The Great Epidemic

Three-quarters of a century had passed over the little Franco-Spanish town, hidden under the Mississippi’s downward-retreating bank in the edge of its Delta swamp on Orleans Island, before the sallow spectre of yellow fever was distinctly recognized in her streets and in her darkened chambers.

That it had come and gone earlier, but unidentified, is altogether likely. In 1766 especially, the year in which Ulloa came with his handful of Havanese soldiers to take possession for Spain, there was an epidemic which at least resembled the great West Indian scourge. Under the commercial concessions that followed, the town expanded into a brisk port. Trade with the West Indies grew, and in 1796, the yellow fever was confronted and called by name.

From that date it appeared frequently if not yearly, and between that date and the present day twenty-four lighter and thirteen violent epidemics have marked its visitations. At their own horrid caprice they came and went. In 1821, a quarantine of some sort was established, and it was continued until 1825; but it did not keep out the plague, and it was then abandoned for more than thirty years. Between 1837 and 1843, fifty-five hundred deaths occurred from the fever. In the summer and fall of 1847, over twenty-eight hundred people perished by it. In the second half of 1848, eight hundred and seventy-two were its victims. It had barely disappeared when cholera entered again and carried off forty-one hundred. A month after its disappearance, – in August, 1849, – the fever returned; and when, at the end of November, it had destroyed seven hundred and forty-four persons, the, cholera once more appeared; and by the end of 1850 had added eighteen hundred and fifty-one to the long rolls.

In the very midst of these visitations, it was the confident conviction and constant assertion of the average New Orleans citizen, Creole or American, on his levee, in the St. Charles rotunda, at his counting-room desk, in the columns of his newspaper, and in his family circle, that his town was one of the healthiest in the world. The fatality of the epidemics was principally among the unacclimated. He was not insensible to their sufferings, he was fatuous for his care of the sick ; the town was dotted with orphan asylums. But in this far-away corner crucial comparisons escaped him. The Creole did not readily take the fever, and, taking it, commonly recovered. He had, and largely retains still, an absurd belief in his entire immunity from attack. When he has it, it is something else. As for strangers, – he threw up his palms and eye-brows,-nobody asked them to come to New Orleans. The mind of the American turned only to commerce; and the commercial value of a well-authenticated low death-rate he totally overlooked. Every summer might bring plague-granted; but winter brought trade, wealth. It thundered and tumbled through the streets like a surf. The part of a good citizen seemed to be to shut his eyes tightly and drown comment and debate with loud assertions of the town’s salubrity.

It was in these days that a certain taste for books showed itself, patronized and dominated by commerce. De Bow’s excellent monthly issue, the Commercial Review of the South and West, was circulating its invaluable statistics and its pro-Southern deductions in social and political science. Judah P. Benjamin wrote about sugar; so did Valcour-Aime; Riddell treated of Mississippi River deposits, etc.; Maunsell White gave reminiscences of flat-boat navigation; Chief Justice Martin wrote on contract of sale; E. J. Forstall on Louisiana history in French archives; and a great many anonymous “Ladies of New Orleans” and “Gentlemen of New Orleans” and elsewhere, upon the absorbing topic of slavery – to while away the time, as it were. “New Orleans, disguise the fact as we may,” wrote De Bow in 1846, “has had abroad the reputation of being a great charnel-house. . . . We meet this libel with facts.” But he gave no figures. In January, 1851, the mayor officially pronounced the city “perfectly healthy during the past year,” etc., omitting to say that the mortality had been three times as high as a moderate death-rate would have been. A few medical men alone, – Barton, Symonds, Fenner, Axson, – had begun to drag from oblivion the city’s vital statistics and to publish facts that should have alarmed any community. But the blind are not frightened with ghosts. Barton showed that the mortality of 1849, over and above the deaths by cholera, had been about twice the common average of Poston, – New York, Philadelphia, or Charleston. What then? Nothing. He urged under-ground sewerage in vain. Quarantine was proposed; commerce frowned. A plan was offered for daily flushing the city’s innumerable open street-gutters; it was rejected. The vice of burying in tombs above ground in the heart of town was shown; but the burials went on.

As the year 1853 drew near, a climax of evil conditions seemed to be approached. The city became more dreadfully unclean than before. The scavenging was being tried on a contract system, and the “foul and nauseous steams” from gutters, alleys, and dark nooks became intolerable. In the merchants’ interest Carondelet basin and canal were being once more dug out; the New Canal was being widened; gas and water mains were being extended; in the Fourth District, Jackson Street and St. Charles Avenue were being excavated for the road-beds of their railways. In the Third District, many small draining trenches were being dug.

