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Modern Voices
John Edgar Wideman on the Yellow Fever epidemic
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Q: What were some of the things that people did to keep fever out of their home?
John Edgar Wideman

A: There were all kinds of crackpot ideas of how to save yourself. People walked around with kerchiefs around their face, kerchiefs they'd soaked in camphor. You would hear guns going off all the time, because people thought they would purge their air by exploding gunpowder. So there were strange smells and sounds and, of course, fire. Fire was always thought of as a purge. And that was really scary because you had a wooden city, and there was always the fear that the city might burn as people tried to destroy the plague.

A real siege mentality took over. So that in a household, if one person caught it, that person was often just put outdoors. You had actual situations where children were put out of doors, dropped in the street because people were afraid the child would infect everybody else.

Everybody was so frightened, and no one knew exactly what caused the fever. And no one knew how to cure it. Benjamin Rush said that the patient should be bled and purged, and some sort of horrific combination of mercury and other kinds of chemicals fed to people. It's interesting that Rush had lots of black people that he worked with, nurses and attendants -- people who would never dream of having a black person enter their front door, let alone their bedroom, were now dependent on a black person who was wielding a knife and who entered the bedroom and opened a vein.
John Edgar Wideman
Amherst College

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