NO ONE NOTICED
About this time, this destroying scourge, the malignant fever, crept in amount us.
—Mathew Carey. November 1793
Saturday, August 3, 1793. The sun came up, as it had every day since the end of May, bright, hot, and unrelenting. The swamps and marshes south of Philadelphia had already lost a great deal of water to the intense heat, while the Delaware and Schuylkill Rivers had receded to reveal long stretches of their muddy, root-choked banks. Dead fish and gooey vegetable matter were exposed and rotted, while swarms of insects droned in the heavy, humid air.
In Philadelphia itself, an increasing number of cats were dropping dead every day, attracting, one Philadelphian complained, “an amazing number of flies and other insects.” Mosquitoes were everywhere, though their high-pitched whirring was particularly loud near rain barrels, gutters, and open sewers.
These sewers, called “sinks,” were particularly ripe this year. Most streets in the city were unpaved and had no system of covered sewers and pipes to channel water away from buildings. Instead, deep holes were dug at various street corners to collect runoff water and anything else that might be washed along. Dead animals were routinely tossed into this soup, where everything decayed and sent up noxious bubbles to foul the air.
Despite the stench, the streets nearby were crowded with people that morning – ship owners and their captains talking seriously, shouting children darting between wagons or climbing on crates and barrels, well-dressed men and women out for a stroll, servants and slaves hurrying form one chore to the next. Philadelphia was then the largest city in North America, with nearly 51,000 inhabitants; those who didn’t absolutely have to be indoors working escaped into the open air to seek relief from the sweltering heat.
In all aspects it seemed as if August 3 was a very normal day, with business and buying and pleasure as usual.
Oh, there were a few who felt a tingle of unease. For weeks an unusually large supply of wild pigeons had been for sale at the market. Popular folklore suggested that such an abundance of pigeons always brought with it unhealthy air and sickness.
Dr. Rush had no time for such silly notions, but he, too, sensed that something odd was happening. His concern focused on a series of illnesses that had struck his patients throughout the year – the mumps in January, jaw and mouth infections in February, scarlet fever in March, followed by influenza in July. “There was something in the heat and drought,” the good doctor speculated, “which was uncommon, in their influence upon the human body.”