Augusta sailed from Bremen

On the 12th of March, the ship Augusta sailed from Bremen for New Orleans with upward of two hundred emigrants. Thirteen days afterward the Northampton left Liverpool, bound in the same direction, with between three and four hundred Irish. She had sickness on board during the voyage, and some deaths. The Augusta had none. While these were on their way, the bark Siri, in the port of Rio de Janeiro, lost her captain and several of her crew by yellow fever, and afterward sailed for New Orleans. The ship Camboden Castle cleared from Kingston, Jamaica, for the same port, leaving seven of her crew dead of the fever. On the 9th of May, the Northampton and the Siri arrived in the Mississippi. The Northampton was towed to the city alone, and on the 10th was moored at a wharf in the Fourth District, at the head of Josephine Street. The Siri was towed up in company with another vessel, the Saxon. She was dropped at a wharf in the First District. The Saxon moved oil and rested some distance away, at a wharf opposite the waterworks reservoir, in front of Market Street. The Northampton was found to be very foul. Hands sent aboard to unload and clean her left on the next day, believing they had detected “black vomit” in her hospital. One of them fell sick of yellow fever three days after, but recovered. A second force was employed; several became ill; this was on the 17th. On the same day, the Augusta, and the Camboden Castle entered the harbor in the same tow. The Camboden Castle was moored alongside the Saxon. At the next wharf, two or three hundred feet below, lay abreast the Niagara and the harvest Queen. The Augusta passed on up and cast off her tow-lines only when she was moored close to the Northampton. The emigrants went ashore. Five thousand landed in New Orleans that year. Here, then, was every condition necessary to the outbreak of a pestilence, whether indigenous, imported, or both.

On the same day that the fever broke out on the Northampton it appeared also on the Augusta. About the same time it showed itself in one or two distant parts of the city without discernible connection with the shipping. On the 29th, it appeared on the Harvest Queen, and, five days later, on the Saxon. The Niagara had put to sea; but, on the 8th, the fever broke out on her and carried off the captain and a number of the crew. Two fatal cases in the town the attending physician reported under a disguised term, “not wishing to create alarm.” Such was the inside, hidden history of the Great Epidemic’s beginning.

On the 27th of May, one of the emigrants from the Northampton was brought to the charity hospital. He had been four days ill, and he died the next day, of yellow fever. The Board of Health made official report of the case; but the daily papers omitted to publish it. Other reports followed in June; they were shunned in the same way, and the great city, with its one hundred and fifty-four thousand people, one in every ten of whom was to die that year, remained in slumberous ignorance of the truth. It was one of the fashions. On the 2d of July, twenty-five deaths from yellow fever were reported for the closing week. Many “fever centres” had been developed. Three or four of them pointed, for their origin, straight back to the Northampton; one to the Augusta, and one to the Saxon.

A season of frequent heavy rains, alternating with hot suns and calms – the worst of conditions – set in. At the end of the next week, fifty-nine deaths were reported. There had not been less, certainly, than three hundred cases, and the newspapers slowly and one by one began to admit the presence of danger. But the truth was already guessed, and alarm and dismay lurked everywhere. Not in every breast, however; there were still those who looked about with rather impatient surprise, and-often in Creole accent, and often not-begged to be told what was the matter. The deaths around them, they insisted, in print, were at that moment “fewer in number than in any other city of similar population in the Union.”

Indeed, the fever was still only prowling distantly in those regions most shunned by decent feet and clean robes; about Rousseau Street, and the like, along the Fourth District river-front, where the forlorner German immigrants boarded in damp and miry squalor; in the places where such little crowded living as there was in the town was gathered; Lynch’s Row and other blocks and courts in the filthy Irish quarters of St. Thomas and Tchoupitoulas streets; and the foul, dark dens about the French market and the Mint, in the old French quarter; among the Gascon vacheries and boucheries, of repulsive uncleanness, on the upper and rear borders of the Fourth District; and around Gormley’s Basin – a small artificial harbor at the intersection of Dryades Wall: and Felicity Road, for the wood-cutters and shingle-makers of the swamp, and “a pestilential muck-and-mire pool of dead animals and filth of every kind.”

But suddenly the contagion leaped into the midst of the people. In the single week ending July 16th, two hundred and four persons were carried to the cemeteries. A panic seized the town. Everywhere porters were tossing trunks into wagons, carriages rattling over the stones and whirling out across the broad white levee to the steamboats’ sides. Foot -passengers were Hurrying along the sidewalk, luggage and children in hand, and out of breath, many a one with the plague already in his pulse. The fleeing crowd was numbered by thousands.

