Category Archives: Epidemics

Researchers Helping Archivists: Smallpox in Texas

Sometimes posts for this blog include new historical research by our staff.  Sometimes it is used as a way to promote certain collections.  Sometimes our posts are just meant to be fun.  For this post, we wanted to discuss some of the ways in which researchers interact with the archives and must draw conclusions based on information that is found in the collections and the information that is not.

In December 2021, a researcher named Lanny Ottosen with the Travis County Historical Commission in Austin, Texas reached out to us looking for information about the Texas smallpox epidemic of 1917.  While the archives certainly have collections related to the Daughters’ history in Texas, none of us are Texas residents immersed in detailed Texas history, and none of us were familiar with the state’s smallpox epidemic. 

The initial responses that we sent did not contain an enormous amount of information.  A few of the published, formal histories of the hospital included a paragraph about the smallpox epidemics.  One described how a few Daughters of Charity ventured the seven miles north of Austin to work at the “pest camp,” a then-common term for a quarantine sites, and listed the Daughters who “probably worked at the camp.”  While it is good that this information was noted, it was far from the empirical accounts that either we or Mr. Ottosen were looking for, and the “probably” does not inspire the greatest accuracy in the information.  There were, however, five letters describing the smallpox epidemic in the special service collection related to such outbreaks, four from Sister Ursula Fenton to the Provincial from March-May 1917 and one from Sister Lucia Beil from May 1917 with eyewitness accounts of nursing at the camp.  Sister Ursula’s first letter even went into detail about death rates in the camp and the city at large and the first names of Sisters who went to nurse there.

Sister Ursula Fenton to Sister Catherine Sullivan, March 22, 1917

Mr. Ottosen was able to confirm that these letters matched the newspaper clippings he had discovered.  He then asked about any photos of the smallpox camps of 1917 or the more famous Spanish flu camps of 1918, the latter of which we were well aware of the in the collection and happily passed on to him.  He then asked another question that stumped us a little, as he asked about entries in the patient registers.  These are large bound volumes from the early days of Seton Hospital noting the names of patients and their diagnoses.

For being such a large epidemic, there were only two entries for smallpox in March 1917.  However, the second entry contained a key clue as to the reason for this lack of information.  The comment on the entry reads “Transferred to P.H.,” presumably meaning pest house.  No further smallpox cases appear throughout the rest of 1917.

We are left to make an interpretation of history based not only on what is included in the records, but also based on what is missing from the records.  We know that there were extensive cases of smallpox, nursed by the Daughters of Seton Hospital, but they do not appear in the patient registers.  We have deduced that, after a certain point, when the city and county began to ramp up their public health measures, the quarantine sites had their own patient registers, which, to date, have not been found.

Mr. Ottosen published his extensive research on the Travis County Pest Camps through the Travis County Historical Commission blog:  We thank him for his assistance in writing this post and for his approval of the use of his name related to his research requests and to this post. 

Leave a comment

Filed under Austin, Texas, Epidemics

Yellow fever epidemic of 1878: Vicksburg

(Passages from the Provincial Annals of 1878 used with permission of the Daughters of Charity Archives).

By September of 1878 the yellow fever epidemic experienced by the Sisters in New Orleans had spread to Vicksburg, Mississippi. As in New Orleans, Sisters were among those who caught the disease, and Sisters were among those who died of the disease.

The Provincial Annals of 1878 note:

The condition of Vicksburg was becoming hourly more desperate. The epidemic assumed its most fatal character, death frequently occurring in a few hours. Whole families were swept away, a dead body was to be found in every house on the levee. Scarce a human being was to be seen on the streets, save the Sisters hurrying on their mission of mercy, or some gentlemen of the “Howards,” a benevolent association composed of Catholic and Protestant. Bishop Elder was here, fighting for the lives and souls of the whole city dying around him. It belonged to his diocese. From morning until night he was found at the bedside of the dying, administering the Sacraments, consoling the sick, encouraging all. If he gave himself any rest, no one could discover it. The day before his own prostration he was sought for, and found in the yard of a poor old woman splitting wood in order to build a fire and prepare some nourishment for her. Within was the poor woman and her two children, down with the fever. The good Bishop had dressed and made comfortable the poor little ones, before putting himself to the task of splitting the wood.

