Still I have not learnt how a stranger is to know into what houses he may venture, as not having had the disease at all. In fact the members have ventured into both taverns and lodging houses, where they have had it. Francis’s hotel near the Indian Queen has never had it, therefore you may safely land there. Mrs. Trist intends to take a small house and a few of her acquaintances: but I believe she has not got a house yet. In the one she formerly occupied, a person died of the fever: but Mr. Giles and Mr. Venable are there, and Stockdon has lived in the very room where the person died for a considerable time.
Thomas Jefferson to John F. Mercer, December 7, 1793
In the face of coronavirus, I’m excerpting correspondence about the 1793 yellow fever epidemic in Philadelphia, the nation’s capital at the time, which killed 5,000 of the city’s 50,000 residents.
Patrick Lee’s Explanation
Sometimes, leaders have no answers, only information.
The Virginia-born Mercer (1759-1821) was now a Maryland lawyer and member of Congress. He had asked the Secretary of State about the status of the yellow fever in Philadelphia, where Congress had been called to reconvene. He also asked about the health risk of staying at certain inns or taverns.
Jefferson knew of no way a visitor might learn what Mercer asked. He reported other members of Congress were staying in both “taverns and lodging places.” He thought Francis’ hotel should be safe as none of their boarders had had the disease. A friend, “Mrs. Trist,” was moving from a boarding house where the disease had been, but two other acquaintances were there now, one living in the same room where another had died.