A Plague in New York City

A Plague in New York City

Carolyn Eastman, 1

A Plague in New York City: A Frontline Worker Encounters Yellow Fever in the 1790s

Carolyn Eastman

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If you lived in New York City in the 1790s, you

encountered a boisterous street environment,

especially in August—no one wanted to stay inside

in August. Hawkers with carts full of pineapples

shipped from the Caribbean and sweet potatoes

from South Carolina shouted out “Fine pines” and

“Sweet potatoes, Carolina potatoes, here’s your

sweet Carolinas” as people passed by. African

American girls sold baked pears, sometimes two or

three for a penny. Walking along the wharves lining

the East River, you heard the sailors and

dockworkers singing as they loaded and unloaded

ships. Open-air meat markets dotted the city, selling everything from wild turkey and pork to opossum,

greenturtle, and stingray. (No bats.) And late at night, as the watchman passed through the streets

seeking to keep the peace, he called out, “Twelve o’clock at night, and all’s well.”1

In August 1795, however, not all was well. Many New Yorkers had temporarily abandoned

their homes for the country, leaving the streets eerily quiet. Others got desperately sick. The yellow

fever had arrived.

1 The Cries of New-York (New York: S. Wood, 1808), 5, 13-14, 20-22; Daniel M’Kinnen, Descriptive Poems Containing

Picturesque Views of the State of New York (New York: T. & J. Swords, 1802), 60.

Figure 1: New York City’s watchman, who wore a strong leather cap. From The Cries of New York (1808). Courtesy of the Smithsonian.

 

 

Carolyn Eastman, 2

Alexander Anderson had a better vantagepoint from which to observe that transformation

than almost anyone else in the city. Only twenty years old, still studying medicine and not yet fully

licensed to establish his own medical practice, he had just accepted a lucrative job as a medical resident

at the newly-established Bellevue Hospital. On the day he arrived there he wrote in his diary, “This

day I was plung’d into a business as

perplexing as new to me.” The pay was so

high, and the job so “perplexing,” because

the doctor who had previously held the

position had come down with yellow fever

himself.2

Yellow fever was a horrifying

disease, and New Yorkers knew it. In 1793

it had devastated Philadelphia, killing about

a tenth of the population. “The ravages made by the Fever in Philadelphia,” Anderson’s mother

explained in a letter, “fills the minds of the inhabitants of this City with terror.” Distinguished by

jaundice—the liver damage that resulted in yellowed skin and eyes—as well as high fever, New York’s

health officers knew they needed to treat the outbreak seriously. As with many viral infections, some

who contracted the disease experienced only moderate fever, muscle aches, and headache, and fully

2 Alexander Anderson, “Diary” (1793-1799), 25 Aug. 1795, Ms. 1861, Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Butler

Library, Columbia University, New York, NY; Alexander Anderson, “Sketch of the Life of Alexander Anderson” (1848), Alexander Anderson Papers, Manuscript Collections, New-York Historical Society Library, New York; Frederic M. Burr, Life and Works of Alexander Anderson, M. D.: The First American Wood Engraver (New York: Burr Brothers, 1893); Jane R. Pomeroy, “Alexander Anderson’s Life and Engravings before 1800, With a Checklist of Publications Drawn from His Diary,” Proceedings of the American Antiquarian Society 100 (1990): 137–230; Jane R. Pomeroy, Alexander Anderson, 1775-1870: Wood Engraver and Illustrator. An Annotated Bibliography (New Castle, DE and Worcester, MA: Oak Knoll Press and the American Antiquarian Society, 2005); Crystal Toscano, “‘Of Some Consequence.’ Alexander Anderson: Distinguished Doctor, Accomplished Artist,” blog, From the Stacks, New-York Historical Society (blog), April 3, 2019, http://blog.nyhistory.org/alexander-anderson-part-1/. The Burr volume includes a transcript of Anderson’s autobiographical sketch and extracts from the diary.

Figure 2: Anderson’s sketch of the hospital boat anchored at the Bellevue estate on the East River. From Benson J. Lossing, A Memorial of Alexander Anderson (1873).

