Through the Eye of Katrina  •  special issue, december 2007

The Political Construction of a Natural Disaster: The Yellow Fever Epidemic of 1853

Henry M. McKiven Jr.

Journal of American History, 94 (Dec. 2007), 734–42

In the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, the media and politicians constructed a story of racism in America. Americans watched day after day as New Orleans residents, mostly African Americans, suffered. From the left end of the political spectrum came arguments that the storm revealed entrenched institutional racism. From the right came the retort that such talk obscured the far more destructive individual behavior of a segment of the African American community. To conservatives the real racists have been those who have perpetuated dependence and a destructive sense of victimization in the black community.[1]

To the historian, none of this should be surprising, for the past is full of examples of the kind of political construction we have observed in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. This essay examines one such example, the yellow fever epidemic that New Orleans experienced in 1853. Politicians and other local leaders, concerned about local political corruption and its negative effect on commercial development, constructed a narrative designed to mobilize support for antiparty reform and publicly funded internal improvements.[2] The story of the epidemic, as they told it, emphasized the failures of political parties to unite citizens behind public projects that, they believed, served the interests of the entire community. They were contending with nativists, who blamed Irish and German immigrants for creating a public health crisis by practicing bad hygiene, and Democrats, who alleged that all reformers wanted to use the epidemic as justification for disfranchising immigrants. As has been true of reactions to Hurricane Katrina, politicians in the 1850s framed the disaster to advance their own long-standing agenda. Historians have done so as well.

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Glossary: Yellow Fever More [+]

Dr. Holt's prescription for the treatment of Yellow Fever

Dr. Holt's prescription for the treatment of Yellow Fever. New Orleans, October 1, 1843.

Dr. Holt's prescription for the treatment of Yellow Fever

Dr. Holt's prescription for the treatment of Yellow Fever. New Orleans, October 1, 1843.

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During the nineteenth century, as much as one third of the population of New Orleans evacuated the city between July and October, fearing the diseases that spread during those months. Yellow fever, cholera, malaria, and smallpox were among those poorly understood and often untreatable diseases that preyed upon the city’s residents.

Major epidemics of yellow fever, nicknamed Yellow Jack and Bronze John, raged through New Orleans in 1853, 1878, and 1905. During the 1853 epidemic, an estimated eight to eleven thousand inhabitants of the city died. Many of the dead were quickly buried in shallow mass graves, and the cemeteries literally overflowed with rotting corpses, due to the heat, torrential rains, and the city’s famously high water table.

To fight the disease, the city burned “smoke pots” in the streets to combat the infectious “miasma” or foul air that nineteenth-century experts believed caused most disease. Inadvertently, the smoke did help kill mosquitoes, the source of yellow fever. It was not until the early twentieth century that scientists identified mosquitoes as the carrier of the disease and pinpointed the stagnant water in the New Orleans’s gutters, cisterns, and swamps as their breeding ground. Those discoveries allowed public health officials to effectively combat yellow fever by removing its causes and alleviating the squalid and overcrowded living conditions among the poor that contributed to the spread of the disease.

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The first reports in the press about yellow fever, now understood as a viral disease transmitted by mosquitoes, came at the end of May 1853. Seven additional cases appeared in early June, according to the city’s unofficial board of health. The press did not, however, raise an alarm because local leaders worried about reinforcing the city’s reputation for disease and hurting business. The New Orleans Daily Picayune, in fact, complained on June 28 that the “unauthorized report” of the board of health had caused people to begin leaving for healthier locations. But the number of deaths continued to rise. The board reported that during one week in July, 206 people died of “yellow jack.” By the end of July, Charity Hospital was admitting one hundred patients per day. The hospital soon ran out of beds, so patients had to be placed on the floor. Further evidence of the seriousness of the outbreak came when the Howard Association, a group of businessmen who cared for the ill during epidemics, publicly announced that they had begun their rounds. Thousands of residents began to flee the city. By the time the epidemic ended in December, the estimated number of deaths had reached more than 7,000. Some have estimated that 10 percent of the city’s population, 8,000 to 11,000, perished during the epidemic.[3]

