A malignant fever … in the filth of Water street which gives great alarm. About 70. people had died of it two days ago, & as many more were ill of it… now got into most parts of the city & is considerably infectious. At first 3. out of 4. died. Now about 1. out of 3. It comes on with a pain in the head, sick stomach, then a little chill, fever, black vomiting & stools, & death from the 2d. to the 8th. day. Every body, who can, is flying from the city, and the panic of the country people is likely to add famine to disease. Tho becoming less mortal, it is still spreading, and the heat of the weather is very unpropitious. I have withdrawn my daughter from the city, but am obliged to go to it every day myself.
Thomas Jefferson to James Madison, September 1, 1793
For several years, I have been excerpting Thomas Jefferson’s letters sequentially during his presidency. In light of the coronavirus, I am reverting to much earlier letters that address the plague of yellow fever along the Atlantic coast.
Patrick Lee’s Explanation
Realistic leaders know plagues attack every generation.
Jefferson was President Washington’s Secretary of State in 1793 when the nation’s capitol was in Philadelphia. It was a tidewater city, meaning Delaware River levels rose and fell with the Atlantic tides, creating swampy areas in the city. One of those, “in the filth of Water street,” had given rise to the yellow fever, which attacked all tidewater areas every August and September.
Jefferson wrote the disease was “considerably infectious” and had spread to most of the city of 50,000. Three-fourths of its earliest victims died, but that level had dropped to one-third. “About 70. people” had died on a single day two days before. Everyone who could flee the city was doing so. He feared panic would spread to the farmers who would refuse to bring their produce to the city’s markets, adding famine to the scourge of disease.
The disease was still expanding. He had sent his 15 year old daughter, Maria, away from the city, but his duties required him to be there every day.
The 1793 plague would kill 5,000, 10% of the city’s population.