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‘The dreadful summons’: an epidemic remembered



Mankind has often been beset by pestilences and plagues, and the worst to ever hit Warren County was the Yellow Fever Epidemic of 1878. There had been earlier ones and a few later, but none of the magnitude of the one in 1878. It claimed more than 1,000 lives in Vicksburg and Warren County.

My grandmother, Carrie Lee Cotton, grew up next to Redbone Cemetery and was a child in 1878. She remembered funerals held at night, for a victim was usually buried immediately after death.

Mrs. Sophie Adams Goodrum lived in the community and in her diary, she recorded the deaths of friends and neighbors who were buried at Antioch and Asbury cemeteries. Antioch is on Fisher Ferry Road at the intersection with Goodrum Road, and Asbury is located on Halls Ferry Road beyond Timberlane.

It was a year “long to be remembered,” Mrs. Goodrum wrote.  She was remembering the late summer of 1878 when yellow fever, also called the black vomit, devastated untold numbers of families.

Mrs. Goodrum lived on a plantation between Antioch Baptist Church, where she was a member, and Asbury Methodist Church. She recorded the deaths of people from both congregations.

Toby Whitaker, a 20-year-old member of Antioch, was the first in the community to become ill; he was stricken on Aug. 27, 1878, and his parents had the responsibility of nursing him.

“Not a single person would enter the house to help in this dark hour,” Mrs. Goodrum, who was Toby’s aunt, wrote. William and Sarah Whitaker, Toby’s parents, stood “alone, with none but God to help. Many times they thought him dying—no friend but his own parents to watch and comfort—all earthly friends had fled from the terrible scourge.”

Though death seemed certain, by Sept. 6, Toby was improving and able to change clothes for the first time since he had become ill. Then, others in the household became sick. The Goodrums took provisions to the Whitaker home but dared not go beyond the gate. Only William Whitaker escaped becoming ill, and he was exhausted from nursing his family and seeking provisions.

Miss Bettie Bell, a neighbor, died on Sept. 15, and Williams Whitaker had the responsibility of burying her. James W. Goodrum and his sons built a casket and paid a man to take it to the yard, but he would go no farther than the fence, for most thought that anyone who went near the sick or dead were sure to succumb to the disease.

Two men were hired to dig the grave, but they became frightened and ran away, so William Whitaker carried the casket into the house, and he and Toby placed the girl’s body in the box. Whitaker then backed the wagon as close to the door as possible. He and Toby took a plank, placed one end on the wagon and the other near the casket, and then slid it into the wagon. The two then drove to the graveyard where they used the plank to slide the casket out of the wagon and into the grave. Toby was exhausted, so his father filled the grave.

“Sorrow and anguish fill every heart—death stares each in the face, and everyone waits in breathless suspense for the dreadful summons,” Mrs. Goodrum wrote. She longed for news of neighbors, but she dreaded the reports she might hear.

Sophie Whitaker Pettit, Toby’s sister, began nursing her mother-in-law when she became violently ill on Oct. 28. Two days later, Sophie also grew ill, becoming delirious, and she lost consciousness. Her aunt, for whom she was named, wrote: “Dear Sophie, shall I never more behold thy bright, cheerful face?”

“Our hearts sicken within us, as we glance up and down the road for some bearer of sad news. At last the dreadful tidings came—our darling Sophie is no more! She took her flight to heaven today abut 1 o’clock. Her parents and brother were with her, but death regarded the agony of none. We ask ourselves who is to be the next victim, and who is to be spared.”

Sophie Pettit was possibly buried in the Pettit family cemetery, but no stone marks her grave. The Adams-Goodrum family cemetery, where Bettie Bell was buried, was destroyed in later years by the development of a subdivision.

No services were held at Antioch from August until the middle of December, and Mrs. Goodrum wrote that there were many vacant pews in Antioch and many fresh graves in the cemetery. For weeks, the only subject talked of was the plague.

Mrs. Goodrum recorded four deaths that occurred in the vicinity of Asbury.

