The Yellow Fever Outbreak of 1793: Nine Observations and Lessons

Critical Thinking

March 26, 2020
by Brian Patrick O'Malley Also by this Author


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“I often thought that the situation of a people in a bombarded city, was not much worse, and on some accounts not so bad; we had no respite night nor day.” Writing to a friend in his native Massachusetts, newspaper publisher John Fenno was trying to convey the effect of the 1793 yellow fever outbreak on Philadelphia. “Such a scene was never before realized in this country; and may GOD of his infinite mercy, preserve us from experiencing any thing similar.”[1]

Fenno founded the Federalist newspaper Gazette of the United States in New York City in 1789, and when the federal government moved to Philadelphia in 1790, he relocated there with his paper. Another publisher and Philadelphia resident, Mathew Carey, a native of Dublin, Ireland, wrote a pamphlet detailing the yellow fever epidemic called, A Short Account of the Malignant Fever.[2]

In response Carey’s claim in his pamphlet that black nurses charged exorbitant rates, Methodist ministers Rev. Richard Allen, later founder (1816) of the African Methodist Episcopal (A.M.E.) Church, and Rev. Absalom Jones cowrote an account of Philadelphia’s African Americans during the epidemic. Beckoning to the city’s desperate call for help, Jones and Allen accepted the work of burial detail and hired five men to assist the effort.[3] Carey later revised his work to include the important role of African Americans during the crisis.

Two rival physicians offered different treatments for yellow fever, but comparably gripping descriptions of the ordeal. Benjamin Rush was a champion of bleeding and mercurial purges. Jean Devèze, a French-born refugee from the slave revolt in Santo Domingo (now Haiti) arrived in Philadelphia August 7, 1793. Devèze advocated milder treatments than Rush and his disciples. Despite their different approaches to medicine, the two doctors left similar accounts of a distressed city.[4]

Yellow fever has two phases, separated by one day of remission. The first phase, of three to four days, involved fever, nausea, backache, vomiting, and loss of appetite. Jones and Allen recalled that sufferers “were taken with a chill, a head-ache, a sick stomach, with pains in their limbs and back. This was the way the sickness in general began.” For many lucky patients, the remission was genuine. For others, the worst of the fever was ahead. Rush warned, “The remission on the third day, was frequently such as to beget a belief that the disease had run its course, and that all danger was over. A violent attack of the fever on the 4th day removed this deception.” The second phase of yellow fever, lasting about seven to ten days, can inflict a mortality rate as high as fifty percent. In the second phase, the returning fever is accompanied by damage to the liver and kidneys. The fever can cause delirium; the liver damage often leads to yellowing of the eyes and skin, a discoloration for which yellow fever is named. In the second phase, a sufferer might bleed from the nose, mouth, eyes, or urinary tract.[5]

The yellow fever outbreak in Philadelphia lasted from August into November 1793. Benjamin Rush believed that by the second week of September, Philadelphia had “not less than 6,000 persons ill with the fever.” Mathew Carey estimated that from August 1 through November 9, Philadelphia suffered 4,031 deaths. In the fourth edition of his narrative, Carey adjusted the total to 4,041; Carey reiterated a caveat from his first edition, that the count from burial registers was not the complete number of deaths. Also consulting burial registries, Rush put the death toll at 4,044.[6]

Despite Fenno’s hopes that America in the future would be spared from anything like Philadelphia’s yellow fever outbreak, particular incidents might remind Americans of the initial public reaction to the 1980s AIDS crisis or the 2020 Coronavirus outbreak. Here are nine important observations on the 1793 outbreak, some of which may ring familiar today.

