From John Hennessy:
The hysteria that attends epidemics is nothing new. Over the decades, Fredericksburgers regularly faced down incoming waves of illness, though not without drama and excitement. In 1790 and again in 1792, the town stopped incoming ships at Hazel Run and established a temporary hospital at Sligo (next to what is today Dixon Park–a later Victorian house stands on the site now) in a successful effort to prevent smallpox from entering Fredericksburg. In late 1832 and early 1833, an epidemic of Asiatic cholera ravaged the east coast, and for months Fredericksburg’s newspapers nervously monitored the approach of the disease, which got as close as Richmond. The Virginia Herald repeatedly tried to assured distant readers that the town had not been infected and was open to visitors. Still, one resident reportedly became so panicked at the approach of the disease that he “whether from fright or actually contracting the disease” died. The cause of death was attributed to “accidental” or “sporadic” cholera.
While the town dodged death in the 1790s and 1830s, it did not in late 1861 and early 1862, when an epidemic of scarlet fever ravaged Fredericksburg. Because by then the war was on, and newspapers from the period are scarce, the documentation of this epidemic is sketchy, but everything suggests that the plague was extensive and deadly, preying exclusively on children–taking, Jane Beale tells us, “at least one hundred in its dreadful course.” Proportionately, it may well have been the greatest human disaster to ever befall the residents of Fredericksburg [setting aside, of course, the battles].
[The epidemic was not confined to Fredericksburg. In Richmond, James Longstreet and his wife Maria Louisa lost three children to scarlet fever in January 1862, at the same time the sickness was raging in Fredericksburg.]
The sickness arrived in Fredericksburg in September, 1861, and the first known to die was Wilmer Hudson, 8, the son of schoolteacher John and Pamelia Hudson. The Hudsons would be the first to suffer, and they would suffer more than any household in Fredericksburg. In November Emma, 5, and son Auburn, 3, died 13 days apart, leaving the family with just one of their four children. Through October and into November the sickness quickened its pace, spreading its deadly tendrils across town. Betty Herndon Maury’s daughter, Nannie Belle, took ill. Betty wrote in her diary on November 18, at the peak of the epidemic, “Nannie Belle is still too sick for me to think of writing regularly in my diary. The scarlet fever is an epidemic here now, and many children are dying every day from it. I shall be so thankful if my little wee lamb is spared.”
She would be, but many others succumbed. J. Temple Doswell and his wife Evelina lost five-year-old George on November 10. Just nine days later disaster again visited their house at the corner of Princess Anne and Lewis Streets when two-year-old Evy Doswell succumbed.
Fredericksburg’s register of deaths records at least 39 deaths related to the epidemic–all but one of them children (the records are clearly incomplete, but certainly supportive of the idea that this was a disaster on a huge scale for such a small town). The record of funerals at St. George’s gives us an additional two names. The plague roared to its climax in December, claiming 38% of known victims.
The Richmond Dispatch reported, “In the town, especially among the children, a very virulent type of scarlet fever has been raging for some time past….Two or three have died in each of several families.” The paper added hopefully that the sickness is “reported to be on the decrease now.”
Any decrease didn’t become obvious to Fredericksburgers until January, and certainly not to grocer David Heller and his wife Mary–both German immigrants newly arrived to America with their two children. On Christmas Eve both their girls, Mary, 8, and Catherine, 7, died.
The pace of death and sorrow waned after the new year, 1862. The last known death related to the epidemic came in February, when Thomas R. Wolfe, the five-year-old namesake of widow Maria Wolfe’s late husband, succumbed. Still, even as the illness faded, the fear lingered. In January Betty Herndon Maury wrote of the fears of her five-year-old Nannie Belle, now recovered: “I cannot help feeling anxious about Nannie Belle. She is very nervous and excitable, and is un-childlike in her distress when she hears of the death of any friend; she talks about HER getting sick and dying, and she tells me that she cannot help thinking about it all the time.”
The epidemic showed no preference for race or income. At least four slaves died (two owned by shopkeeper Hugh Scott). Names like Howison, Young, Broaddus, and Doggett likewise appear among the known victims.
How many died? We know that the death records maintained by the town were incomplete–entirely dependent on the death being reported by a family member or friend. We know too of many deaths that do not appear in the record. Given that, and given the 41 names that are almost certainly associated with the epidemic, Jane Beale’s estimate of “at least one hundred” seems entirely possible. If so, by a wide margin, that would make the 1861 scarlet fever epidemic the most deadly disaster to befall the residents of Fredericksburg in the town’s history.
Here is a list of known and presumed victims, gleaned from the death register, compiled by Robert Hodge, and additional sources, including cemetery records and the record of burials from St. George’s.
Bear in mind that the records consistently misdate deaths that we know took place in 1861 as 1862. The fever raged here from September 1861 to February 1862.
Known and presumed victims (41):
[Note: the Hodge register of deaths consistently mis-dates deaths that occurred in 1861 as happening in 1862. The below includes the correct dates.]
Names are listed in roughly chronological order. Those in bold indicate families that are known to have lost more than one child.
Wilmer Hudson, son of schoolteacher John and Pamelia R. Hudson, died September 15, 1861 [Hodge erroneously states 1862], of scarlet fever, age 8 years.
J.E. Edrington, son of J.M. and S.A. Edrington, died October 1861, of scarlet fever (Hodge register erroneously lists 1862), age 6 years.
