return to yellow fever page

Yellow Fever in New Haven, 1794

Summer weather was proving delightful and the world seemed to be returning to normal with deadly fevers in the far away tropics. Then doctors in New Haven, Connecticut, observed the sine qua non of yellow fever, a terrible quick death. On June 10 Isaac Gorham's 27 year old wife Elizabeth complained of violent head, back and limb pains and nausea. On the 14th the pains stopped "and she was elated with the prospect of a speedy recovery." That evening "she vomited matter resembling coffee-grounds." She died the next day. A few days later a niece who had lived with her a week died with the same symptoms. On June 20, the merchant Elijah Austin and his clerk both died in New York City after having left New Haven a few days previous. "Sickness and death prevail in the town," Ezra Stiles, president of Yale College, wrote in his diary. Three doctors, asked by the city's selectmen to investigate, found that a sloop from Martinique "infected with the contagion of the yellow fever" had been near the Gorham house. A chest of clothes that belonged to one of the seamen who died of yellow fever had been opened by Austin in the presence of his clerk and Mrs. Gorham.

For New Haven official the imperative to conceal the existence of any epidemic disease outweighed any other consideration. The city of 3,400 was Connecticut's largest port, specializing in the South Sea trade. Its chief glory each year was the mid-September commencement day at Yale College during which the population of the town might swell by several thousand. The investigating doctors' report of July 8 tried to put the recent deaths in perspective. Seventy-seven people had died in New Haven since January, 43 of them, mostly children, from scarlet fever, 18 from consumption and 16 "with erratic diseases." The committee thought reports "respecting the mortality of this disease" had been "very much exaggerated."

Still, the New Haven epidemic became notorious. A New York paper reported that yellow fever imported in a trunk from the West Indies killed several people in New Haven. New York and Philadelphia announced a quarantine on all ships and goods from New Haven. A merchant in New York with New Haven connections advised friends there not to protest. "The distress which the Philadelphians experienced last year is fresh in the memory of everyone, and a possibility of the fever being introduced here apologizes for almost any means to prevent it." New Haven town officials kept quiet even as the death toll rose. There were at least 4 deaths a week from yellow fever beginning in August. Officials quietly designated a special hospital for those with the fever, hired nurses at a dollar a day, and solicited money to defray the expense. On August 20 the committee published a report noting that only 5 were sick with the fever, and that "regulations lately adopted, will prevent the progress of the fever." Ezra Stiles left a franker assessment in his diary. Out of 20 patients, 16 to 18 had died. On the 26th there were three funerals and three or four taken sick. "Terror.... Scholars alarmed. At 2 P.M. they began to apply for leave to go home. I have dismissed 61 scholars out of 115 today. Numbers of gentlemen moving their families out of town."

Stiles' diary provides the most candid source on the progress of the epidemic:

August 27th, the sick in town today are ten. The town in general more healthy than usual in August.

29th only four in town today with yellow fever at 10 a.m.

30th this morning the sick better, all but one. Two vessels in from the West Indies. Both had the fever on board. One kept off in the channel. Streets on wharf being cleansed. Stores on wharf cleansing.

September 1st, the sick better; two new ones taken yesterday, and one last night.

5th, 3 died last night; the doctors count eight patients down with yellow fever. Hitherto I believed that by care and vigilance of the authorities, it might be guarded and its progress checked, as we could hitherto, trace all the instances; but now they begin to be lost and bewildered. I begin to give up the possibility of preventing its spread, and to be discouraged and to wish my family out of town. Sent off my Eliza to farm.

9th, Dr. Dana's statement of this disorder this day; deaths 29; recovering and convalescent, 22; sick and not yet arrived at crisis, 3.

12th, the sick getting along very comfortably today; seven sick of which one dangerous; four died the past week.

19th, six more taken with the disorder.

20th, the disorder spreads; about twelve or thirteen have it; some bad.

24th, the disorder spreading away from New Haven; twenty-six sick with yellow fever, of which four dangerous.

25th, twenty-six sick.

27th, thirty-two sick.

October 11th, ten this evening on the list, of which two dangerous.

15th, eight now sick with yellow fever; eight deaths from yellow fever since October 1st.

16th, there are but five sick with the fever, and all convalescent. The disorder greatly abated.

