The Sanitary Association steps in

Dr. Neal Mitchell and the Sand Hills Hospital, Harper’s Weekly, 1888.

At the request of the local Board of Health, a group of citizens led by Jacquelin J. Daniels and former mayor Patrick McQuaid formed the Jacksonville Auxiliary Sanitary Association on August 10. The Sanitary Association raised and distributed relief funds and, under Dr. D. Echemendia, coordinated local efforts to combat Yellow Jack’s spread.

Especially after the City Council became paralyzed in September, the Sanitary Association assumed many of the city’s day to day operations. International fundraising allowed the association to hire a total of 28 doctors and 837 nurses. Notable among the physicians was Dr. Alexander Darnes, Jacksonville’s first African-American doctor, whose fastidious work earned praise from Black and white citizens alike.

An ineffectual attempt to burn away the germs with bonfires on Bay Street. Courtesy of the State Library and Archives of Florida.

African-American leaders established the Colored Auxiliary Bureau, which coordinated with the Jacksonville Auxiliary Sanitary Association to bring the work into the neighborhoods of the Black majority. The Sanitary Association’s relationship with the African-American community was at times strained, especially over the distribution of relief and low wages for hired laborers.

As yellow fever’s method of transmission was unknown, many of the Sanitary Association’s initiatives were ineffective. They burned pine and tar around the city to “purify the air,” covered the streets with toxic bichloride of mercury, and experimented with destroying the germs through “concussion” by firing guns into the air. More efficaciously, the association set up quarantines and camps for the afflicted and drained standing water and sewers, combating the mosquitoes who were the true culprits in the fever’s spread.

Sand Hills Hospital, Harper’s Weekly, 1888.

The health authorities also set up refugee camps, Camp Perry and Camp Mitchell, as well as hospitals for the ill. The Sanitary Association took over Sand Hills Hospital in the pine woods north of town and expanded it with new buildings and a 40 foot pavilion stocked with beds. Meanwhile, the Board of Health took over St. Luke’s Hospital in East Jacksonville.

Later, the Sanitary Association also took charge of public works. This included not only sewage and sanitary improvements, but roads and other amenities as well, and thousands of citizens were hired for the work. Fairly morbidly, one of their most important projects was repairing the road to Evergreen Cemetery, worn down by frequent use, to protect the lives of “those who are obliged to travel to the cemetery.”

Yellow Jack’s long shadow

Old St. Luke’s Hospital in 1888.

Like the invaders in War of the Worlds, Yellow Jack was felled in the end not by human action but the environment. Cooler temperatures in October and November reduced the number of mosquitoes, and after a cold snap on November 25, there were only five further deaths and few new cases. In total, Jacksonville suffered 4,656 known cases and 427 known deaths, a not insignificant portion of the city’s population.

The epidemic had two major effects on the city and state. First, the experience forced Florida to rethink its approach to public health, which had previously been the domain of various local boards. “Those going from the city encountered great hardships in passing the quarantine stations,” wrote the Sanitary Association, “and many delicate women and children were subjected to a great deal of unnecessary exposure and trouble by the arbitrary rules of the different Boards of Health.” To centralize and standardize policy, in 1889 the state created the Florida Board of Public Health, the predecessor of the current Florida Department of Health.

Old St. Luke’s Hospital in 2011. Image by Ennis Davis.

The other major effect was the decimation of local government and Black representation in the city. Backed by angry Jacksonville Democrats, the Democratic post-Reconstruction state government used the failures of Jacksonville’s Republican-led local government during the crisis to strip the city of home rule. The state removed the entire Jacksonville City Council in 1889 and replaced them with appointees chosen by Democratic governor Francis P. Fleming.

The appointed City Council chose Sanitary Association head Patrick McQuaid as mayor and implemented a poll tax that disenfranchised most African Americans as well as many working class whites who had been a backbone of the labor movement. C.B. Smith would be Jacksonville’s last Republican mayor until 1995, though the city did continue electing progressive mayors on Democratic tickets. Local elections were restored in 1893, but the poll tax and subsequent onerous restrictions further eroded black franchise. Not until the 1960s did Jacksonville’s African Americans start to see the level of representation they had won in 1887.

The Storck family mausoleum at Evergreen Cemetery, which features a dedication to three family members who died in the outbreak.

Yellow fever memorial in Jacksonville Beach’s H. Warren Smith Cemetery.

The pandemic left few traces on Jacksonville’s physical space. Among the many graves of the outbreak’s victims, one at Evergreen Cemetery stands out: the mausoleum of the Storck family, who lost more perhaps than anyone else in the ordeal. The entire family fell ill in early September, and by the time a passerby heard 16-year-old George Storck’s cries for help, his parents and sister had all died. George recovered at Sand Hills Hospital and lived a long life; he honored his lost family in an inscription on the mausoleum. In 1979, a memorial to the victims of 1888 was placed in Jacksonville Beach’s H. Warren Smith Cemetery.

Old St. Luke’s Hospital, which predates the epidemic, still stands, but the Sand Hills Hospital has long since been demolished and paved over by development. As Tim Gilmore wrote at Jax Psycho Geo, when Gateway Mall was built on the site in 1967, neighborhood children uncovered hundreds of bones from the old hospital cemetery, stark reminders of Jacksonville’s then forgotten dance with Yellow Jack.

Article by Bill Delaney. Originally published March 30, 2020. Contact Bill at