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Historians examining similar, or even the same, topics can develop very different research depending on the questions they ask and the sources they use.   Review the two short texts assigned for today and pay particular attention to the footnotes to discern what kinds of primary sources McKiven and Eastman use.  How does their choice of primary sources influence the kinds narratives they each develop? 

  • Prepare a 150-200 word discussion post in response to the prompt above.  If you prefer, you may offer your own prompt (include at the top of your post) and write a response to it. 
  • At the end record a question you’d like your colleagues to weigh in on in relation to the readings. 

Carolyn Eastman, 1

A Plague in New York City:
A Frontline Worker Encounters Yellow Fever in the 1790s

Carolyn Eastman

If you lived in New York City in the 1790s, you

encountered a boisterous street environment,

especially in August—no one wanted to stay inside

in August. Hawkers with carts full of pineapples

shipped from the Caribbean and sweet potatoes

from South Carolina shouted out “Fine pines” and

“Sweet potatoes, Carolina potatoes, here’s your

sweet Carolinas” as people passed by. African

American girls sold baked pears, sometimes two or

three for a penny. Walking along the wharves lining

the East River, you heard the sailors and

dockworkers singing as they loaded and unloaded

ships. Open-air meat markets dotted the city, selling everything from wild turkey and pork to opossum,

greenturtle, and stingray. (No bats.) And late at night, as the watchman passed through the streets

seeking to keep the peace, he called out, “Twelve o’clock at night, and all’s well.”1

In August 1795, however, not all was well. Many New Yorkers had temporarily abandoned

their homes for the country, leaving the streets eerily quiet. Others got desperately sick. The yellow

fever had arrived.

1 The Cries of New-York (New York: S. Wood, 1808), 5, 13-14, 20-22; Daniel M’Kinnen, Descriptive Poems Containing

Picturesque Views of the State of New York (New York: T. & J. Swords, 1802), 60.

Figure 1: New York City’s watchman, who wore a strong leather cap. From The Cries of
New York (1808). Courtesy of the Smithsonian.

Carolyn Eastman, 2

Alexander Anderson had a better vantagepoint from which to observe that transformation

than almost anyone else in the city. Only twenty years old, still studying medicine and not yet fully

licensed to establish his own medical practice, he had just accepted a lucrative job as a medical resident

at the newly-established Bellevue Hospital. On the day he arrived there he wrote in his diary, “This

day I was plung’d into a business as

perplexing as new to me.” The pay was so

high, and the job so “perplexing,” because

the doctor who had previously held the

position had come down with yellow fever


Yellow fever was a horrifying

disease, and New Yorkers knew it. In 1793

it had devastated Philadelphia, killing about

a tenth of the population. “The ravages made by the Fever in Philadelphia,” Anderson’s mother

explained in a letter, “fills the minds of the inhabitants of this City with terror.” Distinguished by

jaundice—the liver damage that resulted in yellowed skin and eyes—as well as high fever, New York’s

health officers knew they needed to treat the outbreak seriously. As with many viral infections, some

who contracted the disease experienced only moderate fever, muscle aches, and headache, and fully

2 Alexander Anderson, “Diary” (1793-1799), 25 Aug. 1795, Ms. 1861, Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Butler

Library, Columbia University, New York, NY; Alexander Anderson, “Sketch of the Life of Alexander Anderson” (1848),
Alexander Anderson Papers, Manuscript Collections, New-York Historical Society Library, New York; Frederic M. Burr,
Life and Works of Alexander Anderson, M. D.: The First American Wood Engraver (New York: Burr Brothers, 1893); Jane R.
Pomeroy, “Alexander Anderson’s Life and Engravings before 1800, With a Checklist of Publications Drawn from His
Diary,” Proceedings of the American Antiquarian Society 100 (1990): 137–230; Jane R. Pomeroy, Alexander Anderson, 1775-1870:
Wood Engraver and Illustrator. An Annotated Bibliography (New Castle, DE and Worcester, MA: Oak Knoll Press and the
American Antiquarian Society, 2005); Crystal Toscano, “‘Of Some Consequence.’ Alexander Anderson: Distinguished
Doctor, Accomplished Artist,” blog, From the Stacks, New-York Historical Society (blog), April 3, 2019,
http://blog.nyhistory.org/alexander-anderson-part-1/. The Burr volume includes a transcript of Anderson’s
autobiographical sketch and extracts from the diary.

Figure 2: Anderson’s sketch of the hospital boat anchored at the Bellevue estate on the East River.
From Benson J. Lossing, A Memorial of Alexander Anderson (1873).

Carolyn Eastman, 3

recovered within a week or so. But in severe cases, perhaps between fifteen and twenty-five percent

of the total, patients who had appeared to be on the mend took a turn for the worse, and their fever

spiked. The reversal could be abrupt. Patients began to hemorrhage internally, and began vomiting

blackened blood and sometimes bled from the nose, eyes, gums, and ears. Even today we see death

rates of up to fifty percent in those who experience this serious phase of infection. “Acquaintances

and friends avoided each other in the streets, and only signified their regard by a cold nod,” one

Philadelphia resident recalled. “The old custom of shaking hands fell into such general disuse, that

many were affronted at even the offer of the hand.” By the time cold temperatures arrived in the late

fall and infections began dropping, Philadelphia’s streets were empty.3

Doctors did not know what caused the disease. Many suspected that it had something to do

with a pestilential miasma or vapors emitted by rotting garbage, filthy streets, or areas with standing

water. They did not wear masks, but instead held handkerchiefs drenched in vinegar up to their noses

to prevent breathing in the noxious air. But they also feared the disease might pass from person to

person, so they had advised people to evacuate Philadelphia to be safe. Following Philadelphia’s lead,

New Yorkers in 1795 frantically passed laws demanding that residents keep their yards clean. Many

scrubbed the walls of their rooms at home with vinegar as well; one can only imagine how the reek of

vinegar merged with the public alarm. It would take scientists more than a hundred years to discover

that a unique species of mosquito, the Aesdes aegypti, spread the virus from infected people to the

healthy. Not until 1938 would they develop a vaccine. In the 1790s, physicians on the front lines threw

everything they had at the disease, with little effect. Benjamin Rush, the Philadelphia physician and

3 Sarah Anderson to Alexander Anderson, 2 Sept. 1795, Letters to Alexander Anderson from his mother (Mss.

Coll. 98), Digital Collections, Manuscripts and Archives Division, New York Public Library,
http://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/f8b50890-df40-0133-cc4e-00505686a51c; “Yellow Fever,” WebMD.com,
accessed April 16, 2020, https://www.webmd.com/a-to-z-guides/yellow-fever-symptoms-treatment; Mathew Carey, A
Short Account of the Malignant Fever, Lately Prevalent in Philadelphia: With a Statement of the Proceedings That Took Place on the Subject
in Different Parts of the United States (Philadelphia: Mathew Carey, 1793), 29.

Carolyn Eastman, 4

signer of the Declaration of Independence who had

become the most trusted medical expert in the country,

argued that doctors should treat the disease by bleeding

their patients.4

The yellow fever epidemic prompted New York

City leaders to establish two new city institutions. First was

Bellevue Hospital, intended to quarantine and treat patients

far from the city center. Located about four miles up the

East River the dense crush of habitation in lower

Manhattan, the rural country estate of Bellevue had been

rented by the City for use as a “pest house” during crises

like this. Patients were transported by the hospital boat that

Bellevue’s overseers had recently procured, or occasionally

brought up by cart along the dirt path from downtown. The second new institution was Potter’s Field,

located on a nearly ten-acre plot at the far northern edge of the city, what later became Washington

Square. New York City buried hundreds of people there who lacked the funds to pay for the interment

in the city’s organized cemeteries.5

4 Carey, A Short Account, 29; Valentine Seaman, An Account of the Epidemic Yellow Fever, As It Appeared in the City of

New-York in the Year 1795 … (New York: Hopkins, Webb & Co., 1796), 6–10; Alexander Hosack, An Inaugural Essay on the
Yellow Fever, as It Appeared in This City in 1795. Submitted to the Public Examination of the Faculty of Physic, Under the Authority of
the Trustees of Columbia College, in the State of New-York (New York: T. and J. Swords, 1797), 13; Molly Caldwell Crosby,
American Plague: The Untold Story of Yellow Fever, the Epidemic That Shaped Our History (New York: Berkley Books, 2006), 233–

5 Fenwick Beekman, “The Origin of ‘Bellevue’ Hospital as Shown in the New York City Health Committee
Minutes during the Yellow Fever Epidemic of 1793-1795,” New York Historical Society Quarterly 27, no. 3 (July 1953): 205–
20; David Oshinsky, Bellevue: Three Centuries of Medicine and Mayhem at America’s Most Storied Hospital (New York: Doubleday,
2016), 10; Thomas Bahde, “The Common Dust of Potter’s Field,” Commonplace (blog), July 2006,

Figure 3: Anderson’s list of patients during the 1795 yellow fever epidemic.
Anderson Papers, New-York Historical Society.

