Immunity, Capital, and Power in Antebellum New Orleans

Academic publishing increasingly demands web-based digital content in addition to (or instead of) print-based articles and reviews. More often than not, such content merely offers a digital replication of what appears in print, and the AHR is no exception.

But digital content can do more than replicate; it can supplement. This is especially true when it comes to the rich visual archive with which many historians work. A typical AHR article might include only two or three captioned illustrations. These images enhance the article, but they are rarely central to its exposition. A dedicated website associated with the journal, however, opens the possibility of creating additional material that puts the visual archive underlying an AHR article front and center. Furthermore, as an "open" feature, such a site can make the scholarship published in the journal more accessible and widely available. Those who find this digital supplement of interest may then delve further into the published version of the journal.  

We inaugurate the special online supplement to the AHR with a short visual essay prepared by Kathryn Olivarius (Stanford University), designed to accompany her article in the April 2019 issue, "Immunity, Capital, and Power in Antebellum New Orleans," and her AHR Interview. Olivarius argues that in swampy nineteenth-century New Orleans, acclimation to yellow fever—through surviving the mosquito-borne illness—stood as the quintessential demonstration of calculated risk-taking. Those whites who paid their biological dues were seen as worthy of investment, and were thus able to pursue economic advancement in slave racial capitalism. 

During the winter of 1803, news of the Louisiana Purchase electrified the United States. With the future states of Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Texas ceded to American control, ambitious white settlers dreamed of amassing vast Caribbean-style wealth through sugar and cotton. New Orleans was the greatest prize of all: an important military and trading port, it served as the “great western emporium” for the riches of the entire Mississippi Valley.

John Bachmann, “Bird’s Eye View of New-Orleans,” 1851. Lithograph. Historic New Orleans Collection, New Orleans, Louisiana.

This bird’s-eye view of New Orleans, looking north across the Mississippi River toward Lake Pontchartrain, shows much of the urban landscape in detail, including St. Louis Cathedral in the Vieux Carré, Canal Street, and the burgeoning Second Municipality, which was inhabited primarily by Americans (rather than creoles). Steamships carrying goods and people crowded the Mississippi River and docks year-round, providing the perfect breeding ground for yellow fever in the late summer. In the foreground is the Marine Hospital at McDonoghville, named for John McDonogh, who was a merchant, slaveholder, and politician, and one of New Orleans’ richest men. John Bachmann, Bird’s-Eye View of New-Orleans, lithograph, 1851. The Historic New Orleans Collection,

At least half a million whites immigrated to New Orleans between the Louisiana Purchase and the Civil War, making it the country’s second most popular immigrant destination after New York City, and one of its largest cities overall. In addition, hundreds of thousands of enslaved black people were forcibly transported to New Orleans, to be sold in the nation’s largest slave market. Picking cotton and cutting cane under a sweltering subtropical sun, they made the Deep South’s white planters, financiers, and merchants into some the richest men in antebellum America.

Edgar Degas, A Cotton Office in New Orleans, 1873. Oil on canvas. Musée des Beaux-Arts de Pau, France.

The French artist Edgar Degas spent several months in New Orleans in 1873 visiting his uncle Michel Musson, a cotton factor, whose office at 407 Carondelet Street, in the heart of the Second Municipality, is depicted here. Musson’s business went bankrupt before this painting was complete. The scene shows both capitalist energy and climate-induced lethargy: while some of the men grade cotton and keep books, others read the Picayune and languish in the subtropical heat. This was the first painting Degas sold to a museum. Edgar Degas, A Cotton Office in New Orleans, 1873. Musée des Beaux-Arts de Pau, France.

But soon after the Purchase, Americans encountered the problem that would plague New Orleans and its hinterlands for the entire nineteenth century: the city was a slaughterhouse, a place where nearly half of all newcomers died horrible deaths from yellow fever. Every few years, this disease reached epidemic proportions, sometimes killing about 8 percent of the Crescent City’s inhabitants and widowing and orphaning countless others. In cramped, predominantly German and Irish neighborhoods, nearly a third of the inhabitants died. In 1853, approximately 12,000 Orleanians perished (a tenth of the city’s population), while thousands more died in Mobile, Alabama; Baton Rouge, Louisiana; Natchez and Vicksburg, Mississippi; and Galveston, Texas, making that year’s epidemic one of the worst natural disasters in American history. America’s imperial dreams were beset by an epidemiological nightmare.

Plate IV, “Features, complexion, and hæmorrhagic appearance of a Madeira immigrant in advanced stage of yellow fever,” in Daniel Blair, Some Account of the Last Yellow Fever Epidemic of British Guiana (London, 1850). Wellcome Collection, London, UK.