Patience Lynche Kline, wife of Nineon Kline Sr., died on Oct. 9.

“They laid my friend away in the silent grave, between 9 and 10 o’clock at night, on the day on which she died, without the procession of friends,” Mrs. Goodrum wrote, “—they carried her off in the night and laid her beneath the forest trees.”

Mrs. Kline was buried at Asbury Cemetery. She was 60.

The next morning, Oct. 10, between 5 and 6 o’clock, Mrs. Theresa Nailer died. She was the second wife of Dr. Daniel Burnet Nailer. She was buried that evening at Asbury, and the Howard Association, which assisted in the fight against yellow fever, paid for a metal casket and the use of a hearse at a cost of $160.

“Sad and lonely the hearse passes,” Mrs. Goodrum wrote. “No long procession of friends—just enough to lay her away in the dim twilight.”

Mrs. Nailer was buried at Asbury.

Two days later Nineon Kline Jr., 31-year-old son of Patience Kline, died as well. He, too, was buried at Asbury.

The effects of yellow fever were felt long after the disease abated. Two days before Christmas in 1878. Mrs. Emma Kline Lane, daughter of Nineon and Patience Kline, and wife of Williams Lum Lane, died about 4 o’clock in the morning, leaving a week-old infant. Emma had suffered from yellow fever, and Mrs. Goodrum felt that she never fully recovered, that the fever had weakened her system.

Emma had married Jan. 29, 1878, the ceremony taking place in the Kline parlor. Now, on Christmas day, less than a year later, her body lay in a casket in that same parlor, dressed in the wedding gown she had worn on that happier occasion, a request she made shortly before her death.

Emma Kline Lane was buried at Asbury, beside the still fresh grave of her mother. Emma was 35.

Emma’s grave is the only one of the four mentioned that is marked. The author placed a tombstone at her grave two years ago.

Material for this article came from the diary of Mrs. Sophie Adams Goodrum and is owned by a descendant who shared it with the author.

Gordon Cotton is the curator emeritus of the Old Court House Museum. He is the author of several books and is a renowned historian.



Jay Measells honors his fellow veterans



Flags lined Mission 66 on Veterans Day. Inset Lt. Jay Measells. (photos by Ashley Sevier and courtesy Jay Measells)

People traveling on Mission 66 in Vicksburg Wednesday may have noticed the many American flags adorning the sidewalks along the shops, salons, and medical offices that populate the busy road.

People traveling the same route the previous night may have seen the man responsible for placing them there.

The man is Dr. Jay Measells, a dentist and owner of Jay Measells DMD. But before he was Dr. Measells, he was Lt. Measells, U.S. Navy, veteran.

In fact, he credits the Navy for helping him become the successful dentist he is today.

Measells joined the military May 16, 2005, during his second year of dental school.

“Military recruiters came by from time to time with the chance to finish dental school without owing a dime in student loans,” he said. “I thought that was a great idea, and I liked the movie ‘Top Gun,’ so I signed on the dotted line.”

Looking back now, he believes it was the greatest decision of his life.

Measells was stationed at Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune in Jacksonville, North Carolina.

“While there, I had the chance to work with some of the most talented dentists in every specialty,” he said, “and all the while I was treating the selfless and heroic men and women that comprise one branch of the greatest military in the world.”

Measells served during Operation Enduring Freedom, the global war on terrorism the U.S. launched Oct. 7, 2001, in response to the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

“During that time many of the active duty personnel were deployed multiple times. Some came home injured mentally, physically or both,” he said. “And then there were those who didn’t come home at all.”

Measells said he did little in comparison to many of the brave men and women who served, but he feels honored to have walked beside so many heroes.

Veterans Day, Nov. 11, reminds him of his favorite Bible verse, John 15:13. “Greater love hath no man than this, than to lay down his life for his friends”

As for the flags lining Mission 66, Measells said, “It’s just my small way to honor those who have, at one point, written a blank check to this country for an amount up to life.”

