On 27 May 1853, 26-year-old James McGuigan admitted himself to the Charity Hospital in New Orleans saying he had felt sick for four days. Within hours he became delirious and, early next morning, he threw up black vomit, a symptom familiar to anyone who had lived through New Orleans’s regular yellow fever outbreaks. By 6am McGuigan was dead, the first fatality in the worst epidemic any American city had ever experienced.
McGuigan, an Irishman, was a stranger to New Orleans. He had arrived in America’s fifth-largest city just 17 days before, aboard a ship carrying 314 Irish immigrants from the British port of Liverpool. Two days later a sailor from another newly arrived ship, the Augusta, transporting passengers from Britain, Germany and other European countries, died in the same hospital. At the autopsy, local physician Dr Erasmus Darwin Fenner observed the yellow colour of the sailor’s skin. Black vomit was found in his stomach.
These apparent cases of yellow fever, though occurring unusually early in the year, prompted Fenner to launch a “scrutinizing investigation”. The doctor’s inquiries revealed that the Augusta had travelled up the Mississippi river together with a ship from Kingston, Jamaica, where yellow fever was rife. What’s more, Fenner discovered that “free communication” had taken place between the two vessels and that the Augusta ended up mooring “not more than a hundred yards” from McGuigan’s ship.
Fenner’s focus on the ships that carried these two men to New Orleans was not unusual. At the time of their deaths, no one understood how yellow fever spread or knew, for sure, whether it was contagious. Among other scapegoats, the disease was blamed on ships, distant countries and poor sanitation. Immigrants like McGuigan were also blamed for bringing the disease on themselves – and contributing to its spread through cities – because of their supposedly immoderate lifestyles.
Contagionists have attributed our yellow fever (the paternity of which no nation is willing to own) to Siam, where it was never known, and for no better reason than that the country itself is at the uttermost end of the earth…
In early July, as the annual influx of mosquitoes swamped the city, one local newspaper described New Orleans as looking and smelling “epidemical”. Some residents responded by fleeing, but many remained calm. Yellow fever, after all, was known as the strangers’ disease. Ever since the earliest city epidemics in the late 1700s, everyone had known foreigners and travellers from other parts of America were much more susceptible than those born in New Orleans.