Take an eerie look back at Savannah’s deadly 1820 yellow fever epidemic at Davenport House

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SAVANNAH, Ga. (WSAV) — For anyone seeking a spooky Savannah experience on a cool October night, the Davenport House Museum invites them to witness an eerie glimpse into the past.

The museum’s month-long performance program is called “Living History: Yellow Fever in Savannah.”

Through a dramatic recreation every Friday and Saturday night this month, the show revisits the yellow fever epidemic of 1820, when the deadly disease with no known cure ravaged the city.

That year, around 700 people died from the disease, and most of them were buried in Savannah’s Colonial Park Cemetery in mass, unmarked graves.

A marker dedicated to the deadly period in Savannah’s history is erected in the cemetery park.

The Davenport House has been entertaining intimate groups of locals and tourists by candlelight with the hour-long reenactment since 2003, Director Jamie Credle told News 3.

She’s participated in the performance since its inception, and plays a doctor named Mary Lavender, who took care of Savannah’s sick and poor people in the 1820s.

Lavender was considered Georgia’s first female doctor.

“We want [attendees] to understand that there was such a thing as yellow fever, that the past was difficult, so if they’re going through difficult things, just think about how hard was for our forebears,” Credle said.

“We hope to give them a sense of the past much better than having read something, that you feel a sense of the past from our recreations, like you might say, ‘Wow, that really did feel like we were [there] back then.’”

Throughout five scenes taking place in different dimly lit rooms, costumed interpreters portray Savannah residents dealing with the realities of the epidemic in 1820, and examine how people handled medical treatments and death during that dark period.

You didn’t know when it would come, you didn’t know what brought it, but it always brought death and a lot of pain.”

Dr. Stan Deaton, Senior Historian, Georgia Historical Society

“[We explore] different ways that people were doctored to back then, which seems just crazy to us that people would be puked or purged or bled or given cayenne pepper or spirits of turpentine, because we’ve come so far with regard to technology,” Credle said.

One of the show’s most notable performers is Jamal Touré, a local historian known for his interpretations of Gullah-Geechee heritage and African-American experience in the Lowcountry.

“He portrays a free man of color living in the Yamacraw section of Savannah in the 1820s, and he talks about the unrecorded populace and how they would experience the epidemic,” Credle said.

Yellow fever’s history

In the 18th and 19th centuries, many coastal cities in the South, including Savannah, were prone to yellow fever outbreaks, especially before people were able to link the illness to the Aedes aegypti mosquito, said Dr. Stan Deaton, a senior historian who has worked with the Georgia Historical Society for 21 years.

Aedes aegypti has also been known to spread dengue fever, chikungunya and Zika virus, among other illnesses.

“It was one of those scourges, like malaria or smallpox, diseases that in the pre-medical world of the 18th and 19th century were very little understood, very frightening when it did come,” Deaton said.

“You didn’t know when it would come, you didn’t know what brought it, but it always brought death and a lot of pain.”

Following the 1820 outbreak, another one happened in 1854, and yet another in 1876.

Back then, Deaton told News 3, people thought they could catch yellow fever simply by being near someone who had the illness. 

“It had nothing to do with being in close proximity to another person,” Deaton said.

“There were theories that the slave ships from Western Africa brought the disease. What we know about yellow fever now is it did have its origins in Western Africa, but the first outbreak really was in South America in the 16th century, in the 1500s,” he added.

Over the next 300 years, Deaton said outbreaks would pop up in various places, usually during summer, and all people really knew was that by the time of the first frost, the outbreaks usually stopped — but not directly because of a drop of temperature.

They later discovered in the late 19th century, through the work of Cuban doctor Carlos Finlay, and American physician Major Walter Reed, that mosquitoes transmitted the disease to humans.

“The way to prevent yellow fever, they found out, was to eradicate the mosquito, and that’s what they did in the early 20th century,” Deaton said, noting that the most recent yellow fever outbreak in the United States happened in New Orleans in 1905. 

Although a vaccine was discovered in 1937, there’s not a known cure for yellow fever. 

“You can still get the illness,” Deaton said.

“There’s still about 45,000 people who live in tropical zones who do get it.”

Yellow fever’s symptoms

For those that do get the viral infection, symptoms like dehydration are treated, according to Deaton.

Another symptom is jaundice — that’s where yellow fever got its name.

“It attacks your liver and turns your skin yellow,” Deaton said.

Victims would also get headaches or backaches, as well as severe body pains that mimicked flu-like symptoms.

“But then, you might start vomiting, and the vomit was black,” Deaton said.

“Even now, you can’t really cure it once you have it, you just hope that it goes away; for most people, it did,” he said.

In others, the infection became severe enough to kill them, as it did for many in Savannah in the 1800s.

A spooky experience

Davenport House intentionally hosts their annual yellow fever performance in October leading up to Halloween, Credle told News 3.

“People are interested in seeing things that are creepy, and we thought we could complement the ghost tour industry with something that’s a little bit different, because we want folks to participate in all the options with regards to entertainment, or edu-tainment,” she said.

Credle added that the museum’s performers feel they offer an authentic experience for locals and tourists alike  — basically anyone hoping to experience something a bit frightful.

“I think that people will also come away with a new understanding of medical science, and what it was and was not in the 1820s,” she said.

Most attendees seems to enjoy experiencing the house by candlelight, she added.

“I really hope that people see this and are a bit curious,” Credle told News 3.

“We’ve got a show to put on and we’d love to have an audience, and we think that we can show them a good time.”

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