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Death All Around: The Tragic Year of 1853

Everyone dies of something; that’s the truth. But, in southern Louisiana during the summer of 1853, a whole lot of them died of the dreaded yellow fever. It started during the warm season. As temperatures rose, the first cases of disease erupted into a swarm of pestilence. June and July saw their casualties, but by August the number of the infected were increasing. In New Orleans, on what was later called “Black Day,” 230 people died of the disease in just one day, alone! (The population of the city at that time was only 46,000.)

As the weeks continued, more deaths were reported across the Louisiana Parishes. No one yet knew how it was contracted, so fear spread and the need for a quarantine was very real – which resulted in some of the sick being rounded-up and others forced to wear yellow coats or adorn their homes with yellow flags. No one wanted to risk getting this terrible malady. Especially not a family man like my 3rd-great grandfather, Louis, who had a wife and three young boys to look after.

But then, it happened. It started with a headache. Chills. A nagging ache in the neck. Then came the vomiting. The fatigue. And, the spells of dizziness. After fighting those symptoms for a couple of days, the body almost appeared to rally and retreat from the grips of contagion. However, just another side effect, this seemingly optimistic step merely led a poor soul to organ failure, convulsions and then death - swift but not painless, marauding but not merciful.

That was how it must have happened for Louis’s wife, Lucilde, as she slipped away from this world on September 23rd. Just a young woman of 26 years, she left behind three sons: Louis, Jr. who was nine, Melancon who was seven (and also my great-great grandfather), and Adam who was three.

Only a few days before, Louis had already dealt with the passing of his sister Elisabeth and his brother Marcellin. And a few days later, he would also lose another brother, Onesime, his father-in-law and his wife’s aunt. Death was all around them, it must have seemed. Ever present. Endless and unrelenting. But, not soon enough, the cooler autumn air replaced summer’s humid heat and by the year’s end yellow fever cases had completely come to a close.

Louis survived. His children did, too. But their lives were forever changed by that one summer. That terrible plague. And those awful mosquitos that would someday be recognized as the culprit.


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