1. People Stopped Shaking Hands.

Unaware that mosquitoes spread yellow fever, Americans feared contact with the sick or unwitting carriers. In their fear of contagion, Americans abandoned the custom of shaking hands. Jones and Allen remarked that “friends, when they met in the streets, were afraid of each other.” Fenno mentioned “no shaking of hands,” “every one stood aloof.” Carey wrote, “The old custom of shaking hands fell into such general disuse, that many were affronted at even the offer of the hand.” Instead, acquaintances and friends “only signified their regard by a cold nod.[7]

2. Fear of Contagion Made the City a Ghost Town.

Fenno wrote, “The City is now in a manner depopulated—almost every person who can quit it, is gone. I should judge by appearances that full one half of the People are gone—business is in a great degree stagnant.” About 20,000 people left the city, Fenno explained, so “business of every kind became suspended, and universal stillness prevailed night & day.”[8]

“The streets every where discovered marks of the distress that pervaded the city,” Rush reported. “More than one half the houses were shut up, although not more than one third of the inhabitants had fled into the country. In walking for many hundred yards, few persons were met, except such as were in quest of a physician, a nurse, a bleeder, or the men who buried the dead. The hearse alone kept up the remembrance of the noise of carriages or carts in the streets.”[9]

Philadelphia residents made social isolation the norm. Carey wrote, “Of those who remained, many shut themselves up in their houses, and were afraid to walk the streets.” When people summoned the courage to take a walk, “the sick cart conveying patients to the hospital, or the hearse carrying the dead to the grave,” “soon damped their spirits, and plunged them again into despondency.”[10]

3. Many Popular Remedies Failed.

Many Americans subscribed to the belief that foul smells communicated disease. Some Philadelphia residents believed the stench of rotten coffee on a wharf started the outbreak. Fenno was sure Thomas O’Hara, a clerk, contracted yellow fever when he passed an open coffin, “took the scent & died the Wednesday following.” Even Devèze, who knew the disease was not contagious, believed that its “first cause” was “alterations of the atmospheric air,” air that was “more or less adulterated or modified.”[11]

Americans resorted to preventives that combatted stench. John Fenno recalled that “every person was seen with a spunge or a bottle at their Nose.” Carey reported, “Those who ventured abroad, had handkerchiefs or sponges impregnated with vinegar or camphor, at their noses, or else smelling bottles with the thieves’ vinegar. Others carried pieces of tar in their hands, or pockets, or camphor bags tied round their necks.” Four thieves vinegar, or “thieves’ oil,” is vinegar spiked with herbs or spices.

Alas, these precautions were ineffective. Rush noted, “There did not appear to be any advantage from smelling vinegar, tar, camphor, or volatile salts, in preventing the disorder.”[12]

4. Negativity was Fatal.

Although he knew of exceptions, Carey wrote, “The effect of fear in predisposing the body for this and other disorders, and increasing their malignance, when taken, is well known.” In many cases of yellow fever, Rush was certain that depression was a contributing cause of death. “The deaths which occurred on the 3d, 5th, and 7th days, appeared frequently to be the effects of the commotions or depression, produced in the system on the 2d, 4th, and 6th days.” Rush also attributed high mortality among servant girls not only to the rigors of their work, but also “To their being left more alone in confined or distant rooms, thereby suffering from depression of spirits.”[13]

Likewise, the reverends Absalom Jones and Richard Allen were shocked by the morbid pessimism that “took hold on the minds of thousands.” Jones and Allen believed “dejection and despondence” “aggravated the case of many; while others who bore up cheerfully got up again, that probably would otherwise have died.”[14]

Mathew Carey also suspected psychological factors increased mortality. On a recommendation from the College of Physicians, churches no longer rang bells to mark each death. The constant knell, Carey believed, worked only “to terrify those in health, and drive the sick, as far as the influence of imagination could produce that effect, to their graves.”[15]

John Fenno opted to stay indoors to shield himself from the demoralizing effect of a desolate city. Fenno explained, “In addition to the numerous carriages employed to carry the dead, there were 8 or 9 Carts constantly employed in carrying out the sick.” At one stage of the outbreak, “it was not possible . . . to go the distance of a square without meeting a Corpse, & often 3 or 4.” Fenno wrote, “During this sad state of affairs—I was obliged to go into the center of the Town to market, & to the post-office every day—but such was the dismal scene, & so shocking the details from every quarter . . . I therefore left off going into town.”[16]

5. Many People were Heroic.

The epidemic also exposed both the widespread good citizenship of Americans, and their low expectations of each other. Rush marveled, “It was remarked during this time, by many people that the name of the Supreme Being was seldom profaned . . . Two robberies only, and those of a trifling nature, occurred in nearly two months, although many hundred houses were exposed to plunder, every hour of the day and night.” Jones and Allen also remarked that “it is rather to be admired that so few instances of pilfering and robbery happened, considering the great opportunities there were for such things.”[17]