 

 

Carolyn Eastman, 3

recovered within a week or so. But in severe cases, perhaps between fifteen and twenty-five percent

of the total, patients who had appeared to be on the mend took a turn for the worse, and their fever

spiked. The reversal could be abrupt. Patients began to hemorrhage internally, and began vomiting

blackened blood and sometimes bled from the nose, eyes, gums, and ears. Even today we see death

rates of up to fifty percent in those who experience this serious phase of infection. “Acquaintances

and friends avoided each other in the streets, and only signified their regard by a cold nod,” one

Philadelphia resident recalled. “The old custom of shaking hands fell into such general disuse, that

many were affronted at even the offer of the hand.” By the time cold temperatures arrived in the late

fall and infections began dropping, Philadelphia’s streets were empty.3

Doctors did not know what caused the disease. Many suspected that it had something to do

with a pestilential miasma or vapors emitted by rotting garbage, filthy streets, or areas with standing

water. They did not wear masks, but instead held handkerchiefs drenched in vinegar up to their noses

to prevent breathing in the noxious air. But they also feared the disease might pass from person to

person, so they had advised people to evacuate Philadelphia to be safe. Following Philadelphia’s lead,

New Yorkers in 1795 frantically passed laws demanding that residents keep their yards clean. Many

scrubbed the walls of their rooms at home with vinegar as well; one can only imagine how the reek of

vinegar merged with the public alarm. It would take scientists more than a hundred years to discover

that a unique species of mosquito, the Aesdes aegypti, spread the virus from infected people to the

healthy. Not until 1938 would they develop a vaccine. In the 1790s, physicians on the front lines threw

everything they had at the disease, with little effect. Benjamin Rush, the Philadelphia physician and

3 Sarah Anderson to Alexander Anderson, 2 Sept. 1795, Letters to Alexander Anderson from his mother (Mss.

Coll. 98), Digital Collections, Manuscripts and Archives Division, New York Public Library, http://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/f8b50890-df40-0133-cc4e-00505686a51c; “Yellow Fever,” WebMD.com, accessed April 16, 2020, https://www.webmd.com/a-to-z-guides/yellow-fever-symptoms-treatment; Mathew Carey, A Short Account of the Malignant Fever, Lately Prevalent in Philadelphia: With a Statement of the Proceedings That Took Place on the Subject in Different Parts of the United States (Philadelphia: Mathew Carey, 1793), 29.

 

 

Carolyn Eastman, 4

signer of the Declaration of Independence who had

become the most trusted medical expert in the country,

argued that doctors should treat the disease by bleeding

their patients.4

The yellow fever epidemic prompted New York

City leaders to establish two new city institutions. First was

Bellevue Hospital, intended to quarantine and treat patients

far from the city center. Located about four miles up the

East River the dense crush of habitation in lower

Manhattan, the rural country estate of Bellevue had been

rented by the City for use as a “pest house” during crises

like this. Patients were transported by the hospital boat that

Bellevue’s overseers had recently procured, or occasionally

brought up by cart along the dirt path from downtown. The second new institution was Potter’s Field,

located on a nearly ten-acre plot at the far northern edge of the city, what later became Washington

Square. New York City buried hundreds of people there who lacked the funds to pay for the interment

in the city’s organized cemeteries.5

4 Carey, A Short Account, 29; Valentine Seaman, An Account of the Epidemic Yellow Fever, As It Appeared in the City of

New-York in the Year 1795 … (New York: Hopkins, Webb & Co., 1796), 6–10; Alexander Hosack, An Inaugural Essay on the Yellow Fever, as It Appeared in This City in 1795. Submitted to the Public Examination of the Faculty of Physic, Under the Authority of the Trustees of Columbia College, in the State of New-York (New York: T. and J. Swords, 1797), 13; Molly Caldwell Crosby, American Plague: The Untold Story of Yellow Fever, the Epidemic That Shaped Our History (New York: Berkley Books, 2006), 233– 41.

5 Fenwick Beekman, “The Origin of ‘Bellevue’ Hospital as Shown in the New York City Health Committee Minutes during the Yellow Fever Epidemic of 1793-1795,” New York Historical Society Quarterly 27, no. 3 (July 1953): 205– 20; David Oshinsky, Bellevue: Three Centuries of Medicine and Mayhem at America’s Most Storied Hospital (New York: Doubleday, 2016), 10; Thomas Bahde, “The Common Dust of Potter’s Field,” Commonplace (blog), July 2006, http://commonplace.online/article/the-common-dust-of-potters-field/.

Figure 3: Anderson’s list of patients during the 1795 yellow fever epidemic. Anderson Papers, New-York Historical Society.

 

 

Carolyn Eastman, 5

In taking the job at Bellevue, twenty-year-old Anderson (or “Sandy,” as his family called him)

took his first step into adulthood. If things went well and he earned praise for his work, it could

smooth his path to success and renown as a doctor. The list of things that could go wrong—from

public failure or recrimination to dying from the disease—did not make it an easy choice. His mother

tried to offer support in her almost-daily letters to him. “If you ever live to have Such a Son you will

know what I feell,” she wrote encouragingly, using the eccentric spelling common for women of the

time. “The Fates have all Combind to Call you into public Life, some years before you entended it.”6

 

Figure 4: A sketch from Anderson’s “Medical Grammar,” no date, which he probably sketched before the 1795 yellow fever epidemic. In it, the doctor heroically fends off Death with a musket. Anderson Papers, New-York Historical Society.

