The ravages of an epidemic

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With the COVID-19 pandemic still with us, it would be helpful to contrast it with an epidemic that all but wiped the city of St. Joseph off the map.

Off Garrison Avenue in Port St. Joe can be found all that remains of the lost city of St. Joseph, where the Old St. Joseph Cemetery preserves the brick tombs and few remaining tombstones of the residents of the vanished city.

According to historian Dale Cox, in a story posted on ExploreSouthernHistory.com, it is impossible to know how many people are buried in the cemetery. “Unmarked graves are clearly evident from the walking path that loops through the old cemetery and passes the few surviving tombs and headstones,” he wrote.

Some of the graves date from the early years of St. Joseph's existence, when deaths of people of all ages were common during the 1830s, when the city was established in 1835 in a remote and frontier setting. The largest number of burials sre believed to date from the year 1841 when a deadly yellow fever epidemic struck the city.

“It is impossible to know exactly how many people died in St. Joseph during the summer of 1841, but the number was undoubtedly high,” Cox writes. “The terrible disease swept the city, then home to around 6,000 people. Many had come in response to advertisements billing St. Joseph's ‘healthy climate’ and fresh sea air.

“To the residents of the interior counties of Florida, the beautiful city on the bay offered relief from the sweltering heat of summer,” he writes. “The fever, however, ravaged the community and forever dispelled the claims of promoters.”

Cox notes that newspaper articles of the time list the deaths of numerous people during the epidemic, which included leading politicians, businessmen, sailors, newspaper editors and their families. According to some claims, he writes, so many people died that it was necessary to dig mass graves in order to dispose of the bodies.

Now a memorial to the dead, the Old St. Joseph Cemetery, open to visitors during normal daylight hours, seven days a week, includes historical markers interpreting its significance in Florida history.

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