The epidemic broke out at a time of growing discontent with the political status quo. Prior to the city election of 1852, a group of Whigs and Democrats, led by the businessman James Robb, had organized an independent reform movement, akin to the Young America movement, that was committed to eliminating government corruption and restrictions on government investment in internal improvements, particularly railroads.[4] Those whiggish, probusiness reformers hoped that “the people of New Orleans could be induced to unite for the promotion of its commercial and industrial improvement independent of the tyranny of party, and superior to the influences of cliques, and classes, and individual interests.” It would be a “cheering change” and soon be “manifest in our progress.”[5] In the election, independent candidates won a number of city council seats, primarily at the expense of Whigs, and Democrats, with their appeals to immigrants, made gains as well.[6]

The Whig party still held a bare majority in city government, but the election of 1852 furthered its disintegration. By the election of 1853, Democrats faced an opposition coalition consisting of former Whigs and Democrats who now claimed to be nonpartisan crusaders against the public corruption that hindered the economic development of the city. Democrats claimed that the opposition also shared a desire to purge the electorate of the influence of immigrants. But reformers differed sharply over the nativist program. As the nativist leader Charles Gayarré explained in 1855, reformers were divided between those who identified the immigrant as the source of political corruption and those who condemned “native leaders” and “native leaders . . . alone” for manipulating immigrants’ votes.[7]

Reformers associated with the Young America faction—Whigs and Democrats who favored government reforms for economic improvement—not only understood the electoral need to reach out to the rapidly growing immigrant population, but also thought European immigration would provide labor essential to their plans for future economic development.[8] One of the goals of Young America was to bridge partisan divisions in the interest of building the city’s economy. Some reformers charged that nativist attacks on the Irish in particular reduced the immigration of laborers when they were most needed. Young America reformers supported the reduction of residency requirements for voting in both the 1846 and 1852 Louisiana state constitutions, believing that the opportunity for full citizenship and political equality attracted immigrants and transformed them into responsible and equal “white” citizens.[9] Nativists considered such views hopelessly naïve and dangerous. They warned that men with no property of any kind, with little understanding of American institutions, posed a threat to the social order that must not be ignored.[10]

While the reformers struggled to define themselves, Democrats effectively exploited differences among reformers and between them and their parties. Democratic candidates framed the election of 1853 not as a contest over the corruption of the party system, as reformers claimed, but as one between defenders of universal white manhood suffrage and elitists who would limit the political rights of white men. According to them, those who opposed Democrats were nativist Whigs who would increase taxes to pay for projects that would benefit primarily themselves. Reform candidates denied Democratic charges, and many of them rejected nativism, though they sometimes allied with nativists who supported their aims. But the Democrats won a majority of local races in 1853, leaving little doubt about the effectiveness of their tactics.[11]

The Democrats’ success left their opponents demoralized and just as divided as they had been before the 1853 election. The reform coalition continued to demand an end to the “partyism” that produced governments incapable of overseeing the development of the city.[12] But Democrats’ exploitation of the nativist presence in the reform movement overshadowed what many reformers considered the more important elements of their program. The Young America faction, in particular, continued to ridicule Democrats’ warnings to immigrants as cynical and baseless, as manipulation intended to divert attention from their own corruption. Then the yellow fever epidemic struck. As the disease spread, opposition politicians, recognizing an opportunity, united in their criticisms of the Democratic-controlled government’s performance. They would ultimately fail, however, to transcend their own internal divisions. Each opposition faction produced explanations for the causes of the literal epidemic consistent with its particular diagnosis of the figurative disease corrupting the city’s political system.

