The Humanities Book of the Year is Necropolis: Disease, Power, and Capitalism in the Cotton Kingdom by Kathryn Olivarius
In Necropolis, Kathryn Olivarius lays out the compelling and disturbing story of how the perennial threat of yellow fever shaped and helped enslavers justify the economic structures of antebellum New Orleans. A mosquito-borne virus introduced to the Americas from Africa via the slave trade, yellow fever killed the unlucky quickly and conferred lifelong immunity on survivors. This “acclimation,” as the immunity was called, combined with racial ideas of health and the human body to create both a justification of slavery and an indifference to the high death toll: the dead were “weak,” and only Black labor, allegedly but not actually “naturally immune,” could safely cultivate “unhealthy” areas outside the city—providing further incentive for the use of enslaved Black laborers. An excerpt from the first chapter follows below.
A Rising Necropolis
One January morning in 1825, a white, seventeen-year-old boy from Newton, New Jersey, woke up with a case of “Mississippi fever”—an insatiable urge to head west and south. Indifferent to warnings about the South’s sultry climate and enraptured by promises of exorbitant slave- and plantation-based wealth, he packed up his belongings, hugged his mother goodbye, and made his way to New Orleans. But every other boy seemed to have the same idea. Hundreds of them, fresh off boats from Dundee or Boston, jostled for work on the levee, papering the city’s many cotton offices with inquiries. Promising to start right away and work year-round, this stranger was snapped up by Wadsworth & Vandergriff, one of Louisiana’s premier dry goods firms, at a wage of $1.50 a day. He was good at clerking, able to differentiate between “prime” and “fair to middling” cotton by the feel of the fiber. He grew wise to the tricks of upcountry planters and could haggle up prices with the Barings Bank agents sending shiploads of goods to Europe. One balmy night in May, the stranger walked back to his boardinghouse ($3.80 per week) near Jackson Square, admiring the Creole women, listening to the raucous cheers of men playing vingt-et-un, and gazing up at the spire of St. Louis Cathedral at twilight. The reputation of New Orleans back up North—as a place where people lived fast and died young—must have been exaggerated, he thought. The stranger sat on the levee and watched flatboats descend the Mississippi River. He was sure his future was bright—and that of New Orleans too.
The stranger could not pinpoint precisely when things began to change. He noticed the first pang of unease in late June, when every dwelling seemed to have a chambre garnie or “to let” placard in the window. He noticed it again on July 1, when all the city’s normally deafening church bells went quiet in unison. It was disquieting that everyone in his congregation renewed their baptismal vows and embraced at the end of the service as if for the last time. Smaller things bothered him, too: his neighbor’s preoccupation with estates and wills; the sudden profusion of black armbands; ragged children begging door-to-door; coffin-toting slaves. One morning, three of his fellow lodgers decided to leave town. They asked the stranger to safeguard their possessions, promising they would be back soon. They clasped his hand and hurried off to the docks, fighting their way through the scrum onto the first departing boat. That night the remaining tenants made fun of the “truants” for their cowardice. The stranger agreed that their departure seemed hasty, even an overreaction. But he quietly wondered what they knew that he did not. And by late July it was like a candle had been extinguished: New Orleans, the great emporium of western commerce, had become a ghost town.
Suddenly the stranger’s whole life was eclipsed by yellow fever, a “demon king” that descended upon the city every second or third summer and sparked terror across the tropical Atlantic. At Maspero’s, the coffee shop, businessmen discussed the latest death tolls. The stranger caught terrifying snippets—“Three new cases last night”—“It was real yellow fever now, no mistake”—“A very complicated form”—“Quite an aggravated type”— “Worse than ’17”—“I’m safe—I’ve had it.” The stranger joined in the gossip. Creoles and old-timers who had been “acclimated” to the virus years before told the boy to be careful, as yellow fever proved fatal to many. In fact, they conceded with eyes downcast, about half of all people who got the fever died. At first the stranger welcomed their counsel, noting down their precise medicinal regimens. But soon he grew weary, even overwhelmed, by the relentless onslaught of contradictory advice on how best to weather the epidemic. Eat only fruit or only meat? Take exercise or stay indoors? Use a French doctor or a Black nurse? It was just too much, too hard to process, too numbing. Besides, in a place where everyone was a self-styled yellow fever expert, it seemed increasingly clear that no one really was.