This man is in the final stages of yellow fever, bleeding from his eyes and nose. His skin also appears yellowish in color, suggesting jaundice, a common symptom of yellow fever. “Features, complexion, and haemorrhagic appearance of a Madeira immigrant in advanced stage of yellow fever,” in Daniel Blair, Some Account of the Last Yellow Fever Epidemic of British Guiana (London, 1850), Plate IV. Wellcome Collection, London,

Epidemic yellow fever requires three things to flourish: the presence of large numbers of mosquitoes; a sizable, densely packed, immunologically naïve population; and a tropical/subtropical climate. For the entire nineteenth century, yellow fever was an inescapable part of life across the Deep South and a cause of near-constant terror in New Orleans. There was no cure, no vaccine, no conclusive evidence of how the disease was transmitted, and no satisfactory explanation for why it killed some while leaving others healthy. It was, moreover, a dreadful way to die, with victims oozing blood from their eyes, noses, and ears, and vomiting up partially coagulated blood, roughly the consistency of coffee grounds. Doctors stressed that "acclimation"—falling sick and surviving yellow fever—was the only defense against the scourge. But acclimation was hardly guaranteed: while half of all yellow fever victims gained lifetime immunity, the other half died.

Yellow Fever Deaths in Nineteenth-Century New Orleans.” Data compiled from J.C. Simonds (1851), Just Touatre (1898), Gayle Aiken (1900), George Augustin (1909), K. David Patterson (1992), Margaret Humphreys (1992), Henry M. McKiven, Jr. (2007), and Urmi Engineer Willoughby (2017).

Almost all mortality data from the nineteenth century was inaccurate. Not only were diagnostic criteria inconsistent, but official data collected by the Board of Health chronically undercounted non-white victims, as well as members of the “floating population” (transients and sailors). As city officials deliberately underplayed mortality to encourage continued immigration, many contemporaries argued that the true mortality rate was double, even triple, the official tally. This graph shows three particular trends: first, epidemics of yellow fever grew in frequency and ferocity during the first half of the century, peaking in 1853; second, the first significant drop in yellow fever occurred during the Civil War, when the city was under Union Army occupation; third, mortality from yellow fever dropped significantly after 1878, with small epidemics occurring in 1897 and 1905, before the disease was eradicated from the region in the early twentieth century. Data compiled from J. C. Simonds, An Address on the Sanitary Condition of New Orleans (1851); Just Touatre, Yellow Fever: Clinical Notes (1898); Henry Rightor, ed., Standard History of New Orleans, Louisiana (1900); George Augustin, History of Yellow Fever (1909); K. David Patterson, “Yellow Fever Epidemics and Mortality in the United States, 1693–1905” (1992); Margaret Humphreys, Yellow Fever and the South (1992); Henry M. McKiven Jr., “The Political Construction of a Natural Disaster: The Yellow Fever Epidemic of 1853” (2007); and Urmi Engineer Willoughby, Yellow Fever, Race, and Ecology in Nineteenth-Century New Orleans (2017).

Facing such dire odds, why did settlers keep coming to the Deep South, the nation’s so-called “necropolis”? What was it like to live in such a deathscape? How did this city withstand the constant attrition of epidemic disease, reconcile its destruction, and build a functioning social and economic system in its fatal wake?

Alfred Rudolph Waud, “Yellow Fever, N. O.,” 1871 or 1872. Pencil and gouache on gray paper. Historic New Orleans Collection, New Orleans, Louisiana.

This pencil drawing from 1871 or 1872 shows an epidemic in full throttle. Two men carry bodies to an open grave as two women mourn their loved ones. Alfred Rudolph Waud, "Yellow Fever, N. O." The Historic New Orleans Collection, Statistics can only hint at how individuals lived in such a miserable deathscape. William Crenshaw, a New Orleans pastor, summed up the general mood in a letter to a friend: "It is an awful time here. You can not imagine the distress that exists. Think for one moment of eight of our neighbors dying in 10 days . . . within a stone's throw of us." He concluded, "Wherever I turn sickness and death stares me in the face. And now whilst I pen these lines, the thought strikes me that I may not be spared to meet you again." William Crenshaw to Nathaniel F. Bowe, September 11, 1841, William A. Crenshaw Letters, New Orleans Public Library.

Through an invisible yet powerful system of “immunocapital,” surviving yellow fever stamped a newcomer as legitimate and provided him or her with a credential that granted access to previously inaccessible realms of social, political, and economic power. According to the tenets of white supremacy, all whites were placed above all blacks. But this structural racism commingled with the hierarchy of “immunocapital,” whereby “acclimated citizens”—yellow fever survivors—occupied all positions of power, and “unacclimated strangers”—poor white recent immigrants from the North or Europe—languished in social and professional purgatory, ostracized on the basis of epidemiology.

“The Great Yellow Fever Scourge.—Incidents Of Its Horrors In The Most Fatal Districts Of The Southern States,” Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, September 28, 1878. Historic New Orleans Collection, New Orleans, Louisiana.

