The Great Epidemic
The following data is extracted from The Creoles of Louisiana.
Three-quarters of a century had passed over the little Franco-Spanish town, hidden under the Mississippi's downward-retreating bank in the edge of its Delta swamp on Orleans Island, before the sallow spectre of yellow fever was distinctly recognized in her streets and in her darkened chambers.
That it had come and gone earlier, but unidentified, is altogether likely. In 1766 especially, the year in which Ulloa came with his handful of Havanese soldiers to take possession for Spain, there was an epidemic which at least resembled the great West Indian scourge. Under the commercial concessions that followed, the town expanded into a brisk port. Trade with the West Indies grew, and in 1796, the yellow fever was confronted and called by name.
From that date it appeared frequently if not yearly, and between that date and the present day twenty-four lighter and thirteen violent epidemics have marked its visitations. At their own horrid caprice they came and went. In 1821, a quarantine of some sort was established, and it was continued until 1825; but it did not keep out the plague, and it was then abandoned for more than thirty years. Between 1837 and 1843, fifty-five hundred deaths occurred from the fever. In the summer and fall of 1847, over twenty-eight hundred people perished by it. In the second half of 1848, eight hundred and seventy-two were its victims. It had barely disappeared when cholera entered again and carried off forty-one hundred. A month after its disappearance, - in August, 1849, - the fever returned; and when, at the end of November, it had destroyed seven hundred and forty-four persons, the, cholera once more appeared; and by the end of 1850 had added eighteen hundred and fifty-one to the long rolls.
In the very midst of these visitations, it was the confident conviction and constant assertion of the average New Orleans citizen, Creole or American, on his levee, in the St. Charles rotunda, at his counting-room desk, in the columns of his newspaper, and in his family circle, that his town was one of the healthiest in the world. The fatality of the epidemics was principally among the unacclimated. He was not insensible to their sufferings, he was fatuous for his care of the sick ; the town was dotted with orphan asylums. But in this far-away corner crucial comparisons escaped him. The Creole did not readily take the fever, and, taking it, commonly recovered. He had, and largely retains still, an absurd belief in his entire immunity from attack. When he has it, it is something else. As for strangers, - he threw up his palms and eye-brows,-nobody asked them to come to New Orleans. The mind of the American turned only to commerce; and the commercial value of a well-authenticated low death-rate he totally overlooked. Every summer might bring plague-granted; but winter brought trade, wealth. It thundered and tumbled through the streets like a surf. The part of a good citizen seemed to be to shut his eyes tightly and drown comment and debate with loud assertions of the town's salubrity.
It was in these days that a certain taste for books showed itself, patronized and dominated by commerce. De Bow's excellent monthly issue, the Commercial Review of the South and West, was circulating its invaluable statistics and its pro-Southern deductions in social and political science. Judah P. Benjamin wrote about sugar; so did Valcour-Aime; Riddell treated of Mississippi River deposits, etc.; Maunsell White gave reminiscences of flat-boat navigation; Chief Justice Martin wrote on contract of sale; E. J. Forstall on Louisiana history in French archives; and a great many anonymous "Ladies of New Orleans" and "Gentlemen of New Orleans" and elsewhere, upon the absorbing topic of slavery - to while away the time, as it were. "New Orleans, disguise the fact as we may," wrote De Bow in 1846, "has had abroad the reputation of being a great charnel-house. . . . We meet this libel with facts." But he gave no figures. In January, 1851, the mayor officially pronounced the city “perfectly healthy during the past year,” etc., omitting to say that the mortality had been three times as high as a moderate death-rate would have been. A few medical men alone, - Barton, Symonds, Fenner, Axson, - had begun to drag from oblivion the city's vital statistics and to publish facts that should have alarmed any community. But the blind are not frightened with ghosts. Barton showed that the mortality of 1849, over and above the deaths by cholera, had been about twice the common average of Poston, - New York, Philadelphia, or Charleston. What then? Nothing. He urged under-ground sewerage in vain. Quarantine was proposed; commerce frowned. A plan was offered for daily flushing the city's innumerable open street-gutters; it was rejected. The vice of burying in tombs above ground in the heart of town was shown; but the burials went on.
As the year 1853 drew near, a climax of evil conditions seemed to be approached. The city became more dreadfully unclean than before. The scavenging was being tried on a contract system, and the "foul and nauseous steams" from gutters, alleys, and dark nooks became intolerable. In the merchants' interest Carondelet basin and canal were being once more dug out; the New Canal was being widened; gas and water mains were being extended; in the Fourth District, Jackson Street and St. Charles Avenue were being excavated for the road-beds of their railways. In the Third District, many small draining trenches were being dug.
Source: The Creoles of Louisiana