White elites thus used yellow fever to justify the expendability of certain white laboring lives and the exploitation of enslaved Black ones, reinscribing an already obvious message: in New Orleans, certain people were decidedly less equal than others.
The stranger lay awake at night listening to distant cannon fire, rockets discharged by the city guard to dispel the disease-causing miasmas emanating from the nearby swamps. Every hour or so, he leaped out of bed and peered into the mirror, searching for any sign of yellowing skin or bloodshot eyes. Nothing, yet. He sprinkled some chlorate of lime on the floor before returning to bed, pulling the mosquito netting tight around his mattress. In the morning he scurried to work through deserted streets. Most of the stores he passed were empty or staffed by just a clerk or two, the factors and merchants having traveled north or to their country plantations for the season. At the office he picked up a newspaper—quite thin these days—but put it down before reaching the obituaries. He tried to do some work but was distracted. He took up pen and paper to write a letter home but found he had no energy, having “worked his spirits down to zero.” All he could manage were a few limp lines to a friend up north: “I am well and Harty [sic] as I ever was in my life.”
The stranger mentioned to his boss, a New Yorker with ten years’ tenure in Louisiana, that he was considering leaving town, just for a few weeks. Or maybe he would ride out to Lake Pontchartrain for the day? Some fresh air would be good, he said. A chance to clear his head. His boss was sympathetic, recalling his own brush with yellow fever back in 1817, the last big one. He told the stranger to follow his conscience; he should go if he needed to. But he also reminded the stranger that his job was not guaranteed. It was nothing personal. But there were plenty of fully acclimated, brave, bilingual men who would gladly fill his shoes. The stranger, feeling both disposable and defiant, decided to stay put.
A few days into August, the stranger felt anxious and hot around the collar. He told his co-clerk that he just needed a minute to lie down, that the spell would pass. But soon he was gripped by an intense headache, muscle pain, nausea, and chills. He could not see straight, so he lay down on the floor. It was like a “civil war” was raging in his stomach. Was this it? Should he have left town? Had keeping his job been worth risking his life? With his skull now feeling as if “filled with molten lead,” the stranger conceded it was too late for regrets. And anyway, this was a disease that other sorts of people died of. He was young and healthy. He was determined to survive and become an “acclimated citizen.”
The concerned coworker carried the ailing stranger back to his boardinghouse and called for a doctor, rooting around in the stranger’s belongings for the pouch of money he had squirreled away with $50 (about a month’s wages) inside for just such a medical emergency. By the afternoon, the patient was delirious and boiling hot. A Black nurse was called for—at $3 a day—to deliver blankets one moment, ice the next. Then the doctor arrived and, after receiving his initial payment of $10, found the patient “restless—talkative—ill-natured.” The innkeeper, suspicious of the commotion, came to the door and was horrified to see a man so obviously sick in her house. She threatened to evict the stranger before he infected others. The doctor dismissed her concerns, insisting that yellow fever was not contagious. But he sent the coworker off to inquire at Davidson’s Infirmary, a private establishment with a good yellow fever record. A fruitless exercise as their wards were already full, as were the wards of the Circus Street Infirmary, Touro Infirmary, and St. Philips Street Hospital. It was no matter, as the stranger probably could not afford them anyway. The doctor implored the innkeeper to let the stranger stay, warning that without her kindness he would end up in the Charity Hospital, an institution so poorly funded and understaffed that it was common to “see the living babe sucking death from the yellow breast of its dead mother.” The innkeeper relented, pocketing a $3 bribe on her way out.
It was evening now and the stranger was not improving. The doctor directed the nurse to restrain the patient as he applied mustard powder to his abdomen, blistered his hands and feet with a red-hot iron, and poured ice water over his head. Next the stranger was force-fed purgatives. His fever was so high at this point—104°F—that the doctor decided to bleed him. One pint, then two, then three. The stranger lost consciousness. When he revived, the doctor bled him again. The nurse protested. This approach was reckless, she insisted. The doctor loudly chastised her, making sure those loitering outside the door heard him. But he quietly changed course, opting now for leeches. Before leaving for the night, the doctor instructed the nurse to swaddle the stranger in thick woolen blankets. Around midnight the boy was suddenly agitated and wide awake. He struggled to push off his heavy covers, to get up from his sweat-soaked mattress and run into the street. This spurt of energy was taken as a promising sign by his coworker. Perhaps he had turned a corner? No, replied the nurse, who had noticed the stranger’s yellowing eyes and skin. This was jaundice, a sign of organ failure. By morning the stranger was exhausted. He knew he was probably dying.
