The Yellow Fever Epidemic of 1853

In her diary, Clara Solomon wished the “Yellow Jack” on the repugnant Yankee soldiers. This author’s ancestor mentioned on July 31, 1878 in his diary that there was a “dreadful panic” about the yellow fever in the City of New Orleans. A day later, the scare persisted. It was, he said, either the Yankees, the carpetbaggers or the yellow fever. “Poor New Orleans,” he commiserated. What he did not mention was that the Yellow Jack had taken his father’s life in Kentucky 30 years before.

Yellow fever, also known as Bronze Jack, plagued the South through 1906. It was never far from the mind of anyone living throughout the Deep South and the border states. Fear of the fever did not abate until 1906, when it was discovered that the mosquito carried the yellow fever virus. Plagues and fevers might be new to modern America, but ante-bellum America lived with cholera and yellow fever constantly. Pre-war Southerners believed the yellow fever mostly affected immigrants. That was why Clara Solomon, a young patriotic woman, hoped the yellow fever would strike down the cruel invaders, the Union soldiers, during the occupation of New Orleans.

In the Summer of 1853, New Orleanians did not know what caused the almost annual yellow fever outbreaks, but they knew it came with the warmer months. Many residents would escape to the cooler environs in upstate Louisiana or flee to Mississippi in the hot summer months. Many cities, New Orleans among them, would be slow to admit to yellow fever deaths. This was a time of tremendous growth. Every city was competing for more immigrants and investment. In 1853, the City of New Orleans was slow to report the first yellow fever death.

But, the numbers began to increase. Seven dead one week. Nine in the next week. The city was a cesspool, even without major outbreaks. In the days before modern plumbing, water did not drain. A city that even today receives 65 inches of rain per year, the rain would collect and just sit in streets, under houses and in the swamps just beyond the city limits. Garbage was typically simply tossed into the street, the alley or in the privy in the back yard. Horse and mule manure remained in the streets where it fell.

In the week of July 6, 59 persons died from the yellow jack. Two weeks later, that number shot up to 204. By now, the numbers were being reported in the city newspapers. After the 204 deaths were reported, men rushed to pack. Merchants, ladies and their families rushed to the landing to catch a boat out of the city. Cabs, carriages crashed against each other in the mad dash near the wharves. People begged to be taken aboard a boat out of the city. Other ports on the Atlantic, however, were already starting to embargo passengers from the Crescent City. No New Orleans refugees were allowed. Folks either left the city or retreated to their homes. The streets became eerily quiet. The cries of cake-sellers, the fish peddles, the knife sharpeners were no longer heard in the neighborhoods.

That year in Summer, 1853, it rained for days, all day. The city recorded 62 inches of rain that year. There were 116,000 persons in New Orleans in 1850. But, the refugee ships from Ireland had mushroomed. There were likely 10,000 more residents by the Summer of 1853. The immigrants generally lived in the worst parts of town and were closer to the swamps. The yellow fever ravaged the immigrant community. Mosquitoes generally do not fly above the bottom floor. So, the more wealthy who lived in homes with a second floor enjoyed some refuge from the carrier. The Irish immigrants in the St. Thomas neighborhood (which would later become known as the Irish Channel neighborhood) became the first victims of the 1853 epidemic.

Terrified residents tried everything. They closed windows, they opened windows. They spread lime along the banquettes (sidewalks). Some persons refused entry to their dwellings, even to doctors or members of the Howard Foundation. The Howard Foundation was a charitable organization which sought to help New Orleanians cope with epidemics. In 1853, most people lived in boarding houses or some sort of rental tenement.

Charity Hospital, originally founded as the Hospital of St. John, was run by the Sisters of Charity in 1853. The hospital served the poor. It received large numbers of immigrant patients  in 1853. 2,727 patients were admitted. Of those, 1,382 died of the yellow jack.

The outbreak of 1853 claimed, by one estimate, 7,849 lives in New Orleans. One-third of those lives were Irish immigrants. A total of 29,120 persons contracted the disease. Common strategies of the day included burning barrels of tar and shooting cannons into the air, so as to remove the “effluvia” from the air. People burned their own barrels of tar in their front yards, if they had a front yard. They closed the windows even in the heat of the summer to keep the “effluvia” out.