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Overton Randolph keeps the fire trucks rolling



vicksburg fire
Overton Randolph is conducting the annual fire pump tests last week. (photo by David Day)

You wake up and smell smoke. You quickly walk through the house but can’t find the source, so you grab the kids and call 911. After a few minutes, you can hear the sirens in the distance, but they don’t seem to be getting any closer; the fire truck is broken down.

Overton Randolph’s job is to ensure that such a scenario never happens in Vicksburg. As the mechanic for the Vicksburg Fire Department, his role is to make certain that all in-service fire apparatus are maintained, keeping them in safe operating condition and ready for immediate response.

One of the things he does to keep the fleet operating is pressure testing the pumpers on the trucks.

Overton Randolph prepares to test Engine 8

Last week, Randolph performed annual pressure testing on each truck in the VFD’s fleet. Every truck was tested, including some with the ability to deliver up to 2,000 gallons of water per minute.

The oldest truck in the fleet, Reserve 2, failed its test early in the week. Randolph was able to make repairs, and now the truck actually delivers higher water pressure than it did in its test last year.

Chief Dancyk points out the pressure specs for Engine 8

Randolph has been with the Vicksburg Fire Department for 10 years. He attended Vicksburg High School and is now happily engaged.

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Those who keep us safe: Jeff Merritt



Jeff Merritt (photo courtesy VPD)

With 27 years in law enforcement, Jeff Merritt comes from a long line of law enforcement officers.

“I had family that worked in Wildlife and Fishery for the state of Louisiana and the local Tensas Parish Sheriff’s Department,” Merrit said. “I’ve just always been around law enforcement.”

Merritt was born in Natchez, but was raised in the tiny town of St. Joseph, Louisiana, in Tensas Parish.

The family traits ran deep in Merritt in his choice to enter law enforcement. He graduated from the University of Louisiana at Monroe, formerly Northeast Louisiana University, with a degree in criminal justice.

“When I graduated, I was doing little odd jobs around Monroe,” Merritt said. “My dad actually came across an ad in the Tensas Parish Newspaper that the Vicksburg Police Department was hiring. I applied and was hired.”

The department hired Merritt in 1993 and appointed him to the Narcotics Division in 1997 where he currently serves as lieutenant. His nearly three-decade career has revolved around one goal.

“I strive to get drugs off the streets,” Merritt said. “I know people think you arrest somebody today, somebody takes their place tomorrow, but you just feel like you’re making it a little better for society each arrest you make.”

One big arrest in Merritt’s career happened in 2015. A group of officers were recognized by the State of Mississippi for a yearlong drug investigation that involved the Vicksburg Police Department and the Drug Enforcement Agency.

The investigation, which resulted in 23 arrests, netted Merritt the Top Cop award that year, but he stressed that his job can never be done alone.

“You can’t do this by yourself,” he said. “Everything I do, I do with a team. I can’t think of any drug arrest I’ve made that has not had other officers there with me. It’s a team effort, and you’re with your team pretty much more than you are with your family.”

Being away from family in a stressful job could cause some conflict, but Merritt seems to handle the stress well.

“It really doesn’t bother me,” he said. “I really don’t get stressed at work. The hours we work can interfere with family time, and you can miss out on a lot of things, but stress wise, I don’t think it causes me to be too stressed.”

Merritt went into detail how the hours of his jobs are very unpredictable.

“This past week we worked Monday and Tuesday 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., and then the rest of the week we worked 7 p.m. to 4 a.m.,” he said.

Merritt has one adult daughter and is engaged. He said his fiance knows and accepts the crazy hours.

He said you have to have passion to be in law enforcement.

“You have to do it because it’s something you really want to do,” he said. “It’s not for the money, and with everything going on across the country these days you have to want to do it and do it the right way.”

Merritt has been nominated more than any other first responder in this story series. His passion and “by the book” mentality has separated him from the rest.

“I just try to do my job and treat everybody the same,” Merritt said. “To me it’s a job. It’s not personal. I do my job. I do it right. I do it fair, and I’m honest to everyone.” 

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