Novel coronavirus (COVID-19) is not the first epidemic to plague New Orleans. In fact, from 1796 to 1873, New Orleans residents were subject to city-ordered quarantine for a total of 23 years due to the constant and often overlapping ravages of yellow fever, bubonic plague, cholera, smallpox, and malaria.
“The Mississippi River cannot be kept down by an act against inundations, nor raised by an act for the benefit of stranded steamboats. What is to be done? Action! Action, only! Disinfect air, earth, skies, ships, goods, and humanity. On with the lustration!” wrote New Orleanian Dr. Bennett Dowler in 1853.
During uncertain times, history can provide comfort. However, a word of caution against using New Orleans’ history of disease to transmit historical empathy, manufacture allegory, or inspire the cry of “let’s never make these mistakes again!” Death toll comparisons and quarantine orders are dangerous without context. Who was considered worth accounting for and who was doing the accounting? What kind of economic, racial, scientific, and religious structures influenced disease-battling tactics and legislation, and how did these actually play out in homes and on the streets?
Considering the powers at play in epidemics of the past can be helpful to think through the present. Scientific and humanistic narratives were told and retold by primarily powerful, literate, wealthy white men. A history of the majority of New Orleanians—those left behind after wealthy white families fled the city for plantations and other rural retreats—must ask more critical questions of the archival record. Has New Orleans ever protected the most vulnerable during epidemics? Who has paid the price for scientific advances and who has benefitted? What kinds of work was lost and created due to disease, and who filled those roles?
1718: Colonial Miasmas
Many of Louisiana’s early European colonists died from disease and starvation. Common European diseases such as smallpox, dysentery, and cholera also began to infect the Indengous peoples with whom the colonists had contact. As the need for labor in the colony grew, so also did the number of enslaved people brought to Louisiana from Africa, often with stopovers in the Caribbean. Sporadic smallpox outbreaks among enslaved Africans were thought to have originated in Africa, incubated in the holds of slave ships, and spread by enslaved people and Europeans engaged in the Transatlantic slave trade.
Throughout the 18th and most of the 19th century, disease was thought to be caused by “miasmas”—poisonous vapors in the air that arose from concentrations of naturally occuring toxins, as well as occult sources. Many thought that swamps were sources of “marsh-poison,” and that Louisiana was doomed to be a hub for disease due to its climate and landform.
1769: “Hit With A Stick”
Accounts of how yellow fever first came to Louisiana are as numerous as they are gruesome. One account blames a Parisian family from Gallipolis, Ohio who traveled the length of the Ohio River to the Mississippi in order to trade in New Orleans in 1769. They fell victim to the “Black Vomit,” a tell-tale symptom of yellow fever, and spread the disease down the river. Another popular theory was that yellow fever originated in Cádiz, Spain in the 17th century, and was spread to the Spanish West Indies by sailors. As early as 1655, “Yellow Jack” or yellow fever was reported as a common disease in the Caribbean. Sailors continued to spread “Yellow Jack” to the Louisiana territory. The disease was also known as “coup de barre” or “hit with a stick” due to terrible bodily aches and convulsions.
1794–1796: Canal Carondelet
In 1794, Governor Francisco Luis Hector, Baron de Carondelet began work on a canal system that would increase trade by connecting the city of New Orleans with Bayou St. John. The canal would also drain low-lying areas of water, polluted by city waste. Canal Carondelet (later known as Old Basin Canal), was dug by enslaved people and work gangs. Several canal diggers contracted yellow fever.
The first recorded cases of yellow fever in New Orleans appeared in 1796 with only a brief commentary on the canal conditions. Dr. Masdevall, doctor to Charles IV of Spain, devised a multi-stage pharmaceutical treatment for yellow fever that was declared “blessed” by the Catholic Church. Masdevall’s treatment involved various tinctures and vomit-inducing medicines, and quickly gained popularity throughout the Caribbean and Central America, to New Orleans.
1805: Seventy-Five Cents Per Day
Yellow fever again took hold in 1805. Also called “The Fever of the West Indies” during these years, more medical advice reached New Orleans from Honduras, Belize, Cuba, Martinique, Jamaica, and the Antilles. The disease was still attributed to “powerful mischiefs of marsh miasmata.” Many sailors were immediately quarantined in Charity Hospital. Albert Gallatin, Secretary of Treasury, reported that medical care at Charity Hospital cost the city 75 cents per day for each sailor.
1810: Smallpox and Sewing Needles
By the early 19th century, smallpox outbreaks from the Northeastern states had reached Louisiana. A remedy was developed, and a state order was issued for the inoculation of babies. Mothers would use sewing needles to deliver a small quantity of “kine-pock,” a different strain of the disease that came from Britain.
