It’s one of the ironies of Savannah that a city so incredibly rich in real–life history would be so overrun with ghost tours talking about things which don’t exist at all, except in your feverish dreams and the minds of some of our more gullible tourists.
But for those who are looking for a bit of old–fashioned scary fun along with their history lesson, the Isaiah Davenport House Museum has just what the doctor ordered.
“We try not to compete or criticize, but we do have something to offer that’s not made up,” laughs Davenport House Director Jamie Credle.
For the past seven years during Halloween season, the Davenport House has staged living history programs based on Savannah’s traumatic but strangely compelling experience with Yellow Fever in the early 1800s.
“When we first started this in 2003, we all thought, ‘what could be scarier than Yellow Fever?’” muses Credle. “But we’ve never wanted the topic to get tired. It gives us the opportunity to always think how we can be more creative.”
Each year, the Davenport changes about a quarter of the “Yellow Fever” show to keep it fresh. This year’s edition — dubbed “A Mortality Prevails” — builds on a wrinkle the cast and crew added last year: Staging part of the show in the newly restored Kennedy Pharmacy building on Broughton Street, directly behind the Davenport’s Columbia Square location.
“When we originally researched the topic of Yellow Fever in Savannah, it became clear there were two newspapers in town that had very different ideas about it,” explains program co–creator Raleigh Marcell. “It was always in the back in my mind, but we couldn’t do it until we had the space to properly stage it.”
After checking in at the Davenport House, patrons will take the quick walk to the Kennedy Pharmacy, which will host actors portraying key local figures of the period, including the editors of the two competing newspapers in Savannah at the time, which had two different opinions about who and what was at fault for the epidemic and what should be done about it.
“We essentially take the sexiest parts of the disagreement and stage them as sort of a town meeting,” Marcell says. “It’s dramatic without having to dramatize anything.”
The new script also uses elements of the writings of Washington Irving — not a Southerner but nonetheless an important Halloween figure because of his “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.”
“It’s amazing how contemporary his writing comes across today,” says Credle. “We draw a lot on what he wrote about the way people can abuse spirituality for their own purposes. It’s almost as if he was talking about some of these trolley tours.”
Yellow Fever struck Savannah and other East Coast cities at various times during the 1800s. The first local run–in with the deadly mosquito–spread disease was in the 1820s, and it’s this period that the Davenport show deals with.
“One in five Savannahians, about 700 people, died of Yellow Fever at the time,” says Marcell. “Those who caught it and survived developed immunity.”
To bring all that home, the show concludes with each guest taking a slip of paper out of a basket. The paper tells them whether they were a fatality of fever, a survivor of fever, or were lucky enough not to catch it at all.
“We call it the Lottery of Life and Death,” Marcell says.
Credle adds that there are a couple of bonuses to the show other than the grim history.
“This is also one of the few times you’ll get to see the house by candlelight. You also get to go up in the attic, which is usually closed to the public.”
The attic — in a fantastically evocative state of darkly textured semi–restoration which this author finds worth the trip in and of itself — will be the location of a scene involving Jamal Touré, who portrays a free man of color.
“That’s our way of telling the story of the half of Savannah that no one talked about in the newspapers back then,” says Marcell.
A Mortality Prevails! Savannah’s Yellow Fever Epidemic of 1820
What: The story of yellow fever’s dreadful consequences which transformed the bustling seaport of Savannah into a ghost town.
Where: Davenport House Museum, 324 E. State St.
When: Friday and Saturday nights in October; performances at 7:30 p.m. and 8:45 p.m.
Cost: $15 in advance for adults, $10 in advance children (ages 8–17) and $17 for adults and $15 for children at the time of the performance. Reservations recommended. Not suitable from children under 8 years of age. The performance requires that guests be able to walk up and down stairs and maneuver in the candlelit rooms.