At its best, history opens a window in time that helps illuminate the past and the present. Such is Encyclopedia Virginia’s new entry on the long-forgotten Norfolk and Portsmouth Yellow Fever Epidemic of 1855, contributed by Addeane Caelleigh, who also wrote the EV entry on the 1918 Influenza Pandemic in Virginia.
You aren’t alone if you’ve never heard of this epidemic, which was one of the worst in the history of the United States. But in the decade before the Civil War, a yellow fever outbreak of such ferocity hit Norfolk and Portsmouth in the late summer and early autumn of 1855 that a good part of the population fled the low-lying port cities, the city governments ceased to function, and the local economies collapsed.
Thanks to our experience with the disruptions and isolation brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s not hard to imagine what life was like for the remaining inhabitants—largely those too poor to leave or those prevented from fleeing because they were enslaved. Food was scarce; doctors even scarcer. Ships refused to dock in Norfolk’s once bustling port, and the local newspapers stopped publishing as their editors died or fled, cutting off communication with the outside world. And bodies piled up as gravediggers struggled to keep up.
Thanks to EV’s Media Editor Donna Lucey, who scoured the archives to find images to illuminate the story of this epidemic, we can also get a sense of the scope of the calamity. A broadside from New Year’s Day 1856 recounting the global tragedies of the past year—a failed attempt to find the lost Franklin expedition in the Arctic, an eruption of Mount Vesuvius—put the Norfolk epidemic front and center. An accompanying poem lamented “cities doom’d” with their “people toom’d.”
But the same poem also memorialized those who helped the victims through “lonely days and fearful nights.” As it turned out, the people of Norfolk and Portsmouth weren’t alone. Doctors and ministers remained to tend to the sick and comfort the living. As news of the catastrophe spread, a national relief effort was mounted. Local relief associations were formed in Norfolk and Portsmouth to distribute the aid, which came in the form of cash and supplies, bravely delivered by the one steamship line and the sole railroad that would serve the cities.
Much of the aid came from cities with histories of devastating yellow fever epidemics—New Orleans, New York, and Baltimore. But it was Philadelphia, which was the site of the country’s first major outbreak in 1793, which killed 5,000 people, or about 10 percent of the population, that mobilized one of the biggest relief efforts, sending money, supplies, and the most precious resource—medical professionals. The Philadelphia Relief Commission sent sixty medical volunteers, of which fifteen died, including nine women who volunteered as nurses.
The Philadelphia Relief Commission also started a fund to purchase the freedom of an enslaved Black man named Bob Butt, who was praised throughout Norfolk for his tireless efforts to bury the dead, overseeing a crew of gravediggers who reportedly buried 1,159 people. History is silent on whether the fund succeeded, although in 1859, Butt was still enslaved.
Ultimately, an estimated 3,000 people perished in Norfolk and 1,000 in Portsmouth. The cities struggled to recover for years. The mass graves grew over. Yellow fever faded with the turn of the century, as mosquito-control efforts and the development of a vaccine in 1938 finally vanquished “Yellow Jack.” Today, only a tiny park at an intersection in Norfolk memorializes the victims of the 1855 epidemic, a testament, and perhaps a warning, as to how even events that seem earth-shattering at the time recede in memory.