This tableau shows an array of horrific scenes from the 1878 epidemic, when yellow fever engulfed not just New Orleans but the entire region—stretching as far north as Memphis, Tennessee. The central image shows Canal Street, normally the city’s busiest thoroughfare, desolate except for hearses. The image above it shows two homeless men ailing on a park bench as a wealthy man walks briskly away. Many of these scenes show that yellow fever impacted people differently according to ethnicity, gender, race, and class. “The Great Yellow Fever Scourge. — Incidents of Its Horrors in the Most Fatal Districts of the Southern States,” wood engraving from Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, September 28, 1878. The Historic New Orleans Collection,

For whites, immunity translated into economic capital, with all jobs going to those who claimed to be acclimated. Merchants would not enter into a partnership with someone who could not produce an acclimation certificate, and banks would not give credit to a man unable to verify the specific year he had survived the disease. Many immigrants, especially Irish and German immigrants, who arrived in large numbers during the 1830s, figured that they should try to become acclimated sooner rather than later, so they actively tried to get sick. Ironically, facing the disease was the only guaranteed way to survive and prosper long-term, especially for young white men seeking professional advancement in cotton factories, merchant houses, and wholesaling—jobs considered springboards to slave and land ownership.

If many people died in the pursuit of immunity, it did not matter: there were shiploads of people arriving to replace the dead. And if yellow fever could not be cured or stopped through public health measures, the commercial-civic elite argued that its deadliness could be transformed into a social panacea, weeding out the weak, immoral, and unworthy. Acclimation was so important to a white migrant’s life and prospects that it was locally referred to as a “passport” to riches, a “rebirth,” or the “baptism of citizenship.”

John Churchill Chase, “When a visitor became the bride of the saffron scourge,” The States-Item, April 5, 1977. Ink and white wash with screentone on board. Historic New Orleans Collection, New Orleans, Louisiana.

This cartoon drawn in the 1970s recalls the epidemic of 1878. A skeleton—“Yellow Jack”—escorts a bride past a flower-draped coffin in which the same bride is lying. The drawing highlights the real-life story of Elizabeth Jane Stafford, a young Mississippi woman who traveled to New Orleans to be fitted for her wedding gown, only to contract yellow fever during her stay. She died twelve days before her wedding was to have taken place. John Churchill Chase, illustration in John Wilds, “In 1878 We Were Here . . . When a Visitor Became the Bride of the Saffron Spectre,” The States-Item, April 5, 1977. The Historic New Orleans Collection,

For white women, immunocapital was valuable in the marriage market. Courting men rejected unacclimated women, worried that they would die young before having children. A creole father would not let his daughter talk to unacclimated men, lest she marry one, cede her dowry, and have to recover it through a lengthy legal process when he died. Horror stories abounded. In the WPA narratives, an ex-slave named Olivier Blanchard, from what is now St. Martin Parish, remembered a white woman named Colene Bonnier who was to marry one Sunday but fell ill on the Friday before. She died and was quickly buried. When her body was later disinterred from the underground grave to be placed in a tomb, it was discovered that she had been buried alive and had eaten “her own shoulder and hand away.” According to Blanchard, when her sweetheart saw the corpse, he went home, fell sick with yellow fever, and died.

Stories of accidental live burial during yellow fever epidemics were common among Deep Southerners. As victims often lapsed into a coma before dying, it was possible during the confusion of an epidemic to mistake a person for dead, especially as the time between death and interment was sometimes only a matter of hours. Multiple coffins in New Orleans were apparently found with scratch marks on the inside.

Engraving from James Dugan, Doctor Dispachemquic: A Story of the Great Southern Plague of 1878 (New Orleans, 1879). Frontispiece.

Almost no sources exist that speak directly to enslaved people’s experiences of yellow fever. Racialized beliefs about immunity meant that black people were often on the front lines of care. Here we see two men nursing a yellow fever patient. A white doctor takes the patient’s temperature while a black man bathes the patient’s legs in ice water. Such a scene would have played out thousands of times during the antebellum period. Engraving from James Dugan, Doctor Dispachemquic: A Story of the Great Southern Plague of 1878 (New Orleans, 1879), frontispiece.

Though everyone faced the risks of yellow fever—first and foremost a sudden, gruesome death—the potentially vast rewards of acclimation were reserved for whites only. Proslavery theorists argued that black people were naturally resistant to yellow fever—that this innate immunological superiority but intellectual inferiority was black people's God-given birthright, consigning them to a scientific destiny of commodity cultivation in the Deep South. Only immune black bodies, the logic went, could safely cultivate this epidemiologically fraught space and make their white masters rich and powerful. Thus, as immunity for whites became so closely linked with the concepts of citizenship and legitimacy, slavery inverted this logic for blacks, with the white elite colluding to award black people a kind of negative immunocapital: for the longer they could survive to make wealth for their masters, the more it made sense to enslave them.