Last night Bob and his significant Savannah freelance writer saw the 7:30 Dreadful Pestilence performance at the Davenport House Museum. Variations of the program have been running for ten years now, but being new to the city, this was my first time seeing it.
We began in the courtyard and walked across the street to the old Kennedy Pharmacy to observe an 1820 town hall meeting that covered the events of sickly season (May – October) from the perspective of two dueling newspaper editors. During the meeting, we heard from the mayor and several townspeople as well. It is a story as old as any city, I imagine. One editor wanted to report freely on the deaths because he believed that health officials were hiding the extent of the disease, and the other editor accused him of over-reacting and inciting panic in the city. This storyline is very much relatable to our time.
The people blamed foreigners, mostly the poor Irish families who were accused of living in filth and spreading disease. It was not until the very end of sickly season when the mayor had suffered the death of his own wife that he realized Yellow Fever was not a disease limited to the poverty-stricken population of Savannah. It could happen to anyone, and he advised his citizens to flee immediately if they had the means to do so.
Once dismissed from the town hall meeting, we entered the candlelit house where we observed the doctor treating a young girl, and then we climbed the cantilever stairs all the way up to Yamacraw (staged in the authentic haint-blue, peeling paint attic, which is generally off-limits to the public). In Yamacraw, a slave told us that the Africans had to bury all of the city’s dead, while their own population remained uncounted in the death toll.
The night ended at a wake. A young girl had passed. A few days before, her mother saw the corpse candle in the girl’s bedroom (a single floating flame in the room, but without a candle to ground it) which was a sure sign of impending death.