Sandy’s daily diary, which he had kept since he was seventeen, reveals the nightmarish quality

of his earliest days dealing with yellow fever. Three of his initial patients were nurses. One arrived “in

a shocking condition, 10th day of the Disease—vomiting blood by the mouthfulls,” he wrote. “He died

within 2 hours time.” When the parents of a young girl expressed their eagerness to see her, Sandy

6 Sarah Anderson to Alexander Anderson, 27 Aug. 1795 and 2 Sept. 1795, Letters to Alexander Anderson from

his mother (Mss. Coll. 98), Digital Collections, Manuscripts and Archives Division, New York Public Library, http://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/f8b50890-df40-0133-cc4e-00505686a51c.

 

 

Carolyn Eastman, 6

tried to “indulge them” by having them stand “at some distance in the garden” where they could see

her through a window, in case of contagion.7

Inside, Sandy and his colleagues threw everything at the disease to combat it. Following Rush’s

advice following the Philadelphia outbreak, Sandy bled his patients, applied blisters to their skin,

believing such a treatment could productively stimulate the internal organs affected by disease, and

tried “pouring down [their throats] medicines etc.” None of it worked.8

For the first time in his life, Sandy slept far from his family every night and visited them only

about once a week. His family sent him letters almost every day, trying to keep his spirits up. His

mother, in particular, reminded him how valuable this experience could be for his career. It didn’t

keep his misgivings at bay. Nine days after beginning the job, he confessed that “I have thoughts of

quitting my post,” and that “I felt a very great depression of spirits.” One night he reported “sad

confusion” in the hospital because two of the patients—one of whom was a nurse who’d taken sick—

had “found a means to get themselves in liquor.” A few days later, they admitted a family of five, but

for lack of beds had to put them up in the boathouse. He reported to the Committee of Health only

a few weeks after taking the job that the hospital was full and could not accept any more patients. The

Committee hired a second doctor to help, and the flood of patients continued.9

Sandy’s “thoughts of quitting” recurred throughout the Fall 1795 outbreak. He even began to

consider “quitting the Study of Physic” altogether. He admitted it in one of his many letters home to

his parents from his temporary Bellevue room, but received a sharp response from his mother. “If

7 Anderson, Diary, 27 Aug. 1795, 28 Aug. 1795.

8 Anderson, Diary, 29 Aug. 1795.

9 Anderson to Anderson, Letters, NYPL; Anderson, Diary, 2 Sept. 1795, 3 Sept. 1795; John Duffy, “An Account of the Epidemic Fevers That Prevailed in the City of New York from 1791 to 1822,” New-York Historical Society Quarterly 50, no. 4 (October 1966): 333–64; New York City Health Committee minutes, 19 Sept. 1795, transcribed in Fenwick Beekman, “The Origin of ‘Bellevue’ Hospital as Shown in the New York City Health Committee Minutes during the Yellow Fever Epidemic of 1793-1795,” New York Historical Society Quarterly 27, no. 3 (July 1953): 205-227, here 220.

 

 

Carolyn Eastman, 7

you give that up—you have spent six years [studying medicine] in vain,” she wrote heatedly. (Medical

treatments may have changed over the decades, but parents’ investment in their children’s futures can

appear timeless.) Sandy stayed on at Bellevue. In early November, the disease began to abate, and the

last of the sick gradually pulled through. When city leaders saw the daily death rate drop, the Health

Committee publicly commended Sandy and the hospital’s other resident physician for “their

persevering attention, humanity, and fidelity to the sick,” and for having “engaged with zeal and virtue

at an early period, and under discouraging circumstances.”10

*****

I first encountered Sandy Anderson’s diary at Columbia University’s Rare Book and

Manuscript Library, tucked away on the top floor of Butler Library. It’s a silent, sterile space in a

corner of a room featuring exhibits of some of the library’s treasures. After registering and depositing

your requests at a desk, you wait at a table in a glass-enclosed room for your materials to arrive from

the stacks hidden deep in the building. Sometimes one of the other researchers breaks the silence by

talking to himself. The first volume, which he

began on January 1, 1793 as a seventeen-year-

old, is grandiosely titled “Diarium

Commentarium Vitae Alex. Anderson” in his

imprecise and somewhat enthusiastic

schoolboy Latin (“diary/ commentary on the

life of Alexander Anderson”), is sized about

eight inches tall and six and a half inches wide,

10 Anderson to Anderson, 16 Sept. 1795, NYPL; “Committee of Health: Fellow Citizens,” Argus (New York), 4

Nov. 1795, [3].