< Return to Mitchell’s “Carnival and Katrina”

The yellow fever epidemic delivered a potentially devastating blow to an image of the city that promoters had cultivated. Boosters, including both Whigs and Democrats, had long been sensitive to claims that New Orleans was a naturally unhealthy place. Promoters were concerned about how perceptions of the city as a “charnel house” influenced potential investors and laborers, and they assured such magazine and newspaper readers that the city’s location did not expose it to uncontrollable outbreaks of yellow fever. During the late 1840s, when deaths from yellow fever were relatively few, DeBow’s Review maintained that sanitary improvements were the reason. Correct public policy could manage the environment, preventing the uncontrolled spread of disease.[13]

The spike in the mortality rate in 1850 added a new twist to the debate over the etiology of yellow fever. During the 1830s and 1840s, the heavy influx into New Orleans of unacclimated German and Irish newcomers provided immigration restrictionists new ammunition. Anyone in search of the reason for the rising number of yellow fever deaths needed to look no further than the large numbers of immigrants who lived in miserable conditions and who were highly susceptible to the disease. The reformist Picayune urged readers to go to a recorder’s court, where minor offenses were handled and more serious criminals were arraigned, and “view the number of drunken men and women brought into the presence of the Recorders; their filthy and scanty rags still reeking with filth of the gutters from which they were taken.” Men without jobs could not pay for adequate housing, so they “crawled under sheds, into vacant lots, unfinished buildings, and beneath the levee bridge. Think of the many large families crowded into small sleeping rooms, the rotten floors of which rest on the damp ground, while members of the family were without proper beds or sufficient food.”[14] It added up to a sanitary case for curtailing immigration.

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Thread: German and Irish immigration Expand thread [+]

Throughout its early history, immigration drove population growth in New Orleans, and the city grew exceptionally fast—by 366 percent—between 1830 and 1860. Most of the new immigrants arrived from Germany and Ireland, with smaller streams coming from other countries, most of them European. Follow thread in Fussell, “Population History” >

During the first great wave of nineteenth-century immigration to New Orleans from the 1820s to the 1850s, laborer families (mostly Irish and German) settled throughout that semirural periphery. Follow thread in Campanella, “Ethnic Geography” >

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The Picayune’s wallowing in such scenes reflected a more widely held animus against immigrants in general. But more enlightened members of the business community viewed hygienic misery through a wider lens. The reform-minded DeBow’s Review—which promoted immigration as part of its advocacy of southern economic modernization and spoke for the commercial wing of the soon-to-be established antiparty coalition—complained about lax enforcement of sanitary regulations. If government officials would enact and enforce sanitary regulations, “a class of our citizens” might be “arrested in their career of death.” DeBow’s suggested that New Orleans follow the example of Liverpool, England, which had, in the late 1840s, “interposed . . . reform, and, in a few years . . . ceased to be a pest house and became comparatively healthy.” Location and climate could not be changed, but “the diseases incidental to [them] may be greatly modified by wholesome municipal regulations, by strict attention to cleanliness, and by affording a cheap and abundant supply of good water.” All that was required were experts and good government.[15]

A boy from an Irish immigrant family, the Harrises, shown suffering from yellow fever in New Orleans in 1855.

A boy from an Irish immigrant family, the Harrises, shown suffering from yellow fever in New Orleans in 1855. Courtesy Louisiana State Museum.

A boy from an Irish immigrant family, the Harrises, shown suffering from yellow fever in New Orleans in 1855.

A boy from an Irish immigrant family, the Harrises, shown suffering from yellow fever in New Orleans in 1855. During the city’s yellow fever epidemic of 1853, nativists charged that Irish and German immigrants, who they described as living in squalor, represented a public health scourge. Courtesy Louisiana State Museum.