Harnett Kane tells the story of a family who summoned a carriage to take their daughter to Charity hospital. When the carriage pulled up, the windows and doors were all closed. The house was dark. Two men carried the girl to the carriage in heavy wrappings. One of the men stabbed the driver’s hand with the necessary payment. They then ran back inside the closed house. On the way to the hospital, the driver stopped for a drink or two. When he finally arrived at Charity, he realized the girl had died. Charity Hospital would not accept the body. The cabman took her back to her home. Beating on the door, someone opened a window shutter. The cabman told the unseen person that the girl had died. A loud groan ensued. But, no one emerged. The cabman tried to take the girl to a cemetery, but they would not accept the body without a certificate. He took the girl back to her home and left her on the porch. He drove away. A week later, the home was empty. All its inhabitants had passed away.

The Board of Health posted lists of the dead on boards and poles. Folks would gather around with ashen faces, fearful of the names. New Orleans was a small city then, even if it was one of the largest in the country. People knew each other from balls, parades, work and the militias.

Mistakes in burial were common. As wagons would near the cemetery, the family would pry open the coffin for one last look and discover they had the wrong body. As the epidemic reached its height, St. Patrick’s cemetery began to run out of diggers. One Irishman remarked, “As matters are now arraigned at St. Patrick’s, people will have to make their own graves.” A priest in the Third Municipality visited a tenement in his district known as “Irish Row.” He reported that nearly every dwelling had at least one death. A boarding house reported 45 deaths, all Irish. The Irish priests in New Orleans faithfully ministered to their congregants. After the epidemic, one parish gave their devoted priest a horse and buggy to express their thanks.

Margaret Haughery rose to local fame in the city with the epidemics of the 1850’s. She had lost her family in Baltimore to disease. Now, in New Orleans, though not yet wealthy, she did have two cows. She would take milk to anyone suffering from the yellow fever, regardless of race or creed. She became friends with the Sisters of Charity. Ms. Haughery gradually increased her herd to 40 cows. That lead to a bakery. Over time, she could have become very wealthy, but instead of acquiring wealth, she gave most of her income to the Sisters of Charity and started an orphanage. Today, there is a statue of Margaret neat St. Theresa’s Catholic Church in New Orleans.

Cities throughout the country sent aid. The epidemic of 1853 had become well-known.

Another week, 1500 died. 1300 from the yellow jack. By now, native born and immigrants alike were dying. The worst day came in August with 230 dead. As the summer progressed the wealthier citizens returned. Many ladies visited the poor. Girls from the bawdy houses became nurses. The effort to beat back the yellow jack fell to all.

A side- effect developed. With commerce largely ceased, provisions were scarce. The wealthier stepped up. One family took care of 30 poor families.

By mid-September, the numbers of deaths had dropped to 80 per week. Cooler, drier weather arrived.  The mosquitoes disappeared. Estimates of total deaths range from the 7,849  to as many as 15,000 that black Summer. Thousands of orphans filled the available institutions.

We are more prepared for plagues, today. But, we can still apply lessons from the yellow fever epidemic of 1853.

Earl Neihaus, The Irish in New Orleans (Baton Rouge: LSU Press 1965), p. 28, 32.

Laura Kelley, The Irish in New Orleans (Lafayette: Univ. of La. Press 2014), p. 124.

Harnett T. Kane, Queen New Orleans (New Yprk: Morrow & Co. 1949, pp. 199-224

The Union Iron Grip

The Federal forces captured New Orleans in April, 1862. Soon they also controlled Baton Rouge, just some 70 miles upriver from the Crescent City. Near Baton Rouse was the town of Arlington and a plantation known as Arlington Point. Eliza McHatton-Ripley, 29 years old, lived at the plantation with her husband James McHatton, 46 years old. They had one son, aged 5 and a new born baby girl. The McHattons were quite wealthy for the time, reporting some $100,000 in personal assets in the 1860 census. They owned about 61 slaves in 1860. They were not the largest, but they were one of the larger slave owners in the region.

James, as his wife explained in her book, was not an “original secessionist.” He did not support secession. He hoped an amicable arrangement could be worked out. So, he was quite surprised to arrive home from a two week trip to find the Confederate flag flying above his home.