Bishop Lercay, Bishop of Natchez was also in Vicksburg, formerly pastor there and knowing the place and people, he had hurried at the first breaking out of the epidemic to the assistance of Bishop Elder and the devoted priests of that city. Day and night he labored until attacked by malarial fever.

But now Bishop Elder was himself attacked by the contagion and five of his priests were already dead. The Sisters of Mercy were all either dead, sick or exhausted. The Reverend Mother, who a few days later fell a victim herself to the disease, appealed to us for assistance on September 10th. The demand nearly coincided with the reception of Sister Agnes Weaver’s letter. Up to this time none had been sent to nurse the sick, save those who had had the fever, but an exception was made on the 11th, she was despatched in company with Sr. Severina Brandel of Detroit to the relief of the exhausted Sisters of Mercy of Vicksburg. Quarantine, rigid as it could be made, lay all around the plague stricken city. By a circuitous route they finally reached it Monday, 16th of September. They had been preceded by the Sisters from Emmitsburg in route for Port Gibson. Sister Emerita writing on the 11th to Mother gives an account of her arrival in Vicksburg on the 8th and of her few days service at Port Gibson before returning to Vicksburg with Sisters Leonora and Catherine.

“We arrived at Vicksburg at 5 p.m. got a carriage and went straight to the Bishop’s. His room door was opened as we entered the house. He saw the cornette and called us. O, Mother if you could only have seen the delight of the poor Bishop! He clasped his hands and raised them to heaven. We had only five minutes to stay as the boat was starting for Port Gibson. As we passed Canton, I asked if they had a priest there, and was told that one had already died and that the death of the second was expected at any moment. No priest there. So many dying and no one to offer them the consolations of religion. Every place looks desolate in poor Mississippi. Sisters Mary Elizabeth and Regis were glad to see us; they had arrived at Port Gibson the day before. I have just come from the house of a poor colored woman, whom I baptized. I wish you could have heard her making Acts of Faith and Love. I am sure God will have mercy on her. [p44] I offered that first Act for you dear Mother. Last night Sister Mary Elizabeth and myself went at the request of the Doctor to see a dying woman. She had never been baptized. We baptized her; she died making Acts of Faith and Love. Love to our dear Sisters. And what shall I say to yourself, dearest Mother? I feel so thankful to you for sending me, yes more so every hour. How sweet it is to help those poor people to die well.
Yours devotedly
Sister Emerita Quinlan

On the 14th inst. [September 14] Sister Emerita writes again: “I have been all day yesterday and last night helping to take care of a poor young priest. Father Vitelo, only one year from Italy. He said two Masses last Sunday, and died today at 12 o’clock. I feel sad just looking at that poor priest die. He would not take his medicine unless I would taste it, to see if it was right. Poor Bishop, he regains his strength very slowly. We did not want him to know that fine young priest had died; but he said we might as well tell him, he had learned to take things as God sent them. He is so grateful to you dear Mother, the tears come in his eyes when he speaks of you.”

On Monday 16 of September, Sisters Severina and Agnes Weaver arrived from Detroit, completing the little band of five Sisters for Vicksburg, [p45] Sister Severina in charge of all. Writing of her arrival there to Mother, she says: “As we did not know what to do, or where to go, we walked up to St. Paul’s Church where Bishop Elder was. He cried like a child when he saw us, and raising his hands, blessed God and thanked you, and all for their self sacrifice. I told him in a few words that here we were to do whatever he would tell us. We then went to the convent of the Sisters of Mercy, and went to bed very much fatigued.”

The next morning Sisters Severina and Agnes entered upon their duties in the care of the sick. On the 21st Sister Agnes was prostrated with the contagion. On the evening of the 27th, while we were taking our recreation, a telegram was handed to Mother. It read thus: “Vicksburg, Miss. Sept 27. Our dear Sister Agnes died at twenty minutes past one this morning, our beloved Father’s Day, after an abundance of black vomit and an agony of twenty four hours. She got her desire; my heart is crushed; but all so kind to us. Will be buried in the Convent yard after having Mass and Communion offered.”
Sister Severina.

“The novena of deaths is ended,” said a Sister softly, and on the Death of St. Vincent.” It was in fact the ninth since the commencement of the epidemic, and none have occurred since.


