The Yellow Fever Epidemic in New Orleans - 1853 (Page 5)

From Our Lady of Guadalupe Chapel Website

In 1853 an epidemic of yellow fever of monstrous proportions occurred. In the month of August alone nine hundred sixty-seven persons died during the first week; twelve hundred eighty-eight fell during the second week; thirteen hundred forty-six in the third and twelve hundred forty- three during the fourth week. Most of the deaths occurred among the unacclimated immigrants who lived in crowded tenements or in flimsy shacks often lacking simple sanitary facilities. But in 1853, the native born who had considered themselves immune to the disease were attacked by 'Bronze John' and even the blacks, long thought to be exempt from the disease, contracted yellow fever. Writing in The Diary of A Samaritan, William L. Robinson, a member of the Howard Association, described the epidemic (The Howards were a group of young men who banded together to help the unfortunate victims of the plague)

The whole city was a hospital, and every well man, woman and child was instrumental, in one way or other, in relieving the sick. The streets were deserted save to the hasty pedestrian on an errand of mercy. The rattling of an omnibus and the swing of a doctor's gig, as either rapidly passed, were the only disturbing sounds. The vociferations of the coalman, the knife-grinder, and of other callings that enliven the thoroughfares, were silenced by disease or fear.

The mourning train of funerals, as was the evenings, crowded the road to the cemeteries. It was an unbroken line of carriages and omnibuses for two miles and a half. The city commissary's wagon, and the carts of the different hospitals, with their loads of eight or ten coffins each, fell in with the cortege of citizens. Confusion and delay at the cemeteries were unavoidable. The sun's heat and putrid exhalations were sickening to the sense. All manner of experiments were used to diminish the aggravation of disease. Tar was set on fire around and in the cemeteries, and lime profusely thrown on the cracked and baked earth covering the coffins in the trenches. The Board of Health, in an unthoughtful moment, adopted a suggestion of firing cannon throughout the city to disturb the atmosphere. This was not continued beyond the first day, as it was attended with melancholy results upon the nervous systems of the sick and convalescent. Any expedient to escape a worse pestilence would have been admitted. The miasma from neglected streets, combined with continued diminution of the vital principal in the atmosphere, from even a short exposure to putrefaction before burial of 1186 dead the first week of August, 1526 the second, 1534 the third, and 1628 the fourth, may well excuse far-fetched theories of disinfection. The gasworks threw open to the use of the citizens their stores of tar. Besides those quantities used in the yards of private houses, drays were engaged to drop a half barrel of tar at distances of 150 feet in the middle of Canal, Rampart, and Esplanade Streets.

At sunset, when all were simultaneously fired, a pandemonium glare lighted up the city. Not a breath of air disturbed the dense smoke, which slowly ascended in curling columns until it reached the height of about 500 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. These experiments did not visibly diminish the ravages of the pestilence.

Of the Mortuary Chapel, he wrote:

The funeral service on the part of the Catholics was commonly performed in the chapels. The one contiguous to the graveyard on Rampart Street was a thronged receptacle of the dead and their mourners during the day until after dark. Thence arose the mournful Miserere, filling the air with its melancholy influence, and heightening still more the universal despondency and sadness.