The Yellow Fever Epidemic in New Orleans - 1853

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Records show that 7,849 people died in New Orleans in 1853 due to yellow fever. The total between 1817 and 1905 was in excess of 41,000. As yellow fever was very easy to diagnose (in the latter phases of the sickness at least), these figures exclude other causes of death. Although this year represents the highest single-year figures, death tolls in previous and subsequent years throughout the 19th century often approached the levels of 1853. Studies will also show that the vast majority of victims were of immigrant stock; as yellow fever is a viral infection, previous infection by a less deadly strain would (mostly) serve to inoculate against future infection. For this reason it was mistakenly believed that African-Americans were immune to the infection, while in fact it was simply because they had inhabited the region for generations previously and had also developed immunities.

Over 150 years since it transpired, and in spite of the wrath of Katrina, evidence of the Yellow Fever Epidemic of 1853 can still be found in New Orleans' cemeteries. For years we had recognized that it was virtually the single most important event in the history of Lafayette Cemetery, second only to the dynamics behind the founding of the cemetery as the official cemetery of the new (and also short-lived) City of Lafayette, a mere 20 years earlier.

But this isn't really about the cemetery, or any cemetery in particular for that matter. The cemetery just so happens to be one of very few memorials and reminders, just as I am sure that in another 150 years it will serve the same purpose in regards to the Katrina disaster.

 There is another factor which plays an important role in this study, perhaps the most important. Instead of having to rely upon simple statistics, we also have the boon of having a number of first- and second-hand eyewitness reports to this event. This is invaluable in truly understanding the depth of the human suffering which was involved. And that is the true purpose of this study. It also puts alot more meaning to the lives of these victims. What has happened recently has shown us firsthand what such devastation can do to a culture and by looking even further back we can find many common areas; the heros, the victims, and the villains. Through this I hope we can become an even stronger country and a more understanding world. And, most of all, let us never forget.- Sean M. Perry, April, 2006

Yellow Fever  is a mosquito-borne viral disease. The disease occurs in tropical and subtropical areas and can affect both sexes, all ages and races. Jungle yellow fever, of tropical Central and South America, occurs predominantly among adult males 20 to 40 years old who are exposed in the tropical forests. A certain type of mosquito, Aedes aegypti, is most often responsible for transmitting the virus in modern times. Initial symptoms may be dengue-like and include fever, headache, vomiting and backache. As the disease progresses, the pulse slows and weakens, and bleeding of the gums and bloody urine occur. Jaundice may also occur. Symptoms occur within three to six days after exposure. People who have had yellow fever develop lifelong immunity. There is no specific treatment for yellow fever. People traveling to areas where yellow fever may exist should be immunized.


An Excerpt from The History of the United States, Vol. 1, by James Ford Rhodes, (Macmillan, 1892), conveying portions of the book The Diary of a Samaritan, by William L. Robinson, 1860

Also, an Excerpt from the website of Our Lady of Guadalupe Chapel (formerly the Mortuary Chapel), New Orleans, LA

(Note: in the correcting of the following text, which I received as an uncorrected transcription from Bruce Stinson, Pass Christian Historical Society, I noticed some similarities to Creoles of Louisiana  by George Washington Cable, who was also a firsthand excerpt is on the website at WPA Guide: is possible that J. F. Rhodes used Cable's work as a reference in his writings as well - possibly as a colleague....Sean)


The summer of 1853 was one of political quiet and business prosperity, but many Southern cities were afflicted by a scourge more terrible than political turmoil or financial disaster. The dreaded yellow fever made its appearance. In New Orleans its ravages were the greatest. Never had New Orleans been so prosperous and gay as during the winter season of 1853; never had the city been so full of people. The largest cotton crop ever produced in the United States up to that time was being marketed at favorable prices. Never had the sugar plantations yielded such rich returns. One hundred and thirty million dollars' worth of produce of all kinds had been landed upon the levees of New Orleans. The Jackson railroad was building, and a great system of iron roads was projected. Real estate was active. Louisiana had not indulged in threats of secession or in dreams of a Southern confederacy, such as were common in the sister States of South Carolina and Mississippi; for her citizens were aware that her prosperity was bound up in the Union, and the triumphant election of Pierce was interpreted as being favorable to the allaying of sectional controversies.

If the smiling, material conditions of New Orleans were a tribute to the energy of the American population, the many places of amusement, nightly open, denoted that the desire of distraction, so characteristic of the French, prevailed in this cosmopolitan city. At one theatre the elder Booth astonished the audience by his intensely natural impersonation of Richard III, at another, Anna Cora Mowatt delighted the old-fashioned play-goers, at another, Lola Montez, who had not yet outlived the notoriety of causing a revolution in Munich and the abdication of a king, fascinated crowds of gay and frivolous people by representing on the mimic stage a story of her disorderly adventures in Bavaria, and by dancing in voluptuous measure the swift, whirling Tarantella. One place of amusement was devoted to French Opera, which had become a necessity of the winter to the lovers of music. Dan Rice had a Hippodrome. Ole Bull with the violin, and Gottschalk with the piano, enchanted their hearers by their brilliant execution. Adelina Patti was just beginning in the concert hall that career which has entitled her to the name "The Queen of Song". Those who loved science were gratified by a course of lectures from Louis Agassiz on his favorite subjects. The Southern people heard him gladly, for his theory of the origin of man denied emphatically that the Caucasian and Negro had a common ancestor, and this hypothesis was construed to justify the enslaving of the inferior race.