18th, the sick are recovering; no more taken. The committee are dismissing all the nurses, in hopes it may not break out again. There have sometimes been twenty nurses at a dollar a day. The expense incurred on the town by this sickness has amounted to 500 Pounds; about 160 patients, and between 60 and 70 deaths of this disorder.

21st, three or four still laboring with this disorder, of which two are critical and dangerous.

November 8th, arrived home from a journey. The yellow fever abated and hopefully extinguished, as the last was 27th ultimo. None now sick; inhabitants are returning.

 

Some More Primary Documents

In 1795 in response to the national crisis being caused by yellow fever, the newspaper editor Noah Webster solicited reports from doctors and others in an effort to better understand the epidemics. A Yale graduate and native of Connecticut, Webster inspired two physicians, father and son, to respond:

Two Letters Relative to the Yellow Fever, as it appeared in New-Haven, in the State of Connecticut, in the Year 1794

Letter First

On the Origins, Symptoms, & c., of the Yellow Fever, in New Haven

Dr. Monson, Jun. to the Publisher.

Sir,

In giving a history of the origin of the Yellow Fever, or Pestilential Fever, as it appeared in this City, in the year 1794, it will be necessary to premise some account of those diseases which prevailed here, immediately before; that the Public may be enabled to judge whether there is any analogy between them and the Fever in question.

Sometime in 1792 and 1793, the Scarlet Fever, or Ulcerous Sore Throat, made its appearance in Litchfield, Water-town, and the towns in the vicinity of New-Haven; and raged with great mortality.

In September and October 1793, many of the inhabitants of this town were affected with a slight Influenza, sinking pains in their jaws and limbs, soreness in muscles of the neck, with a light Fever. - In November and December following, several children were affected with the Ulcerous Sore Throat. The symptoms were not alarming; and in every instance it terminated favorably. - In January 1794, the disease assumed a more malignant appearance. In February, March, April, May, June and July, it was highly putrid; and many fell victims to its malignity.

On the 10th of June 1794, the Pestilential, or Yellow Fever, appeared here. - Doctor Hotchkiss visited Isaac Gorham's wife, on the Long-Wharf. She complained of a violent pain in her head, back and limbs; her eyes were dull, and slightly inflamed; she had nausea at stomach, was obstinately costive, with a moderate degree of Fever. No marks of inflammation were discoverable, by inspection in the throat. The distressful symptoms, above-mentioned, continued till the fourteenth; when her pains and distress suddenly subsided; and she was elated with the prospect of a speedy recovery. In the evening, she vomited matter resembling coffee-grounds; and died on the 15th. The Physician, who attended her, was ignorant of her complaint until he saw what she vomited. He then declared her disease to be the Yellow Fever.

On the 15th of June, I visited Elias Gorhams daughter, a child of 8 years of age, in Chapel Street, three quarters of a mile from Isaac Gorham's house. She had been sick three days; her countenance was flushed with a deep red color; her eyes were dull, and highly inflamed; she had violent pain in her head, back, and limbs; nausea, and frequent vomiting; obstinate costiveness, a quick, full, hard, throbbing pulse; her skin was hot and dry; and her tongue covered with a thick white fur. On the 16th, her pain and distress suddenly abated; in a few hours, she vomited up matter resembling coffee-grounds; and died the next day. I inspected her throaat, during her illness, and could discover no marks of inflammation.

I was surprised at the singular appearance of the disease, and hearing of the death of Mrs. Gorham (Isaac Gorham's wife) inquired of the mother if her daughter had been on the wharf. She informed me that the child had lived with her aunt (Isaac Gorham's wife) nearly a week.

The 23d of June, I visited the child's mother. She complained of violent pain in her head, back, and limbs; nausea; frequent vomiting; obstinate costiveness; with considerable degree of fever. These symptoms continued five or six days; then gradually abated; and soon after she recovered her usual health.

On the 20th of June, Mr. Elijah Austin died in New-York; and his clerk, Henry Hubbard, died in Derby. They complained within three or four hours of each other; and Mr. Hubbard vomited matter resembling coffee-grounds.

The inhabitants of this town were alarmed at these sudden deaths, and requested the Select-Men to make diligent inquiry into the origin of this disease.