Beyond the minimal expectation of restraint from lawlessness, many people showed genuine heroism during the epidemic. Fenno wrote, “During our afflictions there were not wanting those heroic, humane & pious minds who think it their duty to brave every danger in the discharge of the offices of Humanity.” Likewise, Carey remarked that many men and women, “some in the middle, others in the lower spheres of life,” “exposed themselves to dangers, which terrified men, who have hundreds of times faced death without fear, in the field of battle.” Carey mentioned the mayor, committee members, doctors and clergy. Carey remarked of the clergy, “Exposed, in the exercise of the last duties to the dying, to equal danger with the physicians, it is not surprising that so many have fallen.”[18]

In a proclamation dated September 10, 1793, Mayor Matthew Clarkson called upon “benevolent citizens” to “offer themselves as volunteers” to help the city’s Overseers of the Poor, many of whom were sick with fever. On September 14, in a triumph of self-government, a group of residents formed themselves into a committee, with the mayor serving as president. The committee took charge of Bush Hill Hospital, established an orphanage, and regulated matters like burials and poor relief. Carey remarked, “It is worthy of remark, and may encourage others in times of public calamity, that this committee consisted originally of only twenty-six persons, men taken from the middle walks of life, and of the moderate pitch of abilities.” Carey noted the committee members “lived together in more harmony than is generally to be met with in public bodies of equal number.”[19]

In August, the Overseers of the Poor appropriated a building at Bush Hill, the country estate of William Hamilton. Out of the country, Hamilton left no local agent to challenge such a move. As patients expired, caked in their own waste, attendants lived riotously on the food and comfort items intended for the sick. Carey described Bush Hill as “a great human slaughter house, where numerous victims were immolated at the altar of riot and intemperance.”[20]

On September 15, two committee members volunteered to reorganize and superintend the hospital at Bush Hill: Stephen Girard, a French immigrant and wealthy merchant, and Peter Helm, a manufacturer of hoops for barrels. Within a few days, doctors Devèzeand Benjamin Duffield offered their services and made daily visits to the sick, assisted by apothecaries who administered medicine according to the doctors’ orders. John Fenno extolled Girard and Helm, noting that the two “immediately entered on this service—and a very great alteration for the better took place directly.” Of Devèze and Duffield, Fenno wrote, “A French Physician & another a native of this City attended—from this time, nearly one half of the Patients were saved.”[21]

J. H. Powell, a twentieth-century historian of the epidemic, depicted the operation of Bush Hill as the triumph of Frenchmen Girard and Devèze over the disciples of Benjamin Rush, of French medicine over Anglo-Scottish practice. Volunteering to help at Bush Hill September 22, Dr. Benjamin Duffield reported to the committee on September 24 that he “finds every thing there in proper order” and “is satisfied with the mode of practice of Doctor Deveze, and the treatment of the sick, and recommends the continuance of the French Apothecaries.”[22]

Devèze marveled that Stephen Girard not only inspected the supplies but visited the sick. “He approached them with that philanthropy that proceeds from the heart alone, and which must give the greater lustre to his generous conduct: he encouraged, took them by the hand, and himself administered the medicine I prescribed.” Devèze credited Helm with overcoming fear of contagion. “Towards the end of the epidemic, he also visited the apartments and took care of the sick.” Devèze also praised the matron of Bush-Hill Hospital, Mary Saville, “principal nurse of the hospital,” “a valuable woman,” who “deserves the gratitude of the public for the manner in which she acquitted herself in the charge assigned her.” Saville volunteered her services on September 17, 1793.[23]

6. Many People were Disappointing.

The reverends Absalom Jones and Richard Allen reflected, “Many of the white people, who ought to be patterns for us to follow after, have acted in a manner that would make humanity shudder.” Accepting the burden of burial detail, Jones and Allen recalled, “We have picked up little children that were wandering they knew not where (whose parents had been cut off), and taken them to the orphan house; for at this time the dread that prevailed over people’s minds was so general, that it was a rare instance to see one neighbor visit another . . . much less would they admit into their houses the distressed orphan that had been where the sickness was. This extreme seemed, in some instances, to have the appearance of barbarity.”[24]

