Every year when the seasons change from cold to warm, I get sick. Usually it’s allergies or a cold, but like clockwork I am out of commission for a few days. I suspect this has happened to people since time began, but if you lived on Manhattan Island during the 1790s, and even as late as the 1820s, you might have caught something far more deadly than the common cold: Yellow Fever.
Yellow Fever is a typically tropical disease passed person to person by the mosquito Aedes aegypti. Upon infection the majority of victims experience severe headaches, exhaustion, and a high fever. While they might feel better sporadically, victims quickly descend into delirium. Their skin takes a distinctive yellow hue, hence the name “yellow” fever. Once this happens, approximately ten percent of individuals vomit black bile and eventually die.
In the 1790s yellow fever plagued port cities up and down the east coast. Officials blamed everything from poor air to garbage in the streets for causing the disease, not yet understanding that it was predominantly due to swampy areas that bred mosquitoes. Fearing the disease might arrive by ship, cities began to quarantine vessels they suspected might have been infected.
Isaac Hicks (1767-1820), a New York merchant active at the time of this epidemic, received letters from clients and colleagues regarding a “sickness” that had been affecting New York, Philadelphia, and Baltimore. Most port cities downplayed the disease ravaging their cities: if it became common knowledge that they were suffering an outbreak, they risked losing vast amounts of income from trade. Still, merchants informed each other about outbreaks of Yellow Fever, and continued to trade as normal.
Today, thankfully, Yellow Fever is a disease most of us will never suffer. More sanitary conditions and the draining of stagnant waters have largely decimated the mosquito populations that once plagued the city. And a Yellow Fever vaccine has been available for over 80 years, a relief to those traveling to tropical regions who might contract the disease. I should be grateful I don’t live in the late 18th century, and should stop complaining about my seasonal colds.
This post is by Jennifer Gargiulo, a project archivist who is processing the Isaac Hicks Papers through a generous grant from the Gladys Krieble Delmas Foundation.