The Days of Pestilence
Discover your family's story.
Enter a grandparent's name to get started.
The New Orleans resident congratulates himself – and he does well – that he is not as other men are, in other great cities, as to breathing-room. The desperate fondness with which the Creole still clings to domestic isolation has passed into the sentiment of all types of the city’s life; and as the way is always open for the town, with just a little river-sand filling, to spread farther and farther, there is no huddling in New Orleans, or only very little here and there.
There is assurance of plenty not only as to space, but also as to time. Time may be money, but money is not everything, and so there never has been much crowding over one another’s heads about business centres, never any living in sky-reaching strata. The lassitude which loads every warm, damp breeze that blows in across the all-surrounding marsh and swamp has always been against what an old New Orleans writer calls “knee-cracking stairways.” Few houses lift their roofs to dizzy heights, and a third-story bedroom is not near enough to be coveted by many.
Shortly before the war – and the case is not materially changed in New Orleans today – the number of inmates to a dwelling was in the proportion of six and a half to one. In St. Louis, it was seven and three-quarters; in Cincinnati, it was more than eight; in Boston, nearly nine; and in New York, over thirteen and a half. The number of persons to the acre was a little more than forty-five. In Philadelphia, it was eighty; in Boston, it was eighty-two; in New York, it was one hundred and thirty-five.
The climate never would permit such swarming in New Orleans. Neither would the badly scavenged streets or the soil which, just beneath, reeks with all the foul liquids that human and brute life can produce in an unsewered city. It is fortunate that the average New Orleans dwelling is loosely thrown together, built against sun and rain, not wind and frost. This, with the ample spacings between houses, and an open plain all round, insures circulation of air – an air that never blows extremes of hot or cold.
It is true the minimum temperature is lower than that on the sea-coast of California, in part of Arizona, and in South Florida. That of the Gulf coasts and the Atlantic shores of Georgia and South Carolina is the same. But in every other part of the United States it is lower. Once only the thermometer has been known to sink to sixteen degrees Fahrenheit. Its mean January temperature is fifty-five degrees to sixty degrees Fahrenheit, milder than that of any other notable city in the Union, except Galveston and Mobile, which have the same. Only Middle and Southern Florida have a warmer midwinter. As to its summers, every State and Territory, except the five New England States east and north of Connecticut, experiences in some portion of it a higher maximum temperature than the land of the Creoles, and the entire country as high a temperature, except parts of California, Oregon, Washington Territory, and two or three regions directly within the Rocky Mountains. Even its mean temperature in the hottest month of the year, July, is only the same, eighty to eighty-five degrees, as that in every part of the South that is not mountainous, even to the mouth of the Ohio, with the Indian Territory and two-thirds of Kansas. Only three times since 1819 has it risen to one hundred degrees, and never beyond. Whatever wind prevails comes tempered by the waters and wet lands over which it has blown. The duration of this moderate heat, however, is what counts. The mean temperature of New Orleans for the year exceeds that of any region not on the Gulf. It is exceeded only in southernmost Florida. That of Arkansas, middle Mississippi, middle Georgia, and South Carolina is ten degrees cooler, and the northeastern quarter of Alabama, North Georgia, and Western North Carolina have a mean fifteen, twenty, and in the mountainous parts, thirty and more degrees lower. The humidity, moreover, is against strong vitality. The country is not to be called a rainy one; there is no rainy season; but the rains, when they come, are very heavy. Over five feet depth of water falls yearly on this land of swamps and marshes south of the thirty-first parallel between Lake Sabine and Apalachee Bay; a fall from four to six times as great as the rainfall in the arid regions of the far West, more than twice the average for the whole area of the United States, and greater than that experienced by over ninety-eight per cent, of the whole population. The air’s diminished evaporating powers make it less cooling to man and beast in summer and more chilling in winter than drier winds at greater and lower temperatures would be, and it comes always more or less charged with that uncanny quality which Creoles, like all other North Americans, maintain to be never at home, but always next door – malaria.
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.