In the initial panic at the contagion, terror prompted friends and relations to desert their loved ones. Carey described servants abandoning humane masters, and masters rushing faithful servants to Bush Hill Hospital on a mere suspicion of the fever. Carey wrote, “Who, without horror, can reflect on a husband deserting his wife . . . in the last agony—a wife unfeelingly abandoning her husband on his death bed,” and “parents forsaking their only children—children ungratefully flying from their parents . . . without an enquiry after their health or safety.”[25]

Devèzewrote, “In short, the public papers inspired you with terror by pretending to declare the disease contagious.” This terror justified, even required, “abandoning the unfortunate victims of this fatal malady, neglected and left alone to expire in all the horror of despair.” Devèze pleaded, “Children! mothers! husbands! think of the duty which God has prescribed to you.” The doctor warned that if “those for whom alone you ought to live are deprived of the cares they expect from you—think what will be your remorse when they are no more.”[26]

John Fenno wrote of “stress and apprehensions” that were “so powerful, that Husbands deserted their Wives; Wives their husbands; children their parents, & vice versa.” Fenno claimed “this unnatural conduct,” in violation of “affection, principle & duty,” was “awfully sanctioned” by the “fatal consequences” of loyalty: “Husbands & wives who mutually nursed each other both died in numerous Instances.”

Humans were not the only victims of abandonment. Rush observed, “Here and there a dead cat added to the impurity of the air of the streets; for many of those animals perished with hunger in the city, in consequence of so many houses being deserted by the inhabitants who had fled into the country.”[27]

The abandonment of loved ones was confined to the initial phase of panic. Of the cases of relations and neighbors abandoning others, Carey wrote, “But I must observe, that most of them happened in the first stage of the public panic. Afterwards, when the citizens recovered a little from their fright, they became rare.”[28]

7. People Feared the Sick.

As a Philadelphia resident observed in 1793, an orphanage was necessary because the extended family of bereft children, and the neighbors who knew them, were “shy of them.” Fear of the disease meant, in many cases, the children were rejected by surviving relations. Fear of the sick during the yellow fever outbreak was comparable to people’s initial response to the HIV/AIDS in the 1980s. In 1985, American television evangelist Tammy Faye Bakker (later Messner) spoke approvingly of hugging a person with HIV/AIDS. In 1987, Britain’s Princess Diana shook hands with an AIDS patient, without gloves. In the 1980s, simply touching a person with AIDS challenged public sentiment on the disease.[29]

Girard and Devèze rightly believed yellow fever was not contagious. Most Americans, however, dreaded a sick person and feared that a healthy person was an asymptomatic carrier. Even the symptoms of a common cold could provoke public backlash. Carey knew of people showing signs only of “common colds, and common fall fevers,” people “only slightly ill” who were forcibly “sent to Bushhill, by their panic-stricken neighbours.” An anonymous Philadelphia resident wrote that “each person became afraid of his neighbors, insomuch that if any became sick they were avoided, and many fled from the sick, leaving them in a destitute situation, perhaps shut up in a house, and the neighbors alarmed.”[30]

Some acts of rejection exceeded self-preserving avoidance and reached the level of violent hatred. Jones and Allen recalled “an instance of cruelty, which, we trust, no colored man would be guilty of.” As Jones and Allen understood the incident, “Two sisters, orderly, decent, white women, were sick with the fever.” One sister recovered. “A neighboring white man saw her, and in an angry tone asked her if her sister was dead or not? She answered, ‘No,’ upon which he replied, ‘Damn her, if she don’t die before morning, I will make her die!’” The stunned woman managed only a “modest reply,” prompting the man to grab a container heavy with water. The unkind neighbor meant to dash her over the head, but an African American intervened on the woman’s behalf. (Jones and Allen do not mention the gender of the Good Samaritan.)

