'Angel Agnes'
Riveting tale of Shreveport's yellow fever plague
Book Review By Eric J. Brock

Illustration depicting the city's yellow fever epidemic of 1873

A funeral procession along the Shreveport riverfront is the only life visible in this illustration depicting the city's yellow fever epidemic of 1873. A third of the city's population lost its Iife, ranking the epidemic the third worst in U.S. history.

In late 1873, at the close of the great yellow fever epidemic which had gripped Shreveport in its throes and held the nation's attention in thrall for three months, a popular writer named Charles Wesley Alexander, but better known by his nom de plume, Wesley Bradshaw, penned a novella that proved a national bestseller, as many of his previous books had done.

Bradshaw, a Philadelphian, was among the millions of Americans whose attention focused on Shreveport's plight in those dozen bleak weeks of 1873. The media coverage, while not always accurate, was certainly sensational, and thousands of people from around the nation sent contributions to help the people of the stricken city. By the epidemic's end it would count as the second worst outbreak of the disease up to that time (it still ranks as the third worst in American history) and would cost the city a quarter of its population.

As with his novels of the Civil War, of shipwrecks, of the Mormon trek to Utah, Bradshaw seized upon the circumstances of the Shreveport epidemic and the nation's morbid fascination with it to create a popular novel that would sell well in the short run and, he hoped, would stand the test of time in the long run.

While the former did indeed occur - in fact the novel was re-issued five years later after a similar epidemic broke out in Memphis, Tenn,, - the latter, as with Bradshaw's other novels, was not to be.

Bradshaw, while one of the most prolific and popular authors of his day, is little known nowadays. Even by the time of his death in 1927 at the age of 90 he was all but forgotten as a writer. Bradshaw's style of melodrama and florid verbiage were no longer in vogue as the 20th century progressed and the novellas and works of historical fiction which had won him such accolades in his prime were no longer in print.

And so Wesley Bradshaw's novel of Shreveport's yellow fever plague, entitled "Angel Agnes," faded into oblivion for a century and a third. Now, however, readers can again read the darkly romantic story of Agnes Arnold, the daughter of a wealthy Philadelphia businessman who reads of the grave situation in Shreveport and volunteers to go to the stricken city to assist.

Agnes is a fictional character but her situation was most real. Many volunteers did come to Shreveport from all points of the compass to assist. This city's 1873 epidemic captured the attention of the nation and many came here to help. Many of them, like Agnes, also fell victim to the then-little understood disease and are buried here, in a city they never knew nor lived in, but for which they gave their lives.

"Angel Agnes" is a beautiful little Victorian tale that is all the more riveting because it is about our own fair city, albeit during its darkest hour. It is a story of courage and devotion, of selflessness and beauty in the midst of horror. It is a story worthy of preservation. And thanks to Shreveport's Ritz Publishing Company "Angel Agnes," the first novel ever published in which Shreveport is the setting, is again seeing the light of day.

Out of print since 1878, "Angel Agnes" is once more available, this time with a new introduction. (By Eric Brock) Featuring beautiful color plates both from the original 1873 edition and from the 1878 edition, as well as lithographic images from Frank Leslie's Illustrated News, a 19th century national weekly which covered the epidemic in detail, the new edition features the precise text of the 1873 version of Bradshaw's novel, unchanged in any way.

Bound in gold leaf-enhanced rich green leatherette, "Angel Agnes" sells for $50 (including shipping) from Ritz Publications, P.O. Box 29182, Shreveport, La.,.71149 or at (318-996-0419)

Eric J. Brock, Historian
The Forum
July 27, 2005

© Ritz Publications 2003 - 2006