The Great Epidemic, Charity Hospital
The following data is extracted from The Creoles of Louisiana.
During the following week, the charity hospital alone received from sixty to one hundred patients a day. Its floors were covered with the sick. From the 16th to the 23d, the deaths averaged sixty-one a day. Presently, the average ran up to seventy-nine. The rains continued, with much lightning and thunder. The weather became tropical; the sun was scorching hot and the shade chilly. The streets became heavy with mud, the air stifling with bad odors, and the whole town a perfect Constantinople for foulness.
August came on. The week ending the 6th showed one hundred and eighty-seven deaths from other diseases, an enormous death-rate, to which the fever added nine hundred and forty-seven victims. For a week, the deaths in the charity hospital - where the poor immigrants lay - had been one every half hour.
The next day two hundred and twenty-eight persons died. The pestilence had attacked the Creoles and the blacks. In every direction were confusion, fright, flight, calls for aid, the good "Howards" hurrying from door to door, widows and orphans weeping, till the city was, as an eye-witness says, a “theatre of horrors.”
"Alas," cried one of the city journals, "we have not even grave-diggers!" Five dollars an hour failed to hire enough of them. Some of the dead went to the tomb still with pomp and martial honors; but the city scavengers, too, with their carts, went knocking from house to house asking if there were any to be buried. Long rows of coffins were laid in furrows scarce two feet deep, and hurriedly covered with a few shovelfulls of earth, which the daily rains washed away, and the whole mass was left, "filling the air far and near with the most intolerable pestilential odors." Around the grave-yards funeral trains jostled and quarrelled for place, in an air reeking with the effluvia of the earlier dead. Many "fell to work and buried their own dead." Many sick died in carriages and carts. Many were found dead in their beds, in stores, in the streets. Vice and crime broke out fiercely: the police were never so busy. Heroism, too, was seen on every hand. Hundreds toiled for the comfort of sick and dying, and hundreds fell victims to their own noble self-abnegation. Forty-five distant cities and towns sent relief.
On one day, the 11th of August, two hundred and three persons died of the fever. In the week ending two days later, the total deaths were fourteen hundred and ninetyfour. Rain fell every day for two months. Streets became so bad that hearses could scarcely reach the cemeteries. On the 20th, the week's mortality was fifteen hundred and thirty-four.
Despair now seemed the only reasonable frame of mind. In the sky above, every new day brought the same merciless conditions of atmosphere. The earth below bubbled with poisonous gases. Those who would still have fled the scene saw no escape. To leave by ship was to court the overtaking stroke of the plague beyond the reach of medical aid, and probably to find a grave in the sea; while to escape to inland towns was to throw one's self into the arms of the pestilence, carried there by earlier fugitives. The numbers of the dead give but an imperfect idea of the wide-spread suffering and anguish. The disease is repulsive and treacherous, and requires the most unremitting and laborious attention. Its fatal ending is inexpressibly terrible, often attended with raving madness. Among the Creoles of the old French quarter, a smaller proportion than one in each eleven suffered attack. But in the Fourth District, where the unacclimated were most numerous, there were whole wards where more than half the population had to take their chances of life and death from the dreadful contagion. In the little town of Algiers, just opposite the city, a thirty-sixth of all its people died in one week.
On the 22d day of August, the climax was at last reached. Death struck that day, from midnight to midnight, a fresh victim every five minutes, and two hundred and eighty-three deaths summed up an official record that was confessedly incomplete. The next day, there were twenty-five less. The next, thirty-six less than this. Each day was better than the preceding. The crisis had passed. Elope rose into rejoicing. The 1st of September showed but one hundred and nineteen deaths, and the 10th but eighty. North winds and cool, dry weather set in. On the 20th, there were but forty-nine deaths; on the 30th, only sixteen. In some of the inland towns it was still raging, and so continued until the middle of October.
In the cemeteries of New Orleans, between the 1st of June and the 1st of October, nearly eleven thousand persons were buried. To these must be added the many buried without certificate, the hundreds who perished in their flight, and the multitudes who fell in the towns to which the pestilence was carried. It lingered through autumn, and disappeared only in December. During the year 1853 nearly thirty thousand residents of New Orleans were ill of the yellow fever, and there died, from all causes, nearly sixteen thousand.
In the next two summers, 1854 and '55, the fever returned and destroyed more than five thousand persons. Cholera added seventeen hundred and fifty. The two years' death-rates were seventy-two and seventy-three per thousand. That of 1853 was one hundred and eleven. In three years, thirty-seven thousand people had died, and wherever, by ordinary rate of mortality, there should have been one grave or sepulchre, there were four. One can but draw a sigh of relief in the assurance that this is a history of the past, not the present, and that new conditions have made it next to impossible that it should ever be repeated in the future.
Source: The Creoles of Louisiana