To that end, two “medical experts” laid out a detailed plan for removing “filth” to “remedy” the problem of disease. In an 1851 address to the Louisiana Medical Society, Dr. E. H. Barton urged the government to build sewers, and empty and fill underground privies. Barton recommended that privies be replaced with “jars or barrels, impermeable to fluids or gases, substituted for them, with proper valvular coverings to prevent the escape of gases.” As for the behavior of the population, Barton and other medical experts wanted to create a sort of health police to make sure individuals obeyed proposed sanitary regulations. “Health wardens,” wrote Barton, “should be appointed for every few squares, whose duty should be to inspect every yard and court everyday, and every privy weekly or monthly.” Another medical expert Dr. J. C. Simonds, recommended the creation of an investigative sanitary commission, including Barton, that would “examine fully into the hygienic condition of the city, including in its investigations the internal police of the hospitals, asylums, workhouses, and all public institutions; the condition of the poor and their dwellings; the supply of water; the various factories of gas, chemicals, etc.; the butchers and dairies; the supplies of milk and bread.”[16]

Before 1853 the city government generally ignored such recommendations. Barton, Simonds, and other public health reformers insisted that their proposals would not entail much more than stricter enforcement of already existing sanitary regulations by the street commissioner. Existing regulations required businesses to clean up their premises. Small businesses in poorer neighborhoods tended to be most affected by such regulations. Many Democratic residents of the city, however, viewed increasing the regulatory power of the city with suspicion and resisted it. Moreover, the plan Barton advocated appeared to require increased government spending. The city’s Democratic officials had no desire to raise taxes to address a problem they did not believe existed.[17]

Given that mind-set, it is not surprising that the press and government officials dismissed early reports of yellow fever in spring 1853. Many newspapers and magazines acknowledged only the presence of isolated cases among unacclimated poor immigrants and advised people to continue with their lives. An 1853 letter to DeBow’s Review had ridiculed warnings from the board of health that gave “rise the fancied existence of yellow fever in this city to a very great extent.” Because of such unfounded warnings, “many of our citizens have been induced to leave the city sooner than convenient, in order to avoid a danger which does not exist.” Even after Charity Hospital reported more cases, newspaper editors continued to reassure the “acclimated” that yellow fever was likely to remain confined to poor neighborhoods. Such statements, intended to reassure “natives,” were based largely on the pseudoscientific racist theories of Samuel A. Cartwright about immigrant laborers’ exposure to the sun. Cartwright, a local physician, argued that the high mortality rate “is derived from the free colored persons, who have no masters to take care of them; from the half free slaves without masters to look to them, who are permitted to wander about and hire their own time as it is called; from the foreigners who arrive here in sickly condition from Europe; but mainly from the white people who make slaves of themselves by performing drudgery work in the sun.” Citing “thirty three years of observation,” he argued that slaves and whites who had slaves to work for them—whites who did not “make negroes of themselves by doing drudgery work—enjoy generally about as good health” as northerners. Restore the natural order of things, and alleged health problems would largely disappear.[18]

A nativist reading Cartwright doubtless found support for restricting citizenship rights and discouraging further immigration. But to most proponents of economic expansion, Cartwright’s theory offered further “scientific” justification for the extension of citizenship rights to white immigrants and economic expansion to provide them suitable jobs.[19] The spread of disease beyond poor and immigrant neighborhoods at the end of July and studies by Cartwright and others purporting to demonstrate immigrants’ “whiteness” by noting their susceptibility to yellow fever reinforced this view.[20]

