Yellow Jax: The 1888 Jacksonville Yellow Fever Epidemic
In summer 1888, an invisible killer stalked the streets of Jacksonville. “Yellow Jack” took hundreds of lives, forced the city into lockdown, and toppled a progressive, biracial city government. The ordeal also proved how much Jaxsons can overcome when they work together. This is the story of Jacksonville's great yellow fever epidemic of 1888.
Prelude to pestilence
Cartoon by Matt Morgan depicting Columbia, the personification of the United States, attempting to save Lady Florida from the clutches of Yellow Jack, the embodiment of yellow fever. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.
Yellow fever was a top concern for Jacksonville’s civic leaders going into 1888. The fever had been carving a deadly path through Havana, Key West, and Tampa through 1887, and had hit Jacksonville before, most recently in 1877. This brutal viral disease attacks the liver and kidneys, and in severe cases causes organ failure, jaundice, and internal bleeding that leads to black, bloody vomit. Even in modern times, the disease claims 30,000 lives a year.
In the 1880s, it was not yet known that yellow fever is transmitted by mosquitoes. Its vector seemed random, sparing some while laying others low. The disease was a terrifying cypher; all Jacksonville’s leaders knew was that city infrastructure was inadequate to the task of containing such a threat.
Broad Street in the primarily African-American neighborhood of LaVilla. Originally an independent town, LaVilla was one of several communities annexed into Jacksonville in 1887. Courtesy of the State Library and Archives of Florida.
Partly in order to implement sanitation improvements community-wide to fight disease, the city of Jacksonville annexed LaVilla, Springfield and other formerly independent communities in 1887. The move made Jacksonville a black-majority city just as the white Democratic elite was working to reestablish dominance following Reconstruction. In the local elections in December of that year, Black and white Republicans dealt a major blow to the establishment by allying with the labor movement to elect a new progressive government.
African Americans won five of the 18 City Council seats; all told, Black and white members of the Knights of Labor took 13 seats. Charles Bristol Smith, a progressive white Republican affiliated with the Knights, was elected mayor. True to its promises to the Black community, the new government appointed African Americans to various high profile positions, including municipal judge and police commissioner. The police department hired 23 Black officers, the majority of the force.
The new government was forward thinking and historic, but it proved no match for what was coming.
Yellow Jack comes calling
Yellow Jack wearing a Cuban hat reflecting the contemporary theory that the disease entered Florida from Havana. Image courtesy of the Jacksonville Historical Society.
Mayor Smith’s government was in the middle of an ambitious campaign to extend infrastructure from the main city into the outlying working class and African American neighborhoods when the yellow fever struck in July 1888. The first victim was R.D. McCormack, a Tampa saloon keeper who arrived via train. He fell ill and was diagnosed with yellow fever on July 28. Four further cases followed on August 8 and the fever spread rapidly from there. On August 10, the Board of Health announced that “the fever is prevalent and tending to assume an epidemic form.” As panic spread along with the contagion, The New York Times reported that it was “every one for himself” in Jacksonville.
Political cartoons personified yellow fever as “Yellow Jack,” a menacing grim reaper in flowing robes. According to Mitch Hemann, head archivist with the Jacksonville Historical Society, the name derived from the yellow flags used to mark a quarantined area, a “jack” being a small flag. Cartoons depicted Yellow Jack violating a woman representing Florida, battling Columbia, the personification of the United States, and wreaking general havoc. Of Yellow Jack, author Tim Gilmore wrote, “as long as the gaunt man remained, Jacksonville remained under quarantine.”
Jacksonville refugees being turned away at the station, from Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, September 8, 1888. Courtesy of the State Library and Archives of Florida.
Jaxsons faced an Odyssean dilemma: either fleeing the city in hopes another community would take them in, or hunkering down and hoping Yellow Jack would pass over their door. Citizens with means to do so crowded into every outbound train, steamboat and wagon they could, but they soon found that most of the rest of Florida, and cities like Mobile, Savannah, and Charleston, had quarantined against Jacksonville travelers, a measure sometimes enforced at gunpoint. In Waycross, Georgia, citizens threatened to destroy the tracks if trains of refugees attempted to pass through, even at top speed and locked tight.
The Florida Minstrels, a black minstrel group, wrote a musical number about the events:
De Mayor’s proclamation didn’t do a bit of good,
Kase all de oldest citizens was breakin’ for the woods.
You never seen so many folks at the Duval County Fair,
As run aboard de steamboats in the Yaller Fever Scare.
Francis P. Fleming Jr., son of later Florida governor Francis P. Fleming Sr., received this immunity card after surviving the yellow fever in 1877. Image courtesy of the Jacksonville Historical Society
As those who had previously survived yellow fever developed immunity, the state issued immunity cards allowing them to travel. A few communities, including Atlanta; Macon, Georgia; Hendersonville, North Carolina; and Mont Eagle, Tennessee opened their doors to the refugees. Other displaced Jaxsons took their chances in the sometimes Kafkaesque quarantine stops elsewhere. By early September, thousands had left. Jacksonville’s population, once at about 17,000, was down to 13,757, of whom 9,812 were African Americans.
The government collapses
On September 6, 1888, The New York Times reported that Jacksonville’s situation was dire.
Mayor C.B. Smith was in Cincinnati when the outbreak began, and City Council member J.W. Archibald was serving as acting mayor. Archibald spearheaded the initial response to the epidemic until September 3, when he led a group of refugees to Atlanta in expectation of Smith’s return. But Smith did not return.
Smith contacted The Florida Times-Union stating that he had contracted pneumonia in Cincinnati and was unable to travel. The mayor’s doctor vouched for his illness, but many citizens believed he had simply abandoned them. Whatever the reality of Smith’s condition, his absence was a devastating blow to a city in the midst of one of its darkest seasons.
Worse, eight City Council members, including acting mayor Archibald, evacuated the city by early September, leaving only ten behind. For their part, four of the five African Americans on the council stayed in town with their constituents. In the absence of Smith and Archibald, City Council Vice President D.T. Gerow announced that he would take over as acting mayor on September 7. But when two of the remaining aldermen fell ill with the fever, the Council was left with too few members to reach a quorum and issue binding legislation. Smith’s progressive government was crippled and never recovered.
Next page: The Sanitary Association steps in