Get sick at the Davenport House 

Got your fall fever right here

Feel that lovely breeze? Notice the absence of demonic insects gnawing at your ankles? Welcome to fall, good people. We made it.

'Tis the season of the best weather these parts have to offer, and even the couch potatoes ought to take it outside for the next few weeks. (For reals, move your couch outside. Better yet, push it on over to Picnic in the Park this Sunday. See page 30 for details.)

It's also time to get sugared up, grossed out and scared 'til you pee your pants.

Mine is a family that for prepares for Halloween like other people wait for the Apocalypse. We start discussing costumes after Fourth of July and buy fake blood by the bucket. The kids hassle me like hyper little hyenas until I bring down the Big Box of Decorations on the first day of October. (Any earlier is Halloween sacrilege. You hear that, neighbor with the skeleton lawn ornaments up since Labor Day?)

As soon as the androgynous life-size doll we call Bobby is hanging from a noose on the front porch, the children then begin their lobby for our yearly tour of haunted houses, ghoulish groves and creepy corn mazes anywhere in a 50-mile radius. Sometimes when we run out of thrills to satisfy them, so we just drop them off in a grody alley in a dark part of town and let them explore.

This year, I suggested we kick off our macabre junket at the Isaiah Davenport House Museum, where director Jaime Credle and a cast of volunteers have revived their living history production, Dreadful Pestilence: The Yellow Fever Epidemic of 1820. Set in various parts of the refined American Federal-style domicile on Columbia Square, the hour-long show chronicles the horrific illness that killed one out of five Savannah citizens and provides a fascinating and germane context of social norms, race relations, media propaganda and medical inefficacy.

But according to my children, Halloween shouldn't be educational.

"Ugh, history?" complained Abraham. "We want ghosts."

"And goblins," added his sister, Liberty. "And scary clowns on tiny motorcycles."

I don't mention that when clowns show up anywhere, including the circus, both of them keep their faces in my armpits the entire time.

"Plus, it sounds unsanitary. Didn't yellow fever make people puke black vomit?" sniffed Abraham, ever the germophobe.

"It can't possibly be as disgusting as the festering herpes sores on the zombies at that place we went to last year," I pointed out.

"But that wasn't real," countered Abe.

"Proving my point. Get in the van," I commanded.

Dreadful Pestilence begins inside the former Kennedy Pharmacy on the east end of Broughton Street where the cast sets the tone of 19th-century Savannah. The port is thriving, the construction trade is up and folks are flocking here to start new businesses, explains show co-creator Raleigh Marshall as he greets guests at the door in a sateen striped waistcoat. Savannah Arts Academy theater major Catie Morris delivers a cute commercial for a snake oil that's supposed to cure yellow fever, and young songstress Kate Bosen tries to keep the mood high as the death toll mounts.

It's morbidly entertaining as well as historically correct: Much of the script is lifted word-for-word from Savannah's two competing newspapers at the time. Jeff Freeman and Iain Woodside play the dueling editors, one warning the public about the coming epidemic, the other completely denying any danger whatsoever.

"This isn't scary," whispered Liberty. Speak for yourself, kid.

But she clutched my arm tightly after the intro, when guests are separated into small groups and escorted into the grand main house, the only time of year the museum is open at night. We climbed the candlelit staircase to the unfinished attic, which is honestly the scariest place I've ever been in my life, not counting my children's bathroom.

Here the production's other co-creator, Jamal Touré, plays a free African named Mingo Bwa who has been tapped to help bury the many uncounted slaves dying of the fever. Touré, who researches local African history for his tour company Day Clean Journeys, explained that whites would not inter blacks nor count them in the death numbers. Thus the historical record can only guess at how many African slaves died during the epidemic.

"It is a pandemonium of darkness," he cried, gesturing to unseen bodies.

Next we found Shakespeare-spouting Lauren Purcell awaiting treatment, which was frighteningly primitive compared to modern medicine no matter how you feel about Obamacare. Back in the day a prescription might have included having your arms cut and bled, drinking cayenne pepper tea or a tying a pigeon to one's arse. Liberty snorted with laughter at that last one, but Abe was too busy digging in my purse for the Purell.

Even if they'd had gobs of anti-bacterial goo back them, it wouldn't have helped. Though yellow fever was blamed on dirty air, the Irish and/or inauspicious astrological alignments, the true cause of yellow fever wasn't discovered until the 1890s, when Army doctor Walter Reed confirmed that the disease is carried by the most sinister monster of all: The swamp mosquito.

Finally, we came to the salon, somber as mourner Jan Vach hovered over the coffin her young daughter. Surrounded again by Bosen's lilting voice, we chose our fates from a basket: Three of us barely survived the dreadful pestilence, one did not.

With everyone satisfyingly freaked out, I felt a little sorry for the tourists clopping around outside hearing made-up ghost stories. Though Marshall assured me that the Davenport House is "not haunted in the least," it is definitely one spooky place.

Just goes to show that real history is creepier than fiction. And according to my personal Halloween police, every bit as cool as vampire zombie clowns with chainsaws.

However, Abraham still wants to remind you not to forget the hand sanitizer.


Dreadful Pestilence runs 7pm and 8:45pm Fridays and Saturdays through October $15/$10 under 12. 912/236.8097 or davenporthousemuseum.org.


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About The Author

Jessica Leigh Lebos

Jessica Leigh Lebos

Community Editor Jessica Leigh Lebos has been writing about interesting people, vexing issues and anything involving free food for more than 20 years. She introduces herself at cocktail parties as southern by marriage.

More by Jessica Leigh Lebos


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