Yellow Fever has always been one of my research interests — specifically, the Yellow Fever outbreak in Philadelphia in 1793.
So when I got a chance to visit Philadelphia for the first time for a professional librarian’s conference, I could not say no. The conference was Tuesday to Thursday, but I was arriving a day early to explore the city and particular spots of interest: anything from the 18th century, of course, and anything relating to Yellow Fever.
In 1793, Philadelphia was the nation’s new capital, and the largest city in America with a population of 50,000 (today, its population is 1.568 million, more than twice the population of Boston, but is only the fifth largest).
Within months — July to December — 5,000 Philadelphians — 10 percent — were dead. If Yellow Fever, or another epidemic, were to strike Philadelphia with such ferocity in 2018, it would leave 313,000 dead.
Yellow Fever: Symptoms and History
Yellow Fever is a particularly nasty disease that causes many unpleasant symptoms after an incubation period of 3-6 days. The disease occurs in three stages.
In Stage one, the patient experiences vague symptoms such as headache and fever, muscle aches and general malaise. In Stage two, the patient feels as though he/she is recovering. Most people do recover at this stage. But roughly 15% of people suddenly take a turn for the worse in the third and, for 50% of people, fatal stage — intoxication. This stage brings out the symptoms that Yellow Fever is famous for — liver failure causes bilirubins to build up in the blood, causing jaundice in the skin and eyes — victims bleed out of any orifice, and vomit up a black, bloody concoction that resembles coffee grounds.
In the 1700s, American medicine was in its infancy — doctors speculated on the humors — levels of bile, blood, and phlegm — which Hippocrates theorized affected health and mood if unbalanced. Those who did not believe in bloodletting to eliminate fever could only suggest comforting patients and keeping them clean and cool with rest. However, the key missing component was what was causing Yellow Fever and how it spread. Citizens and doctors incorrectly assumed the fever was contagious, spread through the body’s foul odors and resulting black and bloody vomit, and that it was a miasmatic disease, a germ that originated in filthy air, water, or rotting organic matter.
It was not until the 1900s that Yellow Fever was discovered to be a virus, spread by mosquitoes that originated in Africa and brought to the United States on ships. It took years of writing theses and conducting controversial experiments until Johns Hopkins accepted the claim that Yellow Fever, like Malaria, was a virus, therefore not contagious directly, and only spread by mosquitoes. But even in the 1900s, though mosquito breeding grounds were destroyed and public sanitation works were put into place, Yellow Fever had already terrorized the United States for 200 years.
It has been eliminated from the United States, but not eradicated — as it never will be. There is a vaccine available to those traveling to Yellow Fever prone areas, which is important (!!!) because Yellow Fever has no cure. If an epidemic were to strike today, we would be just as helpless as those victims in 1793, and the doctors’ desperate attempts to heal them.
225 years later
26 March 2018.
It’s too early in the year for Yellow Fever to strike, I think as I step off the train at 30th Street. The warning signs for a bad year: a warm, wet spring and exceptionally hot summer. And, of course, a good mosquito season. Luckily, we had a very cold, wintry spring, and the air is dry as a bone.
It’s 11:30 a.m. and I’m newly arrived in Philly, fresh off the 6:30 a.m. train from Connecticut. I’m carrying my suitcase and bag with me up the stairs and onto the commuter train (free with my Amtrak ticket!), which will bring me to Jefferson Station, not far from my hotel, in the historical Reading Terminal.
The Loews Hotel, located at Market and 12th streets, is the first skyscraper ever to be built in Philadelphia (in 1932) and was originally the PSFS Building, or Philadelphia Savings Fund Society, described on a sign in the photo below.
But there is also this sign right outside the hotel:
If you think Ricketts’ Circus had a role in the 1793 epidemic, you would be correct. The performances took place from April to July, 1793, before traveling to New York, but the circus building was used to house Yellow Fever victims. Sadly, with no nurses, it was but a holding cell for the ill and dying, who lay on the circus grounds. They are later removed to Bush Hill, a makeshift hospital created from a temporarily empty manor home (the owner was not happy to find out about it). Bush Hill no longer stands, but the grounds are now the home of the Community College of Philadelphia.
Upon arriving at the hotel and dropping off my suitcase, I decided to head immediately into the older portion of the city, closer to the Delaware river. It was only a few blocks away and included Independence Hall and a number of other colonial gardens, homes, government buildings, churches, and streets relevant to the Yellow Fever epidemic. In fact, even Market street existed back then — look on any map of Philadelphia and all the street names are basically the same, aside from those that are now highways (for instance, the junky houses along Front and Water streets, where the brunt of the victims lived along the river, no longer exist and I-95 whizzes by instead).
