The Journal Gazette
Saturday, April 25, 2020 1:00 am

Fever pitch

Current circumstances have 1793 precedent

Frank Hill

“Whistling past the graveyard” has been described as attempting to show a confident manner in a dire situation or ignoring an upcoming hazard while hoping for a good outcome. It describes many of us in our approach to coronavirus.

Do I need to wear gloves or a mask, or stay home? I feel healthy. I am, aren't I?

Long before coronavirus, there was yellow fever. A yellow fever epidemic struck Philadelphia in 1793. The disease spread as victims suffered from fever, chills and severe muscular pain.

In his book “Hamilton,” author Ron Chernow said people feared yellow fever could be communicated by contact with victims. He said, “People stopped shaking hands and stuck to the middle of the street to avoid other pedestrians. Some people covered their noses with vinegar-dipped handkerchiefs... .”

Chernow said 20,000 people escaped Philadelphia to seek safety. By late August, 20 people per day were dying from yellow fever; ultimately more than 4,000 people died. At the time there were only 50,000 people in Philadelphia.

Alexander Hamilton became violently ill with yellow fever. No one was exempt. I should have pointed that out to the 30ish guy behind me in line at Target during the current coronavirus scare. He saw I was wearing a mask and said an old guy like me should wear a mask. He said he does not need one because he never gets sick, a sure sign he knows how to whistle.

Chernow says in his book that George and Martha Washington sent six bottles of vintage wine to Hamilton during his illness. Wine is not medicine, though it may help with denial. I bought a bottle of wine at Target and I would deny a drink to the guy in line behind me.

Hamilton and Eliza, his wife, moved a couple of miles outside Philadelphia and placed their two children in an adjoining house. Eliza would appear at a window and wave to the children. More than 200 years later, it remains a poignant image.

After Eliza became a victim, she and Alexander sent the children to stay with her parents in Albany, New York. Albany has been in the news recently as the home base for some of Gov. Andrew Cuomo's news conferences on how we should respond to COVID-19.

After their children were in Albany, Alexander and Elizabeth remained near Philadelphia and were cured within five days by Dr. Edward Stevens. Many others were less fortunate.

Some of the victims were treated by Dr. Benjamin Rush. Chernow wrote that Dr. Rush, one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence, advocated bloodletting to treat yellow fever. Rush's treatment was unsuccessful, and many of his patients died.

Alexander and Eliza missed their children and left Philadelphia to go to Albany. They discarded any possibly infected clothing and took only fresh clothing. En route, they were initially denied entrance to a tavern full of frightened refugees from Philadelphia. The landlord intervened on their behalf but at subsequent layovers they met with barriers intended to keep out potentially contagious Philadelphians.

Almost at their destination, the Hamiltons were stymied by an Albany Council resolution. It prohibited ferrymen from transporting across the Hudson River all those from locations infected with yellow fever. Those ferry boats were forerunners of cruise ships today.

Fortunately for the Hamiltons, Eliza's father negotiated their crossing. Albany's mayor wanted to place guards at Eliza's father's home, the Hamiltons' destination. Eliza's father was offended and promised that Alexander and Eliza would not go into the city. He sarcastically suggested that a guard bring food out to his house and deposit the food between the house and the main gate.

Carryout? That is what I call it.

The Hamiltons' ticket to enter Albany arrived when the Albany Common Council passed another resolution. It opened Albany to anyone in good health and who had been absent from Philadelphia for at least 14 days. Perhaps an ancestor of Dr. Fauci's suggesting a 14-day waiting period.

The departure of yellow fever in the autumn of 1793 was attributed to the death of mosquitos upon the arrival of cold temperatures. The fever returned in 1797, about four years later. We are told coronavirus will diminish over the summer but may return this autumn. Everything happens faster these days.

As we wait for a reliable vaccine for the coronavirus, some relief is provided by the upbeat and humorous home videos which keep coming. We keep whistling.

Frank Hill is a Fort Wayne resident.

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