8. Whites Overlooked the Contributions and Suffering of African Americans.

Benjamin Rush, Matthew Clarkson, and Mathew Carey acknowledged what the African Americans did for the public good. Sadly, the work of black caregivers was largely invisible to whites. Reverends Jones and Allen labored on burial detail and visited the sick. Black nurses, new to the vocation but eager to help, struggled to care for patients who were delirious with fever. Jones and Allen remarked, “We have suffered equally with whites; our distress hath been very great, but much unknown to the white people. Few have been the whites that paid attention to us, while the colored persons were engaged in others’ service.”[31]

African Americans were constantly working in the background of the stories whites remembered. John Fenno wrote, “I have repeatedly been in the Street when scarcely an individual was to be seen as far as the eye could extend, except a Negro leading a Herse, or a Chair Carriage, or a Horse Cart with a Corpse—sometimes two in a Cart.” Carey remarked that men of fortune, who had given work to hundreds, “have been abandoned to the care of a negro, after their wives, children, friends, clerks, and servants had fled away, and left them to their fate.” Likewise, “corpses of the most respectable citizens” went to the grave, “unattended by a friend or relation,” “the horse driven by a negro.”[32]

Rush recalled, “Funeral processions were laid aside. A black man, leading, or driving a horse . . . with now and then half a dozen relations or friends following at a distance from it, met the eye in most of the streets of the city at every hour of the day, while the noise of the same wheels passing slowly over the pavements, kept alive anguish and fear in the sick and well, every hour of the night.”[33]

Benjamin Rush’s account of yellow fever suggests the gruesomeness and heartbreak of Jones and Allen’s work on burial detail. Rush relied on Allen and Jones for details about postmortem effects of yellow fever. The discharge of blood from the nose, mouth and bowels of several corpses necessitated sealing the joints of coffins, to prevent leakage of draining fluids. Allen and Jones witnessed the posthumous tears shed by the corpse of a young woman. Rush gave these descriptions in clinical detail, but they were images of anguish etched in the memories of Jones and Allen.[34]

The reverends described occasions they were summoned to inter a corpse and “found a parent dead, and none but little innocent babes to be seen, whose ignorance led them to think their parent was asleep.” The plight of the children and their innocent prattle left the reverends “so wounded and our feelings so hurt, that we almost concluded to withdraw from our undertaking; but, seeing others so backward [in their duty], we still went on.”[35]

Jones and Allen mentioned a little girl who chided them, “Mamma is asleep—don’t wake her!” The child’s reaction to the coffin “almost overcame us.” The reverends recalled, “When she demanded why we put her mamma in the box, we did not know how to answer her, but committed her to the care of a neighbor, and left . . . with heavy hearts.”

As for allegations that black nurses were neglectful, Jones and Allen implored their readers to consider the difference between “nursing in common cases” and nursing during an epidemic. Many nurses were “up night and day,” “worn down with fatigue and want of sleep,” “without any one to relieve them.” Some patients were delirious, “raging and frightful to behold;” other patients “lay vomiting blood and screaming enough to chill them with horror.”[36]

Benjamin Rush encouraged African Americans to offer their help on the mistaken but widespread belief that blacks were immune to yellow fever. Observing a yellow fever outbreak in Charles Town (Charleston), South Carolina in 1748, Dr. John Lining wrote, “There is something very singular in the constitution of the Negroes, which renders them not liable to this fever.” In a Philadelphia paper, Rush published an excerpt of Lining’s remarks with a declaration of Rush’s intent “to hint to the black people” that they had “a noble opportunity” of showing their gratitude to a city that was a center of anti-slavery sentiment, where whites placed blacks “upon a footing with themselves.”[37]

Lining, however, did not witness immunity among American-born blacks. In the 1740s, South Carolina’s enslaved population was overwhelmingly African born. South Carolina’s enslaved population did not experience natural increase until the 1750s, or perhaps even the 1760s. The people Lining listed as susceptible to yellow fever—whites, mulattoes, Native Americans, and people of mixed European and Native American heritage—were born in America or recently arrived from Europe. Lining witnessed blacks who probably survived yellow fever as children in Africa, where the disease was endemic. Yellow fever was devastating among adults. Where the disease was endemic, however, yellow fever was a relatively mild childhood illness that provided lifelong immunity.[38]

