What Can We Learn From The Story Of The Yellow Fever Outbreak Of 1793?

by William Skink

History does not stay locked in the past, static and unchanging. There is immense power in how historical events are defined and remembered.

I recently came across a podcast about the Yellow Fever. While I had heard something about a Yellow Fever outbreak in America, I had no idea when it happened, where, and who was involved.

If you don’t have time to listen to the podcast, below the fold is a description of the Yellow Fever from Ras Ben’s website. For historical parallels, think of Stephen Girard as the Bill Gates of this story. Enjoy your history lesson.


In August, Stephen Girard transports at least 2,000 refugees fleeing the Haitian Reign of to Philadelphia. Crowded in makeshift housing near one of Girard’s properties on Dock Street off of the Delaware River, they are living in squalid unsanitary conditions. They also carried Yellow Fever.

Yellow Fever, also known as Black Vomit disease is terrifying. It is caused by a parasite that attacks the liver causing jaundice; hence the name Yellow Fever. The parasite can also cause bleeding within the digestive tract; hence the Black Vomit. The disease typically begins with fever and chills, after which the patient seems to recover. However, after this apparent remission, the infected victims skin turns yellow and he or she throws up black vomit. They fall into a stupor, become incontinent and waste away. The parasite is transferred by mosquito bite, a fact not known in1793. It was then assumed the disease was infectious and passed from human-to-human.

The plague created a crisis in the city as well as in government. Approximately 20,000 fled the city, more than a third of the city’s 50,000 total population at the time. The ones who fled tended to be affluent and could afford escaping. Those who remained tended to be poor and needy. They tended to self quarantine in small quarters lining thin streets and alleyways. It is said the only ones who walked the streets fearless of Yellow Fever were the Haitian refugees Girard transported to Dock Street because they felt they were immune to it.

The Governor and Mayor at that time ordered the city to be kept sanitized and the docks secured to prevent infected ships from the Caribbean from docking until they had gone through a period of quarantine. The mayor and a crisis committee planned a hospital at Bush Hill in the current Fairmount district. leading advocate on the committee was Stephen Girard.

Stephen Girard created the problem of the Yellow Fever Epidemic, and then he created questionable, self-serving responses. First and foremost he used it as an opportunity to present himself as a Philanthropic lover of humanity. Girard’s reputation at this time was grimy. His fortune in shipping was made through a combination of smuggling, bribery, and enslavement both before and during the American Revolution. He bought and sold black-market opium in China. He owned plantations in Louisiana that bred enslaved indigenous and relied on enslaved labor.

Girard used the plandemic as an opportunity to rebrand himself from a miser and misanthrop – hater of humanity – to a generous philanthrop.

The Minutes of the Committee of Citizens, Sept. 16, 1793 report reads: “Stephen Girard and Peter Helm, members of this com-mittee, commiserating the calamitous state to which the sick may probably be reduced for want of suitable persons to superintend the Hospital, voluntarily offered their services for that benevolent employment. Resolved, that they be encouraged immediately to enter upon the important duties of their appointment.”–

Girard himself wrote, “The deplorable situation to which fright and sickness have reduced the inhabitants of our city demands succor from those who do not fear death. This will occupy me for some time, and if I have the misfortune to succumb I will at least have the satisfaction of having performed a duty which we all owe to one another.”

A first-hand account of Girard at Bush Hill was shared by a physician assisting. Dr. Devéze describes the heroism of Stephen Girard at Bush Hill: “I even saw one of the diseased…[discharge] the contents of his stomach upon [him]. What did Girard do? .He wiped the patient’s cloaths comforted [him]…arranged the bed, [and] inspired with courage, by renewing in him the hope that he should recover. … From him he went to another, that vomited offensive matter that would have disheartened any other than this wonderful man…

Oh! You who pretend to philanthropy, reflect upon the indefatigable Girard! Take him for your model, and profit by his lessons; and you citizens of Philadelphia, may the name of Girard be ever dear to you! – If you, like me, had witnessed his virtuous actions, his brows would have been long ago adorned with a civic crown.” – Dr. Jean Devéze Physician

Various biographers have stated:

“His gallantry in taking charge of Bush Hill was akin to the heroism of a soldier in battle who rises to an occasion and performs an act of incredible bravery far above and beyond the call of duty. This was the real Stephen Girard, showing what he was really made of, who came to the fore in the yellow fever epidemic when he could easily have followed the thousands of others who fled in fear and panic.”– George Wilson, Biographer“

When Girard made a proffer of his services, in the fever of 1793, it was not merely to aid by his counsel, or cooperate by his money, in alleviating the calamity of his fellow citizens; but it was to undertake in person the performance of the most laborious and loathsome duties of a nurse in the public hospital, for those who were then laboring under, and hourly dying of malignant fever!” – Stephen Simpson, Biographer“

US History. Org frames his exploits this way:

Yellow Fever came to the city, likely by way of refugees who had fled a rebellion in St-Domingue and found refuge in America. With a touch of irony, Stephen Girard afforded financial assistance to some of those refugees who likely carried the disease to America. Girard was to emerge as a hero in the dissolution of the disease. Before the hideous malady had run its course, five thousand Philadelphians would die.

