In 1793 the capital of the United States and its busiest port was brought to its knees. Thousands dropped dead of a horrific illness, local and federal governments scattered… and no one knew why.
It began in late summer by the waterfront, and started slowly with the death of two recent immigrants, but within 2 weeks people all over the city were developing fever, jaundiced skin, bleeding from the ears and nose, stomach pains and black vomit. Preeminent doctor and Declaration of Independence signer (and later, mentor to Meriwether Lewis prior to his western explorations), Benjamin Rush (a founder of Philadelphia’s College of Physicians Philly’s Creepiest Museum – The Mutter Museum), declared an outbreak of Yellow Fever and soon the dead began piling up.
Yellow fever had struck before, although not recently or to this extent, and no one knew the cause. Some blamed immigrants, some blamed decaying fruit at the port, some blamed contaminated air or water, but no one knew the culprit was mosquitoes. Benjamin Rush and Phillip Physick (Discovering the Father of American Surgery, Dr. Philip Physick) were 2 of the prominent Philadelphia doctors of the day. Although Rush was old school and Physick part of a newer generation, both knew that victim’s stomachs often filled with blood, so were proponents of severe purging and bloodletting as a cure:
But, that wasn’t the only method tried. In this book from the collection of the Free Library, one man hand wrote his cure in the book’s margin – involving an entire bottle of French brandy and a lump of sugar:
Residents who could fled to country estates outside of the city. George Washington left for Mt. Vernon, and later met with his cabinet at the Deshler/Morris House in Germantown, when he felt returning to Philadelphia was still too risky.
A young lawyer named John Todd moved his family outside the city, but he stayed behind to care for his parents and apprentice. He later succumbed to the illness, leaving his wife a window and free to become the future first lady, Dolly Madison. The house they lived in is now part of Independence Park:
However, most folks were stuck in the city, and were soon unable to leave as neighboring communities set up roadblocks and refused to take refugees from the city, fearing they would spread the illness. Living conditions in Philadelphia rapidly deteriorated with little help for the sick and dying. City leaders turned to the free black population for help. Because Blacks were partly immune from malaria, it was believed that they were also immune to this illness, so the city requested help from the Free Africa Society and its leaders Absolom Jones
and Richard Allen (The Richard Allen Museum: Black History, The AME Church, and Victorian Stained Glass). Blacks worked as nurses and body disposers. (Although it turned out the did not have immunity and died at the same rate as whites.) Controversy arose when a local publisher publicly accused these black workers of causing the epidemic, overcharging patients and taking advantage of them. Richard Allen’s published response was the first federal copyright for a black author in the United States.
Further controversy surrounded Bush Hill, the yellow fever ward set up on the edge of town by city officials. Tales of conditions there were horrific until Philadelphia’s wealthiest businesses man, Stephen Girard, who had experienced yellow fever outbreaks in the Caribbean (Yellow Fever, Civil Rights and The Richest Man in America – The Stephen Girard Collection) stepped in and undertook running of the hospital. Not only did he personally finance the infirmary, but helped with nursing and patient transportation. Plus, his French doctors practiced a much gentler form of patient care, including quinine, wine, and cool baths.
As graveyards filled and bodies began piling up, mass burials became the norm, with over 1300 bodies buried in the large potter’s field in South East Square. Due to the influx of bodies from yellow fever, the area which had served as a burial ground for both Revolutionary war soldiers and black Philadelphians was closed to burials and developed into Washington Square Park.
By the end of October, the first frost hit and the epidemic ended, but not before 10% of the city’s population perished.
Although refugees from the slave revolt in Haiti inadvertently caused of the 1783 outbreak, it wasn’t until the late 1800’s that mosquitoes were confirmed to be the vectors. In the meantime, the city worked to mitigate future outbreaks with the creation of a Board of Health, dedicated quarantine station (Quarantine! Philly Style), and central water works (Philadelphia’s Waterworks: A Free Museum And Secret Sculpture Garden), all of which improved living conditions in the city.