Descriptions of historic yellow fever cases, especially in Philadelphia and New York in the 1790s.
Monday, April 18, 2011
Samuel Powel was a former mayor of Philadelphia and current Speaker of the Pennsylvania Senate who lived with his wife Elizabeth Willing Powel in their Society Hill townhouse on South Third Street. Although not much a hill that section of the city was high enough so that it was widely assumed that those living there would be exempt from the fevers that tormented those who lived in lower parts of the city.
The Powels were good friends with President Washington and his wife Martha. Since Congress was not in session in the Fall, the President usually returned to Mount Vernon to rest up for the upcoming congressional session. In 1793 the ceremonial laying of the cornerstone of the Capitol building in Washington was scheduled for September 18, convenient to Washington's trip to Mount Vernon. Washington was well aware of the yellow fever epidemic as the time came near for his scheduled departure. He authorized the removal of federal government clerks from the infected city and arranged for some federal officers to continue to maintain needed government services which meant that some Treasury clerks and Post Office employees remained in the city.
Mindful of the threat of the epidemic to their friends, the Washingtons invited the Powels to join them in Mount Vernon. Mrs. Powel declined the invitation saying that her husband "thought there was no propriety in the citizens fleeing from the one spot where doctors were conversant with the treatment of the fever...."
Powel's resolve prompted the President reconsidered his plans and he decided to remain in the city as long as possible, but his wife refused to leave without him, so the Washingtons left as scheduled on September 10. Some of his biographers suggest that if Washington had any romantic interest in any woman other than Martha, it was with Elizabeth Willing Powel.
As the fever progressed, not sparing those who remained on Society Hill, Mrs. Powel moved to her brother's estate in Chester. Her husband divided his time between Chester and Society Hill. When he became ill with the fever on September 25th, he found a bed in a small, bare farm house he owned just across the Schuylkill River. Samuel Powel was also a close friend of Dr. Benjamin Rush who by September 9, when Powel declined the Washingtons' invitation, thought he had a powerful treatment for yellow fever, calomel purges and frequent copious bleeding as dictated by the rate of the patient's pulse.
Rush was the doctor who held Powel's confidence. So he sent his old African American coachman to Rush, and Rush sent back a prescription. Powel hired a young doctor in the neighborhood to attend him and follow Rush's orders. Later in the day, after the bleeding and purging, Powel sent a note back to Rush: "I certainly don't feel worse for the operation. The discharge from my bowels are exactly as you described them."
Rush visited Powel on the 26th. Early Saturday morning, September 28 Rush was woken by Dr. Samuel Powel Griffitt, Powel's nephew. He told Rush that his uncle was in a desperate situation. Rush went to the small farmhouse, failed to revive him and left Griffitt to lessen the agony of his old friend's death. Powel died on the 29th.
As a rule, to keep up his courage and maintain his effectiveness for helping the living, Rush avoided the dying. That a former mayor, reputed one of the wealthiest men in the city, who was well attended during his illness, should be near death after using his remedies, did not give Rush pause. He blamed "the neglect of a 4th bleeding by the young doctor who attended him."
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