1816: The Myth of Black Immunity
Yellow fever struck New Orleans again in 1816 and 1817. The first “Hygiene Legislation” and “Quarantine Laws” were enacted to cut down on the “filth” and “offal” on unpaved streets and prevent spread. However, many of the wealthy white residents left the city, or could afford early medical care and sanitized housing. Immigrants, children, laborers, and the poor were yellow fever’s most numerous victims. A common myth that circulated widely was that Black people were immune to yellow fever. However, in 1818, a report shows that nearly four times as many Black children died as compared to white women, speaking perhaps not to immunity, but living conditions.
1820: The Ill-Fated Waterworks
Benjamin Latrobe, “The Father of American Architecture” who designed the Philadelphia and Washington DC waterworks to stave off yellow fever, himself died of yellow fever while New Orleans’ first waterworks was still under construction by enslaved men.
1821: “The Healthiest City in The Union”
The 1820s were characterized by much finger-pointing, pseudo-science, and aggressive city measures. Quarantine laws passed in February 1821 created a New Orleans Board of Health and began a citywide quarantine that lasted four years. However, in 1822, then-Governor of Louisiana Thomas B. Robertson curiously declared New Orleans “The Healthiest City in The Union.”
In 1823, the Board of Health reported that overexposure to the sun and fatigue caused spontaneous yellow fever contraction. In another report, they blamed particular families who they called out by name. And in yet another report, yellow fever was thought to come from “swamp exhalation” from the Gulf of Mexico’s geologic layers. Most residents settled on “bad atmosphere” as the cause, and lit tar on fire in the streets in an attempt to cleanse the air.
Newspapers advised wealthy white residents to “leave the city and disperse among the plantations”. If the wealthy remained in the city in quarantine, enslaved people were still sent to the market and on other errands outside of the home. Many died, in addition to Indigenous people who were enslaved or lived outside of the city borders. In 1823, Dr. Dowler describes a scene in which five members of the Choctaw tribe came into the city, contracted yellow fever, and lit themselves on fire.
In 1826, The Mortuary Chapel of St. Anthony Of Padua was built at Rampart and Conti Streets exclusively for funerals of yellow fever victims, since funerals could not be held at St. Louis Cathedral for fear of contagion. Mourners were not allowed inside the church but could look through the windows during the ceremony. The dead bodies were thought to give off infectious fumes, though they were still handled by Black men. Today, the Mortuary Chapel is known as Our Lady of Guadalupe Church.
1832: New Basin Canal
In 1832, work began on the New Basin Canal. A rival to Carondelet Canal, New Basin Canal also connected the city of New Orleans to Lake Pontchartrain, roughly along the path of the current Pontchartrain Expressway. Labor for the massive undertaking were primarily Irish immigrants, newly arrived, who could be paid pittance wages. The prospect of using enslaved workers was less enticing by 1831, as enslaved people themselves were considered assets. Owners thought it too risky to lose valuable “property” to cholera, malaria, and yellow fever. Better to pay and replace immigrant workers. The death toll remains a contentious subject among historians, with estimates ranging from 3,000 to 30,000. Countless bodies were piled along the banks.
1848: Left Behind
New Orleans was struck by a significant cholera outbreak, thought to have come from the English and Irish immigrants aboard three steamships. Transportation and shipping screeched to a halt, with news quickly reaching Britain. Cholera raged through neighborhoods of poor, free Blacks. Since cholera was thought to be spread through breathing, victims were often left to die in their homes.
History of the yellow fever in New Orleans, during the summer of 1853 (U.S. National Library of Medicine)
1853: The Highest Death Toll
The 1853 epidemic was the most devastating in New Orleans history. Both yellow fever, and the related disease malaria, ravaged the population. People died faster than graves could be dug. Observers describe parades of coffins down every street and heaping potter’s fields where the poor and unidentified were laid to rest, piled on top of each other.
Yet even in this “abode of death” (dubbed so by Northeastern journalists), people found ways to profit from pain. Doctors and pharmacists engaged in price gouging. Businessmen lied about the epidemic and placed false ads so as not to dissuade foreign trade.
The wealth gap and racial segregation in the city could not be ignored. The August 8, 1853 New Orleans Bee noted the “throngs of laboring classes” still left in the city. “The poor man perishes, while his careful and better provided neighbor, who can afford to pass a few days in idleness, has his medical attendant at his bedside the moment he is taken, and passes through the fever in safety.” Doctors who went into the poorest areas of the city found houses sinking into the mud with floors “quite covered with a water too filthy and offensive for description.” Even though there was free medical care in the city, many had to continue working until the disease was too severe to treat.
The 1853 yellow fever outbreak took more victims than we will ever know. The death counts were commissioned by the owner of the newspaper True Delta and only accounted for white deaths, with a special focus on wealthy people buried in St. Louis Cemetery No. 1, The Protestant Cemetery, and Cypress Grove Cemetery. How many poor, working class, and Black people perished—not deemed worthy of even a tally mark?
