Yellow Fever Epidemic: Philadelphia, 1793


This primary source packet provides resources related to the 1793 yellow fever epidemic in Philadelphia. These materials can support classes and research interested in epidemics, diseases, race, urbanization, and Philadelphia history, or some combination thereof. Potential pedagogical goals from using these materials might include understanding the historical racialized impact of diseases, comparing personal/manuscript accounts of events and published accounts of those same events, and exploring, analyzing, and putting in conversation primary sources. 

In the summer and fall of 1793, yellow fever spread throughout the United States capital. Many who could fled the city, special fever hospitals were created, and over 5,000 people died. Black Americans took on much of the care of the sick and dying, as it was wrongly believed that they were less susceptible to the disease. When publisher Matthew Carey accused these workers of taking advantage of the sick, Richard Allen and Absalom Jones wrote a defence of their conduct during the epidemic. There were numerous publications about this outbreak, and it features prominently in a number of manuscript sources. 

Packet contents: 

List of Materials

Carey, Matthew. A short account of the malignant fever: lately prevalent in Philadelphia; with a statement of the proceedings that took place on the subject, in different parts of the United States. To which are added, Accounts of the plague in London and Marseilles, and a list of the dead, from August 1, to the middle of December, 1793. Philadelphia: Printed by the author, 1794. 4th edition. 

This link also includes links to a digitized version. 

Jones, Absalom and Richard Allen. A narrative of the proceedings of the black people: during the late awful calamity in Philadelphia, in the year 1793: and a refutation of some censures, thrown upon them in some late publications. Philadelphia: Printed for the authors, by William W. Woodward, at Franklin’s head, no. 41, Chesnut-street, 1794. 

This link also includes links to a digitized version. 

Smith, Benjamin. Letterbook. 1793. HC-MC-975-02-036 [Digital version]

Cresson, Joshua. Diary. 1793. HC-MC-975-01-098 [Digital version: coming soon!]

Questions to Consider

  • Who created the document(s)?  For what purpose?
  • Describe the implied audience for these materials. What informs your opinion?
  • What additional (contextual) information would you need to know to fully understand your document(s)?  Where might you find some of this information, and why might you choose a particular source over another?  
  • How does the document(s) add to your understanding of epidemics, race, and medicine? How does it related to other questions and issues you have been studying?
  • What do you find surprising or interesting about the documents?