Return to Swamp 1800

When Washington Was the Place To Be In the Summer

by Bob Arnebeck

Back in 1789, when Congress sat in New York City, those opposed to making a site on the Potomac River the permanent capital of the new nation, never failed to raise the issue of health. Theodore Sedgwick, who hailed from Northampton, Massachusetts, tried to scare his colleagues into settling for capital no further south than Pennsylvania.

"The climate of the Patowmack is not only unhealthy, but destructive to northern constitutions...," he told the House in September 1789. "Vast numbers of northeastern adventurers have gone to the Southern states, and all have found their graves there. They have met destruction as soon as they arrived." On the floor of Congress, friends of the Potomac ducked the issue by pointing out how far west that river flowed. A capital on it would be in the hills, not next to noxious tidal swamps. Back on the Potomac, local boosters began a campaign to convince the nation that no place in America was healthier. Even after some back room deals assured that the capital would be on the river, the campaign continued and proved so successful that by the end of the 1790's the City of Washington, as the 700 or so houses south of K Street was known as, was deemed a boon spot for rusticating away the hot summer.

Indeed in July 1800, the local newspaper predicted that for years to come no city in the world would afford a more pleasant residence in the months of July and August:

"The intense heats of the season, actually remind us of the immense superiority which the City of Washington will enjoy, even when it shall become populous, over every other city, perhaps, which ever existed, in its numerous open grounds and the noble spaciousness of it's streets and avenues. These are advantages in point of health and pleasantness which come home to the feelings and for the want of which wealth and grandeur cannot compete."

There was method in such a seemingly insane assertion.

Since 1789 when Sedgwick made a distinction between the healthy north and the sickly south, Philadelphia, New York and even Boston had been scourged by yellow fever, (see my web page on yellow fever in the 1790s) the most dread tropical disease. In 1793, roughly 10% of the population of Philadelphia, over 4,000 souls, died of it. As part of the deal bringing the capital to the Potomac, Pennsylvania was placated with housing the federal government until the year 1800. Fearing the fever Congress almost did not convene in Philadelphia in 1793, but frosts in early November ended the epidemic.

When the fever returned in 1797, the executive officers fled. Congress did not meet in the summer but it authorized a temporary removal of federal employees to avoid the fevers. In 1798 and 1799 the bureaucrats made a planned retreat to Trenton, New Jersey, and sure enough yellow fever struck again. In those three years almost 6,000 Philadelphians died of the fever, that could dispatch its victim after 5 to 7 days of burning skin turning yellow and copious vomiting turning black.

What passed for medical science at the time didn't know what to make of it. No one suspected the mosquito of spreading yellow fever. All autumnal fevers were caused by miasma in the air emanating from swamps and marshes. Fevers in the countryside were not as lethal because the emanations came from primarily vegetable matter. In crowded cities, the miasma rose from human and other animal waste, which made the resulting fevers especially deadly.

By blaming bad air for all fevers, doctors could at least concoct a unified theory of fevers, but the theory did nothing to enhance the two greatest cities in the nation. That Philadelphia and New York had outbreaks of the deadliest fever proved that they had the worst air in the country, far worse than the marsh mists and swamp fogs that blanketed the rest of the nation in the late summer and early fall and which only caused what was then called "fever and ague," or intermittent fever, what we call malaria. Of course not a few Philadelphians and New Yorkers insisted that yellow fever came from ships fresh from the West Indies. But that theory did not explain why people away from the dock areas got the disease.

Until the epidemic of 1793, it was widely believed that Congress would never really move to the Potomac in 1800. Philadelphia began building a grand residence for the President before work got started on the White House. So when a congressman from Maryland arrived in Philadelphia in September 1793 to find the city virtually deserted, he alerted correspondents of what the epidemic portended: "The Banks of the Potomac look up, I think, when the citizens themselves desert their beloved city." Two weeks later the three commissioners of the City of Washington broadcast the news that their city was "remarkably healthy." And thanks to an enterprising Bostonian they had facts to prove it.

Before he wound up in debtors prison Samuel Blodget floated the first loan secured by Washington city lots, perpetrated two lotteries to finance building in the city, and helped organize the first bank geared toward making the city grow. He could not abide the continual carping that the city was unhealthy, and he was appalled to find when he came to the city, that the commissioners kowtowed to the prejudices of the rest of the country, and scheduled sales of lots in October when what was popularly called "the sickly season" would be over.

Blodget first visited the city in the winter of 1791 and bought much of the land east of today's Dupont Circle. He came again, with several Boston friends in tow, to attend the auction of lots in October 1792. He so impressed everyone that the commissioners appointed him superintendent of the city. While he didn't live in the city, he did pop down frequently from Philadelphia, where he was busy founding the Insurance Company of North America. He celebrated his first August in the city by seeing that a census was taken. City officials counted 820 people in the city and determined that "for the last six months there has not been a death of either man or woman taken place." A fact more remarkable, he explained in a press release to the nation, because most of the inhabitants were not natives but "artists in the different branches of building and from the different parts of America and Europe.... The climate agrees with their constitutions, and they enjoy in this city equal if not superior health to that they have experienced in any part of the continent."