Carolyn Eastman, 5

In taking the job at Bellevue, twenty-year-old Anderson (or “Sandy,” as his family called him)

took his first step into adulthood. If things went well and he earned praise for his work, it could

smooth his path to success and renown as a doctor. The list of things that could go wrong—from

public failure or recrimination to dying from the disease—did not make it an easy choice. His mother

tried to offer support in her almost-daily letters to him. “If you ever live to have Such a Son you will

know what I feell,” she wrote encouragingly, using the eccentric spelling common for women of the

time. “The Fates have all Combind to Call you into public Life, some years before you entended it.”6

Figure 4: A sketch from Anderson’s “Medical Grammar,” no date, which he probably sketched before the 1795 yellow fever epidemic. In it, the doctor heroically
fends off Death with a musket. Anderson Papers, New-York Historical Society.

Sandy’s daily diary, which he had kept since he was seventeen, reveals the nightmarish quality

of his earliest days dealing with yellow fever. Three of his initial patients were nurses. One arrived “in

a shocking condition, 10th day of the Disease—vomiting blood by the mouthfulls,” he wrote. “He died

within 2 hours time.” When the parents of a young girl expressed their eagerness to see her, Sandy

6 Sarah Anderson to Alexander Anderson, 27 Aug. 1795 and 2 Sept. 1795, Letters to Alexander Anderson from

his mother (Mss. Coll. 98), Digital Collections, Manuscripts and Archives Division, New York Public Library,

Carolyn Eastman, 6

tried to “indulge them” by having them stand “at some distance in the garden” where they could see

her through a window, in case of contagion.7

Inside, Sandy and his colleagues threw everything at the disease to combat it. Following Rush’s

advice following the Philadelphia outbreak, Sandy bled his patients, applied blisters to their skin,

believing such a treatment could productively stimulate the internal organs affected by disease, and

tried “pouring down [their throats] medicines etc.” None of it worked.8

For the first time in his life, Sandy slept far from his family every night and visited them only

about once a week. His family sent him letters almost every day, trying to keep his spirits up. His

mother, in particular, reminded him how valuable this experience could be for his career. It didn’t

keep his misgivings at bay. Nine days after beginning the job, he confessed that “I have thoughts of

quitting my post,” and that “I felt a very great depression of spirits.” One night he reported “sad

confusion” in the hospital because two of the patients—one of whom was a nurse who’d taken sick—

had “found a means to get themselves in liquor.” A few days later, they admitted a family of five, but

for lack of beds had to put them up in the boathouse. He reported to the Committee of Health only

a few weeks after taking the job that the hospital was full and could not accept any more patients. The

Committee hired a second doctor to help, and the flood of patients continued.9

Sandy’s “thoughts of quitting” recurred throughout the Fall 1795 outbreak. He even began to

consider “quitting the Study of Physic” altogether. He admitted it in one of his many letters home to

his parents from his temporary Bellevue room, but received a sharp response from his mother. “If

7 Anderson, Diary, 27 Aug. 1795, 28 Aug. 1795.

8 Anderson, Diary, 29 Aug. 1795.

9 Anderson to Anderson, Letters, NYPL; Anderson, Diary, 2 Sept. 1795, 3 Sept. 1795; John Duffy, “An Account
of the Epidemic Fevers That Prevailed in the City of New York from 1791 to 1822,” New-York Historical Society Quarterly
50, no. 4 (October 1966): 333–64; New York City Health Committee minutes, 19 Sept. 1795, transcribed in Fenwick
Beekman, “The Origin of ‘Bellevue’ Hospital as Shown in the New York City Health Committee Minutes during the
Yellow Fever Epidemic of 1793-1795,” New York Historical Society Quarterly 27, no. 3 (July 1953): 205-227, here 220.

Carolyn Eastman, 7

you give that up—you have spent six years [studying medicine] in vain,” she wrote heatedly. (Medical

treatments may have changed over the decades, but parents’ investment in their children’s futures can

appear timeless.) Sandy stayed on at Bellevue. In early November, the disease began to abate, and the

last of the sick gradually pulled through. When city leaders saw the daily death rate drop, the Health

Committee publicly commended Sandy and the hospital’s other resident physician for “their

persevering attention, humanity, and fidelity to the sick,” and for having “engaged with zeal and virtue

at an early period, and under discouraging circumstances.”10


I first encountered Sandy Anderson’s diary at Columbia University’s Rare Book and

Manuscript Library, tucked away on the top floor of Butler Library. It’s a silent, sterile space in a

corner of a room featuring exhibits of some of the library’s treasures. After registering and depositing

your requests at a desk, you wait at a table in a glass-enclosed room for your materials to arrive from

the stacks hidden deep in the building. Sometimes one of the other researchers breaks the silence by

talking to himself. The first volume, which he

began on January 1, 1793 as a seventeen-year-

old, is grandiosely titled “Diarium

Commentarium Vitae Alex. Anderson” in his

imprecise and somewhat enthusiastic

schoolboy Latin (“diary/ commentary on the

life of Alexander Anderson”), is sized about

eight inches tall and six and a half inches wide,

10 Anderson to Anderson, 16 Sept. 1795, NYPL; “Committee of Health: Fellow Citizens,” Argus (New York), 4

Nov. 1795, [3].

Figure 5: A small (self-?) portrait that concludes his 1793 diary, with the saying (awkwardly) in
Latin, “Now another year has vanished, and we are carried through the flowing ages toward
eternity.” Anderson diary, 31 Dec. 1793, Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Butler Library,
Columbia University.

Carolyn Eastman, 8

and Sandy himself probably stitched the pages together and bound them with gray paper boards and

a leather spine.11

If you compared his diary to a handful of others from the same era the differences would leap

out immediately. Most diarists stuck to a tedious routine of recording the weather, earnestly

documenting their efforts at self-improvement, or describing weekly sermons. Few used their diaries

to explore their feelings, express their personality, or confess their secrets. One such young man

“solemnly promised” his diary “not to do a certain act” for a full year—by which he almost certainly

meant masturbation. Considering that virtually no one at the time would have considered a diary to

be a private or inviolable document, most wrote them assuming that their families and friends would

read them—and possibly offer critiques—enhancing the need for subtlety. Again, Sandy’s diary offers

a marked contrast; it displays a novelist’s knack for using both words and images to capture the world

he saw around him.12

Continuing every day until he was twenty-four, for seven years he described the energetic

young 1790s New York City and its residents with wit and verve. His family wasn’t wealthy, but had

enough money to give their two sons good educations and send them into respected professions. He

and his brother (in training to become a lawyer) took long walks around lower Manhattan in the

evenings, and he made notes on everything he witnessed. He commented on the political arguments

taking place at the Tontine Coffee House between Federalists and Republicans (“or, to modernize it,

Aristocrat & Democrat,” as Sandy explained), and the French revolutionary songs sung

enthusiastically by New Yorkers on Bastille Day. He paid admittance to see traveling exhibitions like

11 Pomeroy, “Alexander Anderson’s Life and Engravings,” 137.

12 William Little Brown, Diary (1805-1814), Nov. 1810, Manuscripts and Archives Division, New York Public
Library. See also Laurel Thatcher Ulrich’s descriptions of diaries of the era in A Midwife’s Tale: The Life of Martha Ballard,
Based on Her Diary, 1785-1812 (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1990), 7-10, 20-27.

Carolyn Eastman, 9

the Learned Pig which, as he reported, spelled words, computed sums, and “perform’d some feats

with cards.” During the summers he might take a ferry with his friends to Long Island in search of a

cherry tree loaded with fruit, or walk down to the Battery to watch fireworks and enjoy the sea breeze.

