St. Peter’s in the Midst of the Yellow Fever Epidemic

This special post was written by Libby Browne, a parishioner and historian at St. Peter’s Church.

My daughter Katrina and I participated in the streamed March 22, 11 a.m. service at her house in Washington, DC, where I am staying. When it was over, she wondered what St. Peter’s would have been like during the Yellow Fever epidemic in 1793. Let’s have a look back at the differences between the experience of our St. Peter’s predecessors and ours today.

The Yellow Fever hit Philadelphia in August of 1793, a few months after shiploads of refugees arrived from the French Caribbean island of Saint-Domingue. They were fleeing the slave rebellion that led to the creation of the independent country of Haiti. The Fever had been a problem there for some years and may well have been brought by mosquitos in water barrels in ships coming with slave cargoes from Africa. But at the time, no one realized that mosquitos caused yellow fever, although they did suspect them; they thought polluted water was probably the source. It wasn’t until the late 1880s that Dr. Walter Reed discovered that the mosquito aedes aegyptii was the culprit.

The medical response in 1793 was extremely limited by this lack of understanding of the source and, in general, about what cure could be found for it. The city’s top doctor, Benjamin Rush, described the fever as a “highly contagious, as well as mortal… bilious remitting yellow fever.” He believed that the best practice was purging with a powder of mercury and jalap (both poisonous) and bleeding with leeches, which was occasionally effective but basically sapped the patient of strength to combat the Fever. Rush was at this time a member of St. Peter’s — his father was Presbyterian and his mother an Anglican/Episcopalian, so he went back and forth between St. Peter’s and Old Pine; in 1787, he had joined St. Peter’s. Another doctor, Adam Kuhn, prescribed drinking wine and dousing the patient with cold water. He is buried at St. Peter’s.

Stephen Girard, the French ship owner/banker who had settled here, worked with a French doctor from St. Domingue, Jean Deveze; they took over Bush Hill, a country estate at what is now 18th & Spring Garden Streets, and turned it into a hospital. The sick were treated there, away from the heat and filth of the city using some of the same remedies, but the rest and fresh air gave them a greater chance to survive.

Another St. Peter’s connection with the Fever is Absalom Jones, who by this time had been freed from enslavement by an early member of St. Peter’s, Benjamin Wynkoop. He had become a Methodist preacher as had Richard Allen; the two of them founded the Free African Society in 1787. Rush, who knew them from his connections with the Pennsylvania Abolition Society, begged them to help in tending the sick and removing the dead, thinking that Black people would be less likely to get it — probably because some West Africans had already built up immunity to it while enslaved in the West Indies. He taught volunteers from the Society how to bleed patients; they tended the sick and dying and performed an extraordinary service to the community.

Between August and November, when frosts eliminated the mosquitos, 5,000 people in this city of 50,000 died. In that period there were 143 burials in the St. Peter’s Churchyard and 398 at Christ Church. (The Fever was worst around the Arch Street Docks where the French ships arrived.) The City forbade the tolling of bells at funerals since they would be tolling all the time and further distressing the residents. Imagine how hard this was for the clergy of Christ Church & St. Peter’s, William White and his assistant Robert Blackwell (who is buried in our churchyard). The City imposed quarantines, so services probably weren’t held at all.

If this all sounds rather depressing, think about how much better we are able to cope with the current COVID 19 pandemic. Although there is no cure at this time, there are possibilities, and medical care and sanitation have improved exponentially. And think how much harder it would be to be quarantined – no telephone, no TV, no internet with a wealth of ways to keep us occupied, educated, and connected with each other even with social distancing. And while not going into St. Peter’s beautiful building may be hard for us, we can participate remotely and maintain the strong bonds of our loving community as we care for each other and for those whose lives and livelihoods are much less secure than ours.

Upside Post-script:

  • Following not just the 1793 Fever, but recurrences most years until 1799, the City of Philadelphia created a water system with water being pumped from the Schuylkill River first to a waterworks station where City Hall now stands in 1800. Then when that was inadequate for a growing population, a new waterworks was built on the banks of the Schuylkill in 1812, which pumped water up to a reservoir (where the Philadelphia Museum of Art now stands) then by gravity into pipes across the city. And in order to protect the Schuylkill water from increasing industrialization, our beautiful Fairmount Park was created in 1854.
  • In 1800, the City also built a quarantine station in Tinicum, just south of the city, where arriving ships and their crews could be inspected for Yellow Fever. It was called the Lazaretto (think ‘the leper Lazarus’) and was restored last year – and just received the Preservation Alliance’s 2020 Grand Jury Award.