Yellow Fever

Historical fiction authors spend about as much time researching as writing the actual book, always on the lookout for something to give our stories that special spin. Because the four real-life principals in my upcoming novel, Goat Castle Murder, were all wildly eccentric, I figured there had to be more where they came from, i.e., Natchez, Mississippi. Now the quintessential sleepy Southern town, Natchez once boasted more millionaires per capita than any place but New York, and I quickly discovered my quirky quartet was just the tip of a picturesque iceberg. Consider Jake and Jim Surget, brothers who so despised each other that their house, Cherry Grove, had a chalk line dividing it in two with neither allowed access to the other’s half.  Three spinster sisters brought out a special clock when they received guests. Each had exactly fifteen minutes to talk, and the others were forbidden to interrupt. One elegant and enterprising grand dame who had fallen on hard times donned her best finery and accompanied her chauffeur when he delivered milk from his mistress’s cows!

LOS_Mississippi

The Yellow Duchess was mistress of Concord, the magnificent mansion built for the Spanish governor.

One of the most intriguing characters was Katherine Lintot Minor (1770-1844), nicknamed the “Yellow Duchess.” Wife of fabulously wealthy Natchez aristocrat Stephen Minor, Katherine was a Pennsylvania-born beauty who swanned into town determined to make her mark. Her stage was Concord (circa 1789), a glorious pillared mansion built for the Spanish Governor. It had a spectacular double stone staircase leading from the driveway to the second floor and mantels of Spanish marble. Natchez held its breath when a Yankee became chatelaine of Concord, and Katherine wasted no time giving them plenty to talk about. For starters, she ordered her drawing room painted yellow and installed yellow carpets and matching chairs and sofas to compliment the tawny mantles. Gold sconces and gilt mirrors completed her vision. It provided the perfect background when Katherine appeared in day dresses and ball gowns of every imaginable yellow and gold, accessorized with yellow slippers, fans, gloves, handkerchiefs, hats and even and the feathers in her blonde hair. Of course she wore gold rings, necklaces and bracelets, preferably studded with topaz, and, it was widely whispered, specially dyed yellow undergarments!

The duchess was partial to gowns like this, the more golden the better!

Not content to stop there, Katherine had the grounds of Concord lavishly landscaped with gardens to keep the house stocked with fresh yellow flowers. She ordered her coach upholstered with gold cloth and engaged artisans to paint it several shades of yellow. She scoured Mississippi for horses with yellow coats and settled on a pair of spirited claybanks. Her coachmen and footmen wore bold yellow livery, but it was other sartorial dictates that really set Southern tongues wagging. Taking her color obsession to the extreme, Katherine only engaged servants with yellowish skin pigmentation and dressed them in uniforms to enhance their complexion. Natchez was so appalled by this cruel, egocentric display, that an overseer’s wife was prompted to show her disdain in public. When their carriages passed, the near-sighted Katherine (much too vain to wear glasses, even gold ones) peered through a lorgnette to see who was in the other coach. With exaggerated mimicry, the other woman gave the duchess a hard look through the handle of a huge iron key. One might say it was the 19th century equivalent of flipping her off.

Claybank horses were the yellowish breed chosen to drive the duchess's gilded carriage.

Claybank horses were the yellowish breed chosen to drive the duchess’s gilded carriage.

Katherine Minor was nothing if not, well, colorful. She threw legendary balls and soirees and kept Natchez entertained with her gilded extravaganzas until her death at age 74.   She did not, as many predicted–and some hoped– die of yellow fever, but she managed to carry her color theme beyond the grave. The last time I visited her massive stone tomb in the Natchez City Cemetery, it was swarming with golden lichen.

The duchess is gone, but her tomb is alive with brilliant gold lichen.

So why was Natchez such a breeding ground for eccentricity? That’s a whole other blog.

Part of a series about eccentricity, extravagance and ephemera in
the antebellum South.

 

7 Comments

  1. Yves Fey
    Jan 21, 2014

    Always fascinating, Michael!

  2. Bebe Bahnsen
    Jan 21, 2014

    This reminded me of my evil aunt Edith. Once when Mama was in Atlanta she convinced me to go with her to Edith’s. I could write a book about Edith but I’ll just say that her living room had blue walls, a blue carpet, blue drapes and furniture with blue highlights.

  3. Ciji Ware
    Jan 21, 2014

    I quite think the “yellow” Claybank horses top it all…and speaking of eccentric relatives, in the house of my great grandmother, Elfie McCullough,my parents found– after her death–a striped, paper peppermint candy bag with FIVE diamond engagement rings in it. Apparently she thought nothing of promising to marry somebody, was quite unwilling to return the ring when she broke it off…

  4. Linda
    Jan 22, 2014

    Very interesting and a delight to read, as always. Yellow has always been my favorite color, but enough is enough!

  5. Liz
    Jan 23, 2014

    Love the wordplay on Yellow Fever… How do you suppose Katherine arranged to have even the moss on her grave conform to her color code???

    Thanks for this excellent historical tidbit!

  6. Donna
    Feb 28, 2016

    I have always loved these stores as I have Harnett Kane’s book about Natchez. The Yellow Countess was one of my favorites.
    His book “Plantation Parade” about the houses in LA is just as good with many more interesting characters there, too.

    • Michael Lewallen
      Feb 29, 2016

      Mr. Kane sometimes played fast and loose with the facts, but he was indeed an engaging story teller. To paraphrase Blanche DuBois, “I don’t want the truth. I want magic!”

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