‘Bad Air’ and Undertakers: Yellow Fever in 19th-Century America

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I’ve been reading about the yellow fever outbreak in Angola and Democratic Republic of Congo and thinking about how deadly the disease used to be in the U.S. Fortunately, there is a vaccine now, although it is in short supply. A century and a half ago, people didn’t even understand how the disease spread.

Arch_Street_Ferry Philadelphia 1793

A yellow fever outbreak in Philadelphia in 1793 killed 5,000 people, about 10 percent of the city’s population. Among the thousands who fled was an infected Alexander Hamilton.

Deadly yellow fever outbreaks struck the U.S. beginning in the 1700s. In the 19th century, it was deemed one of the most dangerous infectious diseases.

In 1873, Shreveport, Louisiana, lost almost one-quarter of its population to yellow fever. A local newspaper printed a “List of the Dead” that numbered almost 800.

The worst outbreak was in 1878 in the Mississippi River Valley. About 20,000 people died—a staggering number, especially at the time. Memphis, Tennessee, was particularly hard hit. It was the fifth of six major yellow fever epidemics in the city.

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Revolutionary War in My Own Backyard

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Moving to New England has shifted my awareness of history back a century or two. As a result, I’ve been trying to refresh my knowledge of the Revolutionary War and realizing that my early education in mercantilism and the House of Burgesses and Colonial Virginia is woefully inadequate (and, unfortunately, mostly forgettable).

The Fort at No. 4’s perimeter fence consisted of stockade poles that were too tall to climb over, too close together for a man to squeeze through but too far apart to offer cover from the men shooting from the roofs of the buildings inside.

The Fort at No. 4’s perimeter fence consisted of stockade poles that were too tall to climb over, too close together for a man to squeeze through but too far apart to offer cover from the men shooting from the roofs of the buildings inside.

So I jumped at the chance to see a battle reenactment at the Fort at No. 4, which had been the northernmost British settlement along the Connecticut River in New Hampshire until after the French and Indian War.

The original fort fell into disrepair after the Revolutionary War and was reconstructed in the 1960s as a living history museum. The modern builders did a very convincing job. And the reenactors also took their jobs seriously. Everything from the canvas tents to the uniforms and wire-rimmed spectacles looked authentic and lived in.

Fortunately for me, the battle was narrated by a man who stood in the watch tower and kept up a running commentary on the activities on the field, the war in general and the history of the fort. Read more

Historical Icons in Living Color

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Photo of Ulysses Grant, colorized by Mads Madsen

A photo of Ulysses Grant colorized by Mads Madsen

The spring issue of the Civil War Trust’s Hallowed Ground magazine had photos of Ulysses Grant and Robert E. Lee that I’d seen before, but this time I did a doubletake. The photos were in color.

I was baffled for a moment. There was no color photography during the Civil War. Where had the photos come from, and why had I never seen them before?

I was delighted by the richness and depth. The men looked real—dare I say alive?—in a way they never had before.

According to the credit line, the Library of Congress images had been colorized by Mads Madsen of Colorized History in Denmark. And they were masterfully done.

By an odd coincidence, right around that time, a friend sent me a link to a series of colorized historical photos. They cover a range of time periods and subjects, and they are fascinating.

A photo of Butch Cassidy colorized by Mads Madsen

A photo of Butch Cassidy colorized by Mads Madsen

We often have complex emotional reactions to photographs. But when we look at faded black-and-white images, they can seem stale and as though the people in them were not quite real. Similarly, when we visit historical sites and see the furnishings worn and dulled by age, it’s easy to forget that they were once vibrant and new.

Of course, many amateur and professional photographers take stunning photos in black and white (Ansel Adams leaps to mind), and I wouldn’t want to change that. But a generation of people have now grown up with color photography at their fingertips and though purists might disagree, I say a colorized photograph, done right, can breathe life into a historical image—and make history even more accessible to a whole new generation of history buffs.

A Portrait of Rural Life after the Civil War

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ASlantofLight_HCIn Jeffrey Lent’s new novel “A Slant of Light,” Union soldier Malcolm Hopeton comes home to his farm in western New York to discover that his wife has run off with his hired hand. What he does in a fit of rage propels him to flee — and sets in motion a somewhat unconventional narrative.

The book didn’t go where I expected it to (no modern-style courtroom drama), and it didn’t end where I expected it to either. Lent often writes in incomplete sentences, in fragments and impressions, and the dialogue was sometimes a mix of old-fashioned formal and more modern (to my ear at least).

But somehow it all worked. When I got to the end, I realized the book was really three interlocking stories of men and women struggling to understand and be understood by each other — to reach beyond the conventions of the times, which had very proscribed roles for women and men despite the close quarters in which they often lived and worked.

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Ford’s Theatre After Lincoln’s Assassination

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After President Lincoln was killed, the government shut down Ford’s Theatre and imprisoned owner John T. Ford for over a month. By the time he was released, arsonists had tried at least twice to burn the building down. When Ford announced plans to reopen the theater, he received so many threats that the government took over again, in the name of public safety, and decreed that it would never be a playhouse again.

Ford's Theatre in April 1865, after Lincoln's assassination. Note the guards at the entrance and the crepe draped from the windows.

Ford’s Theatre in April 1865, after Lincoln’s assassination. Note the guards at the entrance and the crepe draped from the windows.

The building was gutted on the government’s orders and all the furnishings carted away. James L. Swanson, in “Manhunt: The 12-Day Chase for Lincoln’s Killer,” wrote:

By late November 1865, a little more than seven months after the assassination, the once beautiful theater had been defaced beyond recognition and relegated to a drab, three-floor office building.

Swanson said the government finally bought the theater from Ford, and in true bureaucratic fashion, “the excessive load of tons of documents and office equipment caused all the floors to collapse [in June 1893], crushing twenty-two clerks to death and crippling or injuring sixty-eight more.”

Ford’s Theatre was restored in the 1960s and is a working playhouse again—and a museum to both the assassination and the assassin. It’s well worth a trip if you’re ever in Washington.