What was the Yellow Fever Epidemic?
Within the span of four months, 10% of Philadelphia’s population died.
223 years ago, between August and November of 1793 , The Yellow Fever virus, which is transmitted through mosquitoes, found its way to America aboard a vessel carrying French immigrants and their slaves to the port of Philadelphia. Starting in August, people fell ill, and the disease spread throughout September. Those two months were then deemed the “sickly season.” 5,000 people died in Philadelphia, then capital of the U.S. Many others left the city, including President George Washington.
Those that fled escaped the possibility of contracting Yellow Fever. The symptoms were grueling, including sudden onset of a fever, chills, severe headaches, back pain, general body aches, nausea, vomiting, fatigue, and weakness. After a brief period of remission, the disease can worsen, leading to jaundice, which is responsible for the name of the disease. Yellow Fever turns deadly, with victims displaying, bleeding, and the eventual shock and failure of multiple organs.
The illness was known for its “black vomit”, caused by blood seeping into one’s stomach lining. . Today the death rate for Yellow Fever victims is very low, but due to the lack of scientific knowledge and clean facilities in 1793, thousands in Philadelphia died.
An epidemic was declared after Dr. Benjamin Rush noticed the symptoms and similarities to another yellow fever epidemic thirty years before. Between August 1st and September 7th over 400 people died. The victims were not all very old or very young, but teenagers and young adults as well.
People were warned not to go near those infected with Yellow Fever, but it was difficult to stay away from family members, particularly children. Parents were often left without anybody to care for them, as they would not allow their children into a diseased room. Benjamin Rush had a solution. He believed blacks to have a higher immunity to Yellow Fever than white people, something he noted during the 1760 Yellow Fever outbreak. This led to the usage of black nurses. Rush asked members of the African Society to come forward and care for the sick, and he soon had a number of black men working under his direction, most notably two free men, Absalom Jones and Richard Allen. Two months later, Rush’s theory was proven wrong as black nurses started dying and African Americans started falling victim to the disease.
Rush’s treatment at the time was also proven less than effective. Dr. Rush believed the best way to cure a victim of Yellow Fever was to remove all of the “bad blood”, so that the “healthy blood” would circulate through the body, thus curing the patient; this treatment is called bloodletting. Rush was also a proponent of purging. He would often have his patients purge, or throw up, then have them go through bloodletting. Rush’s cure was believed to work, but a large number of those he “cured” were not actually sick with Yellow Fever; many of his patients were people who believed they were infected after having a headache, but who were really just paranoid and not actually diseased.
What does this Yellow Fever epidemic have to do with Wyck?
The owners of Wyck at the time, Reuben Haines I and his wife, Margaret Wistar Haines, both died of yellow fever. Because the two owners lived in Philadelphia, their son, Caspar Wistar Haines, decided to move his family into Wyck House to relocate closer to his parents.
Caspar wrote about the precautions he took when visiting his mother, “I have not been in the room nor do I intend it. I have been near the door and spoke to her twice and have Garlick or Segar [cigars] constantly in my mouth besides using vinegar and salts…” At the time, it was unknown that Yellow Fever was spread through mosquitoes, and one could not be infected by another person. He still cared for his parents, and would update his brothers and sisters on Margaret’s illness.
Caspar Wistar Haines wrote letters to his siblings chronicling the decline of his mother’s health. In October of 1793, Caspar wrote to his wife Hannah, “…our dearest parent [Margaret] has laid pretty easy and slept during the night. Sensible at times and lost at others. She appears in little or no pain.” Caspar then writes that his mother, despite how little pain she is in, appears to be sicker, and he urges his wife to visit his mother and prepare a Sabbath. Days later on October 3rd, 1793, Margaret succumbed to the disease.
During Margaret’s illness, the family hired a black nurse. Catherine Haines Hartshorne, Caspar’s sister, wrote to her sister-in-law, Hannah, “I’ve one very clever, attentive Black woman well recommended… I’ve tryed all I could to get a little black girl but can’t yet.” The family wanted the best for their parents, and at that time, black nurses provided the best care.
The Yellow Fever epidemic was a trying time of the residents of Philadelphia. Thousands fell ill and died, and the family of Wyck was no exception. The Yellow Fever epidemic resulted in a change of Wyck ownership, so that Caspar Wistar Haines and his family owned the house. The epidemic finally came to an end in November. The waters where mosquitoes bred froze over, and incidents of the illness came to a halt. Those that fled returned to their homes, and the lives of Philadelphia residents went back to normal.
Thank you to Sandra Lloyd and Michael Mueller for revising and editing this post.
Greifenstein, Charles. “Medicine of Benjamin Rush.” Discovering Lewis & Clark. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, n.d. Web. 5 Aug. 2016. <http://www.lewis-clark.org>
Gum, Samuel A. “Philadelphia Under Siege: The Yellow Fever of 1793.” The Pennsylvania Center of the Book. Web. 10 Aug. 2016. <http://pabook2.libraries.psu.edu>
Letter from Caspar Wistar Haines to Hannah Haines in October, 1793. Wyck.
Letter from Catherine Haines Hartshorne to Hannah Haines in 1793. Wyck.
“Symptoms and Treatment of Yellow Fever.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. CDC, 13 Aug. 2015. Web. 28 July 2016. <https://www.cdc.gov>
“The Yellow Fever Epidemic in Philadelphia, 1793.” Contagion Historical Views of Diseases and Epidemics. Harvard University Library, n.d. Web. 28 July 2016. <http://ocp.hul.harvard.edu>