More on Benjamin Smith and Margaret Morris and Their Families'
Experiences During the Epidemic of 1793
It began raining Saturday night in late August just as the last of the sweepings from Saturday's market were being heaped together outside the three block long market buildings in the middle of Market Street (a block south of infected Arch Street.) The fourth block of the market, the temporary stands of the vegetable and fruit sellers, was still humming with last minute haggling until rain cleared the street. It was not a night for hanging around under the "triple row" of street lamps, "blazing crescents," as one poet put it, "fed by naptha and asphaltos," rehashing the day's bargains, and debating whether, if pestilence was in the city, there would be a market Wednesday and Saturday as usual.
The Quaker merchant Benjamin Smith did not take the short walk from his South Front Street store and house to the market. He had been looking forward to doing just that. Influenza had kept him inside for the past week, and all that remained of it was a troublesome cough. But prudence overruled his inclination to get his life back to normal. And his wife Debby seemed to be coming down with the same bug. At least he was well prepared to be her physician. He would see that she soaked her feet in hot water, sipped chamomile tea until it brought on a sweat, drank plenty of "gruel water" and kept her body "open" with salts. Then that evening, Debby's fever became worse and she complained of "a violent pain in the head."
Smith sent for her mother Margaret Morris, not her brother Dr. John Morris, who was a member of the college. Like many women then Margaret was the medical advisor for an extended family and decided when home remedies would do and when a physician's advice was needed, and which physician would best serve. And her ministrations of bark seemed to cure her daughter. Margaret Morris had seen three coffins carried past her window with no or few attendants. Burials so early and so furtive were a sign of infectious disease. But she trusted that Sunday's rain would, as her son-in-law Benjamin Smith put it in a letter to his father that morning, destroy "those noxious particles which it is generally allowed have of late charged our atmosphere." She did not think of leaving the city. She had an invalid sister to care for. With his wife complaining of stomach discomfort, for which her brother Dr. John Morris prescribed ipecac, Benjamin Smith could not take his family out of town either. He was not inclined to in any case.
He wrote to his father that accounts from the city were exaggerated. It was "a very awful visitation;" the disease was so putrid "that in some instances persons still living have been deserted by their assistants on account of the smell;" many were fleeing, and some domestics left behind had been "swept away by the contagion;" one young woman was found dead that morning, "a loathsome object," but all the deaths were near Water Street between Arch and Race. He had only heard of six buried that morning, and there couldn't have been many more, surely not the "60 or 100" of flying reports
On Friday evening a servant informed Margaret Morris that her son Dr. John Morris was sick. The relationship between them was strained. Like Ephraim of the Bible, he had "joined himself to Idols," i.e. he was a drunkard. She forgot his transgressions and rushed to his Pear Street house. She found two doctors there, Thomas Parke and Samuel Powel Griffitts, both Quakers like Morris. They had prescribed a blister and Rush's calomel and jalap. They thought he had favorable symptoms and would recover. Margaret thought her son "struck with death."
All the doctors' prescriptions worked exactly as they should. Still on Saturday morning "his skin was as yellow as gold." He had convulsions and was delirious. The family maid had left two days before to attend her sick mother, leaving only a 10 year old indentured servant girl to help John's wife Abby care for four children including a baby. Margaret took charge of the situation, sending the two older children to their grandfather Benedict Dorsey, a respected Quaker grocer who lived four blocks away. Heeding Rush's initial alarms, he refused to take them in, afraid they were carrying the disease. The children's mother, Abby, went to change his mind. While she was gone, her husband had one of his strongest fits. Margaret could not call on the frightened children for help. When Abby returned she provided no relief. She never told her mother-in-law what her father said to her. She simply "went upstairs, undrest and went to bed, saying she had got the disorder and she'd die." She lay in the room next to her husband.
Margaret sent the baby to a wet nurse, the toddler to her house, and again sent two children to their grandfather. When they didn't return, she felt more encouraged as she faced the difficult task before her. As she scouted the Morris house, in which she had been a stranger since her estrangement from her son, she found the Morris boy cowering in the cellar. His grandfather had only taken his sister. Margaret sent him to Benjamin Smith with a message that she needed help.
