The front desk clerks agreed it was best to let Archie sleep it off.
Miller was not unknown to the staff. The 32-year-old civil engineer was a friend of the owner, E.L. Johnson, and had stayed at the hotel a dozen times before. Miller worked for the Nicaragua Canal Commission and had been in Central America since April, studying the feasibility of joining the Atlantic and Pacific oceans there.
On Thursday morning, the hotel chambermaid let Miller sleep in. On Friday, a guest was disturbed by moans coming from Miller’s room. The staff called for a physician, who found Miller unresponsive. It was soon apparent nothing could be done for him.
Miller was dying. Soon, he was dead.
Miller’s body was moved to the city morgue, where a team of four doctors assembled. It included the coroner, W.P. Carr, and C.W. Woodward, head of the District’s health department. Military physicians from the Marine Hospital were invited, too. It was thought their special expertise might be required.
After noting the jaundiced pallor of Miller’s skin, a doctor cut into the abdomen and examined the internal organs. The lungs were partially congested, the kidneys enlarged. The most notable discovery was in the stomach. It was filled with what was known as “black vomit,” a mixture of blood and stomach acids.
The doctors were sure of their diagnosis: Archie Miller had died of yellow fever.
As public health officials around the globe grapple with coronavirus, I thought I’d look at other epidemics that sowed fear in Washington. The Spanish Flu of 1918-1919 was the most deadly — killing nearly 3,000 Washingtonians — but yellow fever made headlines, too.
Back at the Hotel Johnson, the bedding in Miller’s room — 107 — was burned. The floor was disinfected with chlorine followed by formaldehyde gas. The morgue was also briefly quarantined while it was scrubbed.
“There is no fear of a spread,” said Woodward, the public health official. Miller’s body had been disposed of quickly, he explained — wrapped in an antiseptic sheet, placed in a coffin filled with quicklime and buried at Congressional Cemetery.
Furthermore, it was not fever season. The disease was associated with warm weather, and it was November.
This did little to tamp down fears. Americans were well acquainted with yellow fever — or yellow jack as it was called. The dread disease flared repeatedly throughout the South. New Orleans, Pensacola and Norfolk all suffered deadly epidemics. U.S. troops fighting in Cuba were felled by yellow fever.
During one Louisiana outbreak, citizens stopped Southern Pacific trains from transiting their parish, fearful the cars could spread contagion.
In Washington, doctors worked to trace Miller’s final days. After spending seven months in Nicaragua, the engineer had returned to the United States on the steamer Allegheny. After leaving Nicaragua, the ship had stopped but once, at Port Limon, Costa Rica, on Nov. 7.
Port Limon was a known yellow fever hot spot. Because of that, no one from the Allegheny was allowed off the ship. It anchored offshore while a cargo of fruit was loaded.
The Allegheny arrived in New York on Nov. 16. Miller appeared ill, a colleague who had traveled with him said, but roused himself enough to pass the mandatory quarantine inspection at the port.
It was then that A.H. Doty entered the picture. Doty was the doctor who oversaw the port of New York, responsible for clearing arriving travelers. He happened to be in Washington for a meeting with President William McKinley.
Though he had not examined Miller’s corpse, Doty was confident the District’s doctors were mistaken. The incubation period for yellow fever was five days. After leaving Costa Rica, Miller had been at sea for more than a week.
“In Miller’s case, 10 or 12 days elapsed before the symptoms of the disease appeared and before the patient died,” Doty said.
No, Doty said, Miller had perished from “pernicious malarial fever of a malignant type.”
He was obviously insulted at D.C. officials’ insinuation that he had missed yellow fever in New York.
But D.C. officials were insulted at Doty’s suggestion that they had misdiagnosed malaria. When the health department’s weekly mortality report was released, Miller’s death was listed as yellow fever, the first seen in the District.
The warring doctors agreed on one thing: Yellow fever did not spread by “contagion,” that is, person-to-person. Rather, it was a disease related to climate, developing in unsanitary conditions.
Two years later, Army surgeon Walter Reed and his colleagues identified the culprit: a virus in the gut of female mosquitoes.
What really killed Archie Miller? I imagine him leaning on the rail of the Allegheny as the steamer sits at anchor off Costa Rica.
There’s a pinch at his neck.
He slaps at it, but it’s already too late.
For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/john-kelly.