The Can’t Get Away Club was a civic organization that formed in Mobile, Mobile County, in 1839 to address the suffering caused by a yellow fever outbreak in the city. Its members chose the name for their choice to stay in the city during the epidemic, unlike many who fled if they were able during outbreaks. Club members continued to provide services and funds to stricken citizens in subsequent outbreaks until the last epidemic in Mobile in 1897.
Can’t Get Away Club Officers Yellow fever, a tropical and subtropical acute viral disease resulting from mosquito bites, plagued the South almost annually. It often resulted in severe aches, fever, and jaundice, thus the reason for its name—yellow fever. Nursing care was critical to victims’ recovery. Yellow fever had first appeared in that region in the 1700s during French colonization and continued to plague Mobile until 1897, when the last yellow fever epidemic struck Alabama.
When yellow fever struck Mobile in 1839, a group of civic-minded business owners, lawyers, and other notable citizens recognized the need for a centralized organization to help yellow fever victims, regardless of social, economic, or political standing. The sick required physicians, nurses, and provisional care whenever epidemics struck. At this time, only a couple of physicians were available, and nursing care was too expensive for most in the city to afford—upwards to $10.00 per day. During their regular luncheon meeting at the Alhambra Club at Dauphin and Royal Streets, a popular downtown establishment, these merchants, bankers, bookkeepers, dry-goods clerks, and lawyers decided to collect funds to meet the needs of suffering Mobilians.
These philanthropists decided to create a yellow fever relief association solely for the citizens of Mobile. The original members of the club decided upon the name because they opened membership to any white man in the city who “could not get away” from Mobile during an epidemic. Women and African Americans were not permitted, however. Despite the name, the associates were not, in fact, trying to abandon Mobile; they believed it their duty to serve its citizens. The name became official, and the organization elected city official John Hurtel as its first president and quickly elected a full slate of officers from the attendees.
The Can’t-Get-Away Club originally appropriated $300 to offer monetary help to the needy during the epidemic and established boards in each of the city’s districts. Since few physicians were available at that time and nursing care was often expensive, many in the city were without medical care. Provisions were also difficult to procure because commerce usually ceased during epidemics as storeowners shuttered their establishments or quarantine lines prohibited trade. Therefore, this group decided that the association would hire physicians and nurses to care for the sick and dying in the epidemic, arrange grocery deliveries, and even attend to burials. They gathered a storehouse of goods and opened it to citizens in need of food, clothing, and fuel. It would become a vital distribution point for Mobilians. The club even created employment for those left jobless during the epidemic in order to ensure that family breadwinners received paychecks. Street maintenance was the most common employment arranged for those who worked for the Can’t Get Away Club.
John Hurtel was representative of the members of the Can’t Get Away Club. Arriving in Mobile in the early 1820s from New York, he quickly enmeshed himself into the city’s political and social activities. He married Eliza Noel, from the Dominican Republic. In his lifetime, he served as president of the Franco-Latin Democratic Club in Mobile and was a Port Warden for the city docks. He also volunteered on the Mobile School Commission to foster public education in the city and Mobile County. At various times before his death in 1869, he was a judge in the circuit and municipal courts and a member of the Board of Common Council (Alderman) for the city. He was also a Ward V election Inspector/Returning Officer for the 1868 U.S. presidential and vice-presidential elections and a commissioner for the Alabama State Lottery in 1868. He served several terms as president of the Can’t Get Away Club.
The Club rallied during every epidemic in Mobile after its creation in 1839. It proved vital in Mobile’s worst epidemic, the 1853 outbreak. Carried from New Orleans via shipping, yellow fever spread quickly throughout the city, including Spring Hill, an area at the time believed to be safe. Seeking refuge there was Josiah Clark Nott and his family. Nott, a prominent physician of the city and early proponent of an insect vector theory to explain how yellow fever spread, suffered the loss of four children during this epidemic. In all, approximately 764 citizens succumbed to yellow fever that year. Throughout the fever months, the Can’t Get Away Club members provided both medical and provisional aide to those in need.
In 1854, the Club incorporated through an act of the Alabama legislature, with Gov. John A. Winston signing the law. More than likely, the role the Can’t Get Away Club played in the epidemic of 1853 inspired this action. The club members created a constitution and by-laws governing its charitable and benevolent purposes and clearly stated in Article XII that no member could receive any remuneration for serving in the organization. Citizens of Mobile called its supporters heroes and honored them. In Magnolia Cemetery, families buried many of its members in a lot specially designated for them. This organization was an example of civic engagement in sustaining all Mobilians in yellow fever epidemics, regardless of race or social standing. In 1897, the city experienced the last of its yellow fever epidemics. The philanthropic and medical outreach of the Can’t Get Away Club was no longer necessary to the health of its citizens. The last member, the Reverend Gardiner C. Tucker, rector of St. John’s Episcopal Church in Mobile, died in 1941.