Yellow Fever began its deadly crawl at the docks, beginning with infected sailors returning from Africa and the West Indies. The hot summer weather didn’t help matters. The river’s stench, dirty standing water from Dock’s Creek and tanneries, and putrefying coffee at the wharves all were suspect to the cause, along with travelers arriving at the docks.
I was a bit surprised to find so many remnants of the epidemic intact in the city. In fact, I was delighted to find so much colonial history either intact or restored to its original appearance. Some of these buildings appear out of nowhere, crouching between larger monoliths, but others blend seamlessly into a colonial street or streetfront, making you feel as though the city had never changed in 200 years. In Boston, there are bits and pieces left over, but hardly anything compared to Philly.
Also in Boston, collective memory of traumatic events such as the so-called Great Boston Fire of 1872 does not exist except in nearly untraceable fragments, whereas in Philly I was overjoyed to see signage designating where Benjamin Franklin and George Washington’s houses stood, as well as Ricketts’ Circus. I had not expected the Circus in particular to be so well-known to be marked — I had assumed I would just need to memorize the street corner and imagine it. The bookstores even had Fever, 1793 by Laurie Halse Anderson and An American Plague by Jim Murphy (a personal favorite).
The collective memory of Philly, even in the 1930s and 1976 (for the bicentennial) was not forgotten so easily.
A “walking map” showing both my path and where I could have continued walking to complete my Yellow Fever walking tour. I include my hotel not just because it was where I started my walk, but also because it was the site of Ricketts’ Circus building, where Yellow Fever victims were housed when the circus was out of town.
The key places in the epidemic are all shown in these maps. Front street and water street (an alley which was behind Front) were the riverside roads filled with small, destitute buildings that housed poor working people and where the epidemic first arrived. Dock Street, near the river, traces an Dock Creek, which was paved over in the late 1700s thanks to the epidemic. Market street was called High street in the 1700s, but otherwise many of the streets still bear the same names. Horizontally, walking from 12th to Front Street and vertically from Pine Street to Race street will keep you in the general area where you need to be.
A list of important sites, from my hotel to the riverfront:
The Loews Philadelphia Hotel (12th and Market Streets): site of Ricketts’ Circus, which performed in 1793 and was used to house the sick.
Philadelphia Hospital (9th/8th and Spruce Street): built in 1755. Benjamin Rush was a member of the staff until 1813.
Washington Square (7th and Walnut Streets) is the site of a potter’s field and mass burial ground for yellow fever victims — there are a number of bodies still buried beneath the square and surrounding areas, and it is unknown how many.
Presidential Mansion (6th and Market Streets, no longer standing): site of a mansion built to house the president, when Philadelphia was a contender in the competition to be the capital city of the new country. It was demolished later. Today, the liberty bell is housed in a museum on that site.
Independence Hall (6th and Chestnut, Walnut streets) which at the time of the epidemic housed the Liberty Bell, which rang for each death until the deaths grew too numerous. The federal government fled Philadelphia when the epidemic struck, deciding once and for all on Washington would be the proper capital for the country.
Mother Bethel AME Church (6th and Lombard) was founded by Bishop Richard Allen, a member of the Free African Black Society who, along with fellow member Absalom Jones, organized a strong and heroic action to treat the ill during the epidemic.
Old City Hall (5th and Chestnut) was the meeting place of the Supreme court from 1790 to 1800.
The American Philosophical Society and Philosophical Hall (5th street, between Chestnut and Walnut) was where the doctors of Philadelphia gathered to debate treatment and action against the disease. There was a lot of dissent.
Christ Church Burial Ground (5th and Arch) is the final resting place of doctors Benjamin Rush (who was also a signer of the Declaration of Independence) and Francis Bowes Sayre, along with yellow fever victims and Benjamin Franklin. Francis Sayre died in the 1793 epidemic while treating victims.
Dolley Todd House (4th and Walnut). Dolley Todd lived in this house with her first husband, John Todd, and their son, who both died in the 1793 epidemic. The next year, after being courted (and given a blessing by Martha Washington), Dolley married future president James Madison. She is credited for saving Washington’s portrait from being destroyed when the British burned Washington D.C. during the War of 1812.
Carpenters’ Hall: (4th and Chestnut) was an important meeting and assembly space in the 18th century, including for the First Continental Congress. It was looted (an inside job) by one of the carpenters during the epidemic.
Hill-Physick-Keith House (4th and Cypress) was the Federal-style home in Society Hill of Philip Syng Physick, who served as a doctor during the epidemic at Bush Hill.