As the pestilence began felling more affluent and longtime residents, demands for government reform assumed an unprecedented urgency. Government officials could no longer justify inaction by blaming the disease on the habits of the poor. Now, as one journal remarked, it was clear that the epidemic respected the social standing of no one. Thus the press shifted its attention from the habits of newcomers and poor German and Irish immigrants to the failure of past governments, whether Whig or Democrat, to heed earlier warnings about the sanitary state of the city and the potential for a devastating epidemic.[21] The Orleanian criticized the government for doing nothing about water and sewerage while partisan officials indulged in petty “bickering.” The actions the government did take were dismissed as ineffective, duplicitous, and too late. For example, to replace the voluntary board of health, the common council (the legislative branch of city government) in late July created a publicly funded Board of Health with enforcement power. The New Orleans Bee endorsed the council’s decision but sharply criticized members of the council—made up of two boards of aldermen—for failing to act before the epidemic began. At one point the Board of Assistant Aldermen impeached the street commissioner for failing to do his job. The proceedings to remove him from office revealed that the commissioner had not received adequate funding to carry out his duties. According to an account in DeBow’s Review, “The whole thing was a mere ruse to deceive the people, and make them believe that the Aldermen had done their duty.” A quarantine on ships arriving in the city imposed in late July to contain the epidemic also met with ridicule, even among the policy’s supporters. Those concerned with the depressing effect of the epidemic on the economy feared a quarantine would only magnify an already severe disruption of trade. “The establishment of a quarantine at this time, when the city was already scourged with a frightful pestilence, was ridiculous in the extreme,” wrote a contributor to DeBow’s Review. It merely provided further evidence that the “city fathers of New Orleans were never overstocked with wisdom.”[22]

Nothing better illustrated the alleged incompetence of the government and the effects of “partyism” than the decision of city aldermen to adjourn and to flee the city while volunteers were risking their lives to care for the sick. The press portrayed the action as governmental abandonment. DeBow’s Review reprinted an account from the New Orleans Commercial Bulletin that captured the growing consensus that government officials could not be entrusted with the public interest. The Commercial Bulletin called the performance of the government “humiliating.” The author alleged that the city council delegated its power to a finance committee, which had no authority to act in the emergency, so council members could adjourn “for their own health, convenience, and comfort.” Fleeing the city was “a burlesque on municipal government.” An editorial in the New Orleans Daily Delta concluded that “city government, on occasions of public emergency and danger, is a mere farce.”[23]

By the fall of 1853, reformers had constructed an epidemic narrative in which public-spirited citizens joined together to overcome the failures of the professional politicians then in control of the city’s destiny. Antiparty newspapers, as well as regional and national magazines, carried versions of the story. For example, Harper’s New Monthly Magazine’s account of the epidemic put forth a popular view of the epidemic as the year ended and the citizens of New Orleans prepared for elections in March 1854. The heroes were citizens who put aside their political differences as they battled a common foe.[24] Although the disease primarily affected newcomers the tragedy illustrated the organic nature of the community. Whether a citizen contracted the disease or not, everyone shared in its devastating effects. The people of the city left their homes and risked their own lives to care for the sick and dying. “Where in history can you find a more noble display of courage, fortitude, humanity, and true nobility of the soul!” the author asked. Despite residents’ own personal grief, “there is no fear, no weak cowardice, no nervous timidity, no sneaking or skulking in their expression and action. All stand to their duties, to the calls of affection, of friendship, of humanity.” The rich cared for the poor “and the poor watch at the downy couch of the rich.” For a time, the equality of shared suffering replaced such distinctions.[25]

Reformers continued to frame the politics of the city as a conflict between those who worked for the common good, regardless of ethnic or party ties, and those who were interested primarily in advancing their narrow political interests. Looking toward the spring 1854 elections, reformers even rejected the newly established health department as little more than a jobs program for Democratic loyalists. Once again, they charged, the Democracy placed party before the public good. Democrats praised those who helped the sick, but they did not see cooperation as the primary story of the epidemic.[26]

Democrats had another view of matters. Those Democrats who opposed the reform movement described the epidemic as another in a long line of abuses the poor had suffered and thought the talk of cooperation was a political ruse. They never failed to repeat their charge that the reform movement was dominated by nativists who sought to limit democracy in the city.[27] The Young America faction in the reform coalition dismissed Democratic charges as nothing more than a political ploy designed to obscure the real problems the city faced.[28] Their nativist allies continued, however, to make public statements that played into the hands of their Democratic opponents. For example, when reform Democrats joined former Whigs at a mass meeting in March 1854 to select a ticket for upcoming city elections, most speakers reemphasized their belief that party conflict hindered effective government in the city, as evidenced by how Democratic officials handled the epidemic, but then one speaker declared that the goal of the reformers was to make sure councilmen spoke English rather than Celtic. Editorials in the reform press ignored such remarks, choosing to frame the election as a choice between those concerned about the good of the city and those concerned with creating jobs for “spoilsmen, partisans, and political and social drones.” Democrats, however, seized on the comment in making their case that nativists dominated the reform movement.[29]

