During a 1793 outbreak of yellow fever in Philadelphia 5,000 of the city’s 50,000 residents died making it the worst epidemic in American history, with a death rate of 10%. As disease spread, the national government was slow to react but citizens soon donned protective masks and the authorities ordered quarantines. The streets emptied. Doubters questioned the science and disobeyed.
The pandemic affected the nation from Baltimore to Boston but especially in Philadelphia, the nation’s largest city and seat of the federal government. For three long months yellow fever ravaged the eastern seaboard The federal government abandoned the city and scattered, leaving a dangerous leadership gap.
The book America’s First Plague: The Deadly 1793 Epidemic That Crippled A Young Nation (Rowman & Littlefield, 2023) by Robert Watson offers a telling of this long-forgotten crisis, capturing the wave of fear that swept across the fledgling republic, and the numerous unintended but far-reaching consequences it would have on the development of the United States and the Atlantic slave trade.
It’s an intriguing tale of fear and human nature, a tragic lesson of how prejudice toward Black people was so easily stoked, an examination of the primitive state of medicine and vulnerability to disease in the eighteenth century, and a story of the struggle to govern in the face of crisis. The story has eerie similarities to the Covid pandemic.
Robert Watson will discusses the subject of book during a free lecture via Zoom and in person at the Fraunces Tavern Museum, 54 Pearl Street, in New York City on September 10th, from 1 to 2 pm.
In person check-in for the lecture begins at 12:30 pm. In-person tickets ($10, members free) may be purchased at the door while availability lasts.
Register online here.