The Days of Pestilence, Malarial Fevers
The following data is extracted from The Creoles of Louisiana.
The city does not tremble with ague; but malarial fevers stand high in the annual tables of mortality, almost all complaints are complicated by more or less malarial influence, and the reduction of vital force in the daily life of the whole population is such as few residents, except physicians, appreciate. Lately, however, - we linger in the present but a moment, - attention has turned to the fact that the old Creole life, on ground floors, in a damp, warm climate, over an undrained clay soil, has given more victims to malarial and tubercular diseases than yellow fever has claimed, and efforts to remove these conditions or offset their ill effects are giving a yearly improving public health.
What figures it would require truthfully to indicate the early insalubrity of New Orleans it would be hard to guess. Governor Perier, in 1726, and the Baron Carondelet, toward the close of the last century, stand alone as advocates for measures to reduce malarial and putrid fevers. As time wore on, partial surface drainage, some paving, some improvement in house-building, wiser domestic life, the gradual retreat of the dank forest and undergrowth, a better circulation of air, and some redaction of humidity, had their good effects. Drainage canals - narrow, shallow, foul, ill-placed things - began to be added one by one. When a system of municipal cleansing came in, it was made as vicious as ingenuity could contrive it; or, let us say, as bad as in other American cities of the time.
Neither the Creole nor the American ever accepts sepulture in the ground of Orleans Parish. Only the Hebrew, whose religious law will not take no for an answer, and the pauper, lie down in its undrained soil. The tombs stand above ground. They are now made of brick or stone only; but in earlier days wood entered into their construction, and they often fell into decay so early as to expose the bones of the dead. Every day the ground, which the dead shunned, became more and more poisonous, and the city spread out its homes of the living more and more over the poisoned ground. In 1830, the population of New Orleans was something over forty-six thousand; her life was busy, her commerce great, her precautions against nature's penalties for human herding about equal to nothing. She was fully ripe for the visitation that was in store.
In that year the Asiatic cholera passed around the shores of the Caspian Sea, entered European Russia, and moved slowly westward, preceded by terror and followed by lamentation. In October, 1831, it was in England. In January, 1832, it swept through London. It passed into Scotland, into Ireland, France, Spain, Italy. It crossed the Atlantic and ravaged the cities of its western shore; and, on the 25th of October, it reached New Orleans.
An epidemic of yellow fever had been raging, and had not yet disappeared. Many of the people had fled from it. The population was reduced to about thirty-five thousand. How many victims the new pestilence carried off can never be known; but six thousand, over one-sixth of the people, fell in twenty days. On some days five hundred persons died. For once, the rallying ground of the people was not the Place d'Armes. The cemeteries were too small. Trenches took the place of graves; the dead were hauled to them, uncoffined, in cart-loads and dumped in. Large numbers were carried by night to the river-side, weighted with stones from the ballastpiles abreast the idle shipping, and thrown into the Mississippi. The same mortality in New Orleans with its present population would carry off, in three weeks, thirty-nine thousand victims. The New Basin was being dug by hand. Hundreds of Irish were standing here in water and mud and sun, throwing up the corrupted soil with their shovels, and the havoc among them, says tradition, was awful.
The history of the town shows that years of much summer-digging have always been years of great mortality. In 1811, when Carondelet's old canal was cleaned out, seven per cent of the people died. In 1818, when it was cleaned out again, seven per cent again died. In 1822, when its cleaning out was again begun, eight and a half per cent died. In 1833, when, the year after the great cholera fatality, the New Canal was dug to the lake, eight and a half per cent again died. In 1837, when many draining trenches were dug, seven per cent died. In 1847, there was much new ditching, Melpomene Canal was cleaned out, and over eight per cent of the people died. The same work went on through '48 and '49, and seven and eight per cent died. But never before or after 1832 did death recruit his pale armies by so frightful a conscription, in this plague-haunted town, as marked that year of double calamity, when, from a total population of but fifty-five thousand, present and absent, over eight thousand fell before their Asian and African destroyers.
Source: The Creoles of Louisiana