Portsmouth Epidemic

Nearly Forgotten History on the Coast Series

Portsmouth Epidemic

Portsmouth, VA 1855

by m/v Dyad

Epidemic Claimed One Out of Three

In 1855, a devastating yellow fever epidemic swept through tidewater Virginia.

On June 7th the New York bound steamer Ben Franklin, en route from the West Indies, entered the Norfolk harbor for repairs. The ship was quarantined at anchor for nearly two weeks because it carried mosquitoes harboring yellow fever. It eventually gained permission to enter a Portsmouth shipyard on condition that her bilge would not be pumped. The captain disobeyed the order.

In early July, one of the crewmen aboard the Ben Franklin died of yellow fever and the disease spread quickly from there.

Throngs of citizens left town, including clergy and physicians. This continued until nearby cities began to refuse their entry; sometimes at bayonet point. Business and church services were suspended. Combined, this left many of those remaining in Portsmouth without medical care and some without food and clean water.

Throughout the summer, an average of 80 persons died each day, topping out at 100. Many victims were simply wrapped in their bedclothes and buried in unmarked mass graves.

The only commercial vessel to call at the port was a steamer bringing mail, medicine, doctors, nurses, and coffins.

Rev. James Chisholm of the Episcopal Church was a hero during the yellow fever epidemic. He was the last minister to remain in Portsmouth during that summer. He worked relentlessly to care for the poor and sick without regard for himself. The rector had already suffered the death of his wife earlier that year. When he succumbed to the illness on September 15th, there were only twenty people to attend his grave side service. James Chisholm is still celebrated today.

In just ninety days 3,200 souls were lost. The fever finally abated with the first frost in October 1855.

Portsmouth-Gaffos House: reportedly haunted by a captain who's young daughter died there during the epidemic.

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