Philadelphia's Yellow Fever

February 23, 2022
Macabre History
An image depicting Stephen Girard, a Philadelphia merchent, helping to transport a yellow fever victim during the 1793 outbreak

In 1793, Philadelphia was besieged by Yellow Fever. It likely arrived with white refugees fleeing the Haitian Revolution, and Dr. Benjamin Rush noticed that those people weren’t getting as sick. He postulated - WRONGLY - that because of this, black people were immune to the disease. The city called for help from the black community, and the Free African Society answered. They organized hundreds of workers to nurse the afflicted, take them to the hospital, feed them, and bury them. This at a time when anyone with the means to flee the city did, and there was no real public infrastructure to support the dying. Of course, these helpers were not actually immune, and many died as a result. Dr. Rush admitted his mistake, but it was too late. The poor and black victims of the disease were buried at Congo Square, which is now called Washington Square. A square named for a liberator, but then as is now, liberation was only for some. 

The outbreak was assumed to have arrived with white refugees fleeing the Haitian Revolution

The misinformation didn’t stop there. The official narrative of the epidemic was penned by Mathew Carey, who not only skipped over the contribution of the city’s African American front line workers, but also accused them of price gouging and stealing. Richard Allen and Absalom Jones of the Free African Society wrote a scathing rebuttal disputing his charges and pointing out that black workers did the jobs no one else would do and that many died as a result. Those workers soldiered on even when it became apparent that they were not immune. Allen himself contracted the disease but survived. Jones and Allen ended their rebuttal with this choice burn: “Mr. Carey, although chosen a member of that band of worthies who have so eminently distinguished themselves by their labours, for the relief of the sick and helpless—yet, quickly after his election, left them to struggle with their arduous and hazardous task, by leaving the city.” In other words, Carey wasn’t even there. He bounced to the country to escape the disease, and came back only to criticize the work of others.

Richard Allen and Absalom Jones' rebuttal of Mathew Carey's work

Keep all of this in mind right now, loves. We’ve been here before, and the people on the front lines exposing themselves to great risk - grocery workers, EMS, delivery folks, doctors, and nurses - need to be protected and supported. Watch out for misinformation based on racist bullshit (WuFlu, anyone?), scapegoating, and dangerous pseudoscience pushed by leaders who should know better.

Washington Square, formerly Congo Square

Court

Ghostess with the Mostess

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