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Stedman and Hutchinson, comps. A Library of American Literature:
An Anthology in Eleven Volumes. 1891.
Vols. IX–XI: Literature of the Republic, Part IV., 1861–1889

The Yellow Fever in Philadelphia in 1793

By Mathew Carey (1760–1839)

[Born in Dublin, Ireland, 1760. Died in Philadelphia, Penn., 1839. Miscellaneous Essays. 1830.]

THE CONSTERNATION of the people of Philadelphia, at this period, was carried beyond all bounds. Dismay and affright were visible in almost every person’s countenance. Most of those who could, by any means, make it convenient, fled from the city. Of those who remained, many shut themselves up in their houses, being afraid to walk the streets. The smoke of tobacco being regarded as a preventive, many persons, even women and small boys, had cigars almost constantly in their mouths. Others, placing full confidence in garlic, chewed it almost the whole day; some kept it in their pockets and shoes. Many were afraid to allow the barbers or hair-dressers to come near them, as instances had occurred of some of them having shaved the dead, and many having engaged as bleeders. Some, who carried their caution pretty far, bought lancets for themselves, not daring to allow themselves to be bled with the lancets of the bleeders. Many houses were scarcely a moment in the day free from the smell of gunpowder, burned tobacco, nitre, sprinkled vinegar, etc. Some of the churches were almost deserted, and others wholly closed. The coffee-house was shut up, as was the city library, and most of the public offices—three, out of the four, daily papers were discontinued, as were some of the others. Many devoted no small portion of their time to purifying, scouring, and whitewashing their rooms. Those who ventured abroad, had handkerchiefs or sponges, impregnated with vinegar or camphor, at their noses, or smelling-bottles full of thieves’ vinegar. Others carried pieces of tarred rope in their hands or pockets, or camphor bags tied round their necks. The corpses of the most respectable citizens, even of those who had not died of the epidemic, were carried to the grave on the shafts of a chair, the horse driven by a negro, unattended by a friend or relation, and without any sort of ceremony. People uniformly and hastily shifted their course at the sight of a hearse coming towards them. Many never walked on the foot-path, but went into the middle of the streets, to avoid being infected in passing houses wherein people had died. Acquaintances and friends avoided each other in the streets, and only signified their regard by a cold nod. The old custom of shaking hands fell into such general disuse, that many shrunk back with affright at even the offer of the hand. A person with a crape, or any appearance of mourning, was shunned like a viper. And many valued themselves highly on the skill and address with which they got to windward of every person whom they met. Indeed it is not probable that London, at the last stage of the plague, exhibited stronger marks of terror, than were to be seen in Philadelphia, from the 25th or 26th of August till late in September. When the citizens summoned resolution to walk abroad, and take the air, the sick cart conveying patients to the hospital, or the hearse carrying the dead to the grave, which were travelling almost the whole day, soon damped their spirits, and plunged them again into despondency.

While affairs were in this deplorable state, and people at the lowest ebb of despair, we cannot be astonished at the frightful scenes that were acted, which seemed to indicate a total dissolution of the bonds of society in the nearest and dearest connections. Who, without horror, can reflect on a husband, married perhaps for twenty years, deserting his wife in the last agony—a wife, unfeelingly, abandoning her husband on his death-bed—parents forsaking their children—children ungratefully flying from their parents, and resigning them to chance, often without an inquiry after their health or safety—masters hurrying off their faithful servants to Bushhill, even on suspicion of the fever, and that at a time, when, almost like Tartarus, it was open to every visitant, but rarely returned any—servants abandoning tender and humane masters, who only wanted a little care to restore them to health and usefulness—who, I say, can think of these things without horror? Yet they were often exhibited throughout our city; and such was the force of habit, that the parties who were guilty of this cruelty, felt no remorse themselves—nor met with the censure from their fellow-citizens, which such conduct would have excited at any other period. Indeed, at this awful crisis, so much did self appear to engross the whole attention of many, that in some cases not more concern was felt for the loss of a parent, a husband, a wife, or an only child, than, on other occasions, would have been caused by the death of a faithful servant.