Figure 5: A small (self-?) portrait that concludes his 1793 diary, with the saying (awkwardly) in Latin, “Now another year has vanished, and we are carried through the flowing ages toward eternity.” Anderson diary, 31 Dec. 1793, Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Butler Library, Columbia University.

 

 

Carolyn Eastman, 8

and Sandy himself probably stitched the pages together and bound them with gray paper boards and

a leather spine.11

 

If you compared his diary to a handful of others from the same era the differences would leap

out immediately. Most diarists stuck to a tedious routine of recording the weather, earnestly

documenting their efforts at self-improvement, or describing weekly sermons. Few used their diaries

to explore their feelings, express their personality, or confess their secrets. One such young man

“solemnly promised” his diary “not to do a certain act” for a full year—by which he almost certainly

meant masturbation. Considering that virtually no one at the time would have considered a diary to

be a private or inviolable document, most wrote them assuming that their families and friends would

read them—and possibly offer critiques—enhancing the need for subtlety. Again, Sandy’s diary offers

a marked contrast; it displays a novelist’s knack for using both words and images to capture the world

he saw around him.12

Continuing every day until he was twenty-four, for seven years he described the energetic

young 1790s New York City and its residents with wit and verve. His family wasn’t wealthy, but had

enough money to give their two sons good educations and send them into respected professions. He

and his brother (in training to become a lawyer) took long walks around lower Manhattan in the

evenings, and he made notes on everything he witnessed. He commented on the political arguments

taking place at the Tontine Coffee House between Federalists and Republicans (“or, to modernize it,

Aristocrat & Democrat,” as Sandy explained), and the French revolutionary songs sung

enthusiastically by New Yorkers on Bastille Day. He paid admittance to see traveling exhibitions like

11 Pomeroy, “Alexander Anderson’s Life and Engravings,” 137.

12 William Little Brown, Diary (1805-1814), Nov. 1810, Manuscripts and Archives Division, New York Public Library. See also Laurel Thatcher Ulrich’s descriptions of diaries of the era in A Midwife’s Tale: The Life of Martha Ballard, Based on Her Diary, 1785-1812 (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1990), 7-10, 20-27.

 

 

Carolyn Eastman, 9

the Learned Pig which, as he reported, spelled words, computed sums, and “perform’d some feats

with cards.” During the summers he might take a ferry with his friends to Long Island in search of a

cherry tree loaded with fruit, or walk down to the Battery to watch fireworks and enjoy the sea breeze.

One cold January night as he and his brother walked to their family home on Wall Street, they looked

up to see “a Prostitute, gaily dress’d” looking out from a window across from the church. Meeting

their gaze, she gave them “an artful smile” and “displayed her Breast to our view.” That glimpse, he

wrote, “afford[ed] an Idea of a Scene often describ’d”—an “Idea” about sex that the seventeen-year-

old Sandy still had not experienced.13

We don’t usually find wry humor like this in teenagers, as true then as now. Reading the diary

in the hushed space of Butler Library, I found myself charmed by Sandy—his humor, curiosity, and

self-reflection springing from the diary’s rag-paper pages. Equally appealing were the sketches he

added to the margins. A self-taught artist, he might fill a blank space with a doodle of a pipe resting

next to a candle, a caterpillar on a leaf, or a small self-portrait. He had learned to appreciate printed

words and images from his father, known as “the rebel printer” who had lost his printing business

during the Revolution when the British Army and a Loyalist majority occupied New York City and

made it impossible for him to continue printing his Patriot newspaper, The Constitutional Gazette. As a

teenager, when Sandy had the chance to see an “Ouran-outang” and two panthers at exotic animal

exhibits, he earned spending money for carving their images onto type metal for local printers. All the

while he worked to complete an apprenticeship with a local doctor, attended medical lectures at

Columbia College, and worked toward becoming licensed as a physician. As his diary unfolds, we find

him and his older brother John courting two sisters from the Van Vleck family—and, he captures one

delightful night when John and his fiancée exchanged clothing and visited their mother, who did not

13 Anderson, Diary, 11 June 1793 (political arguments), 9 Sept. 1797 (Learned Pig), 14 June 1798 (cherries), 17

Jan. 1793 (prostitute).

 

 

Carolyn Eastman, 10

recognize them, “nor had the least suspicion of the disguised couple who were introduced under

fictitious names” until after they’d left.14

As if reading a novel, or a long letter

from a friend, I got invested in the story of

Sandy Anderson as it unfolded, day after

day. I lost my usual historian’s sense of

remove and started rooting for him. I even

sought out an unfinished portrait of him at

the Met, showing a wide, friendly face with

black hair and eyes, seems to capture the

openness with which he appeared to

approached life in his words on these pages

that survive today.

