A new lawyer in Natchez, John Quitman kept his father, brothers, sisters and friends apprised of his life with periodic letters, some of which related the heart-breaking news of disease epidemics, particularly yellow fever and cholera.
These diseases sickened a sizable portion of the community and killed way too many.
In late August 1823, Quitman, a native of Rhineback, New York, wrote a friend that he had found sanctuary from yellow fever at the home of well-respected widow at her plantation home, Soldier's Retreat:
"I have been a refugee from Natchez, where the yellow fever is raging ... The awful pestilence in the city brings out, in strong relief, the peculiar virtues of this people. The mansions of the planters are thrown open to all comers and goers free of charge. Whole families have free quarters during the epidemic, and country wagons are sent daily to the verge of the smitten city with fowls, vegetables, etc., for gratuitous distribution to the poor."
Yellow fever is a virus spread by mosquitoes, and as the population center, Natchez was believed the birthplace of every outbreak. The steady river traffic -- passengers from all over stepping on and off of steamboats under-the-hill -- only added to the likelihood of an outbreak of pestilence.
And in Natchez was born one of the most peculiar habits during the seasons of sickness and death, which usually ran from late summer until late fall when the fevers, chills and intestinal pains disappeared. As in all crises such as this, the poor suffered the worse although the rich offered aid.
However, in the fine estates in the country, the mansions swelled with guests who indulged on wine, food and sport while in the midst of the fatal scourge some of the population took part in strange rituals.
Quitman, at age 25, lived among the rich in the country, enjoying the hospitality of Dr. William Dunbar at Forest plantation, Mrs. Ferdinand Claiborne at Soldier's Retreat and Judge Edward Turner at his home.
‘CARD-PLAYING ON COFFINS’
Quitman wrote in late August 1823: "I am now writing from one of those old mansions, and I can give you no better notion of life in the South than by describing the routine of the day ... Mint-juleps in the morning are sent to our rooms, and then follows a delightful breakfast in the open verandah. We hunt, ride, fish, pay visits, play chess, read or lounge until dinner, which is served at two p.m. in great variety, and most delicately cooked in what is here called the Creole style -- very rich, and many made or mixed dishes. In two hours afterward every body -- white and black -- had disappeared. The whole household is asleep -- the siesta of the Italians.
“The ladies retire to their apartments, and the gentlemen on sofas, settees, benches, hammocks, and often, gypsy fashion, on the green grass under the spreading oaks. Here, too, in fine weather, the tea-table is always set before sunset, and then, until bedtime, we stroll, sing, play whist or croquet. It is an indolent, yet charming life, and one quits thinking and takes to dreaming."
By early October, Quitman was staying at the plantation home Greenfields on the outskirts of town: "I have been for a week at this charming abode … We shall not return to town until December. Whole families have been exterminated. I have lost several warm friends. Country air seems to be the antidote for this dreadful scourge. Outside the city -- even a hundred yards beyond the corporation -- it is as healthy as any part of the world. Sick persons, brought from the city, are received into crowded households, and nursed without fear of contagion, and I have heard of no instance of the fever being thus contracted."
Despite that, Quitman said that in the populous, wealthy neighborhood, "we meet in the morning, hunt or fish until dinner-time, and then turn in to the house of the nearest planter and never fail to get a good dinner, with the choicest wines. The planters here are famous for their claret and Madeira. Many fine packs of hounds are kept, and they are always at our service."
By early December, Quitman was back in town and descended into a whole new reality from the pleasures he had enjoyed on the plantations. He wrote his brother in Rhinebeck, New York:
"I am writing, thank God, once more from our own office. Three weeks since a severe frost banished the epidemic, and we returned. It was painful to see the desolation of the streets. I looked in vain for faces with which I had been familiar. A gloom and sadness pervaded the whole place, and when friends met they pressed each other's hands in silence, or averted their faces and burst into tears. There was a chasm in every family, and ah! how many bleeding hearts!"
But then Quitman observed an odd occurrence despite the deadly events of the previous four months when the yellow fever had made Natchez a center of darkness. The people began to play strange games and exhibited bizarre behavior.
Now, he said, the gloom was quickly disappearing "under the rush and tumult of business and new-comers. Even the theatre has opened, parties announced, and an air of recklessness prevails. There is certainly more dissipation and extravagance than we had this time last year … I hear curious details of the saturnalia (orgy of flesh and drink), the debauchery and excesses, that occurred here when the fever was the worst -- wine parties after funerals, card-playing on coffins, shrouded figures whirling in the waltz!"