One cold January night as he and his brother walked to their family home on Wall Street, they looked

up to see “a Prostitute, gaily dress’d” looking out from a window across from the church. Meeting

their gaze, she gave them “an artful smile” and “displayed her Breast to our view.” That glimpse, he

wrote, “afford[ed] an Idea of a Scene often describ’d”—an “Idea” about sex that the seventeen-year-

old Sandy still had not experienced.13

We don’t usually find wry humor like this in teenagers, as true then as now. Reading the diary

in the hushed space of Butler Library, I found myself charmed by Sandy—his humor, curiosity, and

self-reflection springing from the diary’s rag-paper pages. Equally appealing were the sketches he

added to the margins. A self-taught artist, he might fill a blank space with a doodle of a pipe resting

next to a candle, a caterpillar on a leaf, or a small self-portrait. He had learned to appreciate printed

words and images from his father, known as “the rebel printer” who had lost his printing business

during the Revolution when the British Army and a Loyalist majority occupied New York City and

made it impossible for him to continue printing his Patriot newspaper, The Constitutional Gazette. As a

teenager, when Sandy had the chance to see an “Ouran-outang” and two panthers at exotic animal

exhibits, he earned spending money for carving their images onto type metal for local printers. All the

while he worked to complete an apprenticeship with a local doctor, attended medical lectures at

Columbia College, and worked toward becoming licensed as a physician. As his diary unfolds, we find

him and his older brother John courting two sisters from the Van Vleck family—and, he captures one

delightful night when John and his fiancée exchanged clothing and visited their mother, who did not

13 Anderson, Diary, 11 June 1793 (political arguments), 9 Sept. 1797 (Learned Pig), 14 June 1798 (cherries), 17

Jan. 1793 (prostitute).

Carolyn Eastman, 10

recognize them, “nor had the least suspicion of the disguised couple who were introduced under

fictitious names” until after they’d left.14

As if reading a novel, or a long letter

from a friend, I got invested in the story of

Sandy Anderson as it unfolded, day after

day. I lost my usual historian’s sense of

remove and started rooting for him. I even

sought out an unfinished portrait of him at

the Met, showing a wide, friendly face with

black hair and eyes, seems to capture the

openness with which he appeared to

approached life in his words on these pages

that survive today.

Because he spent so much time

wandering its streets and culture, the city of

New York itself rose to become almost a

character in his diary. He described the

tangled streets of lower Manhattan at a

moment when urban habitation did not extend more than a mile from the southern tip of the island,

despite the fact that the city’s population nearly doubled from 1790 to 1800, from 33,131 to 60,514,

making it for the first time the largest city in the new nation. Canal Street—in the heart of modern-

day Chinatown—had not yet been laid out. Many of these city streets remained unpaved, although

14 Anderson, “Sketch of the Life;” Anderson, Diary, 21 June 1793 (“Ouran-outang”), 20-21 July 1793 (panthers),

20 July 1797 (“metamorphosis”).

Figure 6: Portrait of Alexander Anderson, c. 1815, by John Wesley Jarvis. Metropolitan Museum of
Art, New York.

Carolyn Eastman, 11

city leaders hastened to address that problem, allocating funds to street improvements throughout the

1790s. Areas we now know as the Lower East Side, Houston Street, and Greenwich Village remained

undeveloped farmland. Contemporary maps of the city show Bowery Lane changing name to the

“Road to Boston” once it entered the blank space beyond Grand Street. Even as its population

swelled, pigs and goats continued to wander city streets, and municipal leaders passed laws “for the

suppression of Immorality” designed to enforce “observance of the Lord’s Day called Sunday.” The

city experienced intense pressures as it grew—a constant press of new inhabitants, a vast social, racial,

ethnic, and religious diversity, and limited urban space.15

Figure 7: Plan of the City of New York from William Duncan’s 1793 city directory. Digital Collections, New York Public Library.

15 A. Tiebout, map insert in William Duncan, The New-York Directory and Register for the Year 1792 [1793] (New

York: T. and J. Swords for William Duncan, 1793). For U.S. Census data, see “Population of the 24 Urban Places: 1790,”
and “Population of the 33 Urban Places: 1800,” at
https://www.census.gov/population/www/documentation/twps0027/tab02.txt and
https://www.census.gov/population/www/documentation/twps.0027/tab03.txt; Minutes of the Common Council of the City
of New York, 1784-1831 (New York: City of New York, 1917), II: 176, 179.

Carolyn Eastman, 12

Those maps also show all along the East River dozens of the docks that helped to fuel the

city’s growth by tying the city’s shipping trade to other U.S. states as well as many points in the

Caribbean, Europe, Asia, and Africa—some of the ports by which New Yorkers obtained their

pineapples and South Carolina sweet potatoes. New York felt like an entrepôt of culture and people

as much as trade goods to its residents. Sandy paid admission to see an exhibit of a panorama of the

city of Charleston painted on an enormous piece of cloth unspool from one giant scroll to another;

he also provided medical help to seafarers and refugees from revolution-torn France and Haiti. It was

a densely populated and exciting place to be young.16

When yellow fever came to the city in 1795, New Yorkers knew that it had somehow come

from those docks. Some of the earliest to take ill had been seafarers and ship captains. They didn’t

know whether the source of the disease had been a single diseased individual—what later generations

might call a super-spreader—or something else; in Philadelphia two years earlier, many had blamed a

putrid shipment of coffee that dockworkers had dumped on the side of the harbor, releasing an awful

smell that spread for blocks. When the disease abated in November, city leaders resolved to become

more vigilant about clean streets, and for two years, this policy seemed to work.17

By the late summer of 1798, Sandy Anderson had arrived at the age of twenty-three and had

become a newly licensed physician with a young wife and baby son. After years of being teased for

living with his family—a neighbor had described him as “cheeping” around his mother, like a chick

to a hen—he had finally established his own household on Liberty Street. Even as he built his medical

practice, he continued to engrave images and maps for printers on the side. At one point he had

teamed up with a colleague to create a line of illustrated children’s books sold in a shop they called the

16 The Cries of New-York; Anderson, Diary, 14 Mar. 1797 (panorama), 27 June 1793 (refugees).

17 Carey, A Short Account, 17; Minutes of the Common Council, II; 198-205; James Hardie, An Account of the Malignant
Fever, Lately Prevalent in the City of New-York … (New York: Hurtin and M’Farlane, 1799).

Carolyn Eastman, 13

Lilliputian Book Store. “My prospects of profit from this

undertaking are but small,” he confessed to the diary. “I

shall reckon myself lucky if I can clear my expenses.” He

was right. The store was a bust. He ultimately auctioned

off the unsold volumes for pennies on the dollars he had


As if his debts weren’t bad enough, the summer

had been hard on his small family. His wife, Ann

(“Nancy”) Van Vleck Anderson, had recovered

distressingly slowly after childbirth. Their infant son

struggled as well. In early July the baby died. Nancy left

Manhattan to stay with relatives in rural Bushwick where

she could recover and grieve.

Figure 9: Anderson diary entry for 3 July 1798, when his son died. “I was up all night trying every method for the relief of my little boy, but in vain for he died
at 2 this morning.” Butler Library.

And then yellow fever arrived—again.


18 Anderson, Diary, 11 Jan. 1796 (“cheeping”); 4 Aug. 1797 (“prospects”).

Figure 8: Anderson’s engraving advertising his new bookstore, a scene in which
Minerva (who holds a book of knowledge) and the Devil battle it out for the souls
of the children. (Minerva wins.) Argus (New York), 8 Sept. 1797. American
Antiquarian Society.

Carolyn Eastman, 14

In 1798, New York’s health commissioners found themselves caught by surprise when the

numbers of yellow fever patients began to rise precipitously. A few patients had been scattered around

the city starting in early August, but this had become a common phenomenon in late summer over

the past few years since the first epidemic. The commissioners trusted that with careful monitoring,

the city could once again avoid an epidemic as they had during the previous two years. In fact, at one

point in mid-August city officials welcomed an intense three-day downpour of rain, which they

believed would “cleanse” the city of dirt and “purify the air … but alas!” as one account later lamented.

Instead, the storm was followed by a heat wave that soured the water standing in yards, streets, and

basements. City doctors would later speculate that this alone had compounded the city’s problems.