Private letters lend some credence to those boasts. William Cranch came down from Massachusetts in the fall of 1794 to manage the operations of his brother-in-law James Greenleaf who had bought over 6,000 lots in the city plus farms across the Anacostia River and who had agreed to build almost 200 brick houses in the city by 1800. Like most who visited the city in that period, what impressed Cranch was the extent of the grounds laid out for the city and the pace of activity to fill it. All that mattered in Philadelphia fit snugly in a square mile. As Cranch stood at the first house Greenleaf had built, at 6th and N Streets Southwest (which still stands), he was a mile from where men were laying the foundation of the Capitol, two miles from the President's house where the first story was already completed, and three and a half miles from Georgetown, the nearest area where enough houses stood together to really make a semblance of a city.

Cranch was not daunted by the distances. His man Greenleaf had three contractors at work and a million dollar loan from Dutch banks in negotiation. However, Cranch was daunted by rumors of fevers, and in his first letter home to his mother he took great pains to assure her that the deadly fever was not there:

"You have been misinformed with regard to the fever's raging in this city. There is no prevailing disorder here at present. There have been some people attacked with a bilious fever; and many have the fever and ague. The number of deaths has been remarkably small considering the number of workmen here and considering their mode of life, their imprudences, and their bad provisions." Citing the fall fevers as far north as Newburyport, Massachusetts, not to mention yellow fever in Baltimore and New Haven, Cranch thought the federal city rather healthy.

Today, that "many have the fever and ague," or malaria, would not bespeak an area of good health. But in most of the country at that time, malaria in the summer months and early fall was accepted as a fact of life. The disease ranged as far north as Maine and as far west as the Mississippi valley. Save for occasional epidemics of the more deadly malaria parasite, most of the U.S. only suffered the nagging ravages of the vivax malaria which was seldom fatal save to young children and the very old. The milder form of malaria put one out of commission every third day until the disease ran it's course in three week. or two. One bout with the fever did not give immunity, and frequent bouts with it aged suffers quickly and lowered resistance to other diseases.

As long as no one died of the fever, city boosters portrayed the city as an oasis of health. Agents trying to steer Englishmen bound for the new world to Washington argued that Philadelphia "in point of climate was very unfriendly to an European constitution.... that even Americans, who were natives of other states, most certainly avoided the dreadful spot from a knowledge of the certain destruction which accompanied the numerous malignant fevers so generally prevalent in and round Philadelphia." Washington's climate, however, "is grateful to Englishmen, and seems to invite them to partake of its salubrity; if we may judge of the uninterrupted state of health they enjoy after once feeling its invigorating influence."

In the summer of 1795, citizens of the new city began dying of fevers. At the end of July the middle Atlantic states were drenched with a week of storms that caused extensive flooding. Workers who lived in barracks built on Judiciary Square complained that the overflow from Tiber Creek that ran across Pennsylvania Avenue at 2nd Street NW made walking to Capitol Hill a threat to their health. Crews burning bricks on the side of Capitol Hill were decimated by disease. The editor of the only newspaper in the city and the postmaster both died.

The experience of Samuel Moody a carpenter from England soon belied the recent propaganda to immigrants. In July he began working on houses being built at the foot of New Jersey Avenue near swales made rather soggy by the recent rains, by mid-September he was dead.

Blodget did not come forward with soothing propaganda. His lotteries were not going well. He had been dismissed as superintendent of the city, and was back in Philadelphia trying to stave off personal bankruptcy. But another enthusiast was on hand to step into the breach. Thomas Law had spent most of his adult life in Patna, India, along the Ganges River, administering a province for the British East India Company. Patna has 12 months of Washington-like summer.

The Marquise Madame de la Tour du Pin, who sat out the nasty days of the French Revolution in Albany, New York, met Thomas Law while he as scouting land along the Mohawk. She recalled that when Law had his mind on something, the roof could fall in around him and he wouldn't notice. However, it was not because of his single-mindedness that he was closely watched when he toured America in the fall of 1794. President George Washington suspected the man who claimed he was a wealthy East India trader looking for a new world to invest in was in reality a British spy. What better way to allay the great man's suspicions than to marry one of Martha's granddaughters and invest in the City of Washington.

He built a house for Eliza and himself at the foot of Capitol Hill. Law did not sweat a few deaths in the city where he had sunk a considerable fortune. He was wise enough not to resort to Blodget's census and mortality reports from which the health of the city could no longer be induced. Instead he began deducing the health of the city from its, well, not really being a city at all.

When Law came to the city in 1795 to begin building houses, he recognized that there as no way the city would rival Philadelphia or New York by 1800. Greenleaf's million dollar loan never came through and his operations had to be curtailed. Law as the only man carrying on development. So Law began to tout not the speed with which the city was filling out L'Enfant's plan, but the slow pace of development. While the bustling ports of New York, Philadelphia and Baltimore were crowded and fever ridden, the rural charms of the capital-to-be were inviting, especially in the month of August.