The struggle in the reform movement between the “good government” and “nativist” factions would continue for two more years. Then in the election of 1856 the good government, prodevelopment, antiparty faction in the reform coalition, emphasizing a discourse of cooperation across class and ethnic lines, finally subdued the nativists. One of the first projects the reform government undertook was intended to lessen the chance of another epidemic—cleaning streets and improving drainage throughout the city.[30]

Because of the presence of nativists in the reform movement, historians have raised questions about the reformers’ understanding of the public good, the degree to which they adhered to stated principles, and whether the antiparty movement ultimately achieved the improvements it advocated. But the Young America faction that ultimately prevailed struck a resonant chord among voters with its promises of a nonpartisan campaign to improve the environment of the city, to promote its economic development, and to avoid a repeat of the yellow fever epidemic. Though they did not fulfill all their promises in regard to cleaning up the city, and social and political conflict did not disappear, they did implement needed, if limited, improvements to the city’s infrastructure.[31]

Hurricane Katrina, like the yellow fever epidemic of 1853 and most other natural disasters, laid bare deep social, economic, and cultural divisions that have long plagued New Orleans. To say that is to state the obvious. As things stand in 2007, leading politicians in the city appear either unable or unwilling to articulate a vision of the community that transcends this long history of conflict. In January 2007, Mayor C. Ray Nagin cited race and class bias as explanations for the slow pace of New Orleans’s recovery.[32] By playing the race card, Nagin furthers a debate that perpetuates conflict and obscures a corruption and ineffectiveness in city government that Hurricane Katrina, like the 1853 epidemic, exposed. Perhaps the reform movement of the 1850s was, as its opponents claimed at the time, a cynical political maneuver. Nonetheless, by reframing the political debate to focus public attention on government corruption and its retarding effect on the development of the city, it offered a potentially more productive alternative to the political status quo. Whether a similar movement will emerge and succeed in the aftermath of Katrina remains to be seen.

Henry M. McKiven Jr. is associate professor of history at the University of South Alabama. He would like to acknowledge the very generous advice of Lawrence Powell and Clarence Mohr. He also thanks Donna Drucker for her editorial assistance.

Readers may reach McKiven at hmckiven at usouthal dot edu.

[1] For one example of conservative rhetoric, see Ward Connerly, “End the Race Party: Identity Politics Will Get gop Nothing Good,” National Review Online, Sept. 30, 2005, For one example of liberal rhetoric, see Richard Cohen, “Incompetence, Not Racism,” Washington Post, Sept. 20, 2005, p. A23.

[2] New Orleans followed a pattern described in Ronald Formisano, “The ‘Party Period’ Revisited,” Journal of American History, 86 (June 1999), 93–120.

[3]New Orleans Daily Picayune, June 28, 1853; “The Plague in the South-West: The Great Yellow Fever Epidemic in 1853,” DeBow’s Review, 15 (Dec. 1853), 595–635; John Duffy, Sword of Pestilence: The New Orleans Yellow Fever Epidemic of 1853 (Baton Rouge, 1966), 31–43; Jo Ann Carrigan, The Saffron Scourge: A History of Yellow Fever in Louisiana, 1796–1905 (Lafayette, 1994), 60–68; Benjamin H. Trask, Fearful Ravages: Yellow Fever in New Orleans, 1796–1905 (Lafayette, 2005), 51–56; John Smith Kendall, History of New Orleans (Chicago, 1922), 176–77. Observers of yellow fever at the time did not know how the disease was transmitted. John R. Pierce and Jim Writer, Yellow Jack: How Yellow Fever Ravaged America and Walter Reed Discovered Its Deadly Secrets (Hoboken, 2005), 7, 48–49.