Citizens by the thousands fled the city, including the most prominent of them, President George Washington. But Girard, who could have taken refuge at any safe haven of his choosing, remained to care for the sick and the dying. He further supervised the work of other volunteers in transforming Bush Hill, a mansion just outside the city limits, into a hospital. There the grisly job of removing the dead coincided with improving the lot of the living. It was undertaken with Girard doing many of the menial tasks associated with those chores. Through his tireless efforts, those stricken with the disease, in the care of Girard and the staff at Bush Hill, gained a fair chance of survival. Those who perished were given proper burial.

The second goal Girard appeared to have was to create a market in the U.S. for the opium he was importing from China. To do this he coordinated efforts with Dr. Benjamin Rush. A Son of Liberty, Founding Father and Signer of the Declaration of Independence, he is a very complex character.

He served as Surgeon General of the Continental Army. While serving in this role, Rush was accused of being disloyal by George Washington. Rush wrote two “anonymous” letters to Patrick Henry in which he questioned Washington’s military and administrative decision-making. Henry shared the letters to Washington, who experienced no difficulty in recognizing Rush’s hand. Washington allowed him to resign instead of court-martialing him.

Subsequently, Rush became a professor of chemistry, medical theory, and clinical practice at the University of Pennsylvania. He championed “heroic medicine” also known as depletion therapy. It involved blood-letting copious quarts of blood and purging with”Dr. Rush’s thunderclappers” laxatives containing more than 50% mercury. To better endure his “heroic medicine” Rush incorporated opium into his regimen to numb and sedate patients.

Rush wrote: “I have found bleeding to be useful, not only in cases where the pulse was full and quick but where it was slow and tense. I have bled twice in many and in one acute case four times, with the happiest effect. I consider intrepidity in the use of the lancet, at present, to be necessary, as it is in the use of mercury and jalap (jalapeno pepper) , in this insidious and ferocious disease.”

Rush was defiant and even fanatical in advocating his antiquated quackery. On one occasion, when Rush was addressing several hundred Philadelphians gathered in Kensington, a voice cried out from the crowd: “What, bleed and purge every one?” The doctor shouted back: “Yes! Bleed and purge all Kensington!”

Rush saw more than 100 patients a day from late August through early November. Most were not heroic enough to survive Dr. Rush’s depletion therapy. Many Physicians in the medical community criticized him vigorously, several arguing Rush’s treatment was worse than the disease. Dr. Deveze, observing first-hand at Bush Hill said that Rush’s heroic medicine “is a scourge more fatal to the human kind than the plague itself would be.”

Benjamin Rush eventually was relieved of his duties at Pennsylvania Hospital in 1793, primarily due to mounting resistance from medical colleagues. However, this did not occur until after Rush contributed significantly to the 4,044 official death count attributed to the plague in his service at Bush Hill.

The turning point occurred when Caspar Wister contracted Yellow Fever and barely survived Rush’s Heroic Medicine.

Pennsylvania Hospital/University of Pennsylvania’s approach to disease prevention thus became vaccine focused from this year 1793 forward to today.

The third goal Girard appeared to use the plandemic for was to consolidate controlling stock in the First Bank of the United States. During the Yellow Fever plague, Philadelphia’s Stock Market depreciated greatly, including the stock of the First Bank of the United States. Girard readily purchased as much stock as possible in late 1793/early 1794, thus becoming the majority stakeholder that same year.

The fourth and probably most relevant goal Girard appeared to have was to assist Citizen Ganet in his efforts of undermining U.S. sovereignty. Recall the social reality in Philadelphia’s streets. Out of 50,000 residents, 20,000 escaped the city. These were the affluent and influential citizens who could afford the exodus. The poor that remained tended to self quarantine at home, terrified they too may be infected. It is recorded that the ones who could roam Philadelphia without fear of the plague were the 2,000 to 3,000 Haitian refugees imported by Girard.

