Thursday, November 18, 2010

A Modest Proposal

One of the reasons my dissertation took so long was that the newspapers of the 1790s had not invented the headline yet, so I had to read them pretty much straight through to find what I was looking for. And this meant I ended up reading a lot of fascinating things that I very much wanted to work into my dissertation but which my advisor found expendable.

This story, based on a long 1799 article in the Aurora and General Advertiser, one of the two main newspapers of the day, made it through several drafts before I finally conceded and deleted it.

But I still think it was funny.


The 1790s were plague years in Philadelphia.

In 1793, three decades after its last previous appearance, yellow fever returned to Philadelphia and the city essentially collapsed. Both the national and state governments fled into the countryside, taking with them almost half of the city's population and leaving an undermanned municipal government (at times consisting of only Mayor Samuel Clarkson and a volunteer Committee of Assistants) to deal with the crisis as best it could. Mail delivery ground to a halt, meetings of every description were postponed or cancelled, and every newspaper but one in the city stilled its presses. People died in the streets and were buried without ceremonies, coffins or mourners.

By the time the epidemic abated in the fall 4,044 people had been identified and reported as having died from the disease, with the actual total probably somewhere in the neighborhood of 5,500. With a population of about 55,000 at the time, Philadelphia was quite literally decimated by the yellow fever epidemic of 1793.

Yellow fever would return repeatedly throughout the decade and into the next, with smaller outbreaks in 1794, 1796, 1797, 1799 and 1803, as well as a major outbreak in 1798 that took the lives of the editors of both the Aurora and the Gazette of the United States and once again brought the city to a standstill.

What made the yellow fever epidemics so unsettling to Philadelphians was not only the staggering mortality and ghastly appearance of the disease but also the fact that nobody really understood what caused it.

Theories abounded, however.

Some said it was caused by miasma from the swamps, or from the stench of the markets and the canal. Others blamed the recent flood of immigrants from war-torn San Domingue [Haiti], or the faltering morality of the nation's capital. Still others came tantalizingly close to the realization that mosquitoes, more common than usual in 1793, were to blame. As the disease returned again and again throughout the 1790s, Philadelphians struggled to understand yellow fever so that they might be able to do something about it.

Even without a real understanding of the details of the connection between the two actions, Philadelphians in the late 1790s moved toward preventing yellow fever by beginning to construct the first major public water works in the country.

A 1797 petition to the Select and Common Councils stated the case bluntly, arguing that the city government had the duty to build such a system, no matter the cost, as a way to prevent the yellow fever from returning. The Councils agreed and by 1801, in the intersection of Broad and High Streets where City Hall now stands, the first of several attempts at a public water system would be up and running. By 1822 the whole operation had been moved to the banks of the Schuylkill River, on the western edge of town, where it was a resounding success.

Decades before most Americans, Philadelphians were enjoying the benefits of clean, reliable water, and yellow fever slowly faded into memory.

The connection between the water works and the prevention of yellow fever was not universally accepted at the time, however, and there were those in Philadelphia who did not consider the water works to be money well spent.

One critic of the proposed system wrote to the Aurora in 1799 with what he presented as a better plan. "TIMOTHY DEEP," philosopher and insistent purveyor of social utopian "schemes," declared that the problem with the water works was that it sought to provide the citizens of Philadelphia with water.

This was unimaginative and not a good return on the investment, as far as he was concerned.

"[Y]ou must know," he wrote, “that I have lately formed a plan for improving the water works at present carrying on in this city, by converting them to the purpose of supplying the citizens with BEER; which I am sure will be more acceptable, and prevent those rising clamours among the people on account of the water Tax, already assessed, and shortly to be levied to a most enormous amount, at least so say the canal speculators. I believe few people would think hard of paying a much heavier tax than the one proposed, if they could be daily accommodated with a certain quantity of that wholesome beverage or of good gin twist, instead of the muddy water of the Schuylkill[.]”

Well aware that some might see this plan as impractical, Timothy reassured his readers that he could "prove by an algebraical involution, that the thing is not only practicable, but very easy."

Most people who have consumed the muddy water of the Schuylkill would probably consider this a good trade, but even with his algebraical involution supported by a host of Latin phrases Timothy reported great difficulties in getting his latest scheme approved by the people who might help him enact it.

A maltster, who "did not understand Algebra," balked at the twenty acres of malt houses Timothy's plan would require.

A brewer ridiculed Timothy's formulas, saying that they "looked more like a charm to cure a tooth ache, than anything else he could compare it to" and causing Timothy to storm out in a huff.

A local politician beat him about the head and shoulders and threw him out into the street when he tried to explain his plan.

What could "a poor philosopher" do in the face of such willful ignorance?

Exhausted and dispirited, Timothy set out for home and before long was hopelessly lost, both in thought and in the streets of Philadelphia. Eventually he was taken in by his old friend Dick Kindly, who fed him and sent him straight home as one would do with any wayward child.

Philadelphians would just have to settle for water.

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