Philadelphia’s Free Africa Society offered their services to the city. While Allen and Jones agreed to arrange burials, William Gray organized efforts to recruit black nurses. Carey admitted, “The services of Jones, Allen, and Gray, and others of their colour, have been very great, and demand public gratitude.” Benjamin Rush marveled, “Absalom Jones, and Richard Allen, two black men, spent all the intervals of time, in which they were not employed in burying the dead, in visiting the poor who were sick, and in bleeding them and purging them, agreeably to the directions which had been printed in all the news papers. Their success was unparalleled by what is called regular practice.”[39]

Despite assurances of their immunity, African Americans suffered from the disease. Rush lamented, “It was not long after these worthy Africans undertook the execution of their humane offer of services to the sick, before I was convinced I had been mistaken. They took the disease, in common with the white people, and many of them died with it.”[40]

Despite deaths from the disease, white observers believed yellow fever was more survivable for African Americans than for whites. Rush noted, “The disease was lighter in them, than in white people. I met with no case of hemorrhage in a black patient.” Likewise, Carey wrote, “They did not escape the disorder; however, the number of them that were seized with it, was not great; and, as I am informed by an eminent doctor, ‘it yielded to the power of medicine in them more easily than in the whites.’”[41]

Jones and Allen took issue with the claim that yellow fever was gentler on African Americans than on Philadelphia’s whites. The reverends noted, “In 1792 there were 67 of our color buried, and in 1793 it amounted to 305; thus the burials among us have increased more than fourfold.” Jones and Allen asked, “Was not this in a great degree the effects of the services of the unjustly vilified colored people?”[42]

9. No Good Deed Goes Unpunished.

In his account of the fever outbreak, Carey alleged “some of the vilest blacks” extorted high wages for their attendance as nurses. Carey wrote, “They extorted two, three, four, and even five dollars a night for attendance, which would have been well paid by a single dollar.” A few, Carey noted, had been “detected in plundering” the goods of the ill. Carey strained to control the racist implications of his charges, praising Jones, Allen, Gray, “and others of their colour.”[43]

Jones and Allen responded that far more blacks than whites served as nurses, but an equal number of whites were guilty of pilfering. Theft by nurses in general was rare, the reverends noted, but in proportion to their numbers, white nurses were more likely to steal than black nurses. Furthermore, high prices did not result from African Americans charging unreasonable fees. Instead, families outbid each other for the available caregivers.[44]

For Jones and Allen, the image of extortionist nurses hardly represented the black response to the crisis. Jones and Allen described several instances of African Americans who helped the sick without compensation. For instance, “A poor colored man, named Sampson, went constantly from house to house where distress was . . . without fee or reward. He was smitten with the disorder, and died. After his death, his family were neglected by those he had served.” Jones and Allen wrote, “We do not recollect such acts of humanity from the poor, white people, in all the round we have been engaged in . . . It is unpleasant for us to make these remarks, but justice to our color demands it.”[45]

As for the charges of economic opportunism, Jones and Allen offered a glimpse at their own account of expenses. “The whole amount of cash received for burying the dead, and for burying beds,” was £233 10s. 6d. The reverends paid £33 for coffins and £378 total to the five men hired to help with burials. The reverends calculated themselves “out of pocket” £177 9s 8d. This did not include their incidental gifts to poor families or the “several hundred of poor persons and strangers” the ministers buried, “for which service we have never received nor never asked any compensation.”[46]

In exchange for their efforts, African Americans faced rumors and false accusations from the white community. Whites accused black nurses of opportunism. Jones and Allen faced rumors that they stole beds from the houses of the dead. Even Mathew Carey was disturbed by the many whites who maligned Philadelphia’s African American community. Although he raised the allegation of extortion wages, Carey insisted “it is wrong to cast censure on the whole for this sort of conduct, as many people have done.”[47]


Perhaps the lessons of the yellow fever epidemic apply in other crises. Social distancing in times of contagion should not entail callousness toward the ill. The public can give a thought not only to those tending the sick and suffering, but also remember the people society trusts to tend to the dead.


