An Army general named Charles Griffin in 1867 made a fateful determination, one that would decimate Galveston.
The general had been warned of the tragedy he was about to unleash — and ignored the alarm.
As a full-blown outbreak of yellow fever tore through New Orleans that year, the general’s aides urged him to quarantine the island — to close the port to arrivals from the Big Easy — but the officer assigned to oversee Reconstruction in Texas refused.
Within months, 720 Galvestonians lay dead, ravaged by Yellow Jack, the worst such outbreak of the dreaded fever in Texas history.
In a horrid, albeit poetic, justice, Griffin lay among the victims.
“The epidemic commenced on the first of September,” James Moore, then-president of Galveston’s branch of the Howard Association, wrote of the pestilence. “Since that time, the burials have averaged about twelve per day. This morning, ten coffins were ordered before 8 o’clock.”
The Howards, as they were collectively known, were members of a fraternal association dedicated to caring for the victims of yellow fever, often with desperate treatments now known to have been futile but which were then all anyone knew to do.
Seeking to break sufferers’ fever — the initial symptom that foretold a progression that often ended at the graveyard — physicians prescribed massive quantities of quinine, 24 grains three times a day, a delirium-inducing dose, in fact, and calomel and castor oil to induce vomiting and, too, liberal dosages of crushed charcoal, oil of black pepper and dandelion extract.
If all failed, the patient was bled by a cupper, subjected to blistering mustard poultices or submerged in ice water.
No such remedies were medically efficacious, but what was anyone to do? At least one intended remedy provided some comfort: copious shots of brandy.
The Galveston Howards were a branch of the association named for John Howard, an 18th century British philanthropist who spent his inherited fortune pressing for penal reform and the care of victims of infectious maladies. The islands’ Howards dedicated themselves to the care of such sufferers, regardless of race.
Yellow Jack, as the dreaded fever was commonly called, was believed to be caused by bad air, so-called miasma, which infected municipalities attempted to overwhelm by burning barrels of tar and sulfur, which only managed to produce truly unhealthy air.
It wasn’t until an Army physician, Maj. Walter Reed, in 1900, very near the end of his life, determined that infected mosquitoes — the females of the Aedes aegypti — were to blame for spreading yellow fever.
Previously, Ashbel Smith, a Yale-educated physician and close friend of Sam Houston, who had appointed him surgeon general of the Republic of Texas, had demonstrated during the 1839 yellow fever outbreak that the disease couldn’t be passed directly from one human being to another. He did so through the drastic measure of tasting the so-called black vomit that yellow fever victims commonly threw up in their dying throes.
Yet, his revelation was dismissed; for all anyone knew, the good physician simply was immune to Yellow Jack. So it was that quarantines became common.
Griffin’s successor in 1870 heeded the advice his predecessor had ignored three years prior and refused entry to Houston to all travelers from the island as yet another outbreak ravaged Galveston.
Yellow fever by then was a familiar scourge in Gulf Coast cities, given their tropical climes and abundant mosquitoes.
The first known outbreak to tear through Galveston arrived in 1839, the very year the city was incorporated. That was followed by eruptions in 1843, 1847, 1853, 1858, 1863, 1867 and 1870, eventually eight in all, victims of six of which Galveston’s Howards cared for.
Yellow fever’s first documented case along the Gulf coast occurred in New Orleans in 1796. Soon after it was discovered that those who survived Yellow Jack were forever immune to later outbreaks. Such survivors often joined the Howards, who in Galveston cared for victims until disbanding in 1882, the reason why lost to history despite that yellow fever continued to break out, though never again in Galveston, until the last significant Gulf Coast epidemic — like the first, also in New Orleans — was recorded in 1905.
In the Galveston Howards’ four-decade history, members cared for countless thousands of yellow fever victims — and failed in only one known regard. The association repeatedly attempted to establish on the island a pesthouse, as infirmaries for the infected were known, only to be defeated every time, due presumably to fellow islanders’ fevered fears.