Because he spent so much time

wandering its streets and culture, the city of

New York itself rose to become almost a

character in his diary. He described the

tangled streets of lower Manhattan at a

moment when urban habitation did not extend more than a mile from the southern tip of the island,

despite the fact that the city’s population nearly doubled from 1790 to 1800, from 33,131 to 60,514,

making it for the first time the largest city in the new nation. Canal Street—in the heart of modern-

day Chinatown—had not yet been laid out. Many of these city streets remained unpaved, although

14 Anderson, “Sketch of the Life;” Anderson, Diary, 21 June 1793 (“Ouran-outang”), 20-21 July 1793 (panthers),

20 July 1797 (“metamorphosis”).

Figure 6: Portrait of Alexander Anderson, c. 1815, by John Wesley Jarvis. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

 

 

Carolyn Eastman, 11

city leaders hastened to address that problem, allocating funds to street improvements throughout the

1790s. Areas we now know as the Lower East Side, Houston Street, and Greenwich Village remained

undeveloped farmland. Contemporary maps of the city show Bowery Lane changing name to the

“Road to Boston” once it entered the blank space beyond Grand Street. Even as its population

swelled, pigs and goats continued to wander city streets, and municipal leaders passed laws “for the

suppression of Immorality” designed to enforce “observance of the Lord’s Day called Sunday.” The

city experienced intense pressures as it grew—a constant press of new inhabitants, a vast social, racial,

ethnic, and religious diversity, and limited urban space.15

 

Figure 7: Plan of the City of New York from William Duncan’s 1793 city directory. Digital Collections, New York Public Library.

15 A. Tiebout, map insert in William Duncan, The New-York Directory and Register for the Year 1792 [1793] (New

York: T. and J. Swords for William Duncan, 1793). For U.S. Census data, see “Population of the 24 Urban Places: 1790,” and “Population of the 33 Urban Places: 1800,” at https://www.census.gov/population/www/documentation/twps0027/tab02.txt and https://www.census.gov/population/www/documentation/twps.0027/tab03.txt; Minutes of the Common Council of the City of New York, 1784-1831 (New York: City of New York, 1917), II: 176, 179.

 

 

Carolyn Eastman, 12

Those maps also show all along the East River dozens of the docks that helped to fuel the

city’s growth by tying the city’s shipping trade to other U.S. states as well as many points in the

Caribbean, Europe, Asia, and Africa—some of the ports by which New Yorkers obtained their

pineapples and South Carolina sweet potatoes. New York felt like an entrepôt of culture and people

as much as trade goods to its residents. Sandy paid admission to see an exhibit of a panorama of the

city of Charleston painted on an enormous piece of cloth unspool from one giant scroll to another;

he also provided medical help to seafarers and refugees from revolution-torn France and Haiti. It was

a densely populated and exciting place to be young.16

When yellow fever came to the city in 1795, New Yorkers knew that it had somehow come

from those docks. Some of the earliest to take ill had been seafarers and ship captains. They didn’t

know whether the source of the disease had been a single diseased individual—what later generations

might call a super-spreader—or something else; in Philadelphia two years earlier, many had blamed a

putrid shipment of coffee that dockworkers had dumped on the side of the harbor, releasing an awful

smell that spread for blocks. When the disease abated in November, city leaders resolved to become

more vigilant about clean streets, and for two years, this policy seemed to work.17

By the late summer of 1798, Sandy Anderson had arrived at the age of twenty-three and had

become a newly licensed physician with a young wife and baby son. After years of being teased for

living with his family—a neighbor had described him as “cheeping” around his mother, like a chick

to a hen—he had finally established his own household on Liberty Street. Even as he built his medical

practice, he continued to engrave images and maps for printers on the side. At one point he had

teamed up with a colleague to create a line of illustrated children’s books sold in a shop they called the

16 The Cries of New-York; Anderson, Diary, 14 Mar. 1797 (panorama), 27 June 1793 (refugees).

17 Carey, A Short Account, 17; Minutes of the Common Council, II; 198-205; James Hardie, An Account of the Malignant Fever, Lately Prevalent in the City of New-York … (New York: Hurtin and M’Farlane, 1799).

 

 

Carolyn Eastman, 13

Lilliputian Book Store. “My prospects of profit from this

undertaking are but small,” he confessed to the diary. “I

shall reckon myself lucky if I can clear my expenses.” He

was right. The store was a bust. He ultimately auctioned

off the unsold volumes for pennies on the dollars he had

invested.18

As if his debts weren’t bad enough, the summer

had been hard on his small family. His wife, Ann

(“Nancy”) Van Vleck Anderson, had recovered

distressingly slowly after childbirth. Their infant son

struggled as well. In early July the baby died. Nancy left

Manhattan to stay with relatives in rural Bushwick where

she could recover and grieve.

