Dr. Mudd Describes the Yellow Fever Epidemic

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Dr. Mudd Describes the Yellow Fever Epidemic  (1867) 
by Samuel Alexander Mudd

Dr. Mudd described the 1867 yellow fever epidemic in a letter to his wife. Source: The Life of Dr. Samuel A. Mudd, by Nettie Mudd

October 27, 1867

I will now, as near as I can, by a pen description, give you an idea of the embarrassment I labored under upon assuming the duties as surgeon of the post, that were unexpectedly thrust upon me, and the track followed by the germs or poison, as evidenced by the appearance of disease.

Thus on the 4th of September, seventeen days after the epidemic of yellow fever had broken out, the surgeon, Dr. J. Sim Smith, a gentleman much respected and beloved by the garrison, was himself attacked with the fever, and by his illness, the Post was left without a physician in the midst of a fearful pestilence. The thought had never before entered my mind that this contingency might arise, and consequently I found myself unprepared to decide between the contending emotions of fear and duty that now pressed to gain ascendancy. Memory was still alive, for it seemed as yesterday, the dread ordeal through which I had passed. Tried by a court not ordained by the laws of the land, confronted by suborned and most barefaced perjured testimony, deprived of liberty, banished from home, family and friends, bound in chains as the brute and forced at the point of the bayonet to do the most menial service, and withal denied for a time every luxury, and even healthy subsistence, for having exercised a simple act of common humanity in setting the leg of a man for whose insane act I had no sympathy, but which was in the line of my professional calling. It was but natural that resentment and fear should rankle in my heart, and that I should stop to discuss mentally the contending emotions that now rested upon a horrid recollection of the past. Can I be a passive beholder? Shall I withhold the little service I might be capable of rendering the unfortunate soldier who was but a tool in the hands of his exacting officer? Or shall I again subject myself to renewed imputations of assassination? Who can read the motives of men? My motive might be ever so pure and praiseworthy yet one victim of the disease might be sufficient to start up the cry of poison and murder.

Whilst these disagreeable thoughts were revolving a fellow-prisoner remarked, saying: "Doctor, the yellow fever is the fairest and squarest thing that I have seen the past four or five years. It makes no distinction in regard to rank, color, or previous condition - every man has his chance, and I would advise you as a friend not to interfere." Another said it was only a little Southern opposition to reconstruction, and thought the matter ought to be reported to Congress in order that a law might be passed lowering the temperature below zero, which would most effectually put an end to its disloyalty.

But I must be more serious; and you will perceive that the time had now arrived in which I could occupy no middle ground. I felt that I had to make a decision, and although the rule of conduct upon which I had determined was not in accord with my natural feelings, yet I had the sanction of my professional and religious teachings and the consciousness of conforming to that holy precept, "Do ye good for evil," which alone distinguishes the man from the brute.

It being our breakfast hour on the morning of the 5th, and thinking it required some condescension on the part of the commanding officer to call upon an humble prisoner to serve in the honorable position of surgeon of the post, I concluded to spare him this disagreeable duty, and instructed Mr. Arnold, a fellow prisoner and roommate, who was acting clerk at headquarters, to inform Major Stone, then commanding, that should my services be required, I had no fear of, nor objection to, performing whatever aid was in my power toward the relief of the sick. On approaching headquarters, Mr. Arnold met Major Stone coming to my quarters to inquire whether I would consent to attend the sick of the Post until the arrival of a regular surgeon.

When informed that I had offered my services, the Major seemed much pleased and had me forthwith detailed. Fortune favored me, and it so happened that during the intervals, amounting to nearly three weeks, that I had the exclusive care of the sick, not one died. Time will not permit me further digression. I shall pass over many incidents of interest connected with hospital management, difficulties I had to overcome in breaking up the prior arrangement of sending away the sick in open boats over a rough sea two miles and a half distant and also in obtaining an opposite order from the commander to send to one of the islands near by as many of the well soldiers as could be spared from the garrison. This latter measure, though I had advised it on the day I took charge of the hospital, was not carried out until the arrival of Dr. D. W. Whitehurst of Key West, Florida; a noble, kind-hearted gentleman, who superseded me on the 9th of September.

The first case of yellow fever at the Dry Tortugas, in the epidemic of which I now speak, occurred on the 18th of August, 1867, in Company K, which was located in the casemates on the south side of the Fort immediately over the unfinished moat, which at low tide gave rise to quite offensive odors. To this circumstance the surgeon of the Post attributed the cause of the disease, and at his request the company was removed and the portholes ordered to be closed, to prevent the supposed deadly miasma from entering the Fort.