Filed under Epidemics, Health Care, Ministries

Yellow fever epidemic of 1878: New Orleans

(Passages from the Provincial Annals of 1878 used with permission of the Daughters of Charity Provincial Archives)
During the 19th century the Daughters of Charity witnessed not only the Civil War but also outbreaks of diseases such as cholera and yellow fever in cities where they were serving. The Provincial Annals of 1878 record the Sisters’ experiences during an outbreak of yellow fever that occurred in a number of Southern cities.

The Annals’ first mention of the outbreak was in July of 1878, in New Orleans.

In the latter part of July the city was thrown into quarantine, the last passenger train on the Mobile and Orleans Rail Road leaving it on the evening of the 29th. Four Thousand tickets were sold at the two principal depots of the city this day. From this time the inhabitants were literally shut in the city. Did they attempt to leave it, they quickly found themselves in the custody of some health officer belonging to a neighboring city as yet unvisited by the plague. Supplies went liberally, the generous contributions of the whole country and freight trains ran into the city; as for passenger trains there was no one who wished to go. Engines came forth at intervals, received and transmitted the mails and then returned. In the streets, doctors’ buggies and funeral processions were the principal objects to be seen; all the throngs of fashionably dressed people had been swept away. The sun was scorching. Its rays were considered peculiarly dangerous. The people save from stern necessity stayed at home.

The first appearance of the epidemic in our houses was at St. Simeon’s School three of the
Sisters were prostrated at once. One Sister Loyola Lawler, died on the sixth day. These cases were quickly succeeded by three others. In the absence of the Sister Servant, detained from home. This was indeed a house of desolation and distress. It was in the beginning of the epidemic, in the first bewildering terror that the scourge was down upon them. Recovering sufficiently they generously shared in the sick nursing around them, for all were one family now, and as soon as the number of cases diminished in one house, the Sisters from there hurried to the relief of the house most sorely pressed.

During the first weeks of August, the Hospital, the Hotel Dieu and the vast Charity Hospital with its hundreds and hundreds of sick were rapidly filling up with victims of the contagion.

On August 22nd, Sister Agnes Slavin, Sister Servant of the Charity Hospital writes to Mother Euphemia.

New Orleans
Charity Hospital
August 22, 1878

My very dear Mother,
The grace of our Lord be with us forever.

My many occupations have not left me one moment to write to you. I have had Sister Keenan sick with the fever since Monday morning. Thank God this is the fourth day and she is doing well. Dr. Smythe comes three times a day. I feel so grateful to him, as I have unbounded confidence in him. The other dear Sisters are well and we have plenty to do. The young Sisters try to rival the old ones in their care of our poor fever cases. If our dear Lord only spares the Sisters, I will be satisfied.
Affectionately in our All
Sister Agnes Slavin
[the acronym means “unworthy Daughter of Charity, servant of the poor sick”]

The annals go on to note that some of the Sisters caught yellow fever as well, and some died from it. Back in Emmitsburg, the Sisters at the Central House did the only thing they could do: constant prayer for the Sisters and the areas affected by the outbreak.

And the Central House was not unmindful of its duty to pray. Every Sister had permission to go as far as her duty permitted, to pray before the Blessed Sacrament for the cessation of the Scourge. A picture of St. Roch was exposed in the Community room, a lamp burning on the altar. A prayer to sue for God’s mercy in time of danger was said publicly at the noon or dinner Examen, the Parce Domini sung every Sunday at Benediction.

The Sisters’ prayer were to no avail, as Sisters continued to get sick, and continued to die.

Charity Hospital, New Orleans
August 29, 1878
My dearest Mother,
The grace of our Lord be with us forever!
On my dearest Mother, we are in the midst of sorrow, and none but our Lord to help us. Our good little Sister McKenzie died this morning, after an illness of a few days. O, what a frightful disease it is! I have nursed our two poor Sisters. I could form no idea of the disease before. Our Sisters are overtaxed, and I was obliged to ask Sister Angelica for some help. She sent me Sisters Hall and Mary Frances. O, dear Mother please pray for your poor Sisters in the South. All are full of courage and good will. Sister Mary Agnes offered to take any Sisters who were afraid of the fever, but none were willing to leave their posts. Father Beecher is sick with the fever.
Devotedly and affectionately,
Sister Agnes Slavin

By September the outbreak had reached Vicksburg. Accounts of the yellow fever in Vicksburg will be the subject of the next post.

Leave a comment

Filed under Epidemics, Health Care, Ministries