The Epidemic Arrives
On June 7, 1855, the steamer Benjamin Franklin arrived in Hampton Roads for repairs after a two-week voyage from St. Thomas in the West Indies. The port’s health officer visited the ship and the captain assured him that there was no disease onboard, despite the fact that two crew members had died on the journey. After a twelve-day quarantine, the Benjamin Franklin was allowed to go to the Page and Allen shipyard in Gosport, near Portsmouth. That fateful decision would lead to one of the worst yellow fever epidemics in U.S. history, with thousands dead and thousands more fleeing the two cities.
On July 5, a laborer working on the ship fell ill with what appeared to be yellow fever; he died on July 8. The first cases of yellow fever in Portsmouth appeared in a tenement called Irish Row that housed shipyard workers and then spread into Portsmouth. When the health authorities closed the tenement, Norfolk took in some of the displaced residents and housed them in a wharf-area tenement known as Barry’s Row, where the disease soon appeared and then spread into Norfolk. City leaders were reluctant to announce an epidemic, fearing that residents would panic and that shipping to Portsmouth and Norfolk would be halted. When the boards of health in Portsmouth and Norfolk finally confirmed on July 30 that there was an epidemic, residents panicked, as was feared, and fled the city, jamming ships and trains. Within a few days a third of Norfolk’s white residents had left, while almost none of the estimated 5,000 Black residents, of which nearly 1,000 were free Blacks, had the liberty or means to leave. Similarly, in Portsmouth, about a third of the residents who had the means to leave town did so.
The lack of knowledge about how yellow fever spread added to the panic, as newspapers reported on the growing outbreak with alarm. Richmond and Petersburg quickly set up quarantine zones to prevent refugees from Norfolk and Portsmouth from entering. New York City and Baltimore would not let steamers from Norfolk or Portsmouth land. Refugees attempting to board ships at Point Comfort were turned away at bayonet point, although they were welcomed in some places, including Northampton, Mathews, and Princess Anne Counties, and parts of the Eastern Shore. Because many ports would not allow ships from Norfolk or Portsmouth to land, some refugees first took steamers to the Eastern Shore and then boarded ships bound for other ports.
By August both cities were largely shut down, with businesses, stores, and churches closed and the streets deserted. The ferries between Portsmouth and Norfolk ceased operation. Left behind were the sick, those who could not afford to leave, virtually all Black residents, and people who felt a duty to stay, such as doctors, clergymen, and city leaders.
News of the epidemic spread quickly along the East Coast and then throughout the country. Relief committees were set up in East Coast and Gulf Coast cities to collect money and to buy supplies that were sent to the Norfolk and Portsmouth relief associations. Clergymen preached sermons about the suffering and dire conditions and urged their congregants to donate—Trinity Church in Washington, D.C., raised $325. There were major relief efforts from New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Richmond, but money, as well as essential supplies like food and coffins, came in from many other areas. Norfolk received $160,000 from twenty-four states.
Ships carrying supplies did not dock at the city wharves but stayed out in the harbor and shuttled the supplies to shore. The Baltimore Steam Packet Company continued to travel between Baltimore and Portsmouth and without charge brought volunteer physicians and nurses and a wide range of provisions. The Seaboard and Roanoke Railroad Company continued rail service to the city, often carrying relief supplies.
Caring for the Sick
Burying the dead became a major problem in both cities; there were 400 burials in Norfolk in one week alone in early September. Bob Butt, an enslaved man who dug graves and supervised a crew of gravediggers, played a major role in helping Portsmouth keep up with the tide of burials, reportedly overseeing the burial of 1,159 citizens. Afterward, the Philadelphia Relief Commission started a fund to purchase his freedom, although it’s unclear whether it succeeded. In Norfolk, the Howard Association hired twenty-five additional gravediggers, and martial law was declared so the city could requisition private vehicles to collect the dead. At one point, Father Matthew O’Keefe of St. Patrick’s Catholic Church worked alongside the gravediggers. Because the supply of coffins ran out early on and the gravediggers couldn’t keep pace with burials, people left the dead, sometimes wrapped in the bedclothes in which they died, next to undug graves and alongside the roads that ran through the cemeteries. During the worst weeks, the dead were buried in long trenches, often in two layers, in Potter’s Field.
The yellow fever epidemic that struck Norfolk and Portsmouth in the summer and autumn of 1855 was one of the worst in U.S. history. An estimated 3,000 people died in Norfolk, about one-third of the entire population, while more than 1,000 died in Portsmouth.
Norfolk and Portsmouth recovered slowly. Norfolk regained its pre-epidemic levels of businesses and population within a few years, but this only put the city back to its status in 1855, not the optimistic flourishing that had been predicted. Furthermore, Norfolk and Portsmouth had acquired a reputation as unhealthy, blighting hopes for growth from outside investment and increased shipping. The epidemic, combined with the effects of the American Civil War (1861–1865), caused the two cities to stagnate. They did not recover until the twentieth century, when growth was spurred by activity at Naval Station Norfolk during World War I and World War II. Yellow fever wasn’t brought under control until Walter Reed’s discovery in 1900 that it was transmitted by mosquitoes and the eventual development of a vaccine in 1938.
September 1855 - The yellow fever epidemic reaches its peak in Portsmouth and Norfolk.
June 7, 1855 - The steamship Benjamin Franklin arrives in Portsmouth from the West Indies, bringing yellow fever.
June 19, 1855 - The steamship Benjamin Franklin is released from quarantine and proceeds to the Page and Allen shipyard in Gosport near Portsmouth.
July 8, 1855 - A worker at the Page and Allen shipyard in Gosport dies of yellow fever.
July 30, 1855 - The boards of health in Portsmouth and Norfolk declare a yellow fever epidemic.
October 14, 1855 - The Norfolk Board of Health declares the epidemic over as the first hard freeze arrives.
Cite This Entry
- APA Citation:
Caelleigh, A. S. The Norfolk and Portsmouth Yellow Fever Epidemic (1855). (2020, August 17). In Encyclopedia Virginia. Retrieved from http://www.EncyclopediaVirginia.org/Epidemic_The_Norfolk_and_Portsmouth_Yellow_Fever_1855.
- MLA Citation:
Caelleigh, Addeane S. "The Norfolk and Portsmouth Yellow Fever Epidemic (1855)." Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Humanities, 17 Aug. 2020. Web. READ_DATE.
First published: August 4, 2020 | Last modified: August 17, 2020
Contributed by Addeane S. Caelleigh.