 

Figure 9: Anderson diary entry for 3 July 1798, when his son died. “I was up all night trying every method for the relief of my little boy, but in vain for he died at 2 this morning.” Butler Library.

And then yellow fever arrived—again.

*****

18 Anderson, Diary, 11 Jan. 1796 (“cheeping”); 4 Aug. 1797 (“prospects”).

Figure 8: Anderson’s engraving advertising his new bookstore, a scene in which Minerva (who holds a book of knowledge) and the Devil battle it out for the souls of the children. (Minerva wins.) Argus (New York), 8 Sept. 1797. American Antiquarian Society.

 

 

Carolyn Eastman, 14

In 1798, New York’s health commissioners found themselves caught by surprise when the

numbers of yellow fever patients began to rise precipitously. A few patients had been scattered around

the city starting in early August, but this had become a common phenomenon in late summer over

the past few years since the first epidemic. The commissioners trusted that with careful monitoring,

the city could once again avoid an epidemic as they had during the previous two years. In fact, at one

point in mid-August city officials welcomed an intense three-day downpour of rain, which they

believed would “cleanse” the city of dirt and “purify the air … but alas!” as one account later lamented.

Instead, the storm was followed by a heat wave that soured the water standing in yards, streets, and

basements. City doctors would later speculate that this alone had compounded the city’s problems.

(In a way, of course, they were right, even though they did not realize it was the mosquitoes that bred

in the water rather than the water itself.)19

Sandy had been treating a single yellow fever patient as part of his medical practice early that

August, and a druggist named Mr. Burrell had been advertising in local papers that some of his patent

medicines “are of the utmost importance to gentlemen travelling to the southern parts of America,

East and West Indies, coasts of Africa, &c. for preventing and curing the yellow fever.” But by the

latter part of the month, another epidemic had arrived in the city. With his wife recuperating in rural

Bushwick, seemingly safe from the unhealthy streets of Manhattan, Sandy agreed, again, to serve as a

physician at Bellevue Hospital, this time for even higher pay than in 1795; after all, it would help relieve

him of debt. He reassigned his own patients to a colleague, Dr. Chickering, and took the hospital boat

upriver with his things to settle in to his new job.20

19 Hardie, Account of the Malignant Fever, 9–10; Jan Golinski, “Debating the Atmospheric Constitution: Yellow

Fever and the American Climate,” Eighteenth-Century Studies 49, no. 2 (Winter 2016): 149–165.

20 Anderson, Diary, 7 Aug. 1798, 11 Aug. 1798, 31 Aug. 1798; “Dr. Burrell, No. 60 Maiden-Lane,” Commercial Advertiser (New York), 7 Aug. 1798, [4].

 

 

Carolyn Eastman, 15

Conditions at Bellevue were already bad. On arrival, Sandy found twenty patients waiting, four

of whom died by the end of the day. He admitted fourteen more throughout the day. The deaths were

gruesome, and the agony of their loved ones worse. “We had some difficulty in getting rid of an

Irishman who wish’d to stay and nurse his sweetheart at night,” he wrote in his diary, hinting at the

human drama taking place all around him. Noting his frustration a couple of days later, he commented

that another one of the doctors “seems rather at a loss what method to pursue with the patients in

this Hospital.” Meanwhile, some of the nurses began getting sick. For a few days in early September

he began recording statistics in the diary—“9 Admitted, 4 Died.”21

He abandoned that kind of recordkeeping because he received terrible news. Less than a week

after arriving at the hospital, a friend arrived to tell him that his wife was sick, and his father came up

to Bellevue with similarly dire information: his brother John, now an attorney, had become sick with

the illness. In addition, Dr. Chickering, whom he’d entrusted with his own patients after leaving the

city for Bellevue, had died from yellow fever.22

Drawn to the Bellevue job initially by the promise of a lucrative salary, Sandy now found

himself stretched beyond capacity. His family was split between his wife in Bushwick and the rest of

his relations downtown, all struggling with the virus. At the hospital, he had dozens of patients in

terrible shape. He also felt obligated to care for his patients downtown who no longer had a doctor

looking after them. For a few days he tried to go back and forth, walking an hour each way. “My

brother’s situation alarms me—my Father is ill, and myself low-spirited,” he wrote a couple of days

after hearing about their illness. “John seems in danger.” On the following day, he wrote, “A heavy

blow!—I saw my Brother this morning and entertain’d hopes of his recovery. In the afternoon I found

him dead!” But he could not rest to grieve. “I left my poor parents struggling with their fate and

21 Anderson, Diary, 31 Aug. 1798, 3 Sept. 1798, 4 Sept. 1798, 6 Sept. 1798.

22 Anderson, Diary, 5 Sept. 1798.

 

 

