The Fever, Chapter 12:
continued to take its toll on those who had tempted fate by staying
to care for others.|
By LON WAGNER, The
© July 21, 2005
Mehetable Armstrong had been her husband’s strength
throughout the epidemic. When the fever invaded Mary’s system the first
time, her mother had held her, fed her and encouraged her through it.
Often, George Armstrong thought, the wife and mother of a family
outshined the husband with her fortitude.
Now she was face to face with the
George Armstrong saw that his earlier devotion to the sick bought him
respect and goodwill now that he most needed it. Dr. William Freeman, the
first volunteer from Philadelphia, and Dr. William Moore, the Armstrongs’
family physician, attended to Armstrong’s wife and daughters.
“Give and it shall be given unto you,” Armstrong thought.
that his wife was ill, but her case did not seem fatal.
As the Armstrong family suffered, the cities showed early signs that
they had punched through the worst of the epidemic. David Fiske,
Portsmouth’s mayor, planned to restart the Transcript at the end of the
Even with this optimistic event came a caveat: His only compositor
would be his son, Charles, who had survived an attack.
Bob Butt turned up in downtown Portsmouth for the first time in weeks.
Butt, a slave, and his crew of 10 gravediggers had buried many of the
city’s dead, and it was a good omen to see him not at work.
Volunteer physicians met and reported that some were now idle, and
based on previous yellow fever outbreaks they expected an abatement of the
epidemic in October. They petitioned the mayor to leave on Oct. 1.
Still, the cities were shrouded with images of death and sickness –
buildings empty as though people fled from an invading army, the recovered
looking frail and battered, ambling the streets.
The fever continued to take its toll on those who had tempted fate by
staying to care for others.
Dr. Henry Selden had already buried a child, then he and two other
children came down with the fever. The Rev. William Jackson, minister of
St. Paul’s Episcopal, across the street from Armstrong’s church, had spent
too much time visiting in the infected district and became ill. The Rev.
William Jones of the African Methodist Church on Bute Street and his
Cornelia and Grace seemed to be recovering, but Armstrong had already
lost his nephew, a daughter and his sister-in-law, and his wife was in
peril. On Monday, one of the physicians caring for Mehetable Armstrong
began showing symptoms – Moore left to crawl into his own sick bed.
That evening, Mehetable Armstrong got the black vomit.
Freeman came by the next morning.
His next gesture flattered George Armstrong, and perhaps Freeman
couldn’t have made the offer earlier in the epidemic, but the physician
said he would stay in the Armstrong home. They tended to her that Tuesday
throughout the night and the next day, and the following night Freeman
stayed at the house again.
Armstrong thought that Freeman’s dedication would be futile. He had
cared for so many of the sick that he had seen the fever assume different
forms with different victims.
But never had he seen anyone more than 25 years old survive the black
vomit, and Mehetable Armstrong was 31.
On Wednesday morning, George Armstrong brought Cornelia and Grace to
their mother’s bedside. She gave them mementos of herself and asked them a
favor: In the future, when they spoke and thought of her, please don’t
picture her like this.
The girls left, and Armstrong sat by his wife’s bed.
“It will be pleasant to meet again with your mother,” he said, “and our
dear little ones.”
She said nothing for a moment, then agreed.
“A pleasanter prospect than that,” she said, “as it now appears to me,
is that I shall soon see Jesus and love him as I ought.”
During the past six or seven weeks, George Armstrong had felt as though
he stood in some nether world, offering little more than a string of “God
speed you’s” to one after another of his church members, friends and
In that time, his definition of a miracle had changed, and now he saw
one. His wife was spared the physical suffering of most victims, and he
knew that God must be with her.
She died the next morning. Armstrong located a coffin and that evening
he again rode to Elmwood Cemetery. He stood and prayed as his wife was
lowered into the earth.
Reach Lon Wagner at (757) 446-2341 or