Back in 19th century America, theories of disease and how people got sick were quite primitive, to put it mildly. Viruses and parasties were unknown, and illnesses, such as malaria were blamed on the fumes of decomposing organic matter within the nearby swamps and the dirty frontier streets. These mysterious evil vapors caused cholera, malaria, the Black Death, and all kinds of outbreaks of poor health. Cold air was considered extremely unhealthy, as were warm temperatures. People wore layers of clothing to prevent the vapors and all the bad airs from invading the body.
As a result, our warm and humid towns, surrounded by unhealthy swampland, were thought to be extremely bad places to live and visit. Early in our history, Tallahassee acquired a reputation of being an unhealthy towm, located in an unhealthy area.
Yellow fever was an ancient disease in the 19th century, and not just a problem for us and our surrounding environs. Outbreaks happened in Philadelphia, since ships coming from the West Indies often carried the disease to our country. At that time, it was considered to be quite contagious. It wasn't until after the Spanish-American War that the U.S .Army Yellow Fever Commission was able to prove that the mosquito was the organism that gave us yellow fever. Their work was based on an earlier conclusion by Cuban doctor/scientist Carlos Finly.
The symptoms of the disease generally had one or two phases. Neither were comfortable, or pretty. In June and early July of 1841 yellow fever descended upon Tallahassee with a vengenance. It first appeared in Port St. Joe, then Apalachicola. It spread to St. Marks, then the town of Port Leon. At the time Tallahassee's population numbered 1600. The Old City Cemetery's website indicates that between 230 and 400 people perished in this epidemic. This high number of deaths caused the city to establish a new grid system to more efficiently administer the burials. By November the fever was over. Life returned as much as possible to normal. Residents believed that the key to survival was cleaner air and unspoiled land. As a result of this belief, the Bel Air community was created. It was a suburb of Tallahassee built in the open piney woods about three miles south of the Capitol on the road to St. Marks. The elite of Tallahassee went there during the hottest months, believing that the open and refreshing pinewoods gave relief from the town's unhappy weeds and death.
Bel Air continued to be a popular luxury retreat for wealthy rersidents until the Civil War left them unable to afford it. The community was abandoned.
Lessons learned from these deadly outbreaks proved how ineffective American medicine was at the time. After the U.S. Army Commission's findings, yellow fever epidemics became history. Application of the mosquito eradication doctrine in Panama in 1904, and New Orleans in 1905 proved to be most effective. Other municipalities began similar eradication programs, still in use today. Check with our local governments Mosquito Control for particulars.