[4] James Robb, “Railroad System of the Southwest,” DeBow’s Review, 21 (Aug. 1856), 121–25; Kendall, History of New Orleans, 181.

[5] “The Present and Future of New Orleans,” DeBow’s Review, 19 (Dec. 1855), 692.

[6]New Orleans Bee, March 12, 1852; Leon Cyprian Soulé, The Know-Nothing Party in New Orleans: A Reappraisal (Baton Rouge, 1961), 31–33; Kendall, History of New Orleans, 181.

[7] Charles Gayarré, Address to the People of Louisiana on the State of Parties (New Orleans, 1855), 30.

[8] On Young America, economic development, and generational conflict in the Democratic party during this period, see Yonatan Eyal, “Trade and Improvements: Young America and the Transformation of the Democratic Party,” Civil War History, 51 (Sept. 2005), 245–68. For a broader discussion of Young America, see Iver Bernstein, The New York City Draft Riots: Their Significance in American Society and Politics in the Age of the Civil War (New York, 1990), 132–39; and Edward L. Widmer, Young America: The Flowering of Democracy in New York City (New York, 1999), 27–63. New Orleanians at the time distinguished between nativists and politicians identified with Young America. See New Orleans Daily Crescent, March 6, 1854.

[9] The link between encouraging immigration and liberalization of requirements for citizenship was addressed explicitly in the 1845 constitutional convention. See Official Report of Debates in the Louisiana Convention, [Aug. 5th, 1844–Jan. 17th, 1845] (New Orleans, 1845), 61, 67, 103, 105; New Orleans Daily Orleanian, Sept. 6, 1854; John M. Sacher, “The Sudden Collapse of the Louisiana Whig Party,” Journal of Southern History, 65 (May 1999), 228–31.

[10]New Orleans Daily Crescent, March 22, 1854. Immigration was a subject of regional importance. For examples of broader consideration of the political, social, and cultural implications of immigration, see “Immigration: Its Results and Future Policy,” DeBow’s Review, 13 (Nov. 1852), 455–57; and George Fitzhugh, “Private and Public Luxury,” ibid., 24 (Jan. 1858), 49–55.

[11] Soulé, Know-Nothing Party in New Orleans, 39; Sacher, “Sudden Collapse of the Louisiana Whig Party,” 245; “The Democratic Party and Its Opponents,” United States Review (Oct. 1855), 342–46.

[12] For an example of the reformers’ defense, see New Orleans Daily Picayune, March 23, 1854.

[13] “The Mortality of New Orleans,” DeBow’s Review, 9 (Aug. 1850), 245.

[14]New Orleans Daily Picayune, May 5, 1850. A 1995 study of mortality during the epidemic supports the theory that newcomers, particularly European immigrants, were more susceptible to disease than longer-term residents. On mortality rates, see Jonathan B. Pritchett and Insan Tunali, “Strangers’ Disease: Determinants of Yellow Fever Mortality during the New Orleans Epidemic of 1853,” Explorations in Economic History, 32 (Oct. 1995), 517–39.

[15] “Mortality of New Orleans,” 245–46; “Why New Orleans Does Not Advance,” DeBow’s Review, 11 (Oct.–Nov. 1851), 387–89.

[16] “Mortality and Hygiene of New Orleans,” DeBow’s Review, 11 (Oct.–Nov. 1851), 479–80, 483; “Plague in the South-West,” 599–600.

