Saturday, August 3, 2013

The Yellow Fever Epidemic of 1793 and its Effect on the Residents of Graeme Park

In the summer and fall of 1793 the residents of Philadelphia were in the gripes of a panic, precipitated by a malady whose origins they didn't understand. Not only did they not know where this fever, the symptoms of which included yellowing of the eyes and skin, came from, they didn't know how to avoid it. All they knew was that their friends and neighbors were getting sick and dying. Even if they had known how to help, they didn't want to risk their own health. Homes of the victims were marked by flags, and those who were healthy, and had the means to do so, fled to the country. There was one problem with trying to escape the disease-ridden city however: not wanting legions of potentially infected refugees roaming the countryside, travelers were stopped by guards and turned back unless they could prove they had somewhere to go.

Fortunately for Elizabeth Graeme's nephew-in-law, Dr. William Smith, and his second wife, Letitia, they had purchased Graeme Park in 1791 and it was to their new estate in Horsham that they were able to escape during the summer of 1793. Elizabeth had remained in residence at Graeme Park after the Smiths' purchase and was happy to do so as long as they remained in their city home. Once they removed to Graeme Park, however, despite the Smiths’ assertions that she was welcome to stay, Elizabeth was not comfortable with the role of guest in the home of which she had once been mistress. As the Smiths had left the city in haste, bringing nothing with them in the way of furniture and household goods, she remained with them during the course of the fever so that they could make use of her things, but by December of 1793 Elizabeth was preparing to make her move to Mrs. Todd’s boarding house in Hatboro and to leave the running of Graeme Park to the new owners.

During the three months that the fever raged in Philadelphia, Elizabeth was in contact with her dear friend, Dr. Benjamin Rush, who employed controversial bleeding practices in an attempt to cure the afflicted of yellow fever. He sent her articles on the fever and debated with her his theories on the cause. Never one to be afraid to form or express her own opinions, she went so far as to send him proof that his theory that the fever was caused by “bad air” was wrong and that it was, in fact, brought in by refugees from the islands.

On Sunday, August 25, 2013 from 12 noon to 3:00 pm Graeme Park will be presenting a Living History Theater program telling the story of how the yellow fever epidemic of 1793 affected the residents of Graeme Park and those in their social circle. These tours feature costumed actors throughout the house and will take place approximately every half hour. Tickets are $10 for adults 18+ and $5 for children and teens 6-17; light refreshments are included in the cost of the ticket.

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