As disease spread, the national government was slow to react. Soon, citizens donned protective masks and the authorities ordered quarantines. The streets emptied. Doubters questioned the science and disobeyed. The year: 1793. The place: young America from Baltimore to Boston but especially in Philadelphia, the nation’s largest city and seat of the federal government. For 3 long months yellow fever, carried by mosquitoes let loose from a ship from Africa, ravaged the eastern seaboard The federal government abandoned the city and scattered, leaving a dangerous leadership gap. By the end of the pandemic, ten percent of Philadelphians had died.
America's First Plague offers the definitive telling of this long-forgotten crisis, capturing the wave of fear that swept across the fledgling republic, and the numerous unintended but far-reaching consequences it would have on the development of the United States and the Atlantic slave trade. It is an intriguing tale of fear and human nature, a tragic lesson of how prejudice toward blacks was so easily stoked, an examination of the primitive state of medicine and vulnerability to disease in the eighteenth century, and a story of the struggle to govern in the face of crisis. With eerie similarities to the Covid pandemic, historian Robert P. Watson tells the story of a young nation teetering on the brink of chaos.
Robert P. Watson is the author of many books on American politics and history including, most recently, Escape! The Story of the Confederacy's Infamous Libby Prison and the Civil War's Largest Jail Break (Rowman & Littlefield, 2021),George Washington’s Final Battle: The Epic Struggle to Build a Capital City and Nation (Georgetown University Press, 2021), The Ghost Ship of Brooklyn: An Untold Story of the American Revolution (Da Capo Press, 2017, and The Nazi Titanic: The Incredible Untold Story of a Doomed Ship in World War II (Da Capo Press, 2016), which is currently being made into a motion picture. He resides in Boca Raton, Florida.
Prologue: Ship of Death
Part I. America’s First Crisis
3. Yellow Jack
5. The First to Die
Part II. The Capital Under Seige
6. “Hell Town”
7. Fear and Panic
8. Philadelphia Responds
9. Bush Hill
10. The Physicians War
Part III. Turning Point
11. Unlikely Heroes
12. A Nation without a Government
13. Ghost Town
14. The Fall Frost
15. Of Pestilence and Politics
Epilogue: 100 Days of Terror
Appendix A. Timeline of Events
Appendix B. Map of Philadelphia
About the Author
One reason for historians to revisit topics already covered by others is that later generations have new questions and new perspectives about the subject matter. Robert P. Watson, writing about the yellow fever epidemic that struck Philadelphia in 1793, tells a story we can resonate with because of our own experiences with Covid-19.... This was the first time, but not the last, that Americans grew scared and angry about a medical emergency, vollied political points as they tried to figure out what to do, and learned how better to prepare for future problems. Read the book.
In the spring and summer of 2020, when COVID-19 alarm was at its zenith, many reports emerged saying that we had done this before. Those reports told the story of the 1918 flu, which killed almost 700,000 people in the U.S. and a mind-blowing 50 million people worldwide. Now comes historian Watson to say that, actually, COVID was the nation’s third plague. The first? A 1793 outbreak of yellow fever in Philadelphia, then the capital of the fledgling United States. Five thousand of the city’s 50,000 residents died, making this, percentagewise, the worst epidemic in American history. Another 20,000 residents fled the city, including federal government officials, who were ordered to leave by President Washington. Watson illustrates how all the same controversies or conspiracies of COVID-19 were present then, too: immigrants were blamed for introducing the disease; some people practiced social distancing, others didn’t; and Dr. Benjamin Rush, who identified the disease, became both hero and pariah. Additionally, patients were treated with purging or bloodletting. Watson recreates this terrifying era with the skill of a novelist, and readers will be enthralled.