Having the honor at this time of being a member of the carpenter's shop, it fell to my lot to aid in the work of barricading against the unseen foe, and it was during this patriotic service the 22nd of August, that I made my first note of the epidemic. The places occupied by the beds of the four men, one on the 18th, one on the 20th, and two on the 21st, that had gone to the hospital sick with yellow fever, were all contiguous. The Fort was hexagonal in shape with a bastion at each corner, and the company, after its removal, was placed on the east side, the bastion forming the center with several casemates above and below boarded up separating it from Company L on the north and the prisoners on the south, and in the most eligible position for the spread of the poison, owing to the prevalence of the wind, which from early in April up to this period had blown continuously from the southeast, varying only a few degrees.

There was a lull or temporary suspension of the activity of the poison on the 22d and 23d. For two days the company remained without any new cases, but on the 24th day one man was taken from the same company on stretchers, being unable to walk. The fever then rapidly extended right and left until it reached Company L, which was nearest the point where it arose this second time, and later the prisoners' quarters, which were more remote, were attacked. To show and to prove to you that the germs, or cause, spreads by continuity of matter, and not with the disease, the first two cases that occurred in Company L, and the first two cases among the prisoners, were immediately next the boarded partition that separated them from Company K, where the fever was raging, having followed along the rows of beds, up to this line of division, and then passed through the open spaces between the plank, which were loosely nailed.

There were at this time two hospitals, the Post Hospital within the Fort, and Sand Key Hospital on an adjacent island about two miles and a half distant, which latter was fitted up as soon as the fever began to assume an epidemical form. The sick that occurred during the night and following day were immediately taken to the Post Hospital, and from thence at 4 o'clock P. M. they were carried in boats by the surgeon, on his accustomed visit, to Sandy Key Hospital. Notwithstanding the fact that most of the sick walked from their beds to the Post Hospital, and no effort or pains on the part of the surgeon to isolate the disease were taken, owing to the belief in its miasmatic character, the germs or cause had not up to this time, September 12, viz: 25 days, reached either of the hospitals, if we may judge from the circumstance that not one of the many nurses, who waited upon the sick day and night and even slept in the same room, were stricken down with the fever.

The disease after extending into Company L, and to the prisoners' quarters, next made its appearance into Company I, located in the inner barracks, a building about three hundred feet long, thirty feet wide, and four stories high on the east side, running north and parallel with the Fort, and immediately in front of Company K and Company I, and distant about sixty feet.

I was called into this company on the morning of September 8, and found Sergeant Sheridan and a private that slept in the next bed ill with the fever. Sergeant Sheridan and the first sergeant of Company K were great friends, and when off duty were constantly in each other's quarters. Sheridan generally wore a heavy cloak during the showers of rain that were frequent at this period, and I feel satisfied that the poison was carried by the ferment set up in the cloak, or mechanically, by adhering formites, though it is possible for it to have been wafted across from Company K, the two beds in Company I being near the window facing that company. Then the fever gradually worked its way along through the whole company without a skip in regular succession as they slept.

At the northern extremity of the barracks two rooms were set apart, thirty feet square, as the Post Hospital. On the 7th we were necessitated by the increasing number of sick to provide other hospital quarters, and for convenience four casemates opposite on the ground tier, under Company L, were boarded up as a temporary hospital, with our kitchen and dispensary inter-mediate. On the 8th our hospital supply of beds and bedding gave out, and on the 9th we were compelled to bring the bed along with the patient into the hospital. Two days after the admission of the infected beds, our nurses began falling sick, three being attacked during the day and night of the 11th of September. Then the three laundresses, families who did the washing for the hospitals and separate quarters on the west side of the Fort, sixty or seventy yards apart, were all simultaneously attacked upon the first issue of soiled clothing - after our hospital became infected.

Then again, upon the breaking up of the Sand Key Hospital, and the return of the nurses to the Fort, they were all speedily stricken down with the fever upon their being placed on similar duty. These nurses had remained free from all disease up to their return to the Fort, although the majority of the cases whom they nursed at Sand Key died with the fever.

But the most remarkable spread of the disease occurred on the night of the 16th of September in Company M, which was quartered in the casemates immediately above the hospital and Company L, and notwithstanding the proximity up to this date, twenty-nine days since the epidemic began, had remained entirely exempt from the fever, owing no doubt to the fact that it laid behind the bastion, which, with the prevailing southeast wind, produced a downward or opposing current. However, on the morning of the above date, about nine o'clock, a small rain cloud common to that locality, arose to the south of the fort, which came up rapidly with a heavy wind, lasting about twenty minutes, and which blew directly from the hospital and Company L, toward Company M, and the night following every man went to bed in his usual health, yet between eleven and one o'clock nearly one-half of the company, or thirty men, were attacked with the most malignant form of the disease - beginning at the point nearest the hospitals and extending thirty beds without missing or skipping a single occupant.

