Monmouth Historic Inn

Part II - 1823 Natchez: Yellow Fever, Parties & More

August 26 2015 | News

Here is the 2nd part of Mr. Nelson's October of 2010 column run in the Corcordia Sentinel. How sad it is to hear that after departing town for a time - then returning - when someone failed to see familiar faces on the street they would inquire about them only to find out that the person had succumbed to the dreaded illness. How different things are today with our instantaneous ways of communicating with one another.  Enjoy the read - and until next time - happy travels . . . . 

1823 Natchez: A season of fever, parties, waltzes, death


By Stanley Nelson

Concordia Sentinel

October 27, 2010


Quitman explained that Mrs. Claiborne wasn't rich but could entertain so lavishly thanks to "thrifty housewifery, and a good dairy and garden..." He said her slaves were given great freedom, her farm well worked and she was fond of young people and fun to be around.

Every night in her room, Mrs. Claiborne was known to have family devotion with her slaves who also prayed and sang. When a minister visited, the whole household, guests and slaves, assembled in the parlor for prayer.

By early October, Quitman was staying at the plantation home Greenfields on the outskirts of town: "I have been for a week at this charming abode, where Mr. Griffith and his family are likewise guests. We shall not return to town until December. Whole families have been exterminated. I have lost several warm friends. Country air seems to be the antidote for this dreadful scourge. Outside the city -- even a hundred yards beyond the corporation -- it is as healthy as any part of the world. Sick persons, brought from the city, are received into crowded households, and nursed without fear of contagion, and I have heard of no instance of the fever being thus contracted."

Despite that, Quitman said that in the populous, wealthy neighborhood, "we meet in the morning, hunt or fish until dinner-time, and then turn in to the house of the nearest planter and never fail to get a good dinner, with the choicest wines. The planters here are famous for their claret and Madeira. Many fine packs of hounds are kept, and they are always at our service."

The Natchez region suffered from many yellow fever and malaria epidemics in the 19th century. We now know yellow fever is a virus spread by mosquitoes, and as the population center, Natchez was where every outbreak began. The steady river traffic -- passengers from all over stepping on and off of steamboats under-the-hill -- only added to the likelihood of an outbreak of pestilence.

By early December, Quitman was back in town and descended into a whole new reality from the pleasures he had enjoyed on the plantations. He wrote his brother in Rhinebeck, New York: "I am writing, thank God, once more from our own office. Three weeks since a severe frost banished the epidemic, and we returned. It was painful to see the desolation of the streets. I looked in vain for faces with which I had been familiar. A gloom and sadness pervaded the whole place, and when friends met they pressed each other's hands in silence, or averted their faces and burst into tears. There was a chasm in every family, and ah! how many bleeding hearts!"

But then Quitman observed an odd occurrence despite the deadly events of the past four months, when the yellow fever had made Natchez a center of darkness. The people began to play strange games and exhibited bizarre behavior.

Now, he said, the gloom was quickly disappearing "under the rush and tumult of business and new-comers. Even the theatre has opened, parties announced, and an air of recklessness prevails. There is certainly more dissipation and extravagance than we had this time last year.

"This is, perhaps, one effect of epidemics. It was observed when London was plague-stricken. It is seen in cities during a siege, and I hear curious details of the saturnalia (orgy of flesh and drink), the debauchery and excesses, that occurred here when the fever was the worst -- wine parties after funerals, card-playing on coffins, shrouded figures whirling in the waltz!"