[1]“Yellow Fever: Philadelphia November 14,” Hartford Courant (Hartford, CT), December 9, 1793; published anonymously, it is the letter of John Fenno to Joseph Ward dated the same day. John Fenno to Joseph Ward, November 14, 1793, in “Letters of John Fenno and John Ward Fenno, 1779-1800, Part 2: 1792-1800,” ed. John B. Hench, Proceedings of the American Antiquarian Society 90 (1980): 185, (Hench,”Letters, Part 2”).

[2]Fenno to Ward, November 14, 1793, 182-188, John Fenno to Joseph Ward, September 9, 1793, in Hench, “Letters, Part 2,” 173-175; John Fenno to Joseph Ward, October 8, 1793, in ibid., 176-178; for background on Fenno and Ward, consult “Letters of John Fenno and John Ward Fenno, 1779-1800, Part 1: 1779-1790,” ed. John B. Hench, Proceedings of the American Antiquarian Society 89 (1980): 299, 301, 303-304,; Carey,Short Account.

[3]Absalom Jones and Richard Allen, A Narrative of the Proceedings of the Colored People During the Awful Calamity in Philadelphia, in the Year 1793 … (1794), in Richard Allen, The Life, Experience, and Gospel Labors of the Rt. Rev. Richard Allen … (Philadelphia: F. Ford and M. A. Ripley, 1880), 33-51 (Jones and Allen, Narrative).

[4]Benjamin Rush, An Account of the Bilious Remitting Yellow Fever, as it Appeared in the City of Philadelphia in the Year 1793 (Philadelphia: Thomas Dobson, 1794); Jean Devèze, An Enquiry into, and Observations upon the Causes and Effects of the Epidemic Disease, which Raged in Philadelphia… (Philadelphia: Parent, 1794), Countway Library of Medicine, Harvard University, Harvard Library Viewer,$1i.

[5]Jones and Allen, Narrative, 44; Rush, Account, 80; “Yellow Fever,” May 7, 2019, World Health Organization,

[6]Carey, Short Account, 107 [not numbered], 108 [not numbered]; Rush, Account, 123, 128; 58-59.

[7]Fenno to Ward, November 14, 1793, 184; Carey, Short Account, 29.

[8]Fenno to Ward, September 9, 1793, 174; Fenno to Ward, November 14, 1793, 184.

[9]Rush,Account, 124-125.

[10]Carey, Short Account, 28, 30.

[11]Carey, Short Account, 16-17; Fenno to Ward, November 14, 1793, 185; Devèze, Enquiry, 12, 16, 20.

[12]Fenno to Ward, November 14, 1793, 184; Carey, Short Account, 29; Rush, Account, 99.

[13]Rush,Account, 80, 98.

[14]Jones and Allen, A Narrative, 45.

[15]Fenno to Ward, 184; Carey, Short Account, 29, 31.

[16]Fenno to Ward, November 14, 1793, 185.

[17]Rush,Account, 127; Jones and Allen, Narrative, 42.

[18]Fenno to Ward, November 14, 1793, 185, 186; Carey, Short Account, 89-91; 73.

[19]Minutes of the Proceedings of the Committee, Appointed on the 14th September, 1793, by the Citizens of Philadelphia … (Philadelphia: R. Atken & Son, 1794), 1-4, 7 (Minutes); J. H. Powell, Bring Out Your Dead: The Great Plague of Yellow Rever in Philadelphia in 1793 (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1993 [1949]), 144; Carey, Short Account, 57, 58.

[20]Carey, Short Account, 27, 61.

[21]Minutes, 13, 15, 30; Fenno to Ward, November 14, 1793, 184.

[22]September 24, 1793, Minutes, 30, 32.

[23]Deveze, Enquiry, 26, 28, 30; Powell, Bring Out Your Dead, 165.

[24]Jones and Allen, Narrative, 47-48.

[25]Carey, Short Account, 30-31.

[26]Devèze, Enquiry, 8, 10, 12, 16.

[27]Rush,Account, 109.

[28]Carey, Short Account, 34.

