“Mama, Mary and Anthony went to Morris Town — Mama has not been very well for some time past, and she has gone to try if change of air will be of service to her” —Elizabeth De Hart Bleecker, July 27, 1803
“there is some talk of the Fever — a Vessel has been suffer’d to come in to the Dock, from the West Indies — one or two persons who had been on board have died” —Elizabeth De Hart Bleecker, July 28, 1803
“in the afternoon James mov’d his family out of Water Street to Mama’s — several persons have died near him with the fever” —Elizabeth De Hart Bleecker, July 30, 1803
“I believe it has been traced that almost every one that has died, has had some connection with the Vessel from the West Indies” —Elizabeth De Hart Bleecker, August 1, 1803
“in the afternoon, I went to William’s — his wife was very sick with the cholera” —Elizabeth De Hart Bleecker, August 4, 1803
“Papa and Mama return’d from Morris Town” —Elizabeth De Hart Bleecker, August 4, 1803
Everyone was sick or in danger of getting sick. So it probably seemed to Elizabeth De Hart Bleecker during this one week in the summer of 1803. But Bleecker’s family was better off than most because they had the means to avoid fast-spreading diseases.
Early American cities were densely populated, connected by commerce to tropical climates, and possessed inadequate public health apparatuses. Diseases thus easily found their way to American cities. When they did, they could quickly turn into epidemics. This was a fact of life. It is why those who could afford to, often sent their children to school in more rural settings, with more "salubrious" climates. Many Americans thought the hinterlands were not just less unhealthy than cities, but actually ameliorative.
When Bleecker's “Mama” got sick, she fled the city for New Jersey and a "change of air," which the family hoped would make her feel better. Whatever ailed her certainly paled in comparison to the other virulent threats New Yorkers encountered that summer. Cholera was scary, though no major outbreak afflicted New York until the 1830s.
Yellow Fever was another story. Outbreaks of “the Fever,” as Bleecker called it, was a perennial threat for much of her early life. In 1793, yellow fever tore through Philadelphia, killing 5,000 people, or some ten percent of the city’s population. New York City shielded itself that year by refusing to take in refugees and quarantining goods and people from the City of Brotherly Love. In 1795, though, New York contended with a yellow fever epidemic of its own, which claimed the lives of hundreds. (Another recently digitized collection documents the experience of a doctor who treated yellow fever patients at Bellevue Hospital). A major outbreak hit the City yet again in 1798.
These entries from Bleecker’s diary capture the very beginning of the 1803 yellow fever epidemic. By the following week, Bleecker concluded that the spread of fever had become “allarming.” The next day, August 9th, she noted that “a great many people are moving out of town.” And on the day after that, Bleecker took a stage coach and escaped the City to Bedford, north of Manhattan in Westchester County. Other New Yorkers were not so lucky. Over 500 people died in the City before the epidemic finally ended in October.
Bleecker's diary is undoubtedly an important source for understanding early New York City. Yet as her and her family's comparatively easy encounter with the 1803 season attests, Bleecker's experience was far from typical.
This is one of a series of monthly posts highlighting entries from the Elizabeth De Hart Bleecker Diary. Previous installments include a broad overview description of the diary, a post about the election of 1800, and another about lotteries in early New York.
For more on public health in early American cities, see John Duffy, A History of Public Health in New York City, 1625-1866 , Vol. 1 (New York: Russell Sage Foundation, 1968); and Simon Finger, The Contagious City: The Politics of Public Health in Early Philadelphia (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2012). For a more contemporary account, see James Hardie, An account of the yellow fever...in the city of New York, in the year 1822, to which is prefixed a brief sketch of the different pestilential diseases, with which this city was afflicted, in the years 1798, 1799, 1803 & 1805...(New York: Printed by Samuel Marks, 1822).
About the Early American Manuscripts Project
With support from the The Polonsky Foundation, The New York Public Library is currently digitizing upwards of 50,000 pages of historic early American manuscript material. The Early American Manuscripts Project will allow students, researchers, and the general public to revisit major political events of the era from new perspectives and to explore currents of everyday social, cultural, and economic life in the colonial, revolutionary, and early national periods. The project will present online for the first time high quality facsimiles of key documents from America’s Founding, including the papers of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Alexander Hamilton and James Madison. Drawing on the full breadth of the Library’s manuscript collections, it will also make widely available less well-known manuscript sources, including business papers of Atlantic merchants, diaries of people ranging from elite New York women to Christian Indian preachers, and organizational records of voluntary associations and philanthropic organizations. Over the next two years, this trove of manuscript sources, previously available only at the Library, will be made freely available through nypl.org.