(In a way, of course, they were right, even though they did not realize it was the mosquitoes that bred

in the water rather than the water itself.)19

Sandy had been treating a single yellow fever patient as part of his medical practice early that

August, and a druggist named Mr. Burrell had been advertising in local papers that some of his patent

medicines “are of the utmost importance to gentlemen travelling to the southern parts of America,

East and West Indies, coasts of Africa, &c. for preventing and curing the yellow fever.” But by the

latter part of the month, another epidemic had arrived in the city. With his wife recuperating in rural

Bushwick, seemingly safe from the unhealthy streets of Manhattan, Sandy agreed, again, to serve as a

physician at Bellevue Hospital, this time for even higher pay than in 1795; after all, it would help relieve

him of debt. He reassigned his own patients to a colleague, Dr. Chickering, and took the hospital boat

upriver with his things to settle in to his new job.20

19 Hardie, Account of the Malignant Fever, 9–10; Jan Golinski, “Debating the Atmospheric Constitution: Yellow

Fever and the American Climate,” Eighteenth-Century Studies 49, no. 2 (Winter 2016): 149–165.

20 Anderson, Diary, 7 Aug. 1798, 11 Aug. 1798, 31 Aug. 1798; “Dr. Burrell, No. 60 Maiden-Lane,” Commercial
Advertiser (New York), 7 Aug. 1798, [4].

Carolyn Eastman, 15

Conditions at Bellevue were already bad. On arrival, Sandy found twenty patients waiting, four

of whom died by the end of the day. He admitted fourteen more throughout the day. The deaths were

gruesome, and the agony of their loved ones worse. “We had some difficulty in getting rid of an

Irishman who wish’d to stay and nurse his sweetheart at night,” he wrote in his diary, hinting at the

human drama taking place all around him. Noting his frustration a couple of days later, he commented

that another one of the doctors “seems rather at a loss what method to pursue with the patients in

this Hospital.” Meanwhile, some of the nurses began getting sick. For a few days in early September

he began recording statistics in the diary—“9 Admitted, 4 Died.”21

He abandoned that kind of recordkeeping because he received terrible news. Less than a week

after arriving at the hospital, a friend arrived to tell him that his wife was sick, and his father came up

to Bellevue with similarly dire information: his brother John, now an attorney, had become sick with

the illness. In addition, Dr. Chickering, whom he’d entrusted with his own patients after leaving the

city for Bellevue, had died from yellow fever.22

Drawn to the Bellevue job initially by the promise of a lucrative salary, Sandy now found

himself stretched beyond capacity. His family was split between his wife in Bushwick and the rest of

his relations downtown, all struggling with the virus. At the hospital, he had dozens of patients in

terrible shape. He also felt obligated to care for his patients downtown who no longer had a doctor

looking after them. For a few days he tried to go back and forth, walking an hour each way. “My

brother’s situation alarms me—my Father is ill, and myself low-spirited,” he wrote a couple of days

after hearing about their illness. “John seems in danger.” On the following day, he wrote, “A heavy

blow!—I saw my Brother this morning and entertain’d hopes of his recovery. In the afternoon I found

him dead!” But he could not rest to grieve. “I left my poor parents struggling with their fate and

21 Anderson, Diary, 31 Aug. 1798, 3 Sept. 1798, 4 Sept. 1798, 6 Sept. 1798.

22 Anderson, Diary, 5 Sept. 1798.

Carolyn Eastman, 16

return’d to Belle-vue.” Before setting aside the diary, he paused to sketch a small image of a coffin

next to the entry.23

The following days proved an unremitting hurricane of awful news. He found his father in

danger the very next day, with his mother struggling to care for him and “many” neighbors likewise

suffering from the disease. When he took the ferry over to Bushwick to visit his wife, he found her

“much emaciated.” His father died on September 12th (another coffin sketched next to the entry), and

on a visit to Bushwick afterward he found his wife in a shocking condition: “The sight of my wife

ghastly and emaciated, constantly coughing & spitting struck me with horror.” She died on September

13th; he drew another coffin. His mother took ill on the 16th and died on the 21st (coffin). “I never

shall look upon her like again,” he wrote about this final member of his immediate family. Some of

his in-laws would soon follow. By the time the disease died away with the changing of the season in

late fall, Sandy Anderson had lost eight members of his extended family as well as “almost all my


Figure 10: Anderson diary entry for 13 Sept. 1798. “This morning I heard of the death of my wife!—Those who knew her worth may imagine my feelings.”
Butler Library.

23 Anderson, Diary, 7-8 Sept. 1798, 10-12 Sept. 1798.

24 Anderson, Diary, 10 Sept., 1798, 12-13 Sept. 1798, 16 Sept. 1798, 21 Sept. 1798; Anderson, “Sketch.”

Carolyn Eastman, 17

When I read the diary in Butler Library, I found myself weeping at the rapid-fire onslaught of

this news, and at the sight of sketched coffins in the margins. It was all so much, and so relentless. I

had to leave the quiet seclusion of the library and walk over to Broadway and 116th—a location

unimaginable in 1798—to feel the energy and anonymity of the city around me, knowing that few

would notice my red eyes and nose. Only years later would it occur to me how striking it was that I

resolved my emotions about Sandy’s experience during the yellow fever epidemic by going out into

the crowds of upper Broadway.

We have grown accustomed to learning about epidemics via a very different medium:

retrospective accounts that seek to horrify by presenting aggregate numbers of the sick and dead. We

get pummeled by numbers like the fact that some 50 million people worldwide died from the so-called

Spanish flue pandemic in 1918, or by percentages like the fact that about one tenth of the number of

people infected by that disease died. Throughout our own COVID-19 pandemic we have been

assaulted by such numbers, charts, graphs, and percentages. Six feet apart. Number of tests per day.

Percentages of positive to negative tests. Spikes and curves on graphs. Maps displaying hotspots or

areas where the number of daily infections is decreasing. The mind-numbing rates, and graphs of

deaths. So much death.

Learning, for example, that city officials later estimated that 2,086 New Yorkers died of yellow

fever in 1798—almost three times as many as during the 1795 epidemic—cannot convey much of an

impact for twenty-first century readers accustomed to an exponentially more populous city. But

scanning through the detailed lists of the dead published shortly after the crisis abated, we start to see

who was included in that number. Henry Bach, a tailor from Germany, died along with his wife and

two children. A wide array of Black men, women, and children likewise comprised the list, including

Venus Barter, Neptune Beese’s child, Rosannah Robinson, James Williams’s wife and child, an

enslaved woman listed only as Violet, and Tom Savoy, who worked as a chimneysweep. Dr. James

Carolyn Eastman, 18

Smith, M.D., who had published a broadside listing some of the causes of yellow fever (including

“passions of the mind,” including “envy, jealousy, love, anxiety, excessive grief, and violent passion”)

died on board the ship taking him home to England. Nor was he the only doctor to fall victim. Daniel

Schultz, a doctor from Waterford, New York; a Venetian doctor listed as J. B. Scandella; a twenty-

one-year-old Jewish medical student named Walter Jonas Judah; and William Read, the chief surgeon

of the U.S. Constitution, were some of the many medical professionals included. And so, so many

children. Reading through the list hints at the breathtaking human cost of the epidemic—and the

suffering of the survivors—in a way that an aggregate number of deaths cannot convey.25

It was the very dailiness of Sandy’s diary that got me, and that’s what drew me back to him as

another virulent pandemic emerged in 2020. He experienced much the same slow-motion horror story

that hammers away at today’s frontline workers. His world was falling apart, one day after another, as

the suffering mounted in a city-wide emergency and as all of his loved ones succumb to the illness.

His reports of fellow doctors falling ill and dying, his notes on the nurses and caregivers who worked

alongside him trying to help the sick, his struggles to resolve the financial affairs of his deceased father

and brother, the impossibility of pausing his work at Bellevue even as his family died around him: all

this reminds us that epidemics are ultimately about humans, and that digesting them into medical

etiology or demographic effects misses the point. It is a lesson that, in 2020, we learn again every day.

Sandy offered only hints his emotional state after experiencing so many deaths in his family.