[29]“New-York, September 28: Extract of a Letter from Philadelphia to a Gentleman in Baltimore, dated the 20th Instant,” Hartford Courant, October 7, 1793, to Baltimore, September 20, 1793); John H. Wigger, PTL: The Rise and Fall of Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker’s Evangelical Empire (New York: Oxford University Press, 2017), 204-205; “How Princess Diana Changed Attitudes to AIDS,” BBC News, April 5, 2017,

[30]Carey, Short Account, 62; Philadelphia to Baltimore, September 20, 1793.

[31]Jones and Allen, Narrative, 43.

[32]Fenno to Ward, November 14, 1793, 184; Carey, Short Account, 29, 31.

[33]Rush,Account, 125.


[35]Jones and Allen, Narrative, 46.

[36]Ibid., 43.

[37]Rush,Account, 322-323; John Lining, A Description of the American Yellow Fever, which Prevailed at Charleston, in South Carolina, in the Year 1748 (Philadelphia: Thomas Dobson, 1799 [1753]), 7.

[38]Rush,Account, 322-323; Philip D. Morgan, Slave Counterpoint: Black Culture in the Eighteenth-Century Chesapeake and Lowcountry (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1998), 83; Peter H. Wood, Black Majority: Negroes in Colonial South Carolina From 1670 through the Stono Rebellion (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1996 [1974]), 150-153; Mariola Espinosa, “The Question of Racial Immunity to Yellow Fever in History and Historiography,” Social Science History 38, no. 3-4 (2014): 445, (Espinosa, “Question of Racial Immunity”); Tim Lockley, “Militarized Slavery: The Creation of the West India Regiments,” in The Many Faces of Slavery: New Perspectives on Slave Ownership and Experiences in the Americas, ed. Lawrence Aje and Catherine Armstrong (New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2020), 105.

[39]Rush, Account, 322-323; Carey, Short Account, 77.

[40]Rush, Account, 97.

[41]Ibid.; Carey, Short Account, 78.

[42]Jones and Allen, Narrative, 44; for a modern historian’s rejection of inherited immunity to yellow fever, consult Espinosa, “Question of Racial Immunity,” 441-449.

[43]Carey, Short Account, 77.

[44]Jones and Allen, Narrative, 36-40, 42.

[45]Ibid., 41, 42.

[46]Ibid., 35-36.

[47]Ibid., 48; Carey, Short Account, 77.


  • Such an important post. The universality of human experience, both now and historically, is really what life’s all about. Thank you Mr. O’Malley, JAR and MoAR for reminding us!

  • Thanks! Great work. Admittedly on a slightly different direction than your article’s focus, I am also under the impression that, given yellow fever’s clearing the streets of Philadelphia, the rampaging Democratic-Republican mobs threatening to lynch President Washington were dispersed. Washington was maintaining neutrality towards the continuing French and English conflict, and the riled-up Democratic-Republicans wanted him to support France. From this perspective, yellow fever quite probably saved Washington’s life and thus the life of our young nation. Huzzah!?

  • My ancestor, George Christhilf, a musician, and two of his children, Maria and Daniel, died unexpectedly in Philadelphia’s 1793 Yellow Fever epidemic. I have read much about the disease and I agree with you that the city’s public, nor anyone anywhere at the time, knew that it was a virus carried by a voracious female mosquito. Also, as you said, people were afraid of why citizens were dying and naturally they blamed everything on the cause. The deaths from the curse slowed to a trickle with the first frost . . . and then died out. One lives and learns; perseveres, comes up with a panacea, as we must do today. We will beat this atrocity as we have done in the past.

  • Certainly a timely article. It’s worth noting that Thomas Paine, a friend of Rush’s during the Revolutionary period, wrote an article in 1806 exploring the causes of the disease. It can readily be found in the Timeline of the Thomas Paine National Historical Association, which is continuing to publish Paine’s writings digitally. Paine determined that the cause of yellow fever must be associated with the building of wharfs in the “low” areas of Philadelphia, that somehow vapors rising from disturbing the filthy mud bottoms caused the disease. But while well off the mark, his notion that water, not air, was associated with the illness was an interesting observation.

    BTW, Paine also describes an experiment that he and George Washington conducted at the end of the war, in the fall of 1783, involving gases rising from a river bottom and catching on fire. The two had a bet to settle. A delightful read.

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