Benjamin Franklin Court (between 3rd and 4th Streets, accessible from Market and Chestnut) was the home of Benjamin Franklin. There is a working printing press and bookbindery, as well as ghost structure showing what Franklin’s house would have looked like.
Benjamin Rush House (3rd and Walnut). Benjamin Rush was a well-known and young doctor who served through many epidemics in Philadelphia. However, his choices of treatment were controversial and aggressive, favoring bleeding and purging in order to force the disease out of the body. These proved to be ineffective and may have even caused more deaths. Rush was stricken with Yellow Fever during 1793’s epidemic but survived, using his methods on himself, which cemented his beliefs.
Elfreth’s Alley (accessible from 2nd and Front Streets between Arch and Quarry) is the oldest residential street in the United States. It shows what a typical colonial city street would have looked like at the time.
Ball’s Wharf, (today, piers between Arch and Race Streets, by the Delaware River): the site of a shipment of rotten coffee, dumped onto the wharf and smelling for miles, and was believed to be the cause of the epidemic (ironically, one of the telltale signs of Yellow Fever is black vomit that resembles coffee grounds). Along the wharves, between Front Street and the Delaware River, used to be destitute alleys. These included Water Street, where the first ill subject zero and then subsequent others died at Richard Denny’s Boarding House, at the north end of Water Street, between Arch and Race Streets (as recorded by Elizabeth Drinker).
Other spots of relevance or, reactions to the epidemic
Bush Hill (Spring Garden Street, in the Northwest Corner of the City, about where Community College of Philadelphia is now): The famed estate, taken over illegally while the owner was out of the country and converted into a hospital for fever victims. Quick-acting and one of the richest Americans ever, Stephen Girard (you’ll see his name a lot in Philly), took charge of converting the mansion into a hospital. While at first Bush Hill had a bad reputation as being a death sentence and “slaughterhouse,” particularly by Richard Allen and Absalom Jones, conditions eventually improved with better organization and cleanliness. Of course, the owner of the mansion, Andrew Hamilton, was not happy after he returned from his travels.
…were mostly innovative. In effort to remain the largest and most progressive city in America (it lost out on being the capital, but it was still leagues ahead of that unorganized mess of buildings in the swamps of Virginia), Philadelphia’s best and brightest organized to respond to the epidemic that already happened — and hoped to improve conditions for those living in Philly in the future. Their solutions? Engineering, quarantining, and public sanitation.
Center Square Water Works (or Pump House), design by Benjamin Latrobe, stood where City Hall square stands now.
Fairmount Water Works (Schuylkill River, in Fairmount Park, below Philadelphia Art Museum): the second attempt at a public water works included a dam drawing water into a mill house with water wheels (contrasting the steam engines of the prior water works). It was functional until the early 1900s. Today, the beautiful neoclassical buildings house information about what the water works used to be.
The Lazaretto, America’s Oldest Quarantine Station (2nd Street/Wanamaker Street, Tinicum Township, PA): Open to the public until the 1980s, the Lazaretto (named for St. Lazarus, patron saint of lepers) was built in direct response to several 1790s Yellow Fever epidemics. The prior quarantine station was too close to the rest of the city. It was completed in 1799 and ships bound for Philadelphia were stopped here to have their crews and cargo inspected. If any illness were to be found, the infected persons would be kept quarantined.
Other things I saw, not necessarily Yellow Fever related
The Second Bank of the U.S. (Chestnut Street): loosely designed like the Parthenon, this building served as the U.S. bank from 1816 to 1836.
The Betsy Ross House (3rd and Arch Streets): a wonderful way to see inside a colonial city house. It’s cramped, with steep spiral staircases, and the kitchen is inside the basement. If you think that’s weird, just look at how tiny this house is and consider the fact that the first floor front room was entirely taken up by Betsy’s upholstery business.
The Jacob Graff House (7th and Market Streets): famous for being the house where the Declaration of Independence was drafted, this house was rebuilt in the 1926 due to it being shabby, for the sesquicentennial of 1776. They didn’t do the bestest job, especially on the gables and third floor, but it’s pretty good I guess…
Tuesday – Thursday, March 2018
I visited the Barnes Foundation and Philadelphia Museum of Art Archives & Library (across the street from the actual museum). The Museum of Art is very close to Fairmount park and the waterworks.
For the conference, I visited the Museum of Art’s archives, learned a little bit about the collections and learned about the digitization efforts of their team, the digital asset management project currently happening, and even looked in the stacks. I enjoyed a Keith Smith gallery and learned about Marcel Duchamps, whose work, papers, and correspondence are some of the museum’s most asked-for collections.
On Wednesday, I had time to visit the Barnes Foundation and tour all the galleries, and even had lunch, too! Their cafe is wonderful — I had a burger with a dill/mustard thousand island sauce.