In mid-September, while his mother still survived, he paused to note in the diary that “I feel surpriz’d

at my own composure,” he wrote, chalking it up “to despair than resignation.” Two weeks (and his

mother’s death) later, he told the diary, “My composure is only apparent.” A day later he confessed,

“My mind is depress’d.” Throughout that terrible autumn of 1798 he received offers of more

25 Hardie, Account, 87-139 for a descriptive list of the dead.

Carolyn Eastman, 19

prestigious work—from the Commissioners of Health, and as an attending physician at the

Dispensary—but turned them down, for undertaking any form of medical practice in New York

forced him to encounter reminders of his lost family. In October he spent his spare time emptying

out not just his own home, but his father’s auction business, and his parents’ and brother’s homes as

well. “I took a walk to the Burial ground where the sight of Nancy’s grave rivetted my thoughts to

that amiable being, and was as good a sermon as any I have heard,” he wrote. A few days later he

commented that “My acquaintances are fast flocking into town [after evacuating] and many a one

greets me with a rueful countenance.” The epidemic had taken a severe toll on his desire to practice

medicine, so he sold all his medical equipment.26

A few months earlier it seemed he had everything before him. All it took was one epidemic to

wipe it all away. He began to talk in his diary about the need to escape—not just the practice of

medicine, but to leave the city of New York.

After a couple of short trips out of the city, Anderson decided to travel to the Caribbean and

possibly from there on to London, telling his diary that “the thoughts of travelling has given a spring

to me.” His ability to take such a trip reflected his relative privilege and economic security as much as

it was made possible after having concluded his father’s and brother’s financial affairs. When he got

on the ship in early March, he turned around to view the city. “I look’d back on New-York with less

regret than I should have done a year or two ago—many ties are broken, but increasing distance and

a little reflection will no doubt discover sufficient to render my ‘native nook of earth’ doubly dear to

me,” he wrote, quoting the poet William Cowper. Between poor weather and a leak in the hull that

required mending, the voyage took five weeks; luckily he had brought his violin and could entertain

his fellow travelers. Sandy ultimately joined an uncle on the island of St. Vincent. It proved a

26 Anderson, Diary, 14 Sept. 1798, 1-2 Oct. 1798, 28 Oct. 1798, 31 Oct. 1798.

Carolyn Eastman, 20

disorienting and sometimes disturbing two-month visit, attended with too much drinking and too

many sights of masters alternately whipping enslaved people or drawing enslaved women into their

bedrooms. His uncle offered him a lucrative position on the island, but he turned it down. He returned

to New York in June 1799 to receive a “strict examination by the Health-Officer” at the port, and he

moved in with his father-in-law. “I had a craving for quiet & retirement,” he later recalled, “but my

solitary life led me to indulge strange whims, such as living on vegetable food, mostly bread & water

for eight months & then launching out into opposite extremes.”27

Sandy never returned to medical practice. Instead, he embraced the art of engraving and

ultimately earned fame for his skill. Although he had experience with a variety of methods, he became

renowned for a method of carving on the grain end of pieces of boxwood that, in contrast to other

forms of wood engraving, produced unusually resilient blocks capable of withstanding the printing

process, which could dull or damage the fine lines in images. He married again—to yet another Van

Vleck, a sister of his late wife—and raised a large family of six. In a brief autobiographical narrative

he wrote at the age of seventy-three, he made it clear that he happily chose the life of an engraver over

a doctor’s high pay and high social status. He ultimately died a few months shy of his ninety-fifth

birthday in 1870.28

When COVID-19 appeared, I was one of those people who could not watch the film Contagion

again or pick up Camus’s The Plague. It took enough strength just to read the newspaper. Yet something

drew me back to Sandy’s diary. I found myself laughing at his jokes, charmed by the scenes he

described of New York during the 1790s, and affected all over again by the punch of those coffins

sketched in the margins in ink that has turned brown after more than two hundred years. I didn’t quite

realize it when I opened it up again, but it answered something I was searching for.

27 Anderson, Diary, 14 Feb. 1799, 7 Mar. 1799; Anderson, “Sketch;” Pomeroy, “Alexander Anderson,” 157-59.

28 Pomeroy, “Alexander Anderson;” Anderson, “Sketch.”

Carolyn Eastman, 21

Human-sized stories of pandemics like Sandy’s might not offer up the big picture of the

disease that other retrospective accounts provide. They don’t deliver the numbers that shock. But

embedded in those diary entries is a portrait of a world that comes alive, day after day, making Sandy’s

losses all the more powerful when they come. He suffered, and survived. It has helped remind me that

we will, too.

734 The Journal of American History December 2007

The Political Construction of a
Natural Disaster: The Yellow Fever
Epidemic of 1853

Henry M. McKiven Jr.

In the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, the media and politicians constructed
a story of racism in America. Americans watched day after day as New Orleans residents,
mostly African Americans, suffered. From the left end of the political spectrum came
arguments that the storm revealed entrenched institutional racism. From the right came
the retort that such talk obscured the far more destructive individual behavior of a seg-
ment of the African American community. To conservatives the real racists have been
those who have perpetuated dependence and a destructive sense of victimization in the
black community.1

To the historian, none of this should be surprising, for the past is full of examples of
the kind of political construction we have observed in the aftermath of Hurricane Ka-
trina. This essay examines one such example, the yellow fever epidemic that New Orleans
experienced in 1853. Politicians and other local leaders, concerned about local political
corruption and its negative effect on commercial development, constructed a narrative
designed to mobilize support for antiparty reform and publicly funded internal improve-
ments.2 The story of the epidemic, as they told it, emphasized the failures of political par-
ties to unite citizens behind public projects that, they believed, served the interests of the
entire community. They were contending with nativists, who blamed Irish and German
immigrants for creating a public health crisis by practicing bad hygiene, and Democrats,
who alleged that all reformers wanted to use the epidemic as justification for disfranchis-
ing immigrants. As has been true of reactions to Hurricane Katrina, politicians in the
1850s framed the disaster to advance their own long-standing agenda. Historians have
done so as well.

The first reports in the press about yellow fever, now understood as a viral disease trans-
mitted by mosquitoes, came at the end of May 1853. Seven additional cases appeared in
early June, according to the city’s unofficial board of health. The press did not, however,
Henry M. McKiven Jr. is associate professor of history at the University of South Alabama. He would like to ac-
knowledge the very generous advice of Lawrence Powell and Clarence Mohr. He also thanks Donna Drucker for
her editorial assistance.

Readers may reach McKiven at [email protected].

1 For one example of conservative rhetoric, see Ward Connerly, “End the Race Party: Identity Politics Will
Get gop Nothing Good,” National Review Online, Sept. 30, 2005, http://www.nationalreview.com/comment/
connerly/200509300813.asp. For one example of liberal rhetoric, see Richard Cohen, “Incompetence, Not Rac-
ism,” Washington Post, Sept. 20, 2005, p. A23.

2 New Orleans followed a pattern described in Ronald Formisano, “The ‘Party Period’ Revisited,” Journal of
American History, 86 (June 1999), 93–120.


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735The Political Construction of a Natural Disaster

raise an alarm because local leaders worried about reinforcing the city’s reputation for
disease and hurting business. The New Orleans Daily Picayune, in fact, complained on
June 28 that the “unauthorized report” of the board of health had caused people to begin
leaving for healthier locations. But the number of deaths continued to rise. The board re-
ported that during one week in July, 206 people died of “yellow jack.” By the end of July,
Charity Hospital was admitting one hundred patients per day. The hospital soon ran out
of beds, so patients had to be placed on the floor. Further evidence of the seriousness of
the outbreak came when the Howard Association, a group of businessmen who cared for
the ill during epidemics, publicly announced that they had begun their rounds. Thou-
sands of residents began to flee the city. By the time the epidemic ended in December, the
estimated number of deaths had reached more than 7,000. Some have estimated that 10
percent of the city’s population, 8,000 to 11,000, perished during the epidemic.3

The epidemic broke out at a time of growing discontent with the political status quo.
Prior to the city election of 1852, a group of Whigs and Democrats, led by the business-
man James Robb, had organized an independent reform movement, akin to the Young
America movement, that was committed to eliminating government corruption and re-
strictions on government investment in internal improvements, particularly railroads.4
Those whiggish, probusiness reformers hoped that “the people of New Orleans could be
induced to unite for the promotion of its commercial and industrial improvement in-
dependent of the tyranny of party, and superior to the influences of cliques, and classes,
and individual interests.” It would be a “cheering change” and soon be “manifest in our
progress.”5 In the election, independent candidates won a number of city council seats,
primarily at the expense of Whigs, and Democrats, with their appeals to immigrants,
made gains as well.6

The Whig party still held a bare majority in city government, but the election of 1852
furthered its disintegration. By the election of 1853, Democrats faced an opposition co-
alition consisting of former Whigs and Democrats who now claimed to be nonpartisan
crusaders against the public corruption that hindered the economic development of the
city. Democrats claimed that the opposition also shared a desire to purge the electorate
of the influence of immigrants. But reformers differed sharply over the nativist program.
As the nativist leader Charles Gayarré explained in 1855, reformers were divided between
those who identified the immigrant as the source of political corruption and those who
condemned “native leaders” and “native leaders . . . alone” for manipulating immigrants’

