Exhibit documents yellow fever epidemic of 1793

December 1, 2006
  • umichnews@umich.edu

EDITORS: Photos available on request.

ANN ARBOR—The University of Michigan’s Clements Library is exhibiting newspaper accounts, maps, engravings, minute books, pamphlets and personal letters documenting the horrendous yellow fever epidemic that struck Philadelphia in 1793, killing 5,000 people, roughly 10 percent of the city’s population, in only three months.

Philadelphia was the largest, wealthiest, and most centrally located city in America as well as the seat of the federal government. In August 1793, Dr. Benjamin Rush began seeing an unusual number of patients with a disturbing set of symptoms—severe fever, nausea, skin eruptions, black vomit, deep lethargy, rapid feeble pulse, incontinence and morbid yellow coloring of skin. Rush instantly pronounced the disease to be bilious remitting yellow fever.

The medical community identified the sickness as an infectious, contagious disease imported from an outside source (probably the West Indies), communicated through direct contact with the sick or with their clothing.

“Everybody who can, is fleeing from the city, and the panic of the country people is likely to add famine to the disease,” Thomas Jefferson observed. Nearly 600 people died of the disease in four weeks. Half the population, everyone who could afford it, had left. Terror overwhelmed people. Wives fled from husbands, parents from children, children from parents. Food supplies dwindled. All Business stopped. Ports refused to receive ships and goods out of Philadelphia. All government was suspended—federal, state, municipal.

President George Washington left Philadelphia Sept. 10. He justified his decision to leave by saying, ” as Mrs. Washington was unwilling to leave me surrounded by the malignant fever which prevailed, I could not think of hazarding her and the Children any longer by my continuance in the city, the house in which we lived being, in an manner, blockaded, by the disorder. ”

In the early days of panic, only two men stepped forth to help—the Black clergymen Richard Allen and Absalom Jones. Both had been driven out of St. George’s Methodist Episcopal Church by jealous white members. Jones would become the first Bishop of the African Methodist Church of North America.

During the crisis, the Free African Society, which Allen and Jones founded, was the major relief agency. When the crisis ended, the society was left with a debt from the expense of bedding and moving fever victims. Throughout the crisis, Blacks worked as carters and nurses; Allen and Jones were constantly among victims. By September, Blacks began to contract the fever. Even after they began to be infected, many continued their labors. In return, the Black community was accused of thievery and other misconduct.

In 1794, James Hardie described the events of the plague: ” During the Month of August the funerals amounted to upwards of 300. The disease had then reached the central streets of the city and began to spread on all sides with the greatest rapidity. In September its malignance increased amazingly. Fear pervaded the stoutest heart; flight became general, and terror was depicted on every countenance. In this month 1,400 more were added to the list of mortality. The contagion was still progressive and towards the end of the month, 90 and 100 died daily. ”

Many Philadelphia clergymen believed that God’s wrath had been visited upon their city, manifest in the yellow fever. As evidence, they noted the outbreak of the fever coincided with the opening of the New Chestnut Street Theater, the ” Synagogue for Satan. ” The Quakers sent a petition to the State Legislature in December 1793 demanding the theater be closed as ” Offensive to the Supreme Governor of the Universe. ”

The display at U-M’s Clements Library is open Monday- Friday, noon-2:30 p.m., and will continue through the end of June.

For more information about the exhibition or the history contained in its documentation, contact Arlene Shy at (313) 764-2347 or (313) 665-2165.