Hardly anyone noticed the first to die in the sultry August of 1793—a few foreigners, a sailor, an oyster seller. Most Philadelphians brushed off the deaths as the result of air fouled by rotting coffee or fish near the docks. Then the healthy and affluent began to die: public officials, ministers. The plague that was sweeping the young nation’s temporary capital was yellow fever, a contagion little understood at the time. Writes Robert Watson in ‘America’s First Plague,’ the outbreak was ‘one of the worst epidemics in American history.’ ... Watson has succeeded in recovering a dramatic episode from near-oblivion.
Several books about yellow fever outbreaks in American history have appeared in recent years. The work reviewed here distinguishes itself in several ways. First, like the classic 1949 work of J. H. Powell, Bring Out Your Dead, it is focused on the 1793 outbreak in Philadelphia, then the interim US capital, and the contemporaneous pandemic in the Caribbean region. But it is also important that Watson wrote this book during the COVID-19 pandemic, giving him the opportunity to compare the two outbreaks and note the similarities in government and public responses. Both outbreaks changed the course of the nation's history in fundamental ways. ....Watson delves deeply into the intriguing story of the Hankey, the ship laden with bedraggled survivors of a failed British abolitionist experiment off the West coast of Africa—the origin of the yellow fever—and the voyage that wrought devastation across the Caribbean before reaching Philadelphia.”
In this thoroughly researched account of a long-forgotten tragedy, Robert Watson provides a compelling
look at our nation’s first public health crisis, one defined by bitter disagreements within the medical community, finger-pointing by politicians, and panic among the public, but also by as many acts of bravery and service during the outbreak.
Sadly, history often repeats itself, and although we are vastly better informed and prepared today, the lessons from 1793 apply then as they do now. This book is page-turner that will inform historians, health officials, and the public.
Dr. Robert Watson guides us through one of the first crises of the new fledgling republic in which the federal government almost ceased functioning as it vacated the seat of government. Dr. Watson brings us to Philadelphia and makes us feel that we are a part of these amazing events as they unfold. As a surgeon, I appreciated his incredibly detailed description of the origin of the virus in Philadelphia that year, the magnitude and description of the tragedy of the disease, the Physician Wars, and the resolution. We are there. And moreover, his exposition of the politicization of the epidemic pitting Hamilton against Jefferson is jarring in its similarity to our COVID-19 experience more than 200 years later.
This is an amazingly accessible treatment of a fascinating multifaceted event at the origins of our republic, whose multiple rippling ramifications echo through to the present day.
Here is another book, of his many, where Professor Watson brings his usual comprehensive description of important events from many years ago. His description of the yellow fever epidemic in 1793 brings the recent Covid-19 pandemic into focus, including the politicization of the disease. I found this book riveting since many of the events happened after the founding of our country in my hometown of Philadelphia.
Robert Watson has written a timely and fascinating account of the 1793 yellow fever epidemic, the young nation’s first pandemic. Watson adroitly weaves together the historical narrative of the spread of the disease and the challenges it presented for the luminaries of the Revolutionary War and the nation’s founding. The book is well-researched, yet easily approachable. The modern reader will recognize the uncertainty and panic of the period in this tale of a relatively unknown disease and the inability of public health officials and political leaders to effectively deal with it. The work also explores the complex social history of the era and how the divisions in society affected efforts to confront the disease.
This book is thoroughly researched, comprehensive, and quite enjoyable to read. It easily competes with John H. Powell’s Bring Out Your Dead2 for the “all you ever wanted to know” prize. In addition to teaching us about the epidemic itself, the book sheds a lot of light on the social, economic, and religious aspects of life in Philadelphia in the early years of the young republic.
It’s an intriguing tale of fear and human nature, a tragic lesson of how prejudice toward Black people was so easily stoked, an examination of the primitive state of medicine and vulnerability to disease in the eighteenth century, and a story of the struggle to govern in the face of crisis. The story has eerie similarities to the Covid pandemic.
10/26/23, ChoiceReviews: This title was included in the “Top 75 Community College Titles: October 2023” feature.