Charles Brockden Brown and Elihu Smith in the New York Epidemic of 1798
In its February 3, 1798, number the Weekly Magazine began publishing excerpts of "The Man at Home," the ruminations of a Philadelphia gentleman trying to avoid imprisonment for debts by hiding from his creditors. While not himself directly affected by the epidemics, he told stories of those who were. On June 16 the magazine began printing chapters of Arthur Mervyn: Memoirs of the Year 1793. Both of the stories were written by Charles Brockden Brown.
Brown had left Philadelphia during the '93 epidemic but at its conclusion mentioned in a letter to his brother his desire to write about it. During subsequent yellow fever scares in his city, his family - respectable Philadelphia Quakers - always urged him to flee. He never did and suffered no ill consequences. His friendship with Dr. Elihu Smith, a close student of yellow fever, kept alive by visits to New York and frequent correspondence also increased his intrepidy. Not that the vignettes about the fever in "Man at Home" emphasized survivability. Kate, the Irish serving girl turned laundress who would help feed the debtor, caught the fever after nursing the family she served. She was sent to the hospital and "was one of the few who came out of that noisome and contagious receptacle alive." After several episodes, 28,000 words, Brown gave up on the tale and had the narrator give himself up to the authorities.
By titling his next work "Arthur Mervyn: a memoir of the year 1793," Brown gave notice that the epidemic was going to be central to the story, not merely a part of some vignettes woven into the plot. The novel begins when the narrator rescues a fever victim in the street outside his house. Although his wife just had a baby, he takes the stranger in. His neighbors remonstrate "on the imprudence and rashness of my conduct. They called me presumptuous and cruel in exposing my wife and child as well as myself to such imminent hazard, for the sake of one too who most probably was worthless, and whose disease had doubtless been, by negligence or mistreatment, rendered incurable." His wife however helps him nurse the unfortunate. "I had more confidence than others," the narrator explained, "in the vincibility of this disease, and in the success of those measures which we had used for our defence against it."
Before Brown could finish the novel he had a fight with his family over his proposed engagement to a woman who was not a Quaker. He moved to New York to join Smith. Under his influence it might be expected that Brown would finish his yellow fever novel. Instead Brown wrote Wieland, a novel based in part on a man who murdered his wife and family in rural New York in 1791. The element of terror, then fashionable in novels, was supplied by insanity, not yellow fever.
The first victims of yellow fever in New York, stricken at the end of July and early August, blamed the schooner Fox which arrived in late July from Jeremie, Haiti, the same port the Deborah had come from. Doctors, however, did not take the accusation seriously. This was not a case of diagnosis being made difficult by the victims being poor and intemperate. Among the first deaths were prominent merchants. However, the area where the fever was centered, Coenties wharf, had been the site of a small epidemic in 1797. The health committee had pressed the common council to enforce a clean up there. That the fever returned to that very filthy spot seemed a proof of the local origin of the disease. Ships from the West Indies docked up and down the long waterfront. The coincidence of the fever returning to Coenties wharf also lulled the health committee into thinking that, just as in '97, the epidemic there would be short lived and unremarkable. Indeed, judging from his journal, Elihu Smith hardly paid any attention to it, though the first victim, 74 year old Melancton Smith was a friend. Instead Elihu Smith was busy getting out the first number of the second volume of the Medical Repository, forming a mineralogical society and enjoying the company of Charles Brockden Brown who was staying with him and his roommate, the lawyer William Johnson.
Brown was busy completing his novel Wieland. Smith read and discussed the work with his friend and helped arrange for its publication. Very likely it was Smith who suggested a footnote in the novel which referred readers to the section of Erasmus Darwin's Zoonomia in which mania similar to Wieland's was discussed. Not until August 25 did Smith and Brown take any notice of the yellow fever epidemic in the city. "The sickness increases in town," Smith noted in his journal. "Heavy rains, uncleansed sinks, and a continuance of unexampled heat," Brown reported in a letter to his brother in Philadelphia, "have within these ten days given birth to the yellow fever among us in its epidemical form. Death and alarms have rapidly multiplied, but it is hoped that now, as formerly, its influence will be limited to one place." Brown felt no concern for his own safety since he lived far enough from the infected wharf, "and my mode of living, from which animal food and spirituous liquors are wholly excluded, gives the utmost security." Living as Rush prescribed, the two young men were fearless. In his treatment of yellow fever patients, Smith bled, purged with mercury and induced salivation, always with good results.
The trio of Brown, Johnson and Smith maintained their devil may care attitude about the epidemic despite Smith confining himself to bed after getting too much sun on a sail to Long Island to see a patient. They wrote a joint letter to their friend William Dunlap, the painter and theatrical producer who as always in the late summer was in Perth Amboy. Brown joked about "this plaguey fever at our doors, in our cupboards & in our beds." Johnson marvelled at the fever's "unaccountable origin,... amazing attributes, and... inexplicable operations," leaving it to Smith to explain what was going on. From his bed the doctor assured Dunlap that while it was unsafe to be on certain east side streets, the fever was not as mortal as it was in 1795. One in ten died, "& that not more than one in a hundred would perish, with early attention & faithful nursing." On the same day Brown wrote to his worried brother in a more serious vein. Smith assured him that not one out of nine died when properly nursed. Brown thought it would be wise to leave if the fever reached their end of town. By becoming sick he would become a burden. However, he knew Smith would never leave. "If I run the risk of requiring to be nursed," Brown reasoned, "I must not forget that others may require to be nursed by me, in a disease where personal attentions are all in all."