One day, a company of Federal cavalry suddenly appeared at their door. It came too soon for the servant to rush the silver upstairs and place under Eliza’s pillow. Eliza was still bed-ridden after giving birth two weeks prior. James could not serve in the Confederate army, because he had lost an eye. He greeted the Union soldiers cordially and offered them milk, the only refreshment available. After each soldier drank his fill, the Union cavalry quietly rode away.

Some five miles down river was another plantation. The sons at that farm were all serving in the Confederate army. The old gentleman of the plantation kept a horse tied to the gate, so he could rush on a moment’s notice. As the Federal company left the village of Arlington Point they came to the old gentleman’s plantation. All they saw of the old man was the tail of his horse as he headed to the woods. The Federal forces found only a young daughter-in-law at home. They locked her in her room and moved in for a day. They took all the corn, molasses and hay they could find and sent it upriver to Baton Rouge.

The old gentleman returned after the cavalry soldier left and the plantation gradually returned to normalcy.

Eliza McHatton-Ripley, From Flag to Flag (United Kingdom: Dodo Press 2009) (reprint), pp. 4, 12.

Survival Without the Bread-Winner

George Price, Sr. died in 1836 in Louisville. In his will, he left everything to his two grandchildren by James’ marriage. He named James as his executor. James filed George’s will in October, 1836. The October 10, 1836 edition of the Louisville Courier records that George was one of the leaders of the band of patriots of 1798. Ireland had a large rebellion in 1798. George, reports the newspaper, left Ireland at an older age. Generous and warm-hearted, he was loved by young and old, said the editor. The editor claimed a long and intimate acquaintance with “George Price, Esq.,” 61 years of age.

No Irish records mention George Price, or any child with the unusual name of Anastasia. It may be that as a fugitive, he and his family maintained a very low profile in Ireland.

According to the 1838 Succession records for the estate of Edward Price, Mary Price is described as still living in Louisville in 1838. Edward died in 1838. There is no indication that Edward had been married or that he had children. Clement Kennedy and Anastasia appear in person in Edward’s Succession records. Anastasia records her name as both Creane and Crane, at various times. That suggests Martin was then changing his name from Creane to Crane.

All the Prices and their spouses were literate. They could all sign their names and attest. Mary Price submitted a note to the judge in New Orleans about Edward’s estate: “Honoured sir, I would be much obliged to you to you [sic] to hand this money to my son-in-law Mr. Crane as we expect him in Louisville in a few days.”  — Mary Price.” She signed her own name. It appears Martin Crane carried a note from Mary Price in Louisville to the judge in New Orleans.

By 1838, James, Edward and George Price, Sr. had died. In the 1830’s, losing the male breadwinner would often lead to poverty, or worse. Martin would disappear from any record by 1845. He was said to have died in Kentucky from yellow fever. Clement too disappears from public records by 1845. Four bread-winners had disappeared. For many families, that would mean an inevitable slide to poverty. But, the Prices were not done, yet.

Boarding Houses

How would the Price women survive without their male breadwinners? By 1845, George, the patriarch, the eldest son James, and the second eldest son, Edward, two sons-in-law, Clement Kennedy and Martin Crane had died. The Price women would survive with one of the very few professions allowed to women in the 1840’s: boarding houses. In a time before apartment buildings and moderately priced hotels, the average traveler relied on boarding homes.

Immigrants in particular relied on boarding homes. A boarding house required substantial investment. The Prices apparently had some assets, because they were all involved in running a boarding house at some point. Catherine Price Rice ran one boarding house in Cincinnati, Ohio before moving to New Orleans and helping her sisters. Ellen Price Kennedy Walsh had her own boarding house. And, Anastasia Price Crane Chism also ran her own boarding house in New Orleans on Canal Street for some time. Anastasia actually owned a slave, apparently to help with the boarding house while Martin was in Kentucky.

And, Mary Price ran a boarding house in Louisville after George died. She would then move to New Orleans, where she would be listed as the person running the boarding house. Mary Price took over Anastasia’s home after Anastasia married Cyrus Chism in 1849.

In the census records, the husband was recorded as the operator, even when it is clear the husband had a full time job outside of the boarding home. It appears that younger women would avoid being seen as the operator. But, it was acceptable for an older woman like Mary Price to represent herself as the operator.

Three of the four sisters, Ellen, Anastasia, Catherine, had their own boarding homes at various times. The fourth sister, Theresa, lived in one of the boarding homes and likely helped. At least two of their future husbands lived in one of those boarding homes before marrying the sister. John Agar and William Walsh, both Irish immigrants, lived at one of the boarding houses run by the sisters before marrying two of the sisters.  