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return’d to Belle-vue.” Before setting aside the diary, he paused to sketch a small image of a coffin

next to the entry.23

The following days proved an unremitting hurricane of awful news. He found his father in

danger the very next day, with his mother struggling to care for him and “many” neighbors likewise

suffering from the disease. When he took the ferry over to Bushwick to visit his wife, he found her

“much emaciated.” His father died on September 12th (another coffin sketched next to the entry), and

on a visit to Bushwick afterward he found his wife in a shocking condition: “The sight of my wife

ghastly and emaciated, constantly coughing & spitting struck me with horror.” She died on September

13th; he drew another coffin. His mother took ill on the 16th and died on the 21st (coffin). “I never

shall look upon her like again,” he wrote about this final member of his immediate family. Some of

his in-laws would soon follow. By the time the disease died away with the changing of the season in

late fall, Sandy Anderson had lost eight members of his extended family as well as “almost all my

friends.”24

 

Figure 10: Anderson diary entry for 13 Sept. 1798. “This morning I heard of the death of my wife!—Those who knew her worth may imagine my feelings.” Butler Library.

23 Anderson, Diary, 7-8 Sept. 1798, 10-12 Sept. 1798.

24 Anderson, Diary, 10 Sept., 1798, 12-13 Sept. 1798, 16 Sept. 1798, 21 Sept. 1798; Anderson, “Sketch.”

 

 

Carolyn Eastman, 17

When I read the diary in Butler Library, I found myself weeping at the rapid-fire onslaught of

this news, and at the sight of sketched coffins in the margins. It was all so much, and so relentless. I

had to leave the quiet seclusion of the library and walk over to Broadway and 116th—a location

unimaginable in 1798—to feel the energy and anonymity of the city around me, knowing that few

would notice my red eyes and nose. Only years later would it occur to me how striking it was that I

resolved my emotions about Sandy’s experience during the yellow fever epidemic by going out into

the crowds of upper Broadway.

We have grown accustomed to learning about epidemics via a very different medium:

retrospective accounts that seek to horrify by presenting aggregate numbers of the sick and dead. We

get pummeled by numbers like the fact that some 50 million people worldwide died from the so-called

Spanish flue pandemic in 1918, or by percentages like the fact that about one tenth of the number of

people infected by that disease died. Throughout our own COVID-19 pandemic we have been

assaulted by such numbers, charts, graphs, and percentages. Six feet apart. Number of tests per day.

Percentages of positive to negative tests. Spikes and curves on graphs. Maps displaying hotspots or

areas where the number of daily infections is decreasing. The mind-numbing rates, and graphs of

deaths. So much death.

Learning, for example, that city officials later estimated that 2,086 New Yorkers died of yellow

fever in 1798—almost three times as many as during the 1795 epidemic—cannot convey much of an

impact for twenty-first century readers accustomed to an exponentially more populous city. But

scanning through the detailed lists of the dead published shortly after the crisis abated, we start to see

who was included in that number. Henry Bach, a tailor from Germany, died along with his wife and

two children. A wide array of Black men, women, and children likewise comprised the list, including

Venus Barter, Neptune Beese’s child, Rosannah Robinson, James Williams’s wife and child, an

enslaved woman listed only as Violet, and Tom Savoy, who worked as a chimneysweep. Dr. James

 

 

Carolyn Eastman, 18

Smith, M.D., who had published a broadside listing some of the causes of yellow fever (including

“passions of the mind,” including “envy, jealousy, love, anxiety, excessive grief, and violent passion”)

died on board the ship taking him home to England. Nor was he the only doctor to fall victim. Daniel

Schultz, a doctor from Waterford, New York; a Venetian doctor listed as J. B. Scandella; a twenty-

one-year-old Jewish medical student named Walter Jonas Judah; and William Read, the chief surgeon

of the U.S. Constitution, were some of the many medical professionals included. And so, so many

children. Reading through the list hints at the breathtaking human cost of the epidemic—and the

suffering of the survivors—in a way that an aggregate number of deaths cannot convey.25

It was the very dailiness of Sandy’s diary that got me, and that’s what drew me back to him as

another virulent pandemic emerged in 2020. He experienced much the same slow-motion horror story

that hammers away at today’s frontline workers. His world was falling apart, one day after another, as

the suffering mounted in a city-wide emergency and as all of his loved ones succumb to the illness.

His reports of fellow doctors falling ill and dying, his notes on the nurses and caregivers who worked

alongside him trying to help the sick, his struggles to resolve the financial affairs of his deceased father

and brother, the impossibility of pausing his work at Bellevue even as his family died around him: all

this reminds us that epidemics are ultimately about humans, and that digesting them into medical

etiology or demographic effects misses the point. It is a lesson that, in 2020, we learn again every day.

