1853 Yellow fever strikes the O’Kelly family

Guardian Angel


New Orleans, 1853-04-10, Pg. 4 col. 4 On Friday evening the 8th Inst. MARGARET HAGGERTY, daughter of William and Hester O’Kelly, formerly of Port Gibson, Miss. aged 2 years and 4 months.

New Orleans, 1853-08-19, Pg. 2 col. 6 On Saturday, of yellow fever, MARY O’KELLY. Eldest daughter of William and Hester O’Kelly, formerly of Port Gibson. [Age 12]

New Orleans, 1853-09-04, Pg. 2 col. 6 ANNA BELLE, of yellow fever, daughter of William and Hester O’Kelly, formerly of Port Gibson. [Age 10]

Mary, Anna Belle, and Margaret O’Kelly were excluded from our family history and I was surprised to have found their death notices in the Daily Picayune. It was an accident really. I had only gone to the downtown library to photocopy another O’Kelly ancestors obituary when a severe thunderstorm struck. Waiting for the weather to clear, I scrolled through all of the microfilmed O’Kelly obituaries and death notices. My Grandmother had trained me to memorize our family tree in great detail and so I did not expect to find previously unknown ancestors, my search was just a whim. I discovered Anna Belle first and was left bewildered by her death notice.

I questioned my grandmother and she recalled that our ancestors had lost young girls to scarlet fever, but that was all of the information that her aunt Jennie had given. The sad story was buried, shortened and abridged by Jennie O’Kelly who’s self assigned duty was to maintain the O’Kelly family’s social standing. Aunt Jennie took great pains to emphasize that our ancestors were wealthy upon arrival and were not the “shanty Irish” who had been forced out of Ireland by the great famine. Yellow fever was blamed on poor immigrants of German and Irish heritage who were considered the lowest of races. Mosquito’s had been discovered to be the true cause in 1900, but Jennie feared lingering prejudices and convinced herself that it was to the benefit of the family to emphasize what model citizens our immigrant ancestors were while omitting innocent unpleasantries such as yellow fever.

Aunt Jennie did mention the yellow fever in her writings, when she recorded that her grandmother Hester died in 1853, “but not of yellow fever.” Jennie claimed that Hester died in childbirth delivering a boy named Hugh. The baby died shortly after birth and was said to have been laid to rest with his mother,”at the old cemetery on Washington street”. There is no death announcement or record of when and where Hester and Hugh were buried. Margaret and Mary’s burial place is also unknown. The death toll was so overwhelming in the summer of 1853 that many dead were placed in cemeteries with no ceremony or written record. At the peak of the scourge, anonymous bodies were piled high at cemetery gates and on street corners.  Anna Belle is the only O’Kelly whose final resting place was properly documented. There is nothing etched in granite, no headstone or family vault, but on September 3rd Anna Belle was laid to rest at the old cemetery on Washington street, more commonly known as Lafayette Cemetery #1. Only four members of the family survived the year, William and his three remaining children Tom, Jane and William.



Filed under Claiborne County, Mississippi, Mary Hester Swan, New Orleans, William O'Kelly

2 responses to “1853 Yellow fever strikes the O’Kelly family

  1. Three children lost in 5 months. Really brings a historical fact of the 1853 epidemic that I knew, and makes it personal in a way I didn’t know, since they weren’t my people. They were yours. And if I hadn’t met you today sequining voodoo dolls, I wouldn’t know who you were. You gotta put your name on these things! Great stuff here!
    They’re buried with my family, too, where we love to grouse that they get to smell Commander’s Palace day in and day out.
    Now, you gotta tell me who the O’Kellys and Calderwoods and Demarests are to you. I only know the Crowe name of Renee’s dad.
    Good job, and such rich records.
    Laura S. Sitges

  2. Thanks Laura! I will work seriously on improvements once Mardi Gras is over. When I die I would also like to be buried across the street from the wonderful smells that come from Commander’s. Sounds like heaven! We no longer own a plot so maybe you could just squeeze me in with your people.

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