Monday, May 28, 2012

The True Tale of a Panicked City

An American Plague by Jim Murphy

"Without realizing it, the president set a constitutional crisis in motion when he exited the city. Many people, Thomas Jefferson and future president James Madison included, felt that Washington could not legally convene Congress anywhere but within the city limits of Philadelphia. Without Congress to pass laws and appropriate money, the workings of the federal government would eventually come to a grinding halt.

"Two days after the president left, and even before he reached his Virginia home, a meteorite fell out of the morning sky and thudded into Third Street. In a city that was fast falling apart, it was seen as an omen that even worse things were yet to come."

Jim Murphy, in his non-fiction account for kids entitled An American Plague: The True and Terrifying Story of the Yellow Fever Epidemic of 1793, provides an engrossing account of how yellow fever gripped the new capital of the United States and sent citizens, businesses, and government into a state of disarray and panic. It is difficult to imagine what it must have been like to see President Washington leave the city and to be unable to conduct the business of government from outside the city limits. All this while corpses piled up in the streets, food delivery nearly ceased, and a meteorite choose this time and place to make its impact.

Also everyone at that time was convinced that Yellow Fever was spread through person-to-person contact, which has now proven to not be the case, and Thomas Jefferson predicted that "yellow fever will discourage the growth of great cities in the nation."

It is also interesting how the outbreak of yellow fever may have steered the history of the young United States.At the time that yellow fever broke out, many Americans were furious with President Washington because of his decision to remain neutral in France's battle with England. John Adams, recalling the riots outside President Washington's Philadelphia residence, said, "The coolest and firmest minds... have given their opinion to me, that nothing but the yellow fever... could have saved the United States from a  total revolution of government."

The book also talks about the attacks that black nurses came under both during and after the plague. The Free African Society organized to help those in need and black nurses, sometimes being the only ones willing to take on the task, could command lofty wages as white families bid up prices. However, black nurses often worked long hours for little or no pay. Just after the epidemic subsided, Mathew Carey published a best-selling book, A Short Account of the Malignant Fever, Lately Prevalent in Philadelphia. The book accused the black population of taking advantage of the city's white residents during a crisis. In January 1794, two African-American leaders in the city, Absalom Jones and Richard Allen wrote a rebuttal, A Narrative of the Proceedings of the Black People, During the Late Awful Calamity in Philadelphia, in the Year 1793: and a Refutation of Some Censures, Thrown upon Them in Some Late Publications. According to Murphy, the book is "the very first document published in the United States in which leaders of the black community confronted an accuser directly and attempted to articulate the depth of their anger."

Yellow fever has had some interesting effects on history throughout the years. In 1801, Haitian slaves revolted against the French. Napoleon sent an army of approximately 29,000 soldiers to crush the rebellion. The army killed 150,000 Haitians during their stay but then yellow fever infected the army. Twenty-six thousand French soldiers died. France lost the island and its hopes for domination in the New World. Two years later, in 1803, France sold its North American territory to the United States in the Louisiana Purchase.

When a team of doctors, headed by Walter Reed, announced in 1900 that mosquitoes were responsible for the spread of the disease, the theory was quickly denounced as crazy. The Washington Post said, "Of all the sill and nonsensical rigmarole of yellow fever that has yet found its way into print -- and there has been enough of it to build a fleet -- the silliest beyond compare is to be found in the arguments and theories generated by a mosquito hypothesis."

Since then, however, it has been confirmed that yellow fever is indeed spread by mosquitoes. Many efforts to control them, such as eliminating standing water, have been very successful and a vaccination was developed to control the spread of the disease. Some efforts, however, such as the use of DDT, created their own problems. Yellow fever has now been wiped out in the United States but the book ends with a warning about its return.

Why you should consider it:
  • the book brings to life a specific time and place with a great drama unfolding. A good amount of broader history is woven in as well, providing a great learning experience for kids as well as an engrossing read
Why you might hold off:
  • Reluctant readers may find the whole book too dense to take on at once
Local alert: Jim Murphy, a prolific and award-winning writer for young adults, lives in Maplewood, NJ. Plus, many New Jersey kids are within a stone's throw of Philadelphia, where this plague took hold. A visit to the old section of the city, which contains many original and reproduced 18th century homes, can give kids and adults a feeling for what the city might have been like in 1793.

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