This kind of conduct produced scenes of distress and misery, of which parallels are rarely to be met with, and which nothing could palliate, but the extraordinary public panic, and the great law of self-preservation, the dominion of which extends over the whole animated world. Men of affluent fortunes, who have given daily employment and sustenance to hundreds, have been abandoned to the care of a negro, after their wives, children, friends, clerks, and servants, had fled away, and left them to their fate. In some cases, at the commencement of the disorder, no money could procure proper attendance. With the poor, the case was, as might be expected, infinitely worse than with the rich. Many of these have perished, without a human being to hand them a drink of water, to administer medicines, or to perform any charitable office for them. Various instances have occurred, of dead bodies found lying in the streets, of persons who had no house or habitation, and could procure no shelter.

A man and his wife, once in affluent circumstances, were found lying dead in bed, and between them was their child, a little infant, who was sucking its mother’s breast. How long they had lain thus, was uncertain.

A woman, whose husband had just died of the fever, was seized with the pains of parturition, and had nobody to assist her, as the women in the neighborhood were afraid to go into the house. She lay, for a considerable time, in a degree of anguish that will not bear description. At length, she struggled to reach the windows, and cried out for assistance. Two men, passing by, went up stairs; but they came at too late a stage. She was striving with death—and actually, in a few minutes, expired in their arms.

Another woman, whose husband and two children lay dead in the room with her, was in the same situation as the former, without a midwife, or any other person to aid her. Her cries at the window brought up one of the carters employed by the committee for the relief of the sick. With his assistance she was delivered of a child, which died in a few minutes, as did the mother, who was utterly exhausted by her labor, by the disorder, and by the dreadful spectacle before her. And thus lay, in one room, no less than five dead bodies, an entire family, carried off within a few hours. Instances have occurred, of respectable women, who, in their lying-in, have been obliged to depend on their maid-servants for assistance—and some have had none but from their husbands. Some of the midwives were dead—and others had left the city.

A servant-girl, belonging to a family in this city, in which the fever had prevailed, was apprehensive of danger, and resolved to remove to a relation’s house, in the country. She was, however, taken sick on the road, and returned to town, where she could find no person to receive her. One of the guardians of the poor provided a cart, and took her to the Almshouse, into which she was refused admittance. She was brought back, but the guardian could not procure her a single night’s lodging. And in fine, after every effort made to provide her shelter, she absolutely expired in the cart. This occurrence took place before Bushhill hospital was opened….

A drunken sailor lay in the street, in the Northern Liberties, for a few hours asleep, and was supposed by the neighbors to be dead with the disorder; but they were too much afraid to make personal examination. They sent to the committee at the city hall for a cart and coffin. The carter took the man by the heels, and was going to put him into the coffin. Handling him roughly he awoke, and damning his eyes, asked him what he was about? The carter let him drop in a fright, and ran off as if a ghost was at his heels.

A lunatic, who had the malignant fever, was advised by his neighbors to go to Bushhill. He consented, and got into the cart; but soon changing his mind, he slipped out at the end, unknown to the carter, who, after a while, missing him, and seeing him at a distance running away, turned his horse about, and trotted hard after him. The other doubled his pace; and the carter whipped his horse to a gallop; but the man turned a corner, and hid himself in a house, leaving the mortified carter to return, and deliver an account of his ludicrous adventure.

Several instances have occurred of the carters on their arrival at Bushhill, and proceeding to deliver up their charge, finding, to their amazement, the carts empty.

A woman, whose husband died, refused to have him buried in a coffin provided for her by one of her friends, as too paltry and mean. She bought an elegant and costly one—and had the other laid by in the yard. In a week she was herself a corpse—and was buried in the very coffin she had so much despised.

The wife of a man who lived in Walnut Street was seized with the malignant fever, and given over by the doctors. The husband abandoned her, and next night lay out of the house for fear of catching the infection. In the morning, taking it for granted, from the very low state she had been in, that she was dead, he purchased a coffin for her; but, on entering the house, was surprised to see her much recovered. He fell sick shortly after, died, and was buried in the very coffin, which he had so precipitately bought for his wife, who is still living.