The mayor's letter relaying the offer of the Free African Society to provide nurses, appeared in all the newspapers at the end of the week. As the ad instructed, Smith applied to Absalom Jones and William Gray who both lived near Pear Street, and by the evening a man and woman came to help Margaret Morris. As was the case in most of the letters describing their help, the nurses remained nameless.
Soon after the nurses arrived Rush came to see Dr. Morris. Dr. Griffitts had the fever and asked Rush to attend his patients. Rush was gratified to see the black nurses. The Free African Society had provided nurses for most of his patients. He gave Dr. Morris more calomel and jalap, and while not much encouraged, told Margaret that his fever was lower. He did not see Abby in the next room. Evidently Margaret viewed her as afraid, not sick with the fever. Still she had to be attended during the night. Margaret wanted to stay with her son and decided that she would feel more comfortable with the woman nurse. The male nurse sat by Abby. Shortly after one o'clock Margaret gained the first sleep she had had in two days.
Around 3 a.m. the cry of fire rang out. A soap house on 2nd Street between Market and Chestnut Streets was ablaze. One man roused by the alarm recalled the gloom that spread over him. He wondered what was to become of his city, then he bathed his temples and forehead with "proper vinegar," took some into his mouth "and went forward." When he reached the fire only one line of buckets had been formed. He followed cries to form a second and found himself next to a lad cursing enthusiastically as he passed the buckets. "I said audibly," the man recalled, "that this was a serious time, and intimated the impropriety of such language." The lad fell silent. Sailors from French ships moored nearby brought up pumps and put out the fire. Two people died in the blaze.
Pear Street was oblivious to that drama. Margaret Morris woke at about 5 a.m.. felt her son's pulse, and "thought the fever gone off." She tried to give him medicine but he could not take it. She feared the worse, sent the male nurse to get Benjamin Smith and had the woman stay with Abby. Three weeks later she recalled her son's last moments. He was sensible for the first time in three days and mother and son were able to reconcile: "he spoke to me in a manner that poured balm into my wounded heart, lamenting errors of his past life and had hopes of mercy. This was all I had presumed to ask for, and my chastened spirit said 'thy will be done.' A convulsion fit followed, and after that a sweet composure took possession of his features and he departed without sigh, groan or struggle."
She knew that her son had to be buried within hours to save all the smell of his corpse. That the morning was cloudy and cooler was a blessing, but she decided not to wait for family to help her prepare the body for the grave. Rush began his morning rounds by visiting the Morris house, arriving soon after the doctor died. "His excellent mother rushed from his bed into my arms," Rush wrote to his wife that night, "fell upon my neck, and in this position gave vent to the most pathetic and eloquent exclamations of grief that I have ever heard. I was dumb and finding myself sinking into sympathy, tore myself from her arms and ran to other scenes of distress."
Margaret managed to prepare her son for the grave and even see him buried promptly, with the help of the Free African Society that organized a group of black men to handle infected corpses. But Benjamin Smith saw that she was "scarcely any longer herself." She collapsed in complete prostration. Benjamin had her carried back to her own house and sent for Rush. Smith also arranged to move Abby Morris. When her father refused to take her in, the business-like Smith didn't recriminate against the most un-Quakerly act and solicited the help of the relative who had the most commodious house, Richard Wells, cashier of the Bank of North America. Wells polled each member of his household on North Third Street and they all agreed to take Abby in.
Rush was unable to see Margaret until the morning. He found her resting comfortably and determined that she was only exhausted. The death of John Morris did not weaken Rush's belief in his cure. Morris, after all, was a drunkard thus constitutionally weakened and beyond any cure. In the role he cast for himself, Rush could have no doubts.