And, George Price, Jr. lived in one of the boarding houses until he died young in 1859. Mary Price died in 1858 at 77 years old. Ellen married a second time to John M. Cantelli and then a third time to William F. Walsh, an Irish immigrant. When Ellen died in 1879, she was described as the “beloved” wife of William Walsh. Anastasia married a second time to Cyrus Chism, a Yankee immigrant from Maine. Catherine “Kate” married Edward M. Rice, who died young in the 1850’s. She never married again. Theresa first married Edward Rickard, an Irish immigrant, who died young. She married a second time to William Agar and would pass away in 1890. Theresa, Kate and Anastasia lived next door to each other in Uptown New Orleans for over 20 years through one war, one Union blockade and numerous yellow fever epidemics. The Price sisters and their brothers left Ireland, but they brought much of Ireland with them.

The Price sisters kept in touch. One sister, Fanny married a doctor from Indiana. They settled in Indiana. Fanny and her husband disappeared from public records. But, her daughter, also known as “Fanny,” was living with her Aunt Anastasia in New Orleans in 1870. In 1873, the younger Fanny married J.O. Wright in Aunt Anastasia’s house in New Orleans. The Price women stayed together even when separated by war and pestilence.

Thomas J. Crane, History of the Crane Family, (Privately published 2016)

Survival in the New Land

In the ante-bellum time, how did the Irish survive in this new land? One family, the Price family, encountered numerous obstacles in America. The patriarch, George Price, was said to have been a leader in the 1798 rebellion in County Wexford. He came to Louisville, Kentucky sometime before 1836. By 1836, he was engaged in land speculating in Louisville. He was buying and selling land. He had five daughters and three sons:

  • James
  • Edward
  • Ellen (b. 1816 Ireland)
  • Anastasia (b. circa 1818 Ireland)
  • Frances “Fanny” (b. 1822 Ireland)
  • Catherine (b. 1823 Ireland)
  • George (b. 1828 Ireland)
  • Theresa (b. 1831 Ireland)

George, Sr.’s eldest daughter, Ellen, married Clement Kennedy in Jefferson County (Louisville) in 1831. The record of their marriage indicates Ellen’s parents, George and Mary were then in Ireland. Clement was a grocer in Louisville. Just a few years later, he was listed as a drayman in the 1838 New Orleans City Directory. In early New Orleans, the Irish quickly took over the lucrative dray business. The draymen were those who drove the wagons between the New Orleans docks and the warehouse. It was a well-paying job. The Irish largely squeezed out the free blacks from the dray business.

This connection between Louisville and New Orleans marks the Price clan. The second oldest daughter, Anastasia, married Martin Maurice Creane/Crane of Co. Galway. Martin spent much time in Louisville. His son, George, was born in 1840 in Louisville. But, Martin’s and Anastasia’s daughter was born in 1842 in New Orleans. Anastasia married Martin at St. Patrick’s Church in New Orleans in 1836. She was underage. So, Clement had to be appointed her curator, to grant permission for the marriage. George and Mary were in Louisville at the time, according to the Succession records. The Succession records state Anastasia’s age as “about 20” when she married, but she could have been as young as 16 and was more likely 18 years old.

The eldest son, James had a grocery store in Louisville. He was a partner with a man named Aiken. James is also named in a few of the deeds of sale with his father, George. He appears to have been involved in the land business with George. Martin appears in no directory, whether Louisville of New Orleans. Neither does he appear in any census records. We can only assume he too was working with George in the land business. James died in late 1836. Since, during the extended succession proceedings for Edward Price in New Orleans, a John Sinnot records that James died in 1836. This record is dated in 1838. James left a widow and two young daughters.

The next oldest brother in the Price clan was Edward. Edward had a store in New Orleans selling corn and hay. Edward was not mentioned in the marriage or curatorship for Anastasia in 1836. He died on July 14, 1836, just two days before Anastasia and Martin married.

One Crane family story is that Mary Price came to the US in 1825 with small children. It does appear that James and Edward, the two older children, came before the rest of the family. Tragedy was striking the Prices. The unfortunate events would continue.

Thomas J. Crane, History of the Crane Family, (Privately published 2016)