On examination, it appeared - That, in the beginning of June, Capt. Truman arrived from Martinico, in a sloop that was infected with the contagion of the Yellow Fever; that this vessel lay at the wharf, within a few rods of Isaac Gorham's house; that she had on board a chest of clothes, which had belonged to a mariner, who had died of the Yellow Fever, in Martinico; and that his chest was carried into Mr. Austin's store, and opened in the presence of Capt. Truman, Mr. Austin, Henry Hubbard and Polly Gorham; the three last mentioned of whom, died, in a short time after their exposure to the contents of the chest. Hence it is highly probable that Mrs. Gorham caught the disease from the infected sloop, or clothing. Mr. Austin's store stands within three or four rods of Isaac Gorham's house; and no person in town was known to have the Yellow Fever previous to Capt. Truman's arrival.

June 26th, Isaac Gorham lost an infant child with the Yellow Fever; and soon after his son and daughter were affected with it: the former died. Solomon Mudge died on the 30th, Jacob Thomson's negro woman, on the 1st of July; Archibald M'Neil on the 9th; Polly Brown on the 3d of August; John Storer, jun. and John Hide on the 8th: and widow Thomson on the 10th. - Jacob Thomson's negro woman, Solomon Mudge, John Storer, jun. and John Hide, had visited Mr. Gorham's house; and Archibald M'Neil nursed Solomon Mudge. Elias Gill died on the 12th of August; and Samuel Griswold's wife, on the 7th: the former visited Mr. Gorham's house; the latter nursed in his family.

There were a number of persons who caught the disease at Mr. Gorham's house and recovered.

Mrs. Thomson, on the first day of her illness, was moved half a mile from Mr. Gorham's, into George Street. Luther Fitch caught the disease from Mrs. Thomson, and communicated it to his servant maid. Both recovered - Mr. Fitch lives in College-street, nearly three quarters of a mile distant from Mr. Gorham's house. I could trace the disease throughout the town. No person had the Yellow Fever, unless in consequence of attending the sick, or of being exposed by nurses, infected houses, clothing, or furniture.

I have inquired of several aged persons in this town, relative to the Yellow Fever, whether they knew of its having ever been here, previous to June 1794, and there is but a single instance; the facts relating to which are these: - in the year 1743, a transient person, by the name of Nevins, who came from the West Indies, lodged in the house of Nathaniel Brown, an inn-keeper in this city. The man was taken very sick, in the night; and died shortly afterwards; and his body was very yellow after death. - Mr. Brown's wife sickened in a short time, and died, of the same complaint; which was, at that time, supposed to be the Yellow Fever.

I am credibly informed that several persons, at Mill-River in Fairfield county, and also at New-London, died with the Yellow Fever, in August and September 1795. It was propagated there by infected persons from New York.

Capt. John Smith died in this town, the 20th of August 1795. He caught the disease in New York and communicated it to one of his negro servants.

********

The following is an account of the number who died with the Yellow Fever in New-Haven in the different months of the year 1794.

June

July

August

September

October

November

Total

        6

3

16

26

12

1

64

Of this number, forty-eight vomited matter resembling coffee-grounds, or port wine. There were about a hundred and sixty persons who had the Yellow Fever. Three persons recovered who vomited matter like coffee-grounds; but none recovered, that I remember, who vomited matter resembling port wine. Some vomited a viscid, tough mucus, similar to the white of eggs; others, matter like chocolate; which were as fatal as the black vomit.

The Yellow-Fever was attended with specific contagion in every instance, and proved equally mortal in every part of the town, in proportion to the number that were sick. No age, nor sex, were exempted from it's ravages. All descriptions of people were alike susceptible of receiving the contagion.

In the month of September, when the Yellow Fever raged with the greatest violence, the inhabitants, in general, were almost entirely free from every other complaint. It was remarked by the citizens, that they never knew it so healthy, at that season of the year - excepting the Yellow Fever.

**********

The following is an accurate register of the number who died of Scarlet-Fever, or Ulcerous Sore Throat, in 1794.

February

March

April

May

June

July

August

September

October

Total

        3

5

5

10

15

7

3

2

2

52

It was computed that 750 persons had the Scarlet Fever. - This disease appeared in almost every family in town, indiscriminately; and was evidently, an Epidemical disease, which originated in the constitution of the air, - while the Yellow Fever was propagated only by contagion.

(more to come soon)

by Bob Arnebeck