The continued refusal of her father to take Abby Morris in scandalized the Quaker community and burdened the Wells family. (One young Quaker castigated Abby's father as having "the heart of a viper." He did check on his daughter by sending a clerk who would knock on the door then hurry back across the gutter and speak to whoever answered.) As much as sending her to the hospital would relieve the burden and embarrassment, the best care was still to be had at home. Indeed Dr. Parke, who used Rush's remedies on Abby, electrified the family by announcing that since bleeding had afforded her such relief, perhaps she didn't have yellow fever after all. Then the next day she sank back into her bed with extreme debility. Her only exertion was to bring up black vomit, which in case after case seemed to be the fatal sign of yellow fever. Parke decided she was beyond hope. Two hired African American nurses were her constant companions, with an occasional visit from a Quaker minister.
Benjamin Smith's two year old son Daniel had severe vomiting and diarrhea, and was promptly sent to his mother who was still at the Walnut Street house caring for her mother still prostrate from the death of her son. Margaret rallied to care for her grandson. She didn't think it was the fever and treated the boy with a soothing cinnamon medicine. There was no room in the house for the worried father, and he was left alone, brooding in his counting house on South Front Street. He wrote to his father that Monday the 16th of September was the "most fatal day." He blamed the "sultriness" which returned after a week of relatively cool weather. As a friend put it, going into the "lower part of the city" was like "going into a thick cloud." As for Abby Morris, over the weekend her body broke out into boils. On the morning of the 16th they began to bleed and nothing could staunch the flow.
Benjamin Smith was finally in a position to take his family out of the city. His mother-in-law and son were well enough so that his family was together once again, and all relatively healthy, as was the family on Walnut Street. His wife's aunt was no longer having fits and Margaret Morris was alarmed because the "Destroying Angel" was "within a few doors." Yet they all decided to stay. On Friday Smith explained in a letter that the very health of his family meant they had to stay. Rush had told Smith's cousin, after he had recovered from the fever, that it was okay for him to leave but not his healthy wife, "for the exercise of riding and keenness of the country air would probably excite into action the infection that might be in her body, when by remaining in town there was a probability that it might pass off again without any effect." Plus, Smith thought, to take the infection to friends in the country would be unforgivable. Smith only longed for something to do. The ships William Penn and George Barclay had arrived from London only to be warned not to come up because consignees had fled and the customs house was closed. The only business Smith transacted was taking two notes to a bank where he "threw" them at a clerk.
A trip by the Smiths to Burlington would have been problematical. The rest of the country from Boston to Savannah was redoubling its vigilance against refugees from the Philadelphia epidemic. The merchant Levi Hollingsworth reacted bitterly when he received pleas from his brothers in Baltimore that he and his family should flee before it was too late. At the same time one brother was officially sent by Baltimore's health committee to organize troops along the Susquehanna River to prevent refugees from crossing. The Baltimore brothers thought that if Levi and his invalid wife camped in the country a few nights, no more than seven which was the quarantine Baltimore required, they could come get them and take them to the city.
Although he cited his missing a visit as reason enough for a patient to die, Rush encouraged people to carry-on without him by liberally using mercurial purges. The fully recovered Margaret Morris treated her maid Sally, who seemed to have a mild case, "as Dr. Rush directs." Then she began vomiting "blackish stuff and the discharge downwards was the same, and then she vomited blood." Morris "began to make experiments." She had Sally lick salt and alum and then quenched the resulting thirst with elixir of vitriol, vinegar and water. Her discharges stopped for 24 hours. Then she started vomiting blood again, "It came out like a teapot." Morris went to her neighbor Rush and got medicine to stop the vomiting, but the bleeding continued and Sally's mouth, tongue and lips were as black as ink. Morris gave her bark, and she recovered. The convalescing Rush told Morris that the spontaneous bleeding cured Sally.
While Sally was sick, William, an apprentice who was staying with Margaret, was seized. She started him with purges and Fisher stopped in to bleed a pound of blood out of him in the morning and another pound that night. He seemed weak but better. No sooner were the patients in her own house stabilized than Benjamin Smith reported that his three servants were ill. With medicines in hand Margaret went to Front Street and purged everyone. Then the two Smith children felt ill.
