The Yellow Fever Epidemic in New Orleans - 1853 (Page 4)

His walk led him among the poor, but he found people of education and refinement; he gave succor to a woman from France whom he thought more beautiful than the Venus of Praxiteles; he witnessed among destitute families the strongest attachments, the most bitter grief at separations, and the most heroic self-sacrifice; he saw Christians die with heroism, and infidels without fear. The "Samaritan" was especially struck with the carelessness of an Italian soldier who, though sick unto death and perfectly conscious, remained in gay spirits, and attempted to cheer his companions in the hospital by his philosophy. He spoke of quitting life as losing "a thing which none but fools would keep," and when enjoined to sleep, replied, "Sleep! Have we not all eternity to sleep in?"

The most incongruous circumstance which came under the "Samaritan's" observation was the case of an old man who was employed as a hospital nurse. The sick who were past recovery had for him a serpent-like fascination: when there was agony in the face or when the body writhed in contortions, he would chuckle; when the fatal symptom of the black vomit manifested itself, he grinned with a strange delight; and the death-rattle was music to his ear. It turned out that the man had suffered from misfortune, deceit, and ingratitude, and had become a hater of his kind, to whom remained no joy but that of seeing his fellow-man in trouble and in pain.

When all attempt to conceal the truth became useless, and the full horror of the situation broke upon the people of New Orleans, dismay and despair succeeded for a while levity and hope. The newspapers, as if to atone for their first silence, now spoke of nothing but the epidemic; the editors studied the history of former plagues, and in their articles imitated the many graphic accounts found in literature, which are remembered, not so much for their historical and scientific value, as for the thrilling interest which the writers have transfused into their narratives. The one item of news anxiously awaited was the daily bulletin of the Board of Health giving the interments of the day previous, which was posted up in many frequented places. As the number of deaths by the epidemic mounted up to an alarming degree, this intelligence caused blanched cheeks and sinking hearts. Business was suspended; the levee was a desert; pleasure was hardly thought of; the bar-room and club-houses were scarcely visited. Vice was cowed; the haunts of the libertine were deserted. One passion alone proved too strong for the prevailing fear to overcome: gambling held its votaries, the excitement of high play making them forget that the pestilence stalked through their city.

But the lawlessness, the bold and illicit indulgence in the pleasure of the moment, of which Thucydides speaks; the disregard of human laws and religious vows, the voluptuous riot which Boccaccio has related of the plague of Florence; the work of thieves and the excesses of blasphemers which augmented the horrors of the great plague of London, if De Foe's account be true--from all these New Orleans was spared. Mention is made, however, of hilarious parties who drove along the shell road to the lake to escape for a while the deadly atmosphere that hung over the doomed city. There, in a fine hotel, might gentlemen and ladies partake of dainty food and generous wines. Yet revelry which in ordinary times would be counted innocent jarred harshly on the ears in this season of distress. The streets of the city were given up to doctor's gigs, to cabs conveying the sick to the hospital and hearses carrying the dead to the grave. "The morning train of funerals," wrote the "Samaritan," "as was the evening's, crowded the road to the cemeteries. It was an unbroken line of carriages and omnibuses for two miles and a half."

When the number of deaths grew rapidly, it was for a while impossible to bury the dead. The situation of the city below the level of the river, and the nature of the soil, which is almost semi-fluid at the depth of two or three feet, added to the difficulty.

The living brought the remains of their relatives and friends to the cemeteries, but men could not be had to dig the graves. The white laborers seemed to have disappeared; they were either dead, sick, or tending the sick. In some cases the mourners dug the graves for their own dead, and when the task was completed threw aside the spades, dropped on their knees, and solemnly repeated a funeral prayer. At times a dozen or more processions would meet at the cemetery; abuse of the authorities and strife for precedence marred sadly the impressiveness of the place and occasion. Quarrels became so frequent that it was necessary to detail a strong police force to preserve order at the graveyards.

But most horrible of all were the cases of the poor who had no friends, or of families who were all victims of the pestilence and were buried by the city authorities. The dead coming faster than they could be interred, seventy coffins were at one time left on the ground exposed to the powerful action of the August sun. The bodies swelled, the roughly constructed board coffins of the corporation burst
open, and the poisonous effluvia were wafted by breezes from the lake over the stricken city. The attention of the public was drawn to this hideous scene; it called forth notices from the journals; the turgid style of the editors in describing this accumulation of horrors shows the excitement under which they labored. Order, however, was soon restored and a system adopted which prevented the recurrence of such dreadful incidents. The chain-gang was ordered to the work by the mayor; negroes were hired at five dollars per hour and a liberal supply of strong liquor to bury the dead. Trenches, seven feet wide and one hundred feet long, were dug, into which the coffins were closely packed three to four feet deep, without intermediate earth. The pits made by the corporation were not more than two feet in depth.