Sandy offered only hints his emotional state after experiencing so many deaths in his family.

In mid-September, while his mother still survived, he paused to note in the diary that “I feel surpriz’d

at my own composure,” he wrote, chalking it up “to despair than resignation.” Two weeks (and his

mother’s death) later, he told the diary, “My composure is only apparent.” A day later he confessed,

“My mind is depress’d.” Throughout that terrible autumn of 1798 he received offers of more

25 Hardie, Account, 87-139 for a descriptive list of the dead.

 

 

Carolyn Eastman, 19

prestigious work—from the Commissioners of Health, and as an attending physician at the

Dispensary—but turned them down, for undertaking any form of medical practice in New York

forced him to encounter reminders of his lost family. In October he spent his spare time emptying

out not just his own home, but his father’s auction business, and his parents’ and brother’s homes as

well. “I took a walk to the Burial ground where the sight of Nancy’s grave rivetted my thoughts to

that amiable being, and was as good a sermon as any I have heard,” he wrote. A few days later he

commented that “My acquaintances are fast flocking into town [after evacuating] and many a one

greets me with a rueful countenance.” The epidemic had taken a severe toll on his desire to practice

medicine, so he sold all his medical equipment.26

A few months earlier it seemed he had everything before him. All it took was one epidemic to

wipe it all away. He began to talk in his diary about the need to escape—not just the practice of

medicine, but to leave the city of New York.

After a couple of short trips out of the city, Anderson decided to travel to the Caribbean and

possibly from there on to London, telling his diary that “the thoughts of travelling has given a spring

to me.” His ability to take such a trip reflected his relative privilege and economic security as much as

it was made possible after having concluded his father’s and brother’s financial affairs. When he got

on the ship in early March, he turned around to view the city. “I look’d back on New-York with less

regret than I should have done a year or two ago—many ties are broken, but increasing distance and

a little reflection will no doubt discover sufficient to render my ‘native nook of earth’ doubly dear to

me,” he wrote, quoting the poet William Cowper. Between poor weather and a leak in the hull that

required mending, the voyage took five weeks; luckily he had brought his violin and could entertain

his fellow travelers. Sandy ultimately joined an uncle on the island of St. Vincent. It proved a

26 Anderson, Diary, 14 Sept. 1798, 1-2 Oct. 1798, 28 Oct. 1798, 31 Oct. 1798.

 

 

Carolyn Eastman, 20

disorienting and sometimes disturbing two-month visit, attended with too much drinking and too

many sights of masters alternately whipping enslaved people or drawing enslaved women into their

bedrooms. His uncle offered him a lucrative position on the island, but he turned it down. He returned

to New York in June 1799 to receive a “strict examination by the Health-Officer” at the port, and he

moved in with his father-in-law. “I had a craving for quiet & retirement,” he later recalled, “but my

solitary life led me to indulge strange whims, such as living on vegetable food, mostly bread & water

for eight months & then launching out into opposite extremes.”27

Sandy never returned to medical practice. Instead, he embraced the art of engraving and

ultimately earned fame for his skill. Although he had experience with a variety of methods, he became

renowned for a method of carving on the grain end of pieces of boxwood that, in contrast to other

forms of wood engraving, produced unusually resilient blocks capable of withstanding the printing

process, which could dull or damage the fine lines in images. He married again—to yet another Van

Vleck, a sister of his late wife—and raised a large family of six. In a brief autobiographical narrative

he wrote at the age of seventy-three, he made it clear that he happily chose the life of an engraver over

a doctor’s high pay and high social status. He ultimately died a few months shy of his ninety-fifth

birthday in 1870.28

When COVID-19 appeared, I was one of those people who could not watch the film Contagion

again or pick up Camus’s The Plague. It took enough strength just to read the newspaper. Yet something

drew me back to Sandy’s diary. I found myself laughing at his jokes, charmed by the scenes he

described of New York during the 1790s, and affected all over again by the punch of those coffins

sketched in the margins in ink that has turned brown after more than two hundred years. I didn’t quite

realize it when I opened it up again, but it answered something I was searching for.

27 Anderson, Diary, 14 Feb. 1799, 7 Mar. 1799; Anderson, “Sketch;” Pomeroy, “Alexander Anderson,” 157-59.

28 Pomeroy, “Alexander Anderson;” Anderson, “Sketch.”

 

 

Carolyn Eastman, 21

Human-sized stories of pandemics like Sandy’s might not offer up the big picture of the

disease that other retrospective accounts provide. They don’t deliver the numbers that shock. But

embedded in those diary entries is a portrait of a world that comes alive, day after day, making Sandy’s

losses all the more powerful when they come. He suffered, and survived. It has helped remind me that

we will, too.