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

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