Custom soon reconciled the laborers to their work, and moved them to ribald jokes more unseemly than the jesting of the grave-diggers at Ophelia's grave. It was strange that in this time of dire distress the poor should have thought to object to the name of Potter's Field as the place of interment for their relatives and friends, but in the very height of the epidemic the designation of that
cemetery was officially changed to "Cypress Grove, Number 2."

"As we passed the cemeteries," wrote the Samaritan, "we saw coffins piled up beside the gate and in the walks, and laborers at work digging trenches in preparation for the morrow's dead...A fog, which hung over the moss enveloped oaks, prevented the egress of the dense and putrid exhalations. The atmosphere was nauseating to a degree that I have never noticed in a sick-room." The experiences of this month of August were the most awful in the eventful history of New Orleans. The city "was one vast charnel­house." Men now went around with carts, knocking at every door and crying out, "Who have dead to bury?" The atmosphere in the streets was stifling and fetid. Emigrants just landed were nearly all attacked by the plague. Whole families died, leaving not a trace behind them; parents left young children who grew up, not only in ignorance of a father or mother, but who never knew their own proper names, or from what country they came. When the suburbs and country were blasted with the fell disease, "the poultry, horses, and mules fell dead in the fields."

New Orleans was a field for heroism, nor was heroism lacking. The rich gave money freely for the relief of the destitute, the energetic devoted their time and ability for the general good, and brave, hopeful souls cheered those who were on the brink of despair. All accounts agree that, with rare exceptions, the clergy of all denominations remained at their posts, ministering to the sick, smoothing the pillow of the dying, and speaking words of comfort to the mourners. An excess of zeal led many to overwork, and these became an easy prey to the epidemic. Those who received aid from the Howard Association were nearly all Catholics, so that the Samaritan saw much of the labor and devotion of the priest, who was on duty from early morn until late at night; caring nothing for comforts, and seemingly above fatigue; working for the glory of his church and the relief of those in her communion; holding the crucifix before the eyes of the dying, and always on hand in the hospital to administer the rite of extreme unction. "The sympathy of the priest and the dying penitent was complete."

Thus wrote the Samaritan, who felt deep gratitude for the assistance he received from ministers of a religion not his own. On one occasion, in response to an urgent request, he visited one of those unhappy women whom the more favored of their sex call the scourge, and whom philosophers have called the safeguard, of society. She had fallen a victim to the plague, but worse than the rage of the fever was her bitter remorse as she thought of the life she had quit to become an inmate of a house of sin. She felt that her peace could not be made with Heaven until she had confessed and received absolution from a priest of the church, and she begged that such a one might be brought to her. The Samaritan went in search of a priest, and stated to him clearly who the woman was and in what manner of house she lived, expecting that objection would be made; but the good father quickly responded: "Such as you speak of have my readiest service, for truly do they stand in need of the consolations of religion." The priest shrived the patient, feeling rewarded that he had given peace to the soul of another Magdalene, and he could not murmur that, while the Angelus was ringing, she passed away.

When September came the weather changed and the fever was more successfully treated. But this epidemic lasted longer than its predecessors; sixty days was the usual term, but this did not cease its ravages until after three months. The 2nd of September was observed as a day of fasting in response to a proclamation of the mayor calling upon all citizens to keep it "as a day of special prayer for the repose of the souls of the dead, for the stay of the epidemic, for the well-being of the survivors, and for gratitude that the hearts of so many have been led to share of their abundance with this afflicted city." The North had contributed money liberally for the work of the Howard Association. The board of health officially declared the city free of the epidemic on the 13th of October. The number of deaths from this visitation is variously stated, but no doubt remains that they exceeded eight thousand. Never before or since has New Orleans suffered so severely from the yellow fever. In making a comparison with other plagues, confusion arises from the fact that the actual population of the city and the number of un-acclimated persons who remained during the epidemic are matters only of estimate; but it is not a rash assertion to make, that, reckoning the proportion of deaths to the probable number of people subject to the disease, the mortality of the yellow fever at New Orleans in 1853 was equal to that of the great plague of London or the yellow fever epidemic at Philadelphia in 1798.

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