It had been my custom to remain at the hospital every night until eleven o'clock to see that every patient received the medicine prescribed and was quiet. On this occasion I had not retired more than fifteen minutes before I was sent for by the sergeant of Company M to come to his quarters, that several of his men were sick. Feeling much fatigued, I did not attend the summons, but referred the messenger to Dr. Whitehurst and the steward of the hospital. At one o'clock the sergeant himself came down to my room and begged me for God's sake to get up, that one-half of his company were attacked with the fever, and that he did not know what to do with them, as the hospitals were already full. I went along with the sergeant, and found his statement fully correct, and the wildest alarm and confusion prevailing.

As the hospitals were already crowded, we concluded, for convenience, to enclose the six casemates nearest the regular hospitals, which was speedily executed with canvas, and in less than two hours all moved back and were quiet under comfortable treatment. The next night or two after, the balance of the company, in the order of their beds, were attacked with the disease without an exception.

The disease did not extend among the officers at headquarters until it had at first reached the negro prisoners, several of whom were employed by the officers as servants, and who were in the daily habit of carrying to and fro their blankets. The humble individual who now addresses you was not attacked until the 4th of October, forty-seven days after the beginning of the epidemic, though constantly at the bedside of the sick, and in the midst of the infected hospitals and quarters. One evening, at our usual supper hour, feeling much depressed and exhausted from the unaccustomed duties I went over to my mess, where I was besieged with many questions concerning the sick, and notwithstanding the solemnity of the occasion, a hearty laugh was frequently indulged at the expense of our ready wit, Edward Spangler.

The debilitating effects of the climate, added to the condition consequent upon the excitement, very much depressed me, and after finishing my bowl of coffee and slice of bread, I fell upon my rude cot to spend a few minutes of repose. The customary sea breeze at this hour had sprung up, and I was shortly lulled into sweet sleep. My faithful and ever solicitous roommate, Edward Spangler, who on former occasions had manifested so much concern when the least indisposition was complained of, seemed to anticipate my every want, was not unguarded at this time. As soon as he found me quiet, he closed the door and turned back several intruders, stating that the Doctor was feeling unwell, and had laid down to rest himself. In the course of an hour, he said, he will be through his nap, when he will return to the hospital, where all who desire can see him. Spangler made money by trafficking with the soldiers, and we are mainly indebted to him for something extra to the crude, unwholesome, and sometimes condemned Government ration that was issued to us. He was not generally select in his epithets toward those whom he disliked, yet if he saw them in suffering, it excited the liveliest sympathy, and he would do anything that laid in his power for their relief. At a later period he, in conjunction with Mr. Arnold, watched over me in my illness as attentively as if their own brother, and I owe my life to the unremitting care which they bestowed.

The reader, I am in hopes, will excuse this little digression from the subject - a tribute of thanks is due, and I know no more fitting place to give it expression. I may perhaps be doing injustice by omitting another name equally deserving of my esteem, Michael O'Loughlin. He, unfortunate young man, away from his family and friends, by whom he was most tenderly loved, fell a victim to the pestilence in spite of every effort on our part to save him. He had passed the first stage of the disease and was apparently convalescent, but, contrary to my earnest advice, he got out of bed a short time after I left in the morning, and was walking about the room looking over some periodicals the greater part of the day. In the evening, about five o'clock, a sudden collapse of the vital powers took place, which in thirty-six hours after terminated his life. He seemed all at once conscious of his impending fate, and the first warning I had of his condition was his exclamation, "Doctor, Doctor, you must tell my mother all!" He called then Edward Spangler, who was present, and extending his hand he said, "Good-by, Ned." These were his last words of consciousness. He fell back instantly into a profound stupor and for several minutes seemed lifeless; but by gently changing his position from side to side, and the use of stimulating and cold applications, we succeeded in restoring him to partial strength and recollection.

I never met with one more kind and forbearing, possessing a warm friendly disposition and a fine comprehensive intellect. I enjoyed greater ease in conversational intercourse with him than any of my prison associates. He was taken sick whilst my kind friend, Dr. D. W. Whitehurst of Key West, Florida, had charge of the Post; from him he received prompt medical attention from the beginning of his illness to his death.

The news had spread around through the garrison of the neat and comfortable appearance of the hospital and the improved condition of the sick, which had the effect to gain for me a reputation, and the confidence of the soldiers - all I could desire to insure success. It was not long before I discovered I could do more with nine cases out of ten by a few consoling and inspiring words, than with all the medicine known to me in the materia medica.

- Samuel Mudd