Reformers associated with the Young America faction—Whigs and Democrats who
favored government reforms for economic improvement—not only understood the elec-

3 New Orleans Daily Picayune, June 28, 1853; “The Plague in the South-West: The Great Yellow Fever Epidemic
in 1853,” DeBow’s Review, 15 (Dec. 1853), 595–635; John Duffy, Sword of Pestilence: The New Orleans Yellow Fever
Epidemic of 1853 (Baton Rouge, 1966), 31–43; Jo Ann Carrigan, The Saffron Scourge: A History of Yellow Fever in
Louisiana, 1796–1905 (Lafayette, 1994), 60–68; Benjamin H. Trask, Fearful Ravages: Yellow Fever in New Orleans,
1796–1905 (Lafayette, 2005), 51–56; John Smith Kendall, History of New Orleans (Chicago, 1922), 176–77. Ob-
servers of yellow fever at the time did not know how the disease was transmitted. John R. Pierce and Jim Writer,
Yellow Jack: How Yellow Fever Ravaged America and Walter Reed Discovered Its Deadly Secrets (Hoboken, 2005), 7,

4 James Robb, “Railroad System of the Southwest,” DeBow’s Review, 21 (Aug. 1856), 121–25; Kendall, History
of New Orleans, 181.

5 “The Present and Future of New Orleans,” DeBow’s Review, 19 (Dec. 1855), 692.
6 New Orleans Bee, March 12, 1852; Leon Cyprian Soulé, The Know-Nothing Party in New Orleans: A Reap-

praisal (Baton Rouge, 1961), 31–33; Kendall, History of New Orleans, 181.
7 Charles Gayarré, Address to the People of Louisiana on the State of Parties (New Orleans, 1855), 30.


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736 The Journal of American History December 2007

toral need to reach out to the rapidly growing immigrant population, but also thought
European immigration would provide labor essential to their plans for future economic
development.8 One of the goals of Young America was to bridge partisan divisions in the
interest of building the city’s economy. Some reformers charged that nativist attacks on
the Irish in particular reduced the immigration of laborers when they were most needed.
Young America reformers supported the reduction of residency requirements for voting in
both the 1846 and 1852 Louisiana state constitutions, believing that the opportunity for
full citizenship and political equality attracted immigrants and transformed them into re-
sponsible and equal “white” citizens.9 Nativists considered such views hopelessly naïve and
dangerous. They warned that men with no property of any kind, with little understanding
of American institutions, posed a threat to the social order that must not be ignored.10

While the reformers struggled to define themselves, Democrats effectively exploited
differences among reformers and between them and their parties. Democratic candidates
framed the election of 1853 not as a contest over the corruption of the party system, as re-
formers claimed, but as one between defenders of universal white manhood suffrage and
elitists who would limit the political rights of white men. According to them, those who
opposed Democrats were nativist Whigs who would increase taxes to pay for projects that
would benefit primarily themselves. Reform candidates denied Democratic charges, and
many of them rejected nativism, though they sometimes allied with nativists who sup-
ported their aims. But the Democrats won a majority of local races in 1853, leaving little
doubt about the effectiveness of their tactics.11

The Democrats’ success left their opponents demoralized and just as divided as they
had been before the 1853 election. The reform coalition continued to demand an end to
the “partyism” that produced governments incapable of overseeing the development of
the city.12 But Democrats’ exploitation of the nativist presence in the reform movement
overshadowed what many reformers considered the more important elements of their
program. The Young America faction, in particular, continued to ridicule Democrats’
warnings to immigrants as cynical and baseless, as manipulation intended to divert at-
tention from their own corruption. Then the yellow fever epidemic struck. As the disease
spread, opposition politicians, recognizing an opportunity, united in their criticisms of
the Democratic-controlled government’s performance. They would ultimately fail, how-
ever, to transcend their own internal divisions. Each opposition faction produced expla-

8 On Young America, economic development, and generational conflict in the Democratic party during this
period, see Yonatan Eyal, “Trade and Improvements: Young America and the Transformation of the Democratic
Party,” Civil War History, 51 (Sept. 2005), 245–68. For a broader discussion of Young America, see Iver Bernstein,
The New York City Draft Riots: Their Significance in American Society and Politics in the Age of the Civil War (New
York, 1990), 132–39; and Edward L. Widmer, Young America: The Flowering of Democracy in New York City (New
York, 1999), 27–63. New Orleanians at the time distinguished between nativists and politicians identified with
Young America. See New Orleans Daily Crescent, March 6, 1854.

9 The link between encouraging immigration and liberalization of requirements for citizenship was addressed
explicitly in the 1845 constitutional convention. See Official Report of Debates in the Louisiana Convention, [Aug.
5th, 1844–Jan. 17th, 1845] (New Orleans, 1845), 61, 67, 103, 105; New Orleans Daily Orleanian, Sept. 6, 1854;
John M. Sacher, “The Sudden Collapse of the Louisiana Whig Party,” Journal of Southern History, 65 (May 1999),

10 New Orleans Daily Crescent, March 22, 1854. Immigration was a subject of regional importance. For exam-
ples of broader consideration of the political, social, and cultural implications of immigration, see “Immigration:
Its Results and Future Policy,” DeBow’s Review, 13 (Nov. 1852), 455–57; and George Fitzhugh, “Private and Public
Luxury,” ibid., 24 (Jan. 1858), 49–55.

11 Soulé, Know-Nothing Party in New Orleans, 39; Sacher, “Sudden Collapse of the Louisiana Whig Party,” 245;
“The Democratic Party and Its Opponents,” United States Review (Oct. 1855), 342–46.

12 For an example of the reformers’ defense, see New Orleans Daily Picayune, March 23, 1854.


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737The Political Construction of a Natural Disaster

nations for the causes of the literal epidemic consistent with its particular diagnosis of the
figurative disease corrupting the city’s political system.

The yellow fever epidemic delivered a potentially devastating blow to an image of the
city that promoters had cultivated. Boosters, including both Whigs and Democrats, had
long been sensitive to claims that New Orleans was a naturally unhealthy place. Promot-
ers were concerned about how perceptions of the city as a “charnel house” influenced po-
tential investors and laborers, and they assured such magazine and newspaper readers that
the city’s location did not expose it to uncontrollable outbreaks of yellow fever. During
the late 1840s, when deaths from yellow fever were relatively few, DeBow’s Review main-
tained that sanitary improvements were the reason. Correct public policy could manage
the environment, preventing the uncontrolled spread of disease.13

The spike in the mortality rate in 1850 added a new twist to the debate over the etiology
of yellow fever. During the 1830s and 1840s, the heavy influx into New Orleans of unac-
climated German and Irish newcomers provided immigration restrictionists new ammu-
nition. Anyone in search of the reason for the rising number of yellow fever deaths needed
to look no further than the large numbers of immigrants who lived in miserable conditions
and who were highly susceptible to the disease. The reformist Picayune urged readers to go
to a recorder’s court, where minor offenses were handled and more serious criminals were
arraigned, and “view the number of drunken men and women brought into the presence
of the Recorders; their filthy and scanty rags still reeking with filth of the gutters from
which they were taken.” Men without jobs could not pay for adequate housing, so they
“crawled under sheds, into vacant lots, unfinished buildings, and beneath the levee bridge.
Think of the many large families crowded into small sleeping rooms, the rotten floors of
which rest on the damp ground, while members of the family were without proper beds
or sufficient food.”14 It added up to a sanitary case for curtailing immigration.

