Modern medicine and advances in pest control have changed the habitability of Florida over the past 100 or more years. Before mosquito control, our little patch of paradise was just one tiny bite away from massive disease and almost certain death.
I'm speaking of the dread yellow fever -- a mosquito-borne illness that left the infected bedridden with sky-high fevers and in severe pain. Unfortunately, many who contracted the illness did not live to tell about their experiences. Those who did live through the fever were granted a "Yellow Fever Immunity Card," which they would have to produce to even enter certain towns during the height of the epidemic.
In early 1887, reports came that yellow fever had broken out in Key West. Since that was a major shipping point between Manatee and Cuba, both Cuba and Key West were immediately quarantined. It seemed the fever was contained, but then tragedy struck Tampa in September 1887 with reports of a similar fever -- though no doctor would confirm yellow fever, instead saying it was "dengue fever," breakbone or something else in order to head off any panic.
Regardless, Egmont Key was designated the quarantine site for all fever cases and those suffering from the affliction were sent there. Unfortunately, this did not stop the spread of yellow fever.
Yellow fever in Manatee
In October 1887, the Rev. Crowder, a local pastor in the Church of Manatee, was working with fellow members of the congregation, E.E. Johnson and Dr. Driscoll, as they composed an essay on tithing for a religious publication. The three men frequently met in a building that was also occupied by a young girl named Vera, who had recently returned from a visit to Tampa, where a yellow fever epidemic was raging.
Speculation abounds regarding the outbreak of the disease in the Village of Manatee. According to the Johnson family diary, Vera's unwashed clothing from her visit were the vehicle.
Many of those the young girl came into contact with suffered from the symptoms of the disease, including the Rev. Crowder and E.E. Johnson.
There was disagreement among local doctors as to whether the victims were suffering from dengue fever, yellow fever or typhoid-malarial fever. When the fever made its appearance the following year, a consensus was reached that it was indeed yellow fever that had previously struck the community.
A different account of the outbreak has a moral take on the matter. The story holds that yellow fever was brought to Manatee when church members, in their haste to complete the construction of the Manatee United Methodist Church (which now resides as the centerpiece of Manatee Village Historical Park), ran the quarantine blockade imposed upon Tampa to procure supplies.
It was believed by some members of the community that this breech incurred the wrath of God in the form of the epidemic. The outbreak was so severe that it halted construction of the sanctuary, which was not completed until 1889.
Whatever the actual cause of the epidemic, it severely impacted the Village of Manatee.
According to accounts of the time, roughly half the population suffered the symptoms.
While many survived their infection, more than a few laid to rest in the Old Manatee Burying Grounds are victims of the yellow fever outbreak of 1887.
To learn more about the Johnson family and other members of the Village of Manatee, be sure to see Spirit Voices from Old Manatee, an original outdoor drama portraying the lives of those who came before us. Tickets are $20 each and go on sale Sept. 8 by calling 941-741-4076.
Melissa Porter, education and volunteer coordinator at Manatee Village Historical Park, enjoys sharing the past with students through hands-on activities and personal anecdotes from Manatee County's history. Reach her at Melissa.email@example.com or 941-741-4076.