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How Yellow Fever Turned New Orleans Into The 'City Of The Dead'

Engraving from a series of images titled "The Great Yellow Fever Scourge — Incidents Of Its Horrors In The Most Fatal District Of The Southern States."
Bettmann Archive
Getty Images
Engraving from a series of images titled "The Great Yellow Fever Scourge — Incidents Of Its Horrors In The Most Fatal District Of The Southern States."

Some people say New Orleans is haunted because of witches. Others say it's haunted by vampires, or ghosts, or all those swamps. But if you were around between 1817 and 1905, you might say the city was haunted by death. And that death, in large part, was caused by yellow fever.

Yellow fever was fatal. It was gruesome. And in epidemic years, during the months between July and October, it could wipe out 10 percent of the city's population. Eventually, it earned New Orleans the nickname "Necropolis" — city of the dead.

Yellow fever didn't just kill. It created an entire social structure based on who had survived the virus, who was likely to survive it and who was not long for this world. And that structure had everything to do with immigration and slavery, according to Kathryn Olivarius, a history professor at Stanford University.

The disease is spread by mosquitoes and thrives in warm, humid places with dense populations. In the 19th century, New Orleans and other Southern cities made near-ideal breeding grounds. Historically, of the people who contracted the virus, about half would die from it. The worst year on record in New Orleans was 1853 — 8,000 of the city's residents died.

And it wasn't a pretty way to die. Victims would experience a host of unpleasant symptoms: jaundice, chills, nausea, headaches, fever, convulsions, delirium. Then, there was the blood.

"Eventually, patients or victims will start to bleed through their eyes, nose, ears," Olivarius says. "I've seen examples of people bleeding through their toes." Then, right before dying, victims would vomit partially coagulated blood.

Olivarius says it was an illness that could turn even holy men away from God. "I have many examples of reverends and ministers screaming before they died," she says. "Even pious victims screamed profanities as the end neared."

Today, yellow fever is mostly gone from the U.S. It still plagues parts of Africa and South America, but there's a vaccine that can help prevent it. Back in the day, though, the only way to develop immunity to the virus was to survive it.

As a result, Olivarius explains, a social hierarchy developed in New Orleans around who was "acclimated" (people who had lived through yellow fever) and "unacclimated" (people who hadn't).

"If you're unacclimated, you basically languish in professional and social purgatory," says Olivarius, who is writing a book about how the disease shaped the city's social structure. "Bosses will not hire clerks and bookkeepers who are not expressly acclimated. Women will not marry men not described as acclimated. You can't live in certain neighborhoods, and people will not rent rooms unless you're acclimated. Certain social circles will exclude you. And so this creates this hierarchy where you have people who are actively seeking to get sick."

The tricky part, she says, is that there was no real physical way to tell whether someone was acclimated. So people had to find ways to demonstrate that they were. That often involved showcasing how deep their ties were to New Orleans. People who had grown up in the city were more likely to have survived a mild case of yellow fever as a child.

But the city's many European immigrants, who hadn't been around the virus before, were considered bigger liabilities. Olivarius says they often arrived in New Orleans with already compromised immune systems and lived in neighborhoods with no herd immunity. That's part of the reason, she says, that yellow fever was nicknamed the "Stranger's Disease."

Still, immigrants were flocking to the city. Olivarius says that New Orleans in the 19th century was a bit like Silicon Valley today: "It was the place where, if you were an ambitious white man, you went to make your fortune." People came from far and wide to try to break into the booming cotton industry, maybe eventually buy themselves some land and slaves. But first, they had to prove they weren't going to up and die.

"I have examples, for example, of Irish immigrants literally seeking to get sick to really just give themselves the edge in what is otherwise a very competitive job market in New Orleans," explains Olivarius. "It was so important to the social hierarchy of this place that people would say, 'You are an undocumented stranger' or 'You are an acclimated citizen.' "

As widespread as yellow fever was, it was also hugely misunderstood.

There were tons of myths and misinformation floating around about how to protect yourself, or who was most likely to die: "You have old wives' tales of people saying that people who eat a lot of tomatoes will get yellow fever. Or people saying, 'If you eat too much fruit you'll get yellow fever.' And other people saying, 'If you don't eat enough fruit, you'll get yellow fever.' "

But the most prevalent myth — and possibly the most insidious — was that you couldn't get it if you were black.

Prominent doctors in the South spread the lie that black people had a natural immunity to the disease, Olivarius says. That lie, she adds, was used to justify slavery.

"If black people are naturally resistant to yellow fever, black slavery is natural, even humanitarian, because it protects white people from spaces and labor that would kill them." In other words, the belief was that black people could work outside in hot, swampy spaces that were prone to yellow fever, without any risk.

Advocates of slavery argued that God had made black people immune to expand the cotton industry and the national economy, and to save white people from death.

But here's the thing: Even then, many people knewthat black folks weren't really immune. In fact, at slave markets, few were willing buy a person who wasn't already acclimated. Acclimated slaves sold for 25 to 50 percent more than unacclimated slaves, Olivarius says. "So, you're dealing with a Gordian knot of contradictions that all ended up furthering the cause of white supremacy and the expansion of racial slavery."

As if the idea of a disease that kills thousands, scapegoats immigrants and upholds white supremacy isn't scary enough already, Olivarius reminds us that these dynamics are not necessarily a thing of the past.

"Diseases that cause mass human suffering are [often] used to justify prejudice," she says. A few examples: HIV was pegged to Haitians, gay people and intravenous drug users. The Ebola epidemic unearthed a lot of prejudice against West Africans. And the opioid crisis is often described exclusively as a problem of poor, rural white folks.

But no matter how severe, or far-reaching an epidemic may be, Olivarius says, "Human beings are very comfortable at saying, 'It's not happening in my backyard, therefore it's not affecting me.' "

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Leah Donnella is an editor on NPR's Code Switch team, where she helps produce and edit for the Code Switch podcast, blog, and newsletter. She created the "Ask Code Switch" series, where members of the team respond to listener questions about how race, identity, and culture come up in everyday life.
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