Smith was soon humbled by the epidemic. A young Venetian nobleman, Dr. Joseph Scandella, had come to America to broaden his education and took a particular interest in yellow fever. Smith had befriended him, as did a number of men of science including Rush. In August Scandella sailed for Europe from Philadelphia, then the leaky ship returned to New York. Early in the epidemic Scandella joined Smith on his rounds. Then in early September he returned to Philadelphia telling Smith that he went "in search of his baggage." On September 11, Smith learned that Scandella had returned to New York and was ill with the fever. He rescued him from an unfriendly inn, and he, Brown, and Johnson nursed the unlucky Italian.
On the 13th Smith wrote to Rush again, reporting that the mortality had increased. He blamed that on the fact that most of those getting sick were poor people who didn't call for doctors in time. His confidence in Rush's depleting remedies in combination with alkalies had not diminished. He thought that the alkalies aided the cure by "partially decomposing the calomel and thus diminishing the tendency of this latter medicine to irritate the stomach." He revealed that Scandella was his patient and closed the letter by assuring Rush that "all that the faculty of New York can do for his relief will be attempted." Smith noted in his journal that after being very ill, Scandella seemed better. On the 14th he seemed "much better, to all appearance." On the 15th Smith decided his friend could not recover. On the 16th Smith himself was very ill.
The day after the publication of Wieland, his first novel, Charles Brockden Brown, a frail and sickly man, had to share duties with Johnson as they nursed Scandella who lay in Smith's bed and Smith who lay in a bed in the next room. Before his attack Smith had made a sobering reassessment of the dangers of yellow fever. Distraught at the havoc the fever made in a house where he had six patients, with two so sick they had to be sent to Bellevue where one died, Smith "became sensible of the disproportionate hazard which he incurred, and... determined, as soon as his friend Scandella had recovered or perished and his present patients had been gotten rid of, to withdraw from town." The best Brown and Johnson could do, after Scandella died, was to remove Smith to the "spacious, healthfully situated" house of Johnson's brother Horace. In a letter written the 17th Brown tried to describe how bad it was in New York, how much worse than Philadelphia. A greater proportion of the population died and "the victims to this disease have been in innumerable cases selected from the highest and most respectable class of inhabitants."
On the 18th Brown also seemed to take the fever. Dr. Miller, who along with Smith's other co-editor, Mitchill, tried to treat Scandella and Smith, took Brown to his own house. In Smith's case the new alkaline treatment did not work. Nothing could "compose his stomach." Most of the time he was in a stupor, but when revived he could answer questions rationally. Smith pressed upon his colleagues the importance of inducing salivation. Like Smith, Miller was an old student of Rush's and followed his prescriptions. Heroic measures failed Smith. Because of his vomiting, calomel would not stay in his system. Mercury rubs failed to bring the hoped for soreness and saliva. He revived enough mid-day on the 19th to see that his vomit was black, "pronounced the word 'decomposition' and died."
Out at his Perth Amboy retreat William Dunlap had just replied to his jolly friends, inviting Brown and Johnson to come to Perth Amboy and "to Elihu, my apprehensions for his safety & my confidence in his doing his duty." When he heard of Smith's imminent death, his usually flinty diary betrayed some emotion: "Notwithstanding my firmest attempts this stroke bears hard upon me." Just after he learned of Smith's death, Dr. Rodgers, who weakened by fatigue had left the city, called with the news that Dr. Amasa Dingley, with whom Smith had first explored the nature of yellow fever three years before, had died of the disease.
Brown recovered, and before he and Johnson came to Amboy, he wrote to Dunlap, "Most ardently do I long to shut out this city from my view...." And to his brother, he wrote the day Smith died: "O the folly of prediction and the vanity of systems."
Drs. Miller and Mitchill did not make a case study of Smith's death. Miller told Brown that "no case was more dreadful and infinitely malignant." While lessons were often drawn from their recoveries, the deaths of doctors were seldom detailed. The hazards they faced during an epidemic explained the high mortality in their ranks. While Scandella and Smith, for whose cleanliness, temperance and morality he could vouch, lay on the verge of death, Mitchill blamed "the inhabitants [who] have really poisoned their city by the accumulation of excrement, putrid provisions and every unclean thing," plus their "gross animal diet" and intemperance. "If some of our citizens breathed air as pure and balmy as the breezes of Eden," Mitchill wrote to Noah Webster on September 17, "they would engender this sickness by their way of life. They would breed it within them. To get the better of these visitations will therefore require more than municipal regulations. An alteration, and a considerable one too, of housekeeping and modes of life will be necessary." Rush's reaction to Smith's death is not known. A letter he wrote to Smith's parents is not extant.
Despite the loathing for the city that he expressed as Elihu Smith died, Brown returned to New York and soon made a contract to complete Arthur Mervyn which he had been working on since 1795. He took up his pen immediately and transformed Scandella's tragic story - upon returning to Philadelphia the Italian nursed a widow and her daughters, who all died, and caught the fever from them, and then fit it into the 1793 Philadelphia epidemic.
Brown did not mention Rush or any of the real heroes of the 1793 epidemic, but a character named Medlicote convinced the novel's hero, Mervyn, that the fever was imported. "He combatted an opinion which I had casually formed," Mervyn explained, "respecting the origin of this epidemic, and imputed it, not to infected substances imported from the east or west, but to a morbid constitution of the atmosphere, owing wholly, or in part to filthy streets, airless habitations and squalid persons."