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A pox on their house
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For the third consecutive year, the Isaiah Davenport House Museum will present a living history program that dramatizes the 1820 yellow fever epidemic.

“We revise the program each year for return visitors to experience something new and to improve the production, both historically and theatrically,” says Davenport House Director Jamie Credle.

Dreadful Pestilence: Encountering Yellow Fever, which was named the 2004 Museum Education Program of the Year by the Georgia Association of Museums and Galleries, is presented Friday and Saturday evenings through Oct. 29.

Visitors are led through the candlelit house to relive the horror of an epidemic of a hideous disease called “the black vomit” by those who survived.

The 40-minute performance is followed by a question-and-answer session with the performers. The program was created by Raleigh Marcell and Jamal Toure, who used documented sources to create the script.

Marcell portrays Dr. William R. Waring, a real person who actually practiced medicine in Savannah during the epidemic. New Orleans was very much on Marcell’s mind when he created the current script.

“1820 really was a disastrous year for Savannah,” Marcell says. “The year began with a catastrophic fire that burned the whole western part of the town. Later that year, there was an epidemic that killed one of every five people who remained in town.

“In addition, there was a big storm, perhaps a hurricane, that hit the first week of October, during the height of the epidemic,” Marcell says. “Very few people remained in Savannah. The mayor ordered people to get out of town. They were really hard times.”

The program portrays the conflict between folk medicine and traditional medicine of the times. Even traditional medicine was rudimentary in 1820.

Although yellow fever is a mosquito-borne disease, most people believed it was caused by miasma, or bad air. Treatments included sweating, purging and bleeding the victims.

The program offers a rare opportunity to view Davenport house by candlelight. “We are going to a place in the house we haven’t gone before -- the attic,” Marcell says.

Visitors will see three yellow fever patients being cared for in the garret. “One victim talks about the death of her brother and worries that will be her fate,” Credle says.

The program goes beyond the treatment of yellow fever victims. One woman is seen crafting ornaments made of human hair as a remembrance of those who died.

“We talk about mourning customs of the time,” Marcell says. “We have one room in which a patient has died. We talk about what happened to the bodies after death.”

New characters have been added -- the additional fever victims and the doctor’s daughter, who is preparing with her mother to flee Savannah. Additional information is provided about recurring characters.

Toure depicts Mingo, a free man of color who has been hired to take the doctor’s wife and daughter to Augusta.

More than 660 Savannahians are known to have died between May and November 1820. “The actual number is probably much higher,” Marcell says.

That’s because those whose deaths were recorded were white. Most slaves had no means to escape the city, and an untold number of them undoubtedly died.

The tour of the house is held first, then a question-and-answer period follows. “They are interested in the treatment, especially bleeding and purging,” Marcell says. “It is very hard for people today to understand the rationale behind bleeding.”

Comparisons to modern-day New Orleans are inevitable. “People wonder, ‘What would it be like if I had to undergo that ordeal?’” Credle says.

While Dreadful Pestilence is not a haunted-house experience, it certainly is creepy, spooky and entirely appropriate for October. “We offer this during October because people are thinking about spooky stuff,” Credle says. “We do this as an alternative to the haunted house-type thing. People are seeing something that actually happened.”

Dreadful Pestilence: Encountering Yellow Fever is presented Friday and Saturday evenings through Oct. 29 at the Isaiah Davenport House, 324 E. State St., at 7:30 p.m. and repeated at 8:45 p.m. Each audience limited to 15; get tickets in advance by calling 236-8097. Not suitable for ages 7 and under.