Back on Walnut Street Margaret's cousin succumbed to the fever. "Practice had made me bold," Margaret later wrote. She gave her cousin a purging powder, and had her bled. Then the two grandchildren living with her got sick. She had not thought the Smith children truly touched with yellow fever, but she had no doubts about the Morris orphans. She asked Rush how to proportion the medicine to the children and dosed them both. One recovered quickly the other didn't. Then the two blacks she had hired to take care of Sally and William got sick and left. With all the sickness, she wrote, "it seemed as if my heart had died within me." To care for all she decided to spend the days at the Smith house and nights in her own house.
Benjamin Smith managed to find doctors to see his ill servants. They too had faith in Rush's methods and the servant with the most obstinate fever was bled to the point where he was "low indeed" and "cold at the extremities" through the night. On Wednesday October 9th a doctor and Margaret Morris both visited in quick succession. The doctor allowed the three servants "restorative medicine." "My mother-in-law, who has had much experience in the disorder,..." Smith wrote to his father, "thinks the crisis is past with both and they will do very well." Of the children only his daughter didn't get well. She "can't be got to take medicine but with difficulty nor then in sufficient quantity but we shall try her again." Benjamin was the calm point in the storm, reporting with scant emotion that he was able to do as much as he commonly did. But his wife Debby was fatigued, a condition that was no longer dismissed lightly. She "has taken some medicine which I think will prevent any bad consequences." Her mother Margaret had come to have a great belief in bleeding. For a day she sent for a bleeder in vain - eight were unable to come. She never was so bold to try herself. Finally one came and Debby was bled.
On October 5 Benjamin's father sent down a bundle of dried herbs that he thought might be useful, including "tanzy, wormwood of two sorts, one Italian, cardes, balm, isip, pennyroyal." He recommended chewing the wormwood to prevent infection and told of a Frenchman who feared that his servant had the fever. He "was very earnest in inquiry after cardes benedictus or the blessed thistle." It had been hailed in 1578 as a cure for the plague, and the servant recovered with only a blister and the herb given as a tea. There's no evidence that Benjamin Smith used the herbs. He respected his mother-in-law's respect for Rush's methods, which he knew was borne of her observation of several cases.
Historians try to distinguish between home remedies and doctor's medicine, contrasting the good works of matriarchs like Margaret Morris with the insensitive prescriptions of doctors like Rush. Actually Rush worked well with the mothers of the city. Rush was overjoyed when another widow visited him and told how she cured herself with several mercurial purges and by having herself bled seven times in six days. Then Benjamin himself got a fever. He thought it only from fatigue. His mother-in-law urged medicine on him.
That fewer were sick was scant comfort to those already sick. Margaret Morris had the bitter gratification of seeing proof of her diagnostic skill. Benjamin Smith did have the yellow fever, badly. On the 15th she left Smith with what she thought were favorable symptoms. He and Debby had been "twice bled" and both seemed comfortable. But Benjamin rapidly declined. He died on the afternoon of October 18, "without a sigh or groan - and perfectly sensible." Debby Smith completely collapsed. As Margaret Morris prepared Benjamin for the grave, she had to go to her daughter and try to rally her. Just as death had led to the evacuation of the Pear Street house, so death led to the evacuation of the Front Street house.
In the week that followed Debby moaned continually. Margaret had lost her husband when she was 29, but she had been surrounded by friends. She and Debby were surrounded by young children, servants and sick or incapacitated relatives. Margaret could do nothing to console her daughter. As for herself, she found comfort in a Bible prophecy "which seems fulfilling" - Amos 3:8 "...there shall be many dead bodies, in every place they shall cast them forth with silence." "When I look round," she continued in a letter she wrote the 24th, "and see what havoc death has made in our city - the young and vigorous taken away, the old and helpless left, many of them without support - my spirit almost dies within me and I am ready to say 'what wait I for? - my delight is in Thee.'" But 15 people were in her house and she very much the strongest.