how yellow fever outbreaks affected medical professionals’ faith in their own fields of practice; 3. a brief intro into the “trail connecting medical futility to religion” in 19th century yellow fever epidemics, see John S. Runge, “Yellow Fever and the Emotional Consequences of Untreatable Epidemic Disease,” Einstein J. Biol. Med. (2015) vol. 30: 48-54. Available here.

[16] Now I’m not totally dismissing folk/herbal remedies of course. Some of those herbs would have done not much more than keep you within sprinting distance of a toilet for a while, but cinchona bark, for instance, which contains quinine, was for many years the first line of defense in the fight against malaria.

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