The Epidemic that Led the Harris Family to The Wren’s Nest
When the Wren’s Nest closed to visitors because of the coronavirus pandemic, it occurred to us that this was not the first time a virus had shaped our particular history. In fact, an epidemic is precisely what brought the Harris family to Atlanta in the first place!
Joel Chandler Harris called several places home before he moved to the West End of Atlanta. In 1876, home was Savannah, Georgia. In Savannah, Harris was an associate editor and editorial paragraph writer (what we would call a humor columnist today) for the Savannah Morning News. When Harris started working there in 1870, the News was the leading daily newspaper in Georgia, rivaled only by The Atlanta Constitution. He also made forty dollars a week for the job — a sum so lavish for the time that he said he had to read his offer letter twice before he could believe it.
Harris also had great personal success while living in Savannah. It was there that he met Esther LaRose, who he would eventually marry in 1873. The couple then welcomed their first child, Julian Harris, in 1874 and their second child, Lucien Harris, less than a year later. The young family was set up for a comfortable and happy life in the coastal Georgia city when something unexpected interrupted everything.
In 1876, a yellow fever epidemic swept the South. Yellow fever is a viral disease spread by infected mosquitoes with rather unpleasant symptoms, including the yellow-ish skin and eyes for which the disease is named. Yellow fever thrives in swampy climates or in areas with open sewers… like Savannah at that time. The epidemic started out of a port in the city that August and more than a thousand people died within the first two weeks of its arrival. The disease later spread to the Mississippi River Valley, including New Orleans and Memphis, killing between 13,000 and 20,000 people in 1878.
More than five thousand residents, including the Harris family, evacuated the city in the first month of the Savannah outbreak. As Harris’s daughter-in-law, Julia Collier Harris, describes in her biography, The Life and Letters of Joel Chandler Harris:
It was [that] summer that a keen anxiety for his own children overtook [Harris]; the yellow fever epidemic of 1876 broke out in August, causing consternation amongst the people of Savannah, and driving many of them to inland points. It was not possible for the young wife [Esther] and her two babies to remain in the pest-ridden city, so there was no alternative for the provider of the family but to offer his resignation to Colonel Estill [his boss at the Savannah Morning News] and hasten, with those dependent upon him, to the “high country.”
Although the Harris family fled to safety rather than sheltered-in-place, their fears and worries feel eerily familiar to us today. As Collier Harris explains, “The confusion and uncertainty of the moment must have been a sore trial to the young father, for it is not likely that he had been able to put aside funds against such an unexpected contingency.”
The yellow fever epidemic was devastating, but there were some silver linings. Cities worked to improve their public health and sanitation practices, making them cleaner and safer in an effort to prevent another disease outbreak. The federal government even established the National Board of Health in 1879 to investigate the outbreak. As we face an even worse viral outbreak, we can hope that there will similarly be improvements and discoveries to prevent future pandemics.
In the meantime, we urge you to follow Harris’s example. Not only did he do what he needed to keep his family safe, but he also retained his sense of humor in the face of a disruptive and deadly viral pandemic. According to Collier Harris, when the family first arrived at a hotel in Atlanta, “the Savannah editor’s serene attitude in the face of uncertainty, and his fund of amusing anecdotes did so much to cheer up his fellow refugees and put their panic to flight, that when he asked for his bill he was told that he did not owe the hotel a penny.”
We hope that everyone can draw on their “fund of amusing anecdotes” now and look forward to the future when this pandemic has passed.
In the meantime, we hope you stay safe and healthy!
Gibson, Samantha. “The Yellow Fever Epidemic of 1878.” Retrieved from the Digital Public Library of America <http://dp.la/primary-source-sets/the-yellow-fever-epidemic-of-1878>.
“The Great Fever 1878 Epidemic.” American Experience, PBS, 2020, <www.pbs.org/wgbh/americanexperience/features/fever-1878-epidemic/>. Accessed 14 Apr. 2020.
Harris, Julia Collier. (1918.) The Life and Letters of Joel Chandler Harris. Houghton Mifflin Company, New York, NY.
The History Engine. U of Richmond, 2015, <historyengine.richmond.edu/episodes/view/3419>. Accessed 14 Apr. 2020.
Starmans, Barbara J. “Yellow Fever Epidemic of 1878.” The Social Historian, edited by Barbara J. Starmans, 2018, www.thesocialhistorian.com/yellow-fever-epidemic-of-1878/. Accessed 14 Apr. 2020.
“Struggles of the Late 19th Century.” Georgia Historical Society, <georgiahistory.com/education-outreach/online-exhibits/online-exhibits/three-centuries-of-georgia-history/nineteenth-century/struggles-of-the-late-19th-century/>. Accessed 14 Apr. 2020.