This is relevant because with the threat of death so heavy in the air, there were still political demonstrations numbering in the thousands in Philadelphia. The protestors were demanding the U.S. support the French Republic against the British. The protestors agitated and considered a threat to maintaining governance.

John Adams recalls the scene to Thomas Jefferson as such:

…You certainly never felt the Terrorism, excited by Genet, in 1793. when ten thousand People in the Streets of Philadelphia, day after day, threatened to drag Washington out of his House, and effect a Revolution in the Government, or compell it to declare War in favour of the French Revolution, and against England. The coolest and the firmest Minds, even among the Quakers in Philadelphia, have given their opinions to me, that nothing but the yellow Fever, which removed Dr Hutchinson and Jonathan Dickenson Sargent from this World, could have Saved the United States from a total Revolution of Government. I have no doubt you was fast asleep, in philosophical Tranquility, when ten thousand People, and perhaps many more, were parading the Streets of Philadelphia, on the Evening of my Fast Day. When even Governor Mifflin himself, thought it his Duty to order a Patrol of Horse And Foot to preserve the peace, when Markett Street was as full as Men could Stand by one another, and even before my Door; when Some of my domestics in phrenzy, determined to Sacrifice their Lives in my defence; when all were ready to make a desperate Salley among the multitude, and others were with difficulty and danger dragged back by the others; when I myself judged it prudent and necessary to order Chests of Arms from the War Office to be brought through bye Lanes and back Doors: determined to defend my House at the Expence of my Life, and the Lives of the few, very few Domestics and Friends within it. what think you of Terrorism, Mr Jefferson? Shall I investigate the Causes, the Motives, the Incentives to these Terrorisms? Shall I remind you of Phillip Freneau, of Loyd! of Ned Church? of Peter Markoe of Andrew Brown? of Duane? of Callender? of Tom Paine? of Greenleaf, of Cheetham, of Tennison at New york? of Benjamin Austin at Boston? But above all; Shall I request you, to collect the circular Letters from Members of Congress in the middle and Southern States to their Constituents? I would give all I am worth for a compleat Collection of all those circular Letters. Please to recollect Edward Livingstones motions and Speeches and those of his Associates in the case of Jonathan Robbins.

The real terrors of both Parties have allways been, and now are; The fear that they shall loose the Elections and consequently the Loaves and Fishes; and that their Antagonists will obtain them. Both parties have excited artificial Terrors and if I were summoned as a Witness to Say upon Oath, which Party had excited, machiavillialy, the most terror, and which had really felt the most, I could not6 give a more Sincere Answer, than in the vulgar Style “Put Them in a bagg and Shake7 them, and then See which comes out first.”

September 18 – United States Capitol cornerstone laying: President George Washington lays the cornerstone for the United States Capitol in Washington, D.C.

November 9 – George Washington visits Philadelphia to announce end of the yellow fever epidemic in Philadelphia; around 5,000 people have been killed by the fever.

About Travis Mateer

I'm an artist and citizen journalist living and writing in Montana. You can contact me here: willskink at yahoo dot com
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6 Responses to What Can We Learn From The Story Of The Yellow Fever Outbreak Of 1793?

  1. Big Swede says:

    In the 1700’s they didn’t have facial recognition.


  2. john mcnaught says:

    There was a little salience. Ignorance of medical evidence does not refute the evidence. I thought this guy quoting G.W.F Hegel “all reality is capable of being expressed in rational categories.” thesis, antithesis, synthesis, was really rich. Dialectical Materialism from this guy? To pull apart the strings of his logic is not worth the effort. We are told by supposedly unbiased medical professionals that this virus is novel. Tuberculosis(bacterial?) has been with humanity since recorded history. The choice is clear. You can be Chicken Little and think the sky is falling and it might, our atmosphere is very thin. Or, we can work together for the common health.
    I confess I have not read the blog yet 🙂

  3. Big Swede says:

    We should stop using the term, “we can work together for the common good”.

    • Big Swede says:

      Or better yet use this one.

      “From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs”

      • john mcnaught says:

        Big Swede you like Bobby Watson (whomever he is) are quoting Dialectical Materialism. Lenin style Marxism. Many people in the Soviet Union believed (and still do ) while the elite robbed the Soviet Union and still are robbing to this day. Only it is in individual countries now. I do not want to exclude the U.S.A.
        Also, I said common health. It is difficult to be good if you are not alive. Think of the next very virulent very deadly pandemic. We are being warned. We must prepare. If it does not arrive , we can use the resources for the common health and let regulated capitalism thrive. I just love Utopia . It is so,so easy to write about 🙂

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