Perhaps no other date will be etched in horror in the minds of New Yorkers as September 11, 2001, the day of the World Trade Center attack. However, there are other dates in the history of the Big Apple that were as terrifying—and in some cases more destructive of life and property—as the date chosen by Al-Qaeda. These tragedies also served to shape the city into the metropolis that we see today and to make it resilient.
10. The Yellow Fever Epidemic Of 1795–1805
Yellow fever is a tropical disease caused by a virus spread by the Aedes aegypti mosquito. Occasionally, it shows up in higher latitudes. One devastating appearance in Philadelphia in 1793 soon spread to New York City and the entire Eastern seaboard. Though no one at the time understood what caused the disease or how it was spread, the initial reaction to quarantine boats coming from Philadelphia delayed the epidemic for a while. But by the summer of 1795, Manhattan began reporting its first cases of yellow fever.
It was a grim disease. Victims experienced headaches, severe exhaustion, and slowed heart rates. Then came delirium, and patients’ skin and pupils would take on the yellow hue that characterized the infection. A copious amount of blood and black bile was vomited before the victims finally died. Officials were not alarmed at first. New York had brushes with yellow fever before that, which were easily contained. When bodies began to pile up, they denied that there was an epidemic, fearing a mass panic and exodus from the city and the attendant collapse of business.
Part of the terror was not knowing the cause of the infection. Noah Webster sought to prove that the eruption of Mt. Etna in Sicily was to blame. Others speculated that rotting coffee in the docks was the culprit. Some doctors came close to the truth when they realized that the disease was not spread from person to person but from something in the “constitution of the air.” Consequently, the Health Committee ordered the cleanup of New York’s most notorious cesspools, sewers, swampy grounds, and crowded buildings, especially the “streets, yards, cellars and markets” near the East River. It also went after merchants who kept putrefying meat in their cellars.
The fever did not abate. Bellevue Hospital was swamped with new cases throughout August and September. Poet-turned-doctor Elihu Hubbard-Smith noted in his diary: “Wherever you go, the Fever is the invariable and unceasing topic of conversation . . . People collect in groups to talk it over, and to frighten each other into fever, or flight.” He estimated that those who chose the latter course as numbering between 12,000–15,000. Smith opted to stay behind to attend to the victims and study the epidemic. He would pay with his life when the fever finally caught him in 1798. The approach of winter brought respite, but the first year left 730 New Yorkers dead.
The fever returned with a vengeance 1798, 1803, and 1805. Claims of homemade cures abounded. “Lime-water mixed with an equal quantity of new milk” was said to be effective against the black vomit. Newspapers touted alkaline medicines; lime was reported as disinfecting the air from “poisonous vapor.” Totally ignorant as to the nature of the contagion, doctors treated it as they did scurvy, with “neutral mixtures, lemonade, cider, peaches, pears and apples.”
1,524 people died in 1798, or 4 percent of New York’s population. Before the worst was over, another 868 would succumb. Perhaps no other testimony would capture the horror better than a letter from a lady named Alice Cogswell, which said:
What sad havoc does this pestilential fever make with the inhabitants of this world, wives torn from their husbands, husbands torn from their wives, and in some instances whole families swept to eternity without one left to mourn their loss. It is enough to make one’s heart weep drops of blood, or rather streams, my soul turns with horror from this scene of wretchedness and misery to the world beyond the grave where there is no more sorrow or grief. It is the god of heaven that thus desolates the world and he has just reason for it . . .