A letter to the Boston Gazette in 1798 spelled out the charms of the rural city: "...the trees diffusing their variegated foliage by the banks of the Potomack, increase the rural scene; add to this, the tuneful echoes of the groves, captivate the attention and add to the delightful scene - the feather'd choristers with their beautiful warblings enrapture the ear..."

In August 1796 Law hosted a party for President Washington at his new house on New Jersey Avenue, at the foot of Capitol Hill. Law's partner in many of his operations, James Barry, missed the occasion, and sent his regrets in a fashion that proved how telling was the new slant Law gave to the city. "It is happy for you," Barry wrote, "to be out of large towns this season for the heats are intolerable in Philadelphia and here [Baltimore.]"

With an assist from Blodget, Law soon had theatre troupes coming to the city in August, as well as painters and poets. In August 1799 Law dashed off a note to George Washington crowing about the congeries of artists he had collected in his house. "There were Thornton the architect, Cliffen the poet and painter, Bernard the actor and Barley the singer, in short several choice spirits, the forerunners of numbers to come." The commissioners who used to wait and sell lots in October, began scheduling auctions in August. The return of yellow fever to Baltimore, Philadelphia and New York made the see-Washington-in-August propaganda more compelling. In 1797 city boosters even offered free accommodations to "any genteel family" fleeing the yellow fever. 1796 and 1797 had been healthy in the city, so it was time to publish another census. The city was "one of the healthiest spots in the United States," boosters proclaimed. There had not been a death from fever in. a year. Out of a population of 2,000, there had been two deaths by consumption, and one each from diarrhea, "cancerous bread," old age, convulsions and a smallpox inoculation.

Meanwhile those who sent news only to mother, and not the nation's press, continued to believe in the healthiness of the city. Dr. Frederick May came down from Massachusetts to practice in the city. William Cranch explained to his mother that while May had "plenty of business, yet he says this is the healthiest place in the world." To his Aunt Abigail Adams, wife of the second President, Cranch wrote that the city was "without any comparison, more healthy than Philadelphia, New York, or even Boston, and infinitely more agreeable. The situation of the President's house is high and airy, and is proved to be as healthy as any part of the world."

And at least one prominent American made the city his chosen place of resort in August. John Carroll was the only Catholic bishop in the U.S. From his church in Baltimore, he traveled extensively in the mid-Atlantic states, and could have taken advantage of invitations from rich Catholics throughout the union. In August he preferred to stay with his sister, Mrs. Notley Young, whose family lived in a mansion on 10th and G Streets SW overlooking the broad Potomac. The prospect then was more inviting than it is today because the hills south of the Mall had not yet been leveled and what today is Hains Point was then river. At least two contemporaries described the situation of the city then as most similar to Constantinople.

In August 1800 Baltimore once again suffered a yellow fever epidemic. Bishop Carroll extended his sojourn at the Youngs and wrote to the faithful that since eight priests had died in the past seven years after administering last rites to victims of the fever, it would be best if Catholics dying of fever would instead "repent themselves most sincerely before God," and not call for a priest.

Thanks in part to Law's and Blodget's propaganda about the charms of the rural city, in the Spring of 1800, when Congress finally resolved to convene in the Capitol in November, there was no loose talk about every northerner dying once they got there. Unfortunately the weather did not cooperate in sustaining the illusion that Washington was the place to be in the summer. A heat spell in early July proved to be the worst in memory. Gen. James Wilkinson, a native Marylander who had served in the Mississippi territory, expostulated that "the heat here for a few days past has exceeded my experience, and unhinged all my faculties rational and sensual."

And the boosters of the rural city had made one mistake. They had failed to build enough houses to accommodate the 130 bureaucrats, 136 congressmen and attendant servants and supplicants. Boarders usually shared a room with at least one other person, and sometimes three others. The crowding was not conducive to health. Even Cranch had to admit that there was a great deal of the ague and fever and bilious complaints and a few cases of dysentery, but still, "no deaths scarcely." What he meant by "scarcely" was that an unknown man was found evidently dying of fever. Dr. May rescued him, got permission to drag him into the newly built President's stable on 15th Street, where he died the next day. Cranch himself had "a very threatening attack of the bilious fever, but after fighting it about ten days with calomel, jalap, tartar-emetic, castor oil and bleeding," he felt "quite hearty."

Ironically if the New Englander Adams had been re-elected, Washington's Augusts probably would have stayed lively. He would have fled north every summer, and offended Southerners as well as transplanted enthusiasts like Cranch would have tried to shame him back by singing the charms of the sizzling city. However, the two leading figures in the new administration, President Jefferson and Secretary of State Madison, were Virginians with a considerable fear of the fever. They both refused to live on tidewater during the months of August and September - a rule which, after 1793 experience in Philadelphia, they made absolute. Beginning in 1801, the city shut down in August.