A Hooe, daughter of Virginia Hooe, died October 1861 [Hodge erroneously says 1862] of scarlet fever, age 9 years.
John F. Evans, son of J.H. and H. Evans, died October 1861 [1862 erroneously reported by Hodge], 3 years, 3 months. Born Northumberland (Hodge Register)
Sidney Cavell, died October 1861, funeral at St. George’s Episcopal, October 28, 1861, aged 2 years.
Lucie Marie Broaddus, daughter of W.A. and L.A. Broaddus, died November 8, 1861 of scarlet fever, age 7 years 9 months.
Nellie Howison, daughter of Samuel S. and Anne E. “Nannie” Howison, died October 1, 1861, age 9 [Hodge register says she died on December 4]
B.R. Samuel, daughter of A.E. and E.A. Samuel, died November 3, 1861, age 11 years 4 months.
M.A. Maddox, daughter of Thomas E. and M.M. Maddox, died November 8, 1861, of scarlet fever, age 2 years 7 months.
J.B. Johnson, son of W.B. and M.S. Johnson, died in November 1861 of scarlet fever, age 5 years.
Auburn Hudson, son of John F. and R. Hudson, died November 25, 1861 of scarlet fever, age 3.
Emma Hudson, daughter of John and P.R. Hudson, died November 12, 1861, of scarlet fever, age 5 years.
George Doswell, son of J. Temple and Evelina Doswell, died November 10, 1861, funeral at St. George’s on November 11, Age 5
Evy Doswell, daughter of J. Temple and Evelina Doswell, died November 19, 1861, funeral at St. George’s on November 20, Age 2
J Miller, son of J.W. and S. Miller, died on November 19, 1861, of scarlet fever, age 1 year 5 months.
Ann English, daughter of J.H. and A.E. English, died of scarlet fever November 1861, age 9 years 6 days. (Hodge erroneously lists date of death as 1862). Born in Stafford.
Moses, a slave, the son of Lucy, died in November 1861 of scarlet fever, age 11 years 6 months. Owned by G.F. Carmichael.
V.E. Pemberton, daughter of W.R. and M.F. Pemberton, died in November 1861 of scarlet fever, aged 3 years.
G.W. Hunt, son of G.J. and J. Hunt, died December 1861 of scarlet fever.
Thomas, a slave, son of Sarah and owned by W.T. Hart, died in December 1861, age 1 year 2 months.
Ellen Timber, daughter of Peter Timber, died in December 1861, or scarlet fever, age 5 years.
K.A. Timberlake, daughter of J.B. and Sarah A. Timberlake, died in 1862 of scarlet fever, age 11 years.
Jeff Davis Doggett, son of Leroy B. and Lucy F. Doggett, Born December 5, 1860, died Jan 22, 1862, age 14 months. Hodge register lists cause of death as pneumonia.
George H. Snellings, son of R.W. and Margaret Snelling, died on December 9, 1861, of scarlet fever, age 2 years 8 months.
D Mgee, daughter of David and R.G. Magee, died December 3, 1861, age 10 months.
M.M. Hart, son of W.T. and J.B. Hart, died December 5, 1861 [Hodge erroneously says 1862] of scarlet fever, age 6 years.
Hannah S. Jones, daughter of Roy and M.M. Jones, died December 6, 1861, of scarlet fever, age 5 years.
Helen A. Jones, daughter of Roy and M.M. Jones, died December 5, 1861, of scarlet fever, age 7 years.
S.G. Mander, daughter of Charles and B.M. Mander, died December 9, 1861, of scarlet fever, age 3 years, 8 months, and 13 days.
S Presley, the married son of W. and Rebecca Presley, died December 18, 1861, no age given.
G.B. Jones, son of B. and E. Jones, died December 22, 1861, age 6 years 6 months.
E.M. Young, son of John J. and Sarah E. Young, died December 14, 1861, of scarlet fever, age 7 years 3 months (funeral at St. George’s, December 15).
Catherine Heller, daughter of David and Mary Heller, died of scarlet fever on December 24, 1861 [Hodge erroneously says 1862] of scarlet fever, age 7 years. Born in Philadelphia.
Mary Heller, daughter of David and Mary Heller, died December 24, 1861 [Hodge erroneously says 1862] of scarlet fever, age 8 years 5 months. Born in Philadelphia.
Annie Scott, died January 3, 1862, daughter of John F. and Anne Scott, funeral at St. George’s January 5, 1862, age 10 years 9 months.
A. Greenwood, died January 27, 1862 of fever, age 26. Daughter of W.S. Greenwood.
Thomas Roberdeau Wolfe, son of Maria Wolfe, died February 1862, Age 6
John Edward Haydon, sone of T.J. and Elizabeth Haydon, died February 17, 1862, funeral at St. George’s on February 24, age 2 years, 2 months.
Emma L. Mitzell, daughter of J. and Mary Mitzell, died in 1862 in Fredericksburg of scarlet fever, aged 3 years.
Unnamed slave girl, owned by Hugh Scott, died in Fredericksburg in 1862 of scarlet fever.
Unnamed slave girl, owned by Hugh Scott, died in Fredericksburg in 1862 of scarlet fever [second, separate record]
Image: The graves of Evy and George Doswell, ages 2 and 5, who died within five days of each other in November 1861.