You think 2020’s bad? Davenport House Museum programming marks bicentennial of 1820 pandemic and fire

The late dreadful conflagration in Savannah must arouse the feelings of the most insensate. An attempt to portray the suffering, the anguish, the horror, attendant upon such a visitation, would be a mockery’ of feeling. – Augusta Chronicle, Jan. 1820

2020 IS a very bad year, no two ways about it. But Savannah went through one even worse 200 years ago.

In 1820, Savannah was beset by another deadly pandemic, of the mosquito-borne Yellow Fever.

Like today, it was a contentious election year and a Census year, with a calamitous economic downturn.

And oh yeah — 1820 kicked off with an enormous fire that completely destroyed most of downtown Savannah.

The Davenport House Museum this year trades out its normal Yellow Fever programming during the scary month of October for programming commemorating that pivotal, terrible year in Savannah history.

click to enlarge Rooms in the house have been altered to reflect life during the 1820 Yellow Fever pandemic; this is a bleeding table for victims
Rooms in the house have been altered to reflect life during the 1820 Yellow Fever pandemic; this is a bleeding table for victims

“We want visitors to know that people in the past weathered hard times and had years like 2020. It is interesting to see how others have maneuvered through crises,” says Museum Director Jamie Credle.

“Isaiah Davenport was on the committee to house what they called ‘refugees’ left homeless by the fire. During the Fever there was a lack of proper funerals and the opportunity to mourn. During the Census there was an enormous potential for undercounting the enslaved people of Savannah,” says Credle.

“Nobody should think the past was uncomplicated. It seems exceptionally complicated.”

The great fire of January 1820 burned over 400 buildings, almost completely wiping out the city between Bay and Broughton streets. The blaze left roughly two of every three Savannahians homeless.

click to enlarge A bedroom has been converted to portray a birthing chamber
A bedroom has been converted to portray a birthing chamber

The decreased hygienic and medical conditions resulting from the fire no doubt helped to spread Yellow Fever and make it more deadly when it struck over that summer and into the fall.

The death toll from that episode of Yellow Fever – one of many epidemics of that disease to sweep through Savannah from its founding in 1733 through 1876 – was a devilish 666, roughly ten percent of the population.

By comparison, under 200 have lost their lives from COVID-19 so far in Chatham County.

Between the fatalities caused by the fire and plague and the exodus of people fleeing the city for safety, by the end of 1820 Savannah’s population was reduced from well over 5000 to only 1500.

October is traditionally when the Davenport House presents an in-person, after-hours living history program, “Dreadful Pestilence: Yellow Fever in Savannah.”

“While this is not possible in 2020 because of the pandemic, the Museum is venturing into virtual experiences and will post a series of vignettes about Yellow Fever 1820 throughout the month,” the Davenport says in a statement.

While the living history component will be scaled back due to health concerns, guided tours of the historic house museum will go on.

“While emphasizing parallels with today, house museum tours will address the differences in daily living during the time,” the museum says.

“National events – including the debate over the Missouri Compromise – will be mixed with household concerns including the loss of the Davenports’ spiritual leader, births and deaths and coping with societal factors beyond their control.”

The Davenport House, ironically, was under construction in 1820, but was spared by the flames.

click to enlarge No time or energy for formal meals during the Yellow Fever.
No time or energy for formal meals during the Yellow Fever.

“We  had fun adapting the Master Bedroom into a Birthing Chamber,” says Credle. “We set up the dining room for informality – not time for formal dining in a calamity.”

In addition to house tours, the Davenport House is posting a series of specially commissioned videos for the month, a new one each week about key chapters in 1820.

This week is a portrayal of Dr. Richard Waring’s report to the City Council on the unfolding events.

Dropping Friday, Oct. 9 is a video featuring Credle herself portraying Mary Lavender, one of the nation’s first woman doctors, who practiced in Savannah during the Fever.

Oct. 23 brings a sermon from Rev. Paschall Strong. And October rounds out with a reading from Conrad Aiken’s short story “Strange Moonlight.”

Despite the apocalyptic emphasis, Credle says there is a message of hope.

“There was an 1821 and people returned to daily life – though they must have been forever changed by the calamity of the year,” she says. cs

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