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Panic and Quarantine
Miami’s 1899 Yellow Fever Outbreak
There was nothing easy about Reverend Solomon Merrick’s decision to leave Duxbury, Massachusetts. By 1898, the Merrick family had their roots firmly planted in the North Eastern United States and had what many would consider to be a comfortable life. Solomon was a Yale-educated preacher who presided over the local Congregational Church and had a wife and six children to come home to. Sadly, fate took an unexpected turn for the worse and forever altered the Merrick family’s destiny. During the winter of 1898-1899, Massachusetts experienced a series of severe blizzards which were referred to as “The Storm of the Century.” This storm, which is still used as a benchmark for severe weather, resulted in the death of one of Solomon Merrick’s baby daughters, Ruth. This loss served as the catalyst which would prompt Merrick to leave the church with intentions of planting grapefruit in the newly-founded tropical frontier town in South Florida called Miami. The promise of warm weather and fertile land beckoned Solomon and his eldest son, George, to board a train and make the trek down the east coast of Florida to prepare the farm they had purchased sight-unseen. What should have been a three-day journey soon proved to be a two-month layaway in Jupiter, Florida. It appeared as if luck, at least for now, was not on the Merrick’s side.
While in transit, news surfaced that Miami had been quarantined because of a Yellow Fever outbreak. Given that Solomon and son had not been issued “Immune Cards,” they found themselves stranded in a state they had never visited. An empathetic minister living in Jupiter offered them a place to stay until the quarantine was lifted, and there they stayed for nearly two months. While Solomon and George Merrick were killing time, Yellow Fever was running rampant through the community they hoped to call home.
In 1899, Miami was three years old and was home to a mere 1,700 residents. According to a health state officer, Miami was “an exceedingly clean town” with widely spaced homes of frame construction and a business district comprised of two dozen brick buildings. Despite the explosive population growth after it’s founding, the city was still very much a quaint community. Only four physicians resided in Miami and travel within the city was by foot or bicycle.
Although there had never been any cases of Yellow Fever in Miami prior to 1899, the disease had a tendency of spreading through Florida about every two years. Whenever the fever broke out in Key West or Northern Florida, a quarantine was enacted barring those attempting to escape contamination. A small number of cases were present in Havana year-round resulting in the fumigation of all second-class baggage arriving from Havana. This was a time in history when people did not know that the illness was transferred by mosquito. Most physicians believed the chief manner in which Yellow Fever spread was through contact with a victim, their clothing, bedding or other items. A few favored the foul air theory
On August 31, 1899, the steamship City of Key West arrived in Miami carrying passenger Samuel R. Anderson, the individual who is credited with introducing the fever to Miami. Anderson soon took ill and was examined by Dr. James Jackson, who believed his illness to be Yellow Fever. Anderson and his whole family were confined to their home, which was guarded by two “immunes” to prevent anyone from entering or leaving the residence. Since none of the four doctors living in Miami had any experience with Yellow Fever, an outsider with plenty of experience with the disease, Dr. Horsey was called into confirm Dr. Jackson’s diagnoses. Once confirmed, Anderson, his wife and two daughters, were put aboard a small schooner and were sent to Bear Cut to spend an 18 day quarantine on the ship.
The outbreak progressed steadily and the city was on the verge of panic. Just when it seemed as if the Yellow Fever scare was dying down, the disease struck dancing instructor I.R. Hargrove around September 19, resulting in his death 6 days later. The same day Hargrove died, the sheriff and doctors carried out daily canvases in search of new cases. The canvasses were discontinued 16 days later with no new cases found. Miami believed itself to be in the clear, with restrictions on travel and business relaxed, only to find that the real outbreak was just around the corner. Two new cases of Yellow Fever surfaced, resulting in the death of a second contaminated individual on October 16th. By late October, the number of infected persons mounted, as did the number of deaths. The official acknowledgement of a Yellow Fever outbreak in Miami resulted in a rigid quarantine activated by the rest of the state, resulting in Solomon and son’s two month stay in Jupiter, Florida.
Homes of those contaminated with Yellow Fever were marked with yellow flags, outgoing mail was fumigated, and travel was highly restrictive. Although there was little scientific knowledge available as to how the disease was spread, there were a series of somewhat doubtful practices that people adhered to in hopes of avoiding the contagion. Citizens went out of their way to clean up trash since rubbish and human waste were thought to harbor the Yellow Fever contagion. People remained indoors after dark because it was also thought that the fever could be caught more easily at night; resulting in all businesses closing at four in the afternoon. It was also believed that sleeping in the woods away from the city would help avoid contamination.
The City Hospital was not used to treat the large influx of Yellow Fever patients because of fear of contaminating the building. Makeshift medical facilities were hastily erected to help combat the situation. On October 27th, a detention camp was established on a vessel which was docked in close proximity to where the Rickenbacker causeway is today. On November 2, a second camp was established 12 miles north of the Miami River. Once it was clear that these medical camps were not adequately functioning, a temporary hospital was built by a civic-minded contractor who funded the project out of pocket. The hospital was built with plans to be burned down once the outbreak had subsided.
By early December, the epidemic began winding down. By the time the quarantine was lifted on January 15, 1900, over 220 people had been infected (13% of the city’s population), and 14 people had died. It would be that same year that a Cuban scientist discovered that the disease was transmitted via a particular mosquito species. Two months was long enough, Rev. Merrick Decided. It was time to get to their new home. The father and son decided that they would not wait until the quarantine was lifted and had taken a boat into Coconut Grove, bypassing the quarantine altogether. Although they didn’t realize it, guava, oranges, a plantation, and, eventually, Coral Gables awaited to be born.