The Picayune’s wallowing in such scenes reflected a more widely held animus against
immigrants in general. But more enlightened members of the business community viewed
hygienic misery through a wider lens. The reform-minded DeBow’s Review—which pro-
moted immigration as part of its advocacy of southern economic modernization and spoke
for the commercial wing of the soon-to-be established antiparty coalition—complained
about lax enforcement of sanitary regulations. If government officials would enact and
enforce sanitary regulations, “a class of our citizens” might be “arrested in their career of
death.” DeBow’s suggested that New Orleans follow the example of Liverpool, England,
which had, in the late 1840s, “interposed . . . reform, and, in a few years . . . ceased to
be a pest house and became comparatively healthy.” Location and climate could not be
changed, but “the diseases incidental to [them] may be greatly modified by wholesome mu-
nicipal regulations, by strict attention to cleanliness, and by affording a cheap and abun-
dant supply of good water.” All that was required were experts and good government.15

To that end, two “medical experts” laid out a detailed plan for removing “filth” to
“remedy” the problem of disease. In an 1851 address to the Louisiana Medical Society,
Dr. E. H. Barton urged the government to build sewers, and empty and fill underground

13 “The Mortality of New Orleans,” DeBow’s Review, 9 (Aug. 1850), 245.
14 New Orleans Daily Picayune, May 5, 1850. A 1995 study of mortality during the epidemic supports the theo-

ry that newcomers, particularly European immigrants, were more susceptible to disease than longer-term residents.
On mortality rates, see Jonathan B. Pritchett and Insan Tunali, “Strangers’ Disease: Determinants of Yellow Fever
Mortality during the New Orleans Epidemic of 1853,” Explorations in Economic History, 32 (Oct. 1995), 517–39.

15 “Mortality of New Orleans,” 245–46; “Why New Orleans Does Not Advance,” DeBow’s Review, 11 (Oct.–
Nov. 1851), 387–89.


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738 The Journal of American History December 2007

privies. Barton recommended that privies be replaced with “jars or barrels, impermeable
to fluids or gases, substituted for them, with proper valvular coverings to prevent the es-
cape of gases.” As for the behavior of the population, Barton and other medical experts
wanted to create a sort of health police to make sure individuals obeyed proposed sanitary
regulations. “Health wardens,” wrote Barton, “should be appointed for every few squares,
whose duty should be to inspect every yard and court everyday, and every privy weekly
or monthly.” Another medical expert Dr. J. C. Simonds, recommended the creation of
an investigative sanitary commission, including Barton, that would “examine fully into
the hygienic condition of the city, including in its investigations the internal police of
the hospitals, asylums, workhouses, and all public institutions; the condition of the poor
and their dwellings; the supply of water; the various factories of gas, chemicals, etc.; the
butchers and dairies; the supplies of milk and bread.”16

16 “Mortality and Hygiene of New Orleans,” DeBow’s Review, 11 (Oct.–Nov. 1851), 479–80, 483; “Plague in

A boy from an Irish immigrant family, the Harrises, shown suffering from yellow fever in
New Orleans in 1855. During the city’s yellow fever epidemic of 1853, nativists charged that
Irish and German immigrants, who they described as living in squalor, represented a public
health scourge. Courtesy Louisiana State Museum.


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739The Political Construction of a Natural Disaster

Before 1853 the city government generally ignored such recommendations. Barton,
Simonds, and other public health reformers insisted that their proposals would not en-
tail much more than stricter enforcement of already existing sanitary regulations by the
street commissioner. Existing regulations required businesses to clean up their premises.
Small businesses in poorer neighborhoods tended to be most affected by such regulations.
Many Democratic residents of the city, however, viewed increasing the regulatory power
of the city with suspicion and resisted it. Moreover, the plan Barton advocated appeared
to require increased government spending. The city’s Democratic officials had no desire
to raise taxes to address a problem they did not believe existed.17

Given that mind-set, it is not surprising that the press and government officials dis-
missed early reports of yellow fever in spring 1853. Many newspapers and magazines
acknowledged only the presence of isolated cases among unacclimated poor immigrants
and advised people to continue with their lives. An 1853 letter to DeBow’s Review had
ridiculed warnings from the board of health that gave “rise the fancied existence of yellow
fever in this city to a very great extent.” Because of such unfounded warnings, “many of
our citizens have been induced to leave the city sooner than convenient, in order to avoid
a danger which does not exist.” Even after Charity Hospital reported more cases, news-
paper editors continued to reassure the “acclimated” that yellow fever was likely to remain
confined to poor neighborhoods. Such statements, intended to reassure “natives,” were
based largely on the pseudoscientific racist theories of Samuel A. Cartwright about im-
migrant laborers’ exposure to the sun. Cartwright, a local physician, argued that the high
mortality rate “is derived from the free colored persons, who have no masters to take care
of them; from the half free slaves without masters to look to them, who are permitted to
wander about and hire their own time as it is called; from the foreigners who arrive here
in sickly condition from Europe; but mainly from the white people who make slaves of
themselves by performing drudgery work in the sun.” Citing “thirty three years of obser-
vation,” he argued that slaves and whites who had slaves to work for them—whites who
did not “make negroes of themselves by doing drudgery work—enjoy generally about as
good health” as northerners. Restore the natural order of things, and alleged health prob-
lems would largely disappear.18

A nativist reading Cartwright doubtless found support for restricting citizenship rights
and discouraging further immigration. But to most proponents of economic expansion,
Cartwright’s theory offered further “scientific” justification for the extension of citizen-

the South-West,” 599–600.
17 The courts consistently held that the city was obligated to “adopt measures of police, for the purpose of pre-

serving the health, and promoting the comfort, convenience and general welfare of the inhabitants within the city.”
See C. R. Kennedy v. A. S. Phelps, Street Commissioner, 10 La. Ann. 227 (1855). For an explanation of how that case
reflected the public nature of markets, see William J. Novak, The People’s Welfare: Law and Regulation in Nineteenth-
Century America (Chapel Hill, 1996), 83–114. On the politics of disease control in New Orleans and other places,
see Ronald M. Labbe and Jonathan Lurie, The Slaughterhouse Cases: Regulation, Reconstruction, and the Fourteenth
Amendment (Lawrence, 2003), 30–35; Martin S. Pernick, “Politics, Parties, and Pestilence: Epidemic Yellow Fever
in Philadelphia and the Rise of the First Party System,” William and Mary Quarterly, 29 (Oct. 1972), 559–86; J.
Matthew Gallman, Receiving Erin’s Children: Philadelphia, Liverpool, and the Irish Famine Migration, 1845–1855
(Chapel Hill, 2000), 113–40; and Marilyn Chase, The Barbary Plague: The Black Death in Victorian San Francisco
(New York, 2003).

18 Samuel A. Cartwright, “How to Save the Republic, and the Position of the South in the Union,” DeBow’s
Review, 7 (July–Dec. 1851), 195–96. DeBow’s Review reprinted an editorial by Samuel Cartwright from the New
Orleans Orleanian, July 13, 1853, in “Plague in the South-West,” 595–98; New Orleans Daily Picayune, June 23,


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740 The Journal of American History December 2007

ship rights to white immigrants and economic expansion to provide them suitable jobs.19
The spread of disease beyond poor and immigrant neighborhoods at the end of July and
studies by Cartwright and others purporting to demonstrate immigrants’ “whiteness” by
noting their susceptibility to yellow fever reinforced this view.20

As the pestilence began felling more affluent and longtime residents, demands for gov-
ernment reform assumed an unprecedented urgency. Government officials could no lon-
ger justify inaction by blaming the disease on the habits of the poor. Now, as one journal
remarked, it was clear that the epidemic respected the social standing of no one. Thus the
press shifted its attention from the habits of newcomers and poor German and Irish im-
migrants to the failure of past governments, whether Whig or Democrat, to heed earlier
warnings about the sanitary state of the city and the potential for a devastating epidem-
ic.21 The Orleanian criticized the government for doing nothing about water and sewerage
while partisan officials indulged in petty “bickering.” The actions the government did take
were dismissed as ineffective, duplicitous, and too late. For example, to replace the vol-
untary board of health, the common council (the legislative branch of city government)
in late July created a publicly funded Board of Health with enforcement power. The New
Orleans Bee endorsed the council’s decision but sharply criticized members of the coun-
cil—made up of two boards of aldermen—for failing to act before the epidemic began.
At one point the Board of Assistant Aldermen impeached the street commissioner for fail-
ing to do his job. The proceedings to remove him from office revealed that the commis-
sioner had not received adequate funding to carry out his duties. According to an account
in DeBow’s Review, “The whole thing was a mere ruse to deceive the people, and make
them believe that the Aldermen had done their duty.” A quarantine on ships arriving in
the city imposed in late July to contain the epidemic also met with ridicule, even among
the policy’s supporters. Those concerned with the depressing effect of the epidemic on the
economy feared a quarantine would only magnify an already severe disruption of trade.
“The establishment of a quarantine at this time, when the city was already scourged with
a frightful pestilence, was ridiculous in the extreme,” wrote a contributor to DeBow’s Re-
view. It merely provided further evidence that the “city fathers of New Orleans were never
overstocked with wisdom.”22

Nothing better illustrated the alleged incompetence of the government and the effects
of “partyism” than the decision of city aldermen to adjourn and to flee the city while
volunteers were risking their lives to care for the sick. The press portrayed the action as
governmental abandonment. DeBow’s Review reprinted an account from the New Orleans
Commercial Bulletin that captured the growing consensus that government officials could
not be entrusted with the public interest. The Commercial Bulletin called the performance
of the government “humiliating.” The author alleged that the city council delegated its
power to a finance committee, which had no authority to act in the emergency, so coun-

19 Immigrants’ entitlement to citizenship rights had been hotly debated in New Orleans since the Louisiana
state constitutional convention of 1845. See Official Report of Debates in the Louisiana Constitutional Convention of
1845, 61. A majority of the convention supported universal white manhood suffrage. The minority wanted to re-
strict the rights of immigrant whites and others.

