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.

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

Recent reading roundup: St. Expedite, Hindu chromos in Haiti, iconography in retablos, domestic work in the segregated South


Did you know there was a very active St. Expedite Society in Independence, Louisiana up until very recently? I didn’t. Read more at Folklife in Louisiana: “St. Expedito’s Role in South Louisiana Catholicism, in New Orleans and in the Italian-American Community near Independence, Louisiana,” by Karen Williams.


Hindu deities on vodun altars: Rush, Dana. “Eternal Potential: Chromolithographs in Vodunland,”African Arts vol. 32, No. 4 (Winter, 1999), pp. 60-75+94-96. Also helpful more broadly, imo, for any student of folklore/popular religion who’s ever encountered an argument about whether Abre Camino is “real hoodoo” or not, wondered what to think about the development of the seven-colors school of approach to Santisima Muerte, or pondered the relationships between figures like Legba vs. Ellegua.


Giffords, Gloria Fraser. The Iconography of Mexican Folk Retablos. Thesis. University of Arizona, 1969. I tend to assume everybody immediately sees why stuff like this is so interesting. I tend to be wrong. But basically the iconography had never been studied before this, so this was a big deal, this work. And if you like to understand what you’re looking at when you see a candle in a botanica or grocery store, you’ll encounter plenty of stuff that had its origins here whether you personally work with that imagery/tradition or not.


I read Telling Memories Among Southern WomenDomestic Workers and Their Employers in the Segregated South years ago, and even then, before I’d really started *studying* this stuff in any consistent and applied way, I felt like everybody I knew ought to read it. I knew they wouldn’t – people think this stuff doesn’t have anything to do with them if their families weren’t the ones being described in these stories – but they’d be wrong, ’cause this is part of how we got here. And the impact of it doesn’t just disappear suddenly when it’s no longer fashionable or feasible or *whatever* to have domestic employees. This is part of Southern culture, y’all, and it’s part of how your role in it, as whatever sex, race, class, gender, family role stratum you occupy, got constructed and defined.

I still feel the same way in 2020. I think Southern folks should read this book — especially white folks. Especially white women.  Here’s a review with a useful summary at the Washington Post.