Weird History

Here’s How The Founding Fathers Reacted When A Deadly Epidemic Struck Their New Capital 

Genevieve Carlton
Updated April 10, 2019 5.8k views 14 items

George Washington's second inauguration took place in Philadelphia in March 1793. Six months later, yellow fever had ripped through America's capital city, taking 5,000 lives. How did the Founding Fathers react when the epidemic called "American plague" struck Philadelphia? Yellow fever, spread by mosquitos, causes internal bleeding and insanity before claiming patients' lives. When the disease struck in August 1793, fear spread through the city. Eyewitnesses reported "universal terror" as conditions worsened. By October, a hundred people were succumbing to the illness each day.

Surprisingly, many Founding Fathers simply fled the city, leaving behind the poor to suffer in the streets. Both President George Washington and Thomas Jefferson abandoned Philadelphia. Two prominent Founding Fathers, Alexander Hamilton and Benjamin Rush, stayed behind. Hamilton and Rush argued over the cause of yellow fever and how to treat it - and both men even caught the disease. Here's how Philadelphia survived one of the worst epidemics in US history.

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Yellow Fever Was Called American Plague

In the 18th century, yellow fever was known as American plague. The disease starts with muscle pains and fever. As the virus reaches the liver and kidneys, victims become jaundiced. Those suffering from the illness often have yellow skin, hence the condition's colorful name. Internal bleeding and vomiting often lead to a painful end.

Early American writer Cotton Mather described patients “turning yellow then vomiting and bleeding every way." 

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Contemporary Accounts Described The Horrors Of Yellow Fever

Merchant Samuel Breck witnessed yellow fever firsthand. He wrote, "The horrors of this memorable affliction were extensive and heart rending." On September 9, 1793, Breck recorded the passing of 45 people - "And yet it was nothing then to what it became three or four weeks later, when from the first to the twelfth of October one thousand persons [succumbed to the illness]."

The terrible disease drove half of Philadelphia away, Breck wrote. The afflicted suffered unimaginable torments:

The burning fever occasioned paroxysms of rage which drove the patient... from his bed to the street, and in some instances to the river, where he was drowned. Insanity was often the last stage of its horrors.

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Many Abandoned The City When The Outbreak Began

In late August 1793, physician Benjamin Rush realized the epidemic spreading through Philadelphia wasn't a simple virus. It was yellow fever. As news of the disease spread, many left the city. According to Mathew Carey, a witness to the outbreak, the disease created a "universal terror," and Philadelphians fled by cart, wagon, and coach.

The streets soon grew empty and business ground to a halt. A century later, Lillian Rhoades wrote, “The hearse and the doctor’s [carriage] were the sole vehicles on the street.” 

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George Washington And Thomas Jefferson Fled The City

In September 1793, during the yellow fever outbreak, President George Washington and his cabinet continued to meet in Philadelphia. But the epidemic spread, even striking Alexander Hamilton. When Washington's neighbors came down with yellow fever, the president left Philadelphia. Thomas Jefferson also fled the city, along with roughly 20,000 people. Before the outbreak, Philadelphia had a population of 50,000; however, the threat of disease emptied out the capital city.

Merchant Samuel Breck wrote:

The wealthy soon fled; the fearless or indifferent remained from choice, the poor from necessity. The inhabitants were reduced thus to one-half their number, yet the malignant action of the disease increased, so that those who were in health one day were buried the next.