Charity Hospital

During the following week, the charity hospital alone received from sixty to one hundred patients a day. Its floors were covered with the sick. From the 16th to the 23d, the deaths averaged sixty-one a day. Presently, the average ran up to seventy-nine. The rains continued, with much lightning and thunder. The weather became tropical; the sun was scorching hot and the shade chilly. The streets became heavy with mud, the air stifling with bad odors, and the whole town a perfect Constantinople for foulness.

August came on. The week ending the 6th showed one hundred and eighty-seven deaths from other diseases, an enormous death-rate, to which the fever added nine hundred and forty-seven victims. For a week, the deaths in the charity hospital – where the poor immigrants lay – had been one every half hour.

The next day two hundred and twenty-eight persons died. The pestilence had attacked the Creoles and the blacks. In every direction were confusion, fright, flight, calls for aid, the good “Howards” hurrying from door to door, widows and orphans weeping, till the city was, as an eye-witness says, a “theatre of horrors.”

“Alas,” cried one of the city journals, “we have not even grave-diggers!” Five dollars an hour failed to hire enough of them. Some of the dead went to the tomb still with pomp and martial honors; but the city scavengers, too, with their carts, went knocking from house to house asking if there were any to be buried. Long rows of coffins were laid in furrows scarce two feet deep, and hurriedly covered with a few shovelfulls of earth, which the daily rains washed away, and the whole mass was left, “filling the air far and near with the most intolerable pestilential odors.” Around the grave-yards funeral trains jostled and quarrelled for place, in an air reeking with the effluvia of the earlier dead. Many “fell to work and buried their own dead.” Many sick died in carriages and carts. Many were found dead in their beds, in stores, in the streets. Vice and crime broke out fiercely: the police were never so busy. Heroism, too, was seen on every hand. Hundreds toiled for the comfort of sick and dying, and hundreds fell victims to their own noble self-abnegation. Forty-five distant cities and towns sent relief.

On one day, the 11th of August, two hundred and three persons died of the fever. In the week ending two days later, the total deaths were fourteen hundred and ninetyfour. Rain fell every day for two months. Streets became so bad that hearses could scarcely reach the cemeteries. On the 20th, the week’s mortality was fifteen hundred and thirty-four.

Despair now seemed the only reasonable frame of mind. In the sky above, every new day brought the same merciless conditions of atmosphere. The earth below bubbled with poisonous gases. Those who would still have fled the scene saw no escape. To leave by ship was to court the overtaking stroke of the plague beyond the reach of medical aid, and probably to find a grave in the sea; while to escape to inland towns was to throw one’s self into the arms of the pestilence, carried there by earlier fugitives. The numbers of the dead give but an imperfect idea of the wide-spread suffering and anguish. The disease is repulsive and treacherous, and requires the most unremitting and laborious attention. Its fatal ending is inexpressibly terrible, often attended with raving madness. Among the Creoles of the old French quarter, a smaller proportion than one in each eleven suffered attack. But in the Fourth District, where the unacclimated were most numerous, there were whole wards where more than half the population had to take their chances of life and death from the dreadful contagion. In the little town of Algiers, just opposite the city, a thirty-sixth of all its people died in one week.

On the 22d day of August, the climax was at last reached. Death struck that day, from midnight to midnight, a fresh victim every five minutes, and two hundred and eighty-three deaths summed up an official record that was confessedly incomplete. The next day, there were twenty-five less. The next, thirty-six less than this. Each day was better than the preceding. The crisis had passed. Elope rose into rejoicing. The 1st of September showed but one hundred and nineteen deaths, and the 10th but eighty. North winds and cool, dry weather set in. On the 20th, there were but forty-nine deaths; on the 30th, only sixteen. In some of the inland towns it was still raging, and so continued until the middle of October.

In the cemeteries of New Orleans, between the 1st of June and the 1st of October, nearly eleven thousand persons were buried. To these must be added the many buried without certificate, the hundreds who perished in their flight, and the multitudes who fell in the towns to which the pestilence was carried. It lingered through autumn, and disappeared only in December. During the year 1853 nearly thirty thousand residents of New Orleans were ill of the yellow fever, and there died, from all causes, nearly sixteen thousand.

In the next two summers, 1854 and ’55, the fever returned and destroyed more than five thousand persons. Cholera added seventeen hundred and fifty. The two years’ death-rates were seventy-two and seventy-three per thousand. That of 1853 was one hundred and eleven. In three years, thirty-seven thousand people had died, and wherever, by ordinary rate of mortality, there should have been one grave or sepulchre, there were four. One can but draw a sigh of relief in the assurance that this is a history of the past, not the present, and that new conditions have made it next to impossible that it should ever be repeated in the future.

Cable, George Washington and Pennell, Joseph. The Creoles of Louisiana. Charles Scribner's Sons. 1884.

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