[17] The courts consistently held that the city was obligated to “adopt measures of police, for the purpose of preserving the health, and promoting the comfort, convenience and general welfare of the inhabitants within the city.” See C. R. Kennedy v. A. S. Phelps, Street Commissioner, 10 La. Ann. 227 (1855). For an explanation of how that case reflected the public nature of markets, see William J. Novak, The People’s Welfare: Law and Regulation in Nineteenth-Century America (Chapel Hill, 1996), 83–114. On the politics of disease control in New Orleans and other places, see Ronald M. Labbe and Jonathan Lurie, The Slaughterhouse Cases: Regulation, Reconstruction, and the Fourteenth Amendment (Lawrence, 2003), 30–35; Martin S. Pernick, “Politics, Parties, and Pestilence: Epidemic Yellow Fever in Philadelphia and the Rise of the First Party System,” William and Mary Quarterly, 29 (Oct. 1972), 559–86; J. Matthew Gallman, Receiving Erin’s Children: Philadelphia, Liverpool, and the Irish Famine Migration, 1845–1855 (Chapel Hill, 2000), 113–40; and Marilyn Chase, The Barbary Plague: The Black Death in Victorian San Francisco (New York, 2003).

[18] Samuel A. Cartwright, “How to Save the Republic, and the Position of the South in the Union,” DeBow’s Review, 7 (July–Dec. 1851), 195–96. DeBow’s Review reprinted an editorial by Samuel Cartwright from the New Orleans Orleanian, July 13, 1853, in “Plague in the South-West,” 595–98; New Orleans Daily Picayune, June 23, 1853.

[19] Immigrants’ entitlement to citizenship rights had been hotly debated in New Orleans since the Louisiana state constitutional convention of 1845. See Official Report of Debates in the Louisiana Constitutional Convention of 1845, 61. A majority of the convention supported universal white manhood suffrage. The minority wanted to restrict the rights of immigrant whites and others.

[20] W. H. Holcombe, “Characteristics and Capabilities of the Negro Race,” Southern Literary Messenger, 33 (Dec. 1861), 402; Cartwright, “How to Save the Republic,” 196–97.

[21]New Orleans Bee, July 29, Aug. 22, 1853.

[22]New Orleans Medical and Surgical Journal, as cited in Dr. William T. Wragg, “ The Public Health,” Southern Quarterly Review, 9 (Jan. 1854), 90; “Plague in the South-West,” 614; New Orleans Bee, July 27, Aug. 29, 1853. On the structure on New Orleans city government, see Kendall, History of New Orleans, 173–74, 192.

[23]New Orleans Bee, July 27, Aug. 29, 1853. New Orleans Commercial Bulletin and New Orleans Daily Delta cited in “Plague in the South-West,” 620, 617.

[24] “History and Incidents of the Plague in New Orleans,” Harper’s New Monthly Magazine, 7 (June–Nov. 1853), 797; New Orleans Bee, Sept. 9, 1853.

[25] “History and Incidents of the Plague in New Orleans,” 798–800. New Orleans Bee, Sept. 9, 1853.

[26]New Orleans Bee, Nov. 29, 1853; Soulé, Know-Nothing Party in New Orleans, 40–41.

[27] Mary P. Ryan, Civic Wars: Democracy and Public Life in the American City during the Nineteenth Century (Berkeley, 1997), 146–49.

[28]New Orleans Daily Crescent, March 16, 17, 22, 1854.

[29]New Orleans Daily Picayune, March 17, 19, 22, 1854. On the reform meeting, see New Orleans Bee, March 15, 17, 18, 1854.

[30] Under Mayor Gerard Stith, elected in June 1858, the city officially assumed responsibility for public health. Kendall, History of New Orleans, 225–26.

[31] The secession movement and Civil War altered the priorities of government officials. After the occupation of New Orleans by Union forces Gen. Benjamin Butler and a subsequent Reconstruction government imposed many of the sanitary reforms demanded in the 1850s. Opponents of those policies brought a civil action that ultimately made its way to the U.S. Supreme Court as the Slaughterhouse cases. Labbe and Lurie, Slaughterhouse Cases, 35–37, 83–102.

[32] Michael Kunzelman, “New Orleans Mayor Tells U.S. Senate Committee He Sees Lack of Will to Rebuild His City,” Associated Press, Jan. 29, 2007, available at Lexis-Nexis.