Days Of Dread at Blount Mansion
At the southern edge of downtown, just before you cross the Gay Street Bridge, there’s a green garden where one of the first frame houses built west of the Allegheny Mountains perches on the river cliff. Blount Mansion’s windows have been twinkling above the water since 1792, when the territorial governor first took up residence in the home that would become Knoxville’s only National Historic Landmark. A house over 200 years old has witnessed many phases of the city’s history, not all of them sunny. These perilous times live again this October.
“Days of Dread” begin on Thursday, October 24, 2019, at 6 P.M. at Blount Mansion. Tour guide and storyteller Laura Still of Knoxville Walking Tours will take listeners through the dark days of Knoxville history, when the citizens lived in fear of mysterious epidemics that raged through the town with deadly results. With no clue to the cause of these fatal diseases, both city and country dwellers, rich and poor, criminal and law-abiding alike fell victim to contagion.
A Ghost City under Ominous Shadows
Knoxville streets lay empty and silent except for groans of the sufferers as the able left their homes, taking livestock and pets (but leaving a possibly hungry pair of buzzards) and fled the city, carrying the disease to the countryside. What horrors waited behind the doors of remote farmhouses where neighbors feared to knock and doctors never came?
Bleeding, Blistering, and Arsenic
Even in the city, the practice of medicine could sometimes do more harm than good. In the early days, bleeding, blistering, and purgatives claimed the lives of patients whose immune systems might have otherwise overcome the organisms of disease. In later years, Knoxville doctors experimented with doses of poisons, like mercury, arsenic, and silver nitrate, that might kill the germs—if the patient didn’t expire first. Sanitation was poor, and the theory of germ transmission only vaguely understood by even the best-educated medical providers of the 19th century.
Experience Knoxville's Days of Dread
Days of Dread will continue on Friday, October 25, and Wednesday, Oct 30, from 8-9:30 P.M., and on October 31, from 7:30-9:30 P.M. Visitors who dare can journey back to colonial days to gather at the deathbed of William Blount himself, and explore the baffling symptoms of his final illness, an illness shared by hundreds of other Knoxvillians, including members of the governor’s own family.
The esteemed Dr. John Mason Boyd will guide guests through the horrors of the 1873 cholera epidemic to witness the efforts of the brave doctors and nurses trying to control the outbreak while investigating the possible source of the lethal infection that terrorized the town at least once a decade.
Blame Ice Cream, Intemperance, and Vegetables
Most summers in Knoxville brought cases of fever and other ills, but some years the symptoms became severe and mortality soared. Death came first in the poor sections of the city along the banks of First Creek, Second Creek, and the river. Wastewater from higher ground washed into the creeks and springs in the low part of town, joined by seepage from mill ponds and tanneries, filling the air with noxious fumes as the organic matter rotted. Breathing this “miasma,” especially noticeable in the night air, was blamed for the onset of the dread scourge of cholera—but so was immorality, intemperance, and sin in general. Unripe vegetables, whisky, and overexertion were other possible culprits. Ice cream may have even been involved. Was anyone safe?
Surviving visitors will escape to the Craighead-Jackson House, adjacent to Blount Mansion, to experience the world-wide epidemic that engulfed Knoxville in October of 1918: the Spanish flu. The virus was brought to the United States by soldiers returning from the Great War, and spread to civilians before anyone realized the severity of the infection.
Young, Healthy? You'll Be the First Victim
Even when the virus was identified as influenza, health officials and workers were slow to recognize the danger, because this strain attacked differently than the previous mutations, and was highly contagious. Thousands fell sick, including the doctors and nurses themselves, as they battled this fearful form of flu that killed hundreds and strained local hospitals and clinics to the breaking point. In Knoxville, the Red Cross was called in to treat the soldiers camped out at Chilhowee Park, and mobile clinics were set up nearby to try to keep the cases from spreading to the citizens, but it was too late. Soldiers arriving by train had already explored the town, shopping and visiting friends, and leaving the fatal virus in their wake. Knoxville was a ghost town once more as schools, churches, pool halls, and public meeting places shut down to avoid contagion.
Now managed by the non-profit Blount Mansion Society, Blount Mansion has been offering unique educational programs to generations of school children and adults for decades. This Halloween is no exception with a new program full of historically accurate thrills and chills.
Reserve Your Tickets Now:
Tickets for Laura Still’s lecture on October 24th are $5 per person, while the opportunity to step back in time and experience Knoxville’s Days of Dread on the evenings of October 25th, 30th, and 31st will set you back $10 per participant. Tours start every 30 minutes and last 1 hour. You may purchase tickets in advance by calling (865) 525-2375, or online.