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When the Yellow Fever Outbreak of 1793 Sent the Wealthy Fleeing Philadelphia

June 11, 2020 in History

By Sarah Pruitt

As thousands fled, many of Philadelphia’s black residents stayed behind and were enlisted to care for the sick.

During the hot, humid summer of 1793, thousands of Philadelphians got horribly sick, suffering from fevers and chills, jaundiced skin, stomach pains and vomit tinged black with blood.

By the end of August, as more and more people began dying from this mysterious affliction, wealthier residents of the nation’s capital were fleeing in droves. The city’s free black community, meanwhile, largely stayed behind and many were enlisted to help care for the sick.

“It is called a yellow fever, but is like nothing known or read of by the Physicians,” wrote Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson in September 1793.

Debate Over Yellow Fever’s Causes

Arch Street Wharf in Philadelphia, where some of the first cases were identified.

At the time, no one knew what caused yellow fever, or how it spread. Some thought it had been brought to Philadelphia by a ship bearing French refugees from a slave rebellion in Santo Domingo (now Haiti). Others—including the city’s leading physician, Dr. Benjamin Rush—believed it originated in the poor sanitary conditions and contaminated air of the city itself.

However the disease had arrived, Philadelphians in 1793 desperately sought to avoid getting it. They began keeping their distance from each other and avoided shaking hands. They covered their faces with handkerchiefs dipped in vinegar or smoked tobacco, which they thought would prevent them from breathing in contaminated air.

The Well-to-Do Exit the City

Those who had the means to leave the city quickly did so, including Jefferson himself. President George Washington, who returned to his beloved Mount Vernon estate, blamed his exit on the concerns of his wife, Martha.

Alexander Hamilton contracted yellow fever early in the epidemic, and he and his family left the city for their summer home a few miles away. Hamilton’s wife, Eliza, soon fell ill as well, and their children were evacuated to Eliza’s parents home in Albany, New York. They both recovered under the care of Dr. Edward Stevens, a boyhood friend of Hamilton’s from St. Croix whom he met again in Philadelphia.

WATCH: ‘Hamilton: Building America’ on HISTORY Vault

Among the mass exodus of some 20,000 Philadelphians—nearly half the city’s total population at the time—during the yellow fever epidemic were many of the city’s doctors, who were terrified of getting ill themselves. But Rush, the …read more