On December 12, 1854, Mayor John L. Lewis wrote to the state of Louisiana asking for a State Board of Health to be funded, ironically, by $20,000 from the sale of the New Basin Canal back to the city.
1861–1865: The Civil War
During the Civil War, many barracks were plagued by smallpox outbreaks. Often blamed on the arrival of newly freed and runaway enslaved people, many were put in segregated barracks. Others were thrown into the streets.
1868: St. Roch Intercedes
The yellow fever outbreak of 1868 birthed an enduring New Orleans legend. At the height of the epidemic, Father Peter Leonhard Thevis, pastor at Holy Trinity Church, prayed to St. Roch, the Catholic saint of protection from disease. No one in his congregation died. Father Thevis built a chapel in 1875 in thanks to St. Roch. It was dedicated September 6, 1875 in the surrounding St. Roch Cemetery No. 1. To this day, many who seek healing from illness and affliction make the pilgrimage to St. Roch Chapel.
1878: The Cost of Science
By this time the “miasma” and “marsh fever” theories had been debunked, but scientific advancement never comes without a cost. “Black Vomit” and the blood of yellow fever patients were injected into dogs for scientific study, and countless cadavers were dissected immediately upon death. During the 1878 epidemic, tugboats and barges were found to be the primary sites of transmission, as goods and people were transferred from the ocean to the river mouth.
1905: The “Last” Yellow Fever Outbreak
In 1905, the Federal government intervened, mandating city-wide fumigation. The U.S. Public Health and Marine Hospital Service fumigated buildings and areas known to breed mosquitoes.
Spot Map of Yellow Fever cases in New Orleans 1905 Epidemic | The Historic New Orleans Collection, 1922.214.171.124
1914: The Black Death
This lesser known outbreak of bubonic plague, brought by a Swedish sailor, killed 30 people but was still treated with military-enforced quarantine. A citywide rat extermination campaign proved extremely effective, as rats in the grain elevators on the wharves were found not only to be carriers of the disease, but overrunning the entire city. Later, legislation mandating closed trash cans and raised house foundations was passed.
1918: The Spanish Flu
In 1918, an oil tanker arrived at the Port of New Orleans with five sailors with Spanish Flu, which quickly spread throughout the city. The sailors died of pneumonia-like symptoms. New Orleans Board of Health and Mayor Martin Behrman closed schools, churches, and public gatherings.
All Tulane and Newcomb College classes were canceled (except for military drills); and five emergency hospitals were set up in addition to Charity Hospital: Sophie Gumbel (Touro-Shakespeare almshouse), Knights of Columbus Hall in Algiers, Southern Yacht Club, Tulane University, and Provident Sanitarium. Albert Workman, president of the Sanitarium, used his facility’s 40 beds for the treatment of New Orleans’ Black population. Red Cross nurses recruited and staffed the hospitals. The emergency hospitals were taken over, equipped, and staffed sometimes in as little as 24 hours.
All food and beverage workers were required to wear masks; streetcars could be filled a maximum of 50%. Volunteers delivered food and milk. The mayor and city council provided “medical attendance, medicines, bread, meat, wine, and the like for the sick poor.”
1921: Louisiana’s “Last” Plague
According to the Louisiana Department of Health, a bubonic plague (Black Death) outbreak from 1919 to 1921 was Louisiana’s last plague. The department records its official end as 1921.
Top Image: Member of Howard Society treating a yellow fever victim, circa 1878 | The Historic New Orleans Collection, 19126.96.36.199
Beugnot, J.F, “An Essay on Yellow Fever, by J.F. Beugnot D.M.P., read before the Louisiana Medico-Chirurgical Society, Sept. 1843.” New Orleans Medical Journal, Volume August 1844, New Orleans: A. Dorr, 1845.
Chaillé, Stanford E., The New Orleans Auxiliary Sanitary Association publishes for the benefit of the public the following information as to small-pox and vaccination, New Orleans: W. B. Stansbury & Co., 1883.
Dowler, Bennet.Tableau of the yellow fever of 1853, with topographical, chronological, and historical sketches of the epidemics of New Orleans since their origin in 1796, illustrative of the quarantine question, New Orleans: Picayune, 1854.
Dromgoole, John Parham. Yellow fever. Heroes, honors, and horrors of 1878. A list of over ten thousand victims, martyr death-roll of volunteer physicians, nurses, etc., ministers, masons, odd fellows, Knights of Honor, Knights of Pythias, W.M.C.A., railroaders, telegraphers, etc., who died. Theories, symptoms, and treatment by eminent authors sketches of all infected points explanation of terms panoramic pen-pictures of the tidal-wave of death contributions – noble responses, Louisville: Morton, 1879.