But thinking of his mother far away, he struggled through the “Pain & nervousness” to keep his eyes open. The stranger’s boss arrived with the doctor around 10 a.m. and found the boy awake but distressed. The boss apologized that business had prevented him from coming sooner. The stranger grabbed his hand and whispered “that he was sick and very poor.” He did not want to end up in Potter’s Field, the swamp repository for New Orleans indigents where bodies tended to “reappear,” floating up from waterlogged graves. Please, would the boss ensure that he received a proper Protestant burial in an aboveground tomb? “Don’t give up hope yet, boy!” the boss insisted. He had seen many survive more serious cases than this—“it is the fear, not the fever, that kills,” he said. The stranger laughed nervously at this. Then he began to cry. It was blood, not tears, oozing from his eyes, leaking from his ears and nose, even from his gums. Those in the room begged the doctor to intervene. But the doctor shook his head, indicating that further intervention was pointless. The only hope now was prayer.
At this point the stranger’s tale would progress in one of two predictable ways. One version sees the stranger improve. The sleep-deprived nurse tends to him during his groggy convalescence, feeding him beef tea and lemonade. The burns on his palms scab over and a rosy hue returns to his cheeks. He can eventually take a few steps unaided. Within a week, the doctor says he is out of danger, shakes his hand, and declares him “acclimated,” safe from all future attacks of yellow fever. Soon the doctor will send his itemized bill.
In the other version, the stranger’s condition continues to deteriorate. He starts to regurgitate black vomit: thick, congealed blood, the consistency and color of coffee grounds. It covers his body and bed, staining the mattress. The stranger curses, hiccups, and belches. He shrieks, convulses, and groans. Then he goes quiet, lapsing into a coma, his once-muscular frame reduced to an unearthly skeleton. He dies with eyes bulging and his mouth frozen wide as if he is silently screaming. The “sad, sullen, and perturbed” corpse, banana-yellow and frozen by rigor mortis, remains in the room until a coffin ($15), hearse ($6), and cemetery plot ($70–$100) can be procured. The stranger’s few personal effects—perhaps some clothing or a silver watch—are pawned to cover the $60 he still owes to the doctor and nurse. The boss, in keeping with local custom, ponies up for the funeral and burial. It would not be a lavish affair; the boy had few mourners anyway.
The stranger’s body is pushed into its vault in Girod Cemetery by two enslaved men, workers fortified by whiskey and cigars to dull the endless horror of their task. An old woman passing by kisses the stranger’s coffin, a proxy for the blessings of his mother far away. She sings some words from the book of Luke—weep not for the dead but for the living—as she walks to the next graveside. Later the boss would write to the stranger’s mother in New Jersey: “While the tears Tremble down my cheeks . . . it Becomes my painfull duty with much regret to Announce to you the death of your Son, who Departed this Life . . . of the Yellow Fever.” He will insist on the stranger’s bravery and serenity in the face of death and will ask her to reimburse him for the funeral. Enclosing a lock of the stranger’s hair with his account, the boss will hand the envelope to his new clerk to mail, this one a fresh teenager from Dublin.
Every city had its archetypes. Old New York had its Five-Points goons, its slick Bowery Boys, its Wall Street tycoons. Nineteenth-century Boston had its hucksters, its brahmins, its brawling Irishmen. And New Orleans had princes of cotton, Creole capitalists, quadroons, and rowdy boatmen. Many of the Crescent City’s characters, however, were marked and made by yellow fever. Everyone knew the “Acclimated Man” by sight. He was the confident fellow—a yellow fever survivor—who strutted about town during epidemics with a “tremendously bold swagger,” convinced of his own invincibility. They also knew the “Anti-Panic Man,” who suppressed information about yellow fever to keep attracting men of capital, talent, or wealth to the Gulf Coast, luring some to their deaths. Most pitied and familiar of all the New Orleans archetypes was the “Unacclimated Stranger,” a foreigner whose fear of yellow fever was eclipsed by the seductive dream of slave-based Southern riches. His journey down the Mississippi—the “father of rivers”— often carried him to his grave in the “Necropolis” of the United States.
But for those living in antebellum New Orleans—the hub of America’s flourishing slave, cotton, and sugar kingdoms and the nation’s deadliest city by far—the constant possibility of painful death made for more inequality, not less.
