Haunted Texas: Brownsville on the Rio Grande

Haunted Texas: Brownsville on the Rio Grande

On the extreme southern tip of Texas where the great Rio Grande gently wanders to the Gulf, the state’s southmost city, Brownsville, hugs the lazy, curving river, a distant outpost to the state’s more metropolitan cities. It is a place of extreme history and a city that takes pride in its cultural diversity and is known for its balmy coastal summers and it’s laid back lifestyle.

In contrast however is Brownsville’s past, one that includes surviving multiple wars, including the War for Texas Independence, the U.S.-Mexican War, the U.S. Civil War, and at least two Mexican revolutions. It is a city that survived a devastating and virulent outbreak of yellow fever and a place long known for its storied past of smugglers, revolutionaries, pirates and frontiersmen. More than once the angry Gulf, pushed by powerful hurricanes, have covered her streets and alleyways with floods, bringing death and great destruction.

It shouldn’t surprise you then to know that Brownsville may well be Texas’ most haunted city. The city is ripe for hauntings and unexplained mysteries. Like New Orleans and Galveston, famine, flood and war have taken their toll through the years.

But it was another great tragedy that permanently scarred the community the most perhaps, one that couldn’t be seen – a silent killer that stalked the streets both day and night and spread fear and panic and fear among the residents of the river city.

The year was 1882 and Fort Brown, long a military post on the banks of the Rio Grande, was still a thriving center for military activity. For one, the U.S. Army hospital located at the Fort was considered one of the best. It must have brought great pleasure to young Army surgeon Lieutenant William Gorgas, freshly assigned to such a prestigious facility. Gorgas was a “new age” physician for his time, a scientist as much as a doctor, and it may not have been an accident that he arrived about the same time as a great yellow fever outbreak on the border.

Defying orders to refrain from treating the stricken because he had never had a brush with the disease and therefore was not immune to the virus, Gorgas spent relentless nights and days treating the afflicted. Worse, in the eyes of his commanders, Gorgas was conducting postmortem studies on diseased victims. When his experiments were uncovered, he was arrested and very narrowly escaped a court martial by explaining his research – an effort, he said, to thwart the disease if not develop a permanent cure.

But Gorgas had alienated his superiors and the damage to his service record had been done, Carving the dead was paramount to heresy in their eyes, and eventually he was reassigned to Cuba, where he continued his research into yellow fever, this time more careful to conceal his unusual postmortem practices.

Eventually, Gorgas confirmed that yellow fever, and many other disease, were being borne by mosquitos, and it was his sanitizing efforts to eradicate mosquito populations that eventually led to the control of the disease world wide.

But before that could happen, the death toll in Brownsville continued to mount. Over the course of two years, over 3,500 soldiers and as many civilians had succumbed to the disease there, at one pint so rapidly that bodies were first buried in common shallow graves as grave diggers couldn’t keep up with the demand. Eventually the community turned to mass body burnings to help prevent the spread of the disease.

On Fort Brown an official cemetery became so crowded that soon bodies were being burned and buried on the fort’s parade grounds, often in makeshift graves. Soldiers were buried with all their clothes and personal belongings, and often their rifles, all in an effort to remove anything that might harbor the deadly virus germ.

The serious yellow fever epidemic finally began to slow by 1990, though it would return again in a few years. But after another and unusual development at the Fort involving an all-black soldier brigade (Buffalo soldiers) and an incident involving civilian shootings, Fort Brown was finally abandoned near the turn of the century. The War Department then ordered the exhumation of all military remains at the Fort’s National Cemetery and they were removed for reburial at another National Cemetery in Pineville, Louisiana. Included were the remains of Mexican-American era soldiers, both Confederate and U.S. Civil War soldiers, and other notable military servicemen including thousands who died from the yellow fever outbreak.

The operation was contracted to a private citizen who was to be paid for each body resumed, repackaged into new coffins and shipped to Louisiana. A provision also allowed the contractor to keep the headstones on the graves, or he did so without authority, and subsequently sold many of them to be used as building materials when the city experienced a growth surge after the turn of the century. As such, many historical headstones became the cornerstones and foundations of many of the existing buildings of Brownsville today.

To make matters worse, during the exhumation, it was difficult to sort the bones of the deceased, especially those buried in common graves or burned on great bonfires. Not concerning himself with whose bones made it into whose new grave, the contractor simply loaded bones into boxes and shipped them to their final resting place.

To this day stories are told in Brownsville about how the dead walk the streets and spirits and apparitions that appear and disappear in the balmy night, especially around the old fort, which is now occupied by the University of Texas-Brownsville campus.

There are a few older citizens of Brownsville who still tell stories of skull and bones horsemen that ride across the old parade ground, and haunts that walk by the windows of some of the center city’s oldest structures, many of them abandoned and ghostly, apparently in search of their missing bones.

Each year around Halloween the Brownsville Heritage Museum conducts special ghost walk tours of the downtown district and at the nearby Old City Cemetery, another relic packed full of yellow fever victims and pioneers who gave their lives carving out a living on the Texas frontier. The Old City Cemetery is a National Historic Landmark, and it was designed after the more famous French-influenced cemeteries in New Orleans and Galveston.

Brownsville seems to be a place of forgotten secrets, and a place where the walking dead find little rest after the warm Texas sun sinks low in the western horizon. Or so the stories go.

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