‘A VOID IN MY HEART’
Ten years later, Quitman was married when another disease spread through town – cholera. Unlike his experiences during a yellow fever outbreak 10 years earlier, the spread of cholera shook the Quitman household like a thunderbolt: his two sons died two days apart.
The loss cast he and his wife, Eliza Turner, into a deep depression. While he would later storm the battle fields of Mexico, sit in the governor's office of Mississippi and walk the halls of Congress, this loss in 1833 was almost more than he could bear and almost sidetracked his life.
On May 21, he wrote his sister about what happened.
"But a few days ago, my beloved sister, your now wretched brother was the happy father of four blooming children. The hand of Providence has fallen heavily upon me in these last three days. Our beloved little Edward, who had never before had a moment's illness, was for about a week affected with derangement of the bowels, which at length resulted in cholera, and his pure spirit left this world for a better one the morning of the 18th. Oh! this was a severe blow to his fond parents, but a heavier yet was in store.
"On the night before last, my beloved, my beautiful, noble, and affectionate little John was seized with the fatal scourge, without any premonitory symptoms, and in six hours the little angel left this world for a better one. He had no pain, and was resigned, fond, and affectionate to the last expiring sigh. His poor mother is almost inconsolable at the loss of her two darlings. His sister, the constant, inseparable companion of his studies and his sports, looks as if she was deserted by all the world. His father's hopes, his high expectations, where are they?
"Oh! there is a void in my heart, a burden on my breast; yet I have strength, and will resign myself to this hard, hard dispensation; but Eliza, my dearest Eliza, with all her firmness, is nearly broken-hearted. Who shall describe a mother's sorrow? Two sweet children, upon whom her soul doted -- around whom were twined the very tendrils of her heart -- torn from her bosom so suddenly!
"The pestilence fell upon our house with unexampled fury. My German gardener died the day poor little Edward was buried. A servant-maid was attacked the same day, and still lies very low. We are now at Woodlands (outside town). A storm passed over last night, and physicians say the pestilence will cease. Its peculiarity has been to fall upon the most healthy localities and avoid others. Its sweep was short, but, merciful Heaven, what a blow! Eliza and I have determined to be resigned to our hard lot.
"Our poor little son (John) appeared uncommonly beautiful and intelligent the day before his death. He breathed affection for all, and, though perfectly well, he seemed to have some presentiment of his fate. I saw its shadow along my path for weeks. Two hours after the first symptom of his disease, he said, 'Father, I will never get well.' He was at the grave when his infant brother (Edward) was buried, observed every thing with attention, and gave his mother an account of all. Their little graves are side by side, under a beautiful tree, below the garden. We had two of the best physicians, but no human skill could save them. Their heavenly Father had selected their pure spirits to surround His throne."
TEARS ON THE MIDNIGHT PILLOW
A month later in June, Quitman received a letter of condolence from his friend, Felix Huston, a Natchez lawyer:
"I have heard with feelings of great sorrow the severe visitation of Providence which you have suffered in the loss of your dear children. When I reflect what they were when I saw them, how much of promise they evidenced, how healthy, intelligent, and beautiful they were—all that could warm with hope the breast of a parent—I think, with tears in my eyes, of my own dear Joseph, and that he, like them, was, by untimely fate, taken from the arms of those who had too much of their happiness, too much of their hopes dependent on him.
"Oh, my friend, how much of all our fondest anticipations, of our warmest affections and dearest hopes, may be buried in these little tombs! I have suffered more while thinking and deploring the loss of my boy, who was so promising, so much intertwined with all my plans, all my hopes, and with my very heart-strings—more than I thought my stubborn nature would submit to. Often have I shed tears on the midnight pillow, and my heart would swell as though it would suffocate me. Such was the shock, that I felt as though it would madden me; and even now I sometimes lose that self-control and equanimity (composure) which I had fancied I possessed. These are afflictions to which stoicism must yield, for nature is stronger than all the consolations of philosophy.
"Accept, my friend, my sincere sympathy with you; consolation I can not offer; but the tears which I have shed over the grave of my child have again flowed over the remembrance of yours, who are fresh to my mind as beautiful flowers that have been crushed by the ravages of a dreadful tornado. Assure Mrs. Quitman of my regret for her bereavement, and may Heaven preserve you and her.
Mississippi historian John F.H. Claiborne wrote that the loss affected Quitman "long and deeply. He often recurred to it, and years afterward … we shall find him recurring to it at midnight, when alone at Monmouth, and almost fancying himself in spiritual communication with his lost children."