Whenever the conversation at dinner dulled, or when the counting house quieted at night, or when enslaved men piled sugarcane onto carts under the baking Louisiana sun, or when mothers wanted their children to behave, this story—of the unacclimated stranger and his terrible death—was sure to be recited. The best raconteurs practiced their delivery, adding dramatic tension through each worsening symptom: pausing deliberately to give listeners hope, inventing a cast of supporting characters—a jilted lover or a long-lost friend—to heighten the drama. In some versions the stranger might have a beautiful, pregnant wife, or he might undergo a deathbed conversion. And though the stranger of city lore was normally rendered as white, free, and male—the nexus of identities most associated with potential and power in antebellum New Orleans—there were many real-life variations on the theme. There was Solomon Northup, a Black violinist kidnapped from upstate New York to Louisiana, and later the author of Twelve Years a Slave, who was forced to pick cotton through his spiking fever. When he collapsed, not even a whip could rouse him. There was Ellen McDonald, an Irishwoman who, in a fit of fever-induced delirium, slit her own throat and died. There was “Black Mary,” an enslaved woman who sickened with yellow fever in 1853, the illness taxing her body to such an extent that she was forced into premature labor. And there was Maria, a poor Spanish woman, who died in a small, dark room only a few hours after her husband Pedro died, as “a scarlet foam oozed slowly from her mouth.” Some yellow fever sufferers got better. But in thousands of versions of this tale—the stories of those unlucky people who died of yellow fever in the nineteenth-century Deep South—the story crescendoed to the same tragic climax: black vomit and death.
This book is not a history of yellow fever, nor is it a history of Southern public health. It is the story of why so many unacclimated strangers died in nineteenth-century New Orleans and how their collective deaths exacerbated inequality in an already violent and unequal slave society. Past epidemics and pandemics, from the Plague of Justinian to the Black Death to the Spanish Flu of 1918, have sometimes been described as “great levelers”: moments of vast suffering and mass death that flattened social and economic asymmetries, increased the bargaining power of surviving workers, renewed people’s sense of common humanity, and reaffirmed their subservience to an omnipotent God. Fast-killing fevers could potentially shape empires and “equalize” societies, too. J. R. McNeill has shown that “lowly mosquitoes and mindless viruses” determined the outcomes of multiple imperial struggles in the eighteenth-century Atlantic. And Vincent Brown has argued that once conquered, highly unequal eighteenth-century Caribbean slave societies could be leveled by mass mortality; the unrelenting attrition of fevers—malarial, bilious, and yellow—finally undermined the privileges accorded to whiteness, equalizing all people in the face of death. Graveyard equality might have been a consolation to some. But for those living in antebellum New Orleans—the hub of America’s flourishing slave, cotton, and sugar kingdoms and the nation’s deadliest city by far—the constant possibility of painful death made for more inequality, not less. Here, disease did not attack and destroy existing class and racial structures; it was part of their very foundation. As many historians have shown, New Orleans was an outlier among American cities, characterized by its Caribbeanesque tripartite social structure of whites, gens de couleur libres, and Black slaves. But as yellow fever epidemics increased in frequency and ferocity in the six decades before the Civil War, the city also became stratified between those whites who possessed immunity to the disease (the “acclimated”), those who remained vulnerable to the virus (the “unacclimated”), and those (Black slaves and most free people of color) whose immunity status would only socially and economically benefit others.
These labels mattered. They mattered because which side of the immunity divide a person landed on measurably impacted their lives and prospects. Here, a white person was virtually required to survive yellow fever, to enter the elite. And once acclimated, the city’s Creole and American merchants, planters, and enslavers embraced epidemic yellow fever as a blessing, not a curse, finding that it could “solve” any number of political, financial, and social problems that would have otherwise burdened the kind of hegemony and profits they sought. Betraying their hardened attitudes to human life—evidenced in their indifference to the suffering of enslaved people—local elites embraced yellow fever risk, mobilized disease for discriminatory ends, and used their own alleged immunity as proof that they deserved success, consolidating their power atop the cotton market, the most lucrative sector of antebellum America’s export economy. Taking advantage of the diseased reality around them, New Orleans elites differed from leaders of other major American port cities in spearheading policies that systematically heightened inequality, enriched themselves, enhanced white supremacy and wealth, undercut the majority, and etched epidemiological discrimination into law.