The Barnes Foundation is unique due to founder Albert Coombs Barnes’ wish that artworks be displayed symmetrically and without information plaques by each work. There are gallery guides in each gallery describing each work, but otherwise you’re on your own! It is intended to allow you to not only spend more time viewing the work versus trying to identify it, but opens the artwork up to anyone — literate, educated, or neither. Further, the artworks on display are supplemented by iron works on the walls, also carefully ordered and placed around the walls. Beneath the artworks are early American pieces of furniture — chairs, tables, chests, stools, and miscellaneous objects like candlesticks with them. Each gallery wall could be an artistic and creative wall of someone’s home.
The Barnes Foundation is heavily made up of Impressionist, abstract, and post-Impressionist works in the late 19th/early 20th century: Picasso, Degas, Matisse, Demuth, Cezanne, Renoir, Chirico, and Glackens. Supplementing those artists are pieces from many eras, including Navajo blankets, African sculpture, and the early American furniture and iron works I mentioned before. Below you can see one of the galleries, and how everything is arranged:
I won’t bore you with the subjects of my sessions in the conference, but they were all intriguing and well-worth the time. Better still, I met many other professionals — some young, like me, and others who had been in the business awhile. Some were photographers from the Library of Congress, others archivists, some Visual Resources professionals, and others were Digital Projects librarians/archivists, like myself. I attended sessions on copyright and fair use, advocating for collections, DAMS (Digital asset management systems), new and upcoming technology, JStor Forum (formerly Shared Shelf), and much more.
Our keynote speaker was founder of MuralArts Philadelphia, Jane Golden, whom I cannot speak highly enough about. I recommend learning about MuralArts, as well, as it is a wonderful and inspiring organization. Jane Golden took her mural painting skills to Philadelphia under the city’s mayor, Wilson Goode, in 1984 as part of the Anti-Graffiti Network.
Artist Jane Golden reaches out to graffiti writers in order to redirect their energies into constructive public art projects. Mural Arts’ collective mural-making process proves to be a powerful tool for generating dialogue, building relationships, empowering communities, and sparking economic revitalization.
Golden’s program brings people together to paint murals while removing graffiti and bringing art to areas that need it. Most importantly, MuralArts listens to the neighborhood’s people and what they want to see, rather than imposing a piece that is not wanted. The program pairs professional artists with prosecuted graffiti vandals and others, including children. Those who stay with the program for years often become instructors themselves. Besides murals, the participants perform other city beautification projects such as cleaning trash from lots and painting recycling trucks.
MuralArts has painted over 600 murals around Philadelphia, and only several were vandalized.
You can go on a tour of the murals, as well!
Wednesday night I spent two hours working on a puzzle, just having dropped my tickets into a raffle basket after a long day of sessions and was chatting with some girls as we worked when I heard my ticket being called. Not only did I win the basket I wanted, but it contained the puzzle we were working on!
Not bad at all.
Overall, it was a fun and busy week of education and a confidence boost for me — I was not only in the right field (as proven by the similarly dressed women around me, even down to the shoes and hairstyles we all sported), but that I knew a lot more than I thought, that I could network, and that I could bring much more information home.
Until next time (and it won’t be long at all, not if I can help it), see you later, Philadelphia.
Readings on the Subject of Yellow Fever in Philadelphia
- A Narrative of the Proceedings of the Black People During the Late Awful Calamity in Philadelphia in the Year 1793 and a Refutation of some Censures Thrown Upon Them in Some Late Publication by Absalom Jones and Richard Allen, printed Franklin’s Chestnut Street printer’s (and a rebuttal to Matthew Carey’s account): 1794.
- The Diary of Elizabeth Drinker (by herself, preface by Elaine Forman Crane): 1758-1807. Quaker Philadelphian Elizabeth Drinker was a diarist who recorded much of her life, including the Yellow Fever Epidemic and her experiences.
- A Short Account of the Malignant Fever Lately Prevalent in Philadelphia by Matthew Carey, printed by the author: 1794.
- A Description of the Malignant Infectious Fever prevailing at present in Philadelphia by William Currie: 1793.
- Observations Upon the Origin of the Malignant Bilious, or Yellow Fever in Philadelphia, and Upon the Means of Preventing It by Benjamin Rush: 1799.
As well as others, listed on this page.
- An American Plague by Jim Murphy, 2003.
- The American Plague by Molly Caldwell Crosby, 2006.
Bring Out Your Dead: The Great Plague of Yellow Fever in Philadelphia in 1793 by J. H. Powell, 1993
- Yellow Fever: a Deadly Disease Poised to Kill Again by James Dickerson, 2006