20 W. H. Holcombe, “Characteristics and Capabilities of the Negro Race,” Southern Literary Messenger, 33 (Dec.
1861), 402; Cartwright, “How to Save the Republic,” 196–97.

21 New Orleans Bee, July 29, Aug. 22, 1853.
22 New Orleans Medical and Surgical Journal, as cited in Dr. William T. Wragg, “ The Public Health,” Southern

Quarterly Review, 9 (Jan. 1854), 90; “Plague in the South-West,” 614; New Orleans Bee, July 27, Aug. 29, 1853. On
the structure on New Orleans city government, see Kendall, History of New Orleans, 173–74, 192.


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741The Political Construction of a Natural Disaster

cil members could adjourn “for their own health, convenience, and comfort.” Fleeing the
city was “a burlesque on municipal government.” An editorial in the New Orleans Daily
Delta concluded that “city government, on occasions of public emergency and danger, is
a mere farce.”23

By the fall of 1853, reformers had constructed an epidemic narrative in which public-
spirited citizens joined together to overcome the failures of the professional politicians
then in control of the city’s destiny. Antiparty newspapers, as well as regional and national
magazines, carried versions of the story. For example, Harper’s New Monthly Magazine’s
account of the epidemic put forth a popular view of the epidemic as the year ended and
the citizens of New Orleans prepared for elections in March 1854. The heroes were citi-
zens who put aside their political differences as they battled a common foe.24 Although
the disease primarily affected newcomers the tragedy illustrated the organic nature of the
community. Whether a citizen contracted the disease or not, everyone shared in its dev-
astating effects. The people of the city left their homes and risked their own lives to care
for the sick and dying. “Where in history can you find a more noble display of courage,
fortitude, humanity, and true nobility of the soul!” the author asked. Despite residents’
own personal grief, “there is no fear, no weak cowardice, no nervous timidity, no sneak-
ing or skulking in their expression and action. All stand to their duties, to the calls of af-
fection, of friendship, of humanity.” The rich cared for the poor “and the poor watch at
the downy couch of the rich.” For a time, the equality of shared suffering replaced such

Reformers continued to frame the politics of the city as a conflict between those who
worked for the common good, regardless of ethnic or party ties, and those who were in-
terested primarily in advancing their narrow political interests. Looking toward the spring
1854 elections, reformers even rejected the newly established health department as little
more than a jobs program for Democratic loyalists. Once again, they charged, the De-
mocracy placed party before the public good. Democrats praised those who helped the
sick, but they did not see cooperation as the primary story of the epidemic.26

Democrats had another view of matters. Those Democrats who opposed the reform
movement described the epidemic as another in a long line of abuses the poor had suf-
fered and thought the talk of cooperation was a political ruse. They never failed to repeat
their charge that the reform movement was dominated by nativists who sought to limit
democracy in the city.27 The Young America faction in the reform coalition dismissed
Democratic charges as nothing more than a political ploy designed to obscure the real
problems the city faced.28 Their nativist allies continued, however, to make public state-
ments that played into the hands of their Democratic opponents. For example, when re-
form Democrats joined former Whigs at a mass meeting in March 1854 to select a ticket
for upcoming city elections, most speakers reemphasized their belief that party conflict
hindered effective government in the city, as evidenced by how Democratic officials han-

23 New Orleans Bee, July 27, Aug. 29, 1853. New Orleans Commercial Bulletin and New Orleans Daily Delta
cited in “Plague in the South-West,” 620, 617.

24 “History and Incidents of the Plague in New Orleans,” Harper’s New Monthly Magazine, 7 (June–Nov. 1853),
797; New Orleans Bee, Sept. 9, 1853.

25 “History and Incidents of the Plague in New Orleans,” 798–800. New Orleans Bee, Sept. 9, 1853.
26 New Orleans Bee, Nov. 29, 1853; Soulé, Know-Nothing Party in New Orleans, 40–41.
27 Mary P. Ryan, Civic Wars: Democracy and Public Life in the American City during the Nineteenth Century

(Berkeley, 1997), 146–49.
28 New Orleans Daily Crescent, March 16, 17, 22, 1854.


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742 The Journal of American History December 2007

dled the epidemic, but then one speaker declared that the goal of the reformers was to
make sure councilmen spoke English rather than Celtic. Editorials in the reform press ig-
nored such remarks, choosing to frame the election as a choice between those concerned
about the good of the city and those concerned with creating jobs for “spoilsmen, par-
tisans, and political and social drones.” Democrats, however, seized on the comment in
making their case that nativists dominated the reform movement.29

The struggle in the reform movement between the “good government” and “nativist”
factions would continue for two more years. Then in the election of 1856 the good gov-
ernment, prodevelopment, antiparty faction in the reform coalition, emphasizing a dis-
course of cooperation across class and ethnic lines, finally subdued the nativists. One of
the first projects the reform government undertook was intended to lessen the chance of
another epidemic—cleaning streets and improving drainage throughout the city.30

Because of the presence of nativists in the reform movement, historians have raised
questions about the reformers’ understanding of the public good, the degree to which they
adhered to stated principles, and whether the antiparty movement ultimately achieved
the improvements it advocated. But the Young America faction that ultimately prevailed
struck a resonant chord among voters with its promises of a nonpartisan campaign to im-
prove the environment of the city, to promote its economic development, and to avoid a
repeat of the yellow fever epidemic. Though they did not fulfill all their promises in regard
to cleaning up the city, and social and political conflict did not disappear, they did imple-
ment needed, if limited, improvements to the city’s infrastructure.31

Hurricane Katrina, like the yellow fever epidemic of 1853 and most other natural disas-
ters, laid bare deep social, economic, and cultural divisions that have long plagued New
Orleans. To say that is to state the obvious. As things stand in 2007, leading politicians
in the city appear either unable or unwilling to articulate a vision of the community that
transcends this long history of conflict. In January 2007, Mayor C. Ray Nagin cited race
and class bias as explanations for the slow pace of New Orleans’s recovery.32 By playing
the race card, Nagin furthers a debate that perpetuates conflict and obscures a corruption
and ineffectiveness in city government that Hurricane Katrina, like the 1853 epidemic,
exposed. Perhaps the reform movement of the 1850s was, as its opponents claimed at
the time, a cynical political maneuver. Nonetheless, by reframing the political debate to
focus public attention on government corruption and its retarding effect on the develop-
ment of the city, it offered a potentially more productive alternative to the political status
quo. Whether a similar movement will emerge and succeed in the aftermath of Katrina
remains to be seen.

29 New Orleans Daily Picayune, March 17, 19, 22, 1854. On the reform meeting, see New Orleans Bee, March
15, 17, 18, 1854.

30 Under Mayor Gerard Stith, elected in June 1858, the city officially assumed responsibility for public health.
Kendall, History of New Orleans, 225–26.

31 The secession movement and Civil War altered the priorities of government officials. After the occupation of
New Orleans by Union forces Gen. Benjamin Butler and a subsequent Reconstruction government imposed many
of the sanitary reforms demanded in the 1850s. Opponents of those policies brought a civil action that ultimately
made its way to the U.S. Supreme Court as the Slaughterhouse cases. Labbe and Lurie, Slaughterhouse Cases, 35–37,

32 Michael Kunzelman, “New Orleans Mayor Tells U.S. Senate Committee He Sees Lack of Will to Rebuild His
City,” Associated Press, Jan. 29, 2007, available at Lexis-Nexis.


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