By MICHAEL SCHREIBER
Slightly over 200 years ago, Philadelphia was devastated by recurring waves of yellow fever. The epidemic of 1793 wiped out a tenth of the population of the city and adjacent areas, and thousands more died from outbreaks of the disease throughout the next decade.
In the district of Southwark (now called Queen Village), the incidence of infection was quite high. In the epidemic of 1797, proportionally far more died in Southwark than in the city of Philadelphia itself (above South Street). People living in the cramped houses and narrow streets of our neighborhood, generally the families of sailors and laborers, did not have the means to flee the city as wealthier people could do.
In Christian Street, for example, an old Revolutionary War soldier, Felix Fenner, died from the yellow fever in August 1793. Thirty years earlier, Fenner had built a house at what is now 228 Christian Street. He and his wife Maria had raised a family there and cultivated an orchard in the rear. Since he was not listed among the inmates at the Bush Hill hospital, it is probable that Fenner died at home. But if that were the case, he might have died alone and without care, having sent his family into the countryside. After her husband’s death, Maria inherited the land and house, and earned some income by renting out the brick house next door to tenants. Tragically, Maria Fenner lost her life when yellow fever revisited Philadelphia in 1798—along with two of her adult children.
A large stone embedded in the wall of Old Swedes Church memorializes Adelaide A. Celestis DeLormerie, who was only 16 when she died in the 1798 epidemic. The inscription notes that “she was mowed down in the flower of her age … regretted by all who knew her talents, beauty, and mildness.”Adelaide and her father had arrived in Philadelphia just a few years earlier as refugees, having fled France following the revolution. They were taken in by John McMullin, a master silversmith in Southwark, who paid for Adelaide’s monument. In heartfelt thanks for his benevolence, Adelaide’s father gave the silversmith a carpet and a painting of a hunting scene—perhaps the two most valuable possessions that he had been able to carry from France.
When the epidemics of 1797 and 1798 arrived, the authorities already had some experience in caring for the stricken population. The 1793 epidemic, however, hit Philadelphia like a tsunami, without warning and without the least expectation. In fact, in the spring of that year, the mood in Philadelphia had been quite optimistic and gay. The burgeoning population of French-speaking refugees only added to the feeling that this city, the capital and metropolis of the United States, was on the cusp of new prosperity.
During the whole of July, French colonial families, refugees from the Black revolution in Saint Domingue (Haiti), continued to pour into the city—accompanied by whatever house slaves they had been able to muster. But toward the end of the month, ghastly stories began to circulate concerning some of the vessels that had come into port carrying the fugitives, as well as vessels that had returned from other islands of the West Indies. It was whispered that several passengers and members of the crews had become feverish and died soon after arriving.
Some in the city, such as the physician William Currie, claimed that an infection had spread from the Sans Culottes de Marseilles, a French privateer that was tied up at Race Street, together with her British prize, the Flora. This was bolstered by the account of the French merchant Peter LeMaigre and other inhabitants of Water Street, who reported that they had seen dead bodies carried out of the cabins of both vessels and deposited onto the wharf.
In the middle of August, the physician Benjamin Rush was called to the bedside of Peter LeMaigre’s wife, Catherine, who was suffering with a fever that had lingered for some days. After consulting with other doctors, Rush learned that an unusual number of their patients in the tight canyons of Water Street and its nearby alleys had recently succumbed to fevers. Symptoms shared by many of the victims included bloodshot eyes, sallow skin, clammy hands in the early stages, and raging fever and black vomit in the day or two before death.
By consulting old medical texts, Rush noted that the observations made by his colleagues seemed to match the descriptions of a fever that had not been seen in Philadelphia for over 30 years. That pestilence of 1762 had been popularly named the Barbados Fever for its supposed source; doctors generally referred to it as the bilious remitting yellow fever.
In the meantime, the residents of Water Street and its environs had complained to the city authorities about an acrid odor that rose far above the usual stench of the neighborhood. The source was not difficult to locate, however. Some days earlier, the sloop Amelia had come into port carrying a cargo of coffee that had rotted on its voyage from the West Indies. The coffee bags had been dumped at Ball’s Wharf, above Arch Street, allowing the mass to putrefy in the heat.
Benjamin Rush and other doctors became convinced that a miasma, or vapor, emanating from the coffee had carried the fever throughout the dockside neighborhoods and even northward some miles to the village of Kensington—where the sailors on the Sans Culottes had died.
This was the outset of a bitter public debate among physicians and amateurs alike concerning the sources and nature of the disease, and the most efficacious preventatives and cures. The debate had strong political repercussions. Supporters of the Federalist Party tended to endorse the theory that the contagion had been carried here by French refugees and sailors. They considered the fever to be one more instance of how the pollution generated by the too radical French Revolution was now wafting over American shores. Jeffersonian Democrats, on the other hand, tended to line up with Rush’s view that the yellow fever had risen from conditions of filth and putrefaction in Philadelphia.
Doctors who agreed with Rush pointed to the graveyards as a source of the “corrupted air.” Other supposed sources were the tan yards and starch manufactories along the creeks, and the ditches that surrounded the city, from which clay was extracted for bricks and which were often filled with stagnant water.
Nobody could deny, of course, that the ditches were also spawning areas for the prodigious swarms of mosquitoes that summer. An uncommonly wet springtime had been followed by two months of drought, leaving numerous pools for the insects to breed in. Although some people felt, almost instinctively, that the mosquitoes had something to do with the disease, none of the doctors of the time assigned any importance to the matter. It took over a century for medical science, especially through the work of the Cuban scientist Dr. Carlos Finlay and a later U.S. Army team led by Dr. Walter Reed, to conclude that yellow fever is a virus spread by the female of several species of mosquito, especially the Aedes aegypti.
Yellow fever still causes misery today. The World Health Organization estimates that some 200,000 yellow fever cases occur each year, with 30,000 related deaths—despite the existence of a vaccine. Most cases occur in tropical regions of Africa and South America, but with persistent global warming due to climate change, the range of yellow fever is likely to spread—along with other mosquito-borne diseases, such as malaria, dengue fever, West Nile virus, and Zika. Could Philadelphia once again be standing in the crosshairs of a raging epidemic?