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How Yellow Fever Once Affected The Mail

by James H. Bruns

Volume 1, Issue 1
January–March 1992

There are fascinating stories from postal history unknown to the average person—stories such as the time when mail service routinely came to a halt in many southern communities during the summer months of the 19th century. The culprit was yellow fever and people feared that the germs were carried by mail. No outside force stopped the mail as swiftly as the yellow fever epidemics of the 19th century. 

Before the 1890s, science could not find a cause or cure for yellow fever. Doctors knew the symptoms included muscle ache, fever, headache, dizziness and jaundice. They also saw a correlation between a high mortality rate and exceptionally wet and warm summers.

Despite these facts, doctors were powerless against the disease and their only course of action was to make the patient as comfortable as possible, quarantine the household and wait. The patient either recovered or died. A yellow flag placed outside the home signaled the ominous presence of the dreaded disease. It was not until the 1890s that the Aedes aegypti mosquito, which thrives in tropical and subtropical climates, was proven to be the carrier of the virus. 

Unfortunately, for those in the Postbellum South, these discoveries were a lifetime away. In 1878, the outbreak of yellow fever in the South was so severe that the mail was quarantined throughout the entire southern quarter of the country. Unlike many past years, the 1878 outbreak visited nearly every house in infected areas. Whole families died and entire blocks were wiped out. 

In the 1870s, mail scheduled to be transported through the South languished in northern and western post offices, embargoed during the period of the epidemic. As a further precaution, mail was rerouted along the western boundary of Texas, avoiding any contact with infected southern states. Mail was also fumigated by strong doses of 40 percent formaldehyde or sulfur dioxide fumes. 

Frost proved to be the greatest agent in combating the yellow fever. The occurrence of the first frost was often celebrated because it signaled a sharp decline in the death toll . Even the anticipation of frost became major news, with newspapers in other parts of the country reporting specifically on cold weather in the South. 

During the worst part of the epidemic, special health regulations were issued by the federal government to prevent the spread of the disease. The action included the establishment of temporary quarantine stations in the state of Florida and in adjoining states where mail to and from Florida could be cleansed. Waycross, Georgia, was one of the key points in this process. There, by government order, "all persons, baggage, mail and express arriving by rail from points south; and in case of arrival of any person, mail, baggage, or express matter capable of conveying infection, coming from an infected place or places not to be healthy, as shown by recent inspection" was to be fumigated. The mail was fumigated under the direction of the Railway Mail Service at a side track in Waycross. 

The fumigation was carried out in an ordinary box car, which was hastily converted into a massive fumigation chamber. The inside of the car was lined with chicken wire shelves and could accommodate large quantities of loosely scattered mail that had been previously perforated by a wooden paddle with small nails. In this case, sulfuric fumes, cooked up from the large iron kettle inside the car, served as a disinfectant. 

Seven mail clerks labored around the clock in Waycross in order to expose all mail to six one-hour doses of the well-intentioned cleaning fumes. The dedicated crew worked so diligently, that the mail was not delayed more than one day in Waycross. 

In addition to Waycross, other quarantine stations were established in response to outbreaks in Florida. At the height of the deadly summer of 1878, an order was issued to route all mail from offices in many parts of Florida to fumigation stations in Flomation, Alabama. Some regions of Florida also sent mail to be fumigated at the Waycross site. 

The 1878 order protected railway service clerks by ordering them away from danger spots. When an outbreak of yellow fever flared at Jacksonville, Florida, mail clerks from the North were required to stop at Callahan, while those in the West were to halt at Baldwin, and those from the South were to turn back at Orange Park. 

Eleven years later, postal officials decided to fumigate all southern en route mail during the outbreak months. It was believed that fumigating all mail would be faster than separating mail individually from infected areas. This measure also appeased the general public's aversion to accepting mail from anywhere in the South. Fortunately, all these well intentioned ideas became obsolete in 1891 when the Aedes aegypti mosquito was found to be the agent of the deadly disease. By the late 1930s, a safe and effective vaccine became available.