Yellow Fever takes a Life

DetroitYellow fever was a major killer in the 19th Century.   It was often called the American plague.  New Englander Cotton Mather described it as “turning yellow then vomiting and bleeding every way.”   It was spread by a species of the female mosquito and repeatedly killed thousands in the 19th Century.    A  yellow fever epidemic in Philadelphia alone killed 5,000 people .

In August 1858, The Detroit Free Press reported the death of Barry Norvell, son of John Norvell and his third wife Isabella Hodgkiss Freeman Norvell at the age of 29:

“Death of Mr. Barry Norvell

Intelligence was received yesterday of the death of Mr. Barry Norvell, formerly a resident of this city and well known to all of our old citizens. He died on board the steamer John Bell, on the Ohio River being at the time on this way home from Arkansas. . . . He remained (in Detroit) until 1850, when, having perfected himself in the profession of civil engineering, he entered the service of the United States in the capacity of assistant engineer, under Col. Long of the Topographical Engineers. 1

He was afterwards transferred to the South, where he was placed in charge of the improvements on the Red River Raft, in which capacity he remained until his death. He was on his way home, with the intention of visiting his mother and brothers and sisters at Grosse Isle and in this city.

He was seized with yellow fever soon after leaving New Orleans and never recovered from the disease. It was not alarming in its developments and he was in no fear of losing his life during any time of his illness.

After leaving Cairo, however, the black vomit set in, and in a short time hurried him out of the world. The seeds of disease, implanted in his frame by the pestilence which now broods over the metropolis of the South, were too vigorous to succumb to the invigorating influence of a northern climate and he was struck down when he least expected it. He was twenty-nine years old.

His bereaved mother expected to meet him yesterday morning, alive and well, after an absence of two years. Instead of the familiar countenance, there came over the wires the intelligence of his death in a strange land, far from friends or home. Those only who have suffered such bereavement can realize its effect. His friends and relations have the sympathy of a large circle of acquaintances both in this city and elsewhere.”

Today we tend to forget how many people died young from such diseases as Yellow Fever, Smallpox, Cholera, Influenza, diphtheria, polio, TB and a host of others.  It was rare then in any family for all the children to reach adulthood.  Barry Norvell was my great-uncle, of his immediate family four children did not reach adulthood.

In reality the “Good Old Days,” were not so great.


1 Of note his death notice says he trained under Col Long, this was Stephen Harriman Long, his uncle.  His mother Isabella’s sister Martha Hodgkiss had married Col Long in 1819.  For more information on Col Long see his Findagrave memorial



About jenorv

John E. Norvell is a retired Air Force Lt Colonel, decorated air combat veteran of the Vietnam War, and former Assistant Professor of American and Military History at the U.S. Air Force Academy. He has written freelance for the Washington Post, the Middle Tennessee Journal of Genealogy and History, and for several newspapers around the country.
This entry was posted in American History, Detroit, Detroit Free Press, Detroit History, Military history, Norvell Family History, Philadelphia history and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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