The Yellow Fever Epidemic in New Orleans - 1853 (Page 2)

Every Sunday those who were fond of the sport could choose between the attractions offered at three rival racecourses. Private hospitality was lavishly dispensed, and to those whose social position was high, and to those who were able to take part in all the gayeties of the season, life seemed a carnival. The public balls were numerous. When Mardi Gras came, although many regretted that the usual street parade was given up and bewailed the glories of bygone days, it was acknowledged by every one that the brilliant fancy-dress parties and balls were a compensation.

Isolated cases of yellow fever began to occur in the early part of May, and although during the month there were deaths from the disease, no alarm whatever was felt, for this was but a repetition of the experience of every year since the epidemic of 1847. Those who intimated that the vile condition of the streets was such as to augment a pestilence, if not to invite it, were frowned upon as defamers of the city. It was pleasanter to discuss magnificent future schemes of improved drainage than to take immediate and practical steps towards setting the city in order. The travel to the North and Europe during the spring and early Summer was larger than usual; -not, however, because the rich and the fashionable had any forebodings of the dismal fate in store for their beloved city, but because the spring, being warmer than common, prompted an Carlow departure from the Southern climate; and, as money was abundant, the desire for travel could be gratified as soon as born.

By the latter part of June the situation looked ominous. For the week ending June 26th there were nine deaths from yellow fever, and for that ending July 2nd, twenty-five. Yet if one had depended upon the newspapers for knowledge of passing events, they would never have suspected that the dreaded epidemic had begun, since the journals made no mention whatever of the startling fact. The commercial interest of the city insisted strenuously that the state of affairs should not be, made public, and the real-estate speculators were wild with alarm lest the truth should be told. The next week, when the deaths had more than doubled, there were editorial expressions of fear that the present season would be, a sickly one; but when July 16th arrived and two hundred and four deaths by yellow fever for the week were reported, it was felt that concealment was no longer possible, and the newspapers became again the chronicles of the time. The jaunty air with which a serious condition had been treated now gave place to panic-stricken fear. All and who were not detained by duty, Red. who were able, The city government failed completely to grasp the situation; the board of aldermen resolved, the last week in July, that the yellow fever in the city had not become epidemic, and adjourned till October; the cowardly went North, the brave remained, and as citizens did duty which their associates would not let them do officially.

As frequently happens, however, in American cities, when the constituted authorities have broken down, the best men of the community came to the front and went to work with discretion and heroism. Chief among the agencies of good was the Howard Association, composed of active, energetic men, whose mission during an epidemic was to take care of the poor and destitute sick, and provide them with proper medical attendance and nursing. A record of the work of this noble body during the fatal summer was written by one of their number, while it 'vies in interest with any romance, it is simply the truthful tale of an unassuming "Samaritan;"' but the fascination of the book lies in the accounts of the conversation and action of the men and women whom the approach of death made sincere. The premonitory symptoms of yellow fever were not unmistakable, nor such as to cause intense anxiety; they were the same that precede the most ordinary diseases. It began with a cold, a hardly perceptible chill, an ebbing in the head, an apparently insignificant fever, and, a little later, pains in the back ensue. These warnings were made light of by the laboring poor. Those who lived from and to mouth could not afford to lie by on account of ill feelings, which strong men living in a insalubrious climate learn to slight. In such cases, the poison of the insidious disease had coursed through the veins of the body before the man took to his bed or called a physician. Only about one-half of those attacked with yellow fever recovered; an apparent cessation of the ravages of the disease was with many but a premonition of a fatal issue.

The weather was unfavorable, being characterized by sudden changes; there was much rain, and for ten days July seemed like January. Woollens were worn, people slept under blankets, windows were kept shut, and the thinblooded lighted their fires. The death-rate increased. On the last day of July there were one hundred and thirty-seven deaths from yellow fever, and in August the number of victims became constantly greater until the 21st, which, by common consent, was called the black day of the plague. Two hundred and thirty deaths from yellow fever were reported that day, but the actual number was nearer three hundred - a daily mortality more than double the ordinary weekly death-rate of New Orleans.

The weather now became intensely hot, but the atmosphere was full of humidity, and the analytical chemists said there was a lack of ozone in the air. To purify the atmosphere, the Board of Health ordered that four hundred discharges should be fired from several six-pound cannons; but the thunder of the artillery had a fatal effect on many of the sick, throwing them into convulsions. Then another
mode of clearing the air was tried. Barrels filled with tar were burned all over the city. "At sunset," wrote the "Samaritan" in his diary, "when all were simultaneously fired, a pandemonium glare lighted up our city. Not a breath of air disturbed the dense smoke, which slowly ascended in curling columns until it reached the height of about five hundred feet. Here it seemed equipoised, festooning over our doomed city like a funeral pall, and there remaining until the shades of night disputed with it the reign of darkness."