Carpenters' Hall

« Return to History Index

The Yellow Fever Connection

by Carl G. Karsch

President and Mrs. Washington, to escape the yellow fever epidemics, spent part of two summers (1793 & 94) here in the hills of Germantown, nearly 10 miles from the city. Ironically, the house was headquarters for British General William Howe after the American defeat at the Battle of Germantown.

Mosquitoes — those pesky, uninvited guests at picnics and barbecues — bear more than their share of responsibility for human misery. Nowadays they're the culprits carrying West Nile virus. In 1889, the French abandoned work on the Panama Canal, largely due to mosquito-borne malaria and yellow fever. A century earlier, the latter disease became almost an annual scourge of colonial Philadelphia. In one epidemic alone, 5,000 residents — nearly one-tenth of the population — perished. Hardly a family was untouched.

This is the story of how yellow fever (or "yellow jack" as it was sometimes called) affected those related to Carpenters' Hall.

In 1775, the year Congress chose Washington to command the Continental Army, Jonathan Dillworth (elected 1786; expelled 1787) in partnership with two other builders completed three attractive but hardly commodious houses on the northeast corner of 4th & Walnut Sts. Dillworth received as his share of the investment the corner property, which he apparently rented to a series of tenants.

After Dillworth's death in 1791, his widow, Ann, ran a newspaper advertisement offering for sale "a genteel convenient three-story brick house and two-story brick kitchen situate on the northeast corner of Walnut and 4th Sts...." Seven months later, John Todd, a thriving Quaker attorney, made the purchase. The household comprised John (29), Dorothea, known as Dolley (23) his bride of one year, her two sisters — Lucy Payne (15) and Anna Payne (12). Probably, there were one or two servants and at least one law clerk. By 1793, the year disaster struck, the Todds had two sons. How the house could accommodate them, harmoniously, is hard to fathom.

Courtesy: Independence National Historical Park
Dillworth-Todd-Moylan House, 4th & Walnut Sts., in 1947 photograph before the building's restoration. By coincidence, luncheonette served "Dolley Madison Ice Cream," named for the president's wife who first served the confection at White House receptions. An insurance agency occupied the parlor overlooking Walnut St. where Aaron Burr introduced Mrs. Todd to James Madison.

Spring had been exceptionally wet, the summer equally hot and dry. People complained of the unusually large number of mosquitoes. In August, the disease began exacting its toll, first among residents near the Delaware river, then across the city. Hundreds fled, among them Dolley and her family, who sought refuge at the inn at Gray's Ferry on the west bank of the Schuylkill river. Surrounding the inn were well tended gardens and, tumbling from the steep embankment, man-made waterfalls. An idyllic setting indeed. It has long been obliterated first by the railroad, then a bridge linking Gray's Ferry Ave. to West Philadelphia.

John refused to accompany his family despite the death of his law clerk in September and both of his parents in early October. Todd, flooded with panicky demands to prepare wills, tended his law practice until he died later that month — on the same day as his younger son. One of Todd's clients was the Carpenters' Company.

Mrs. Todd and her surviving son, John Payne Todd, returned home where the attractive widow quickly caught the amorous eye of more than one prospective suitor. Aaron Burr, her legal advisor who lived in the Spruce St. boarding house of Dolley's mother, introduced her to James Madison, 17 years her senior. They were married September 15, 1794.

Yellow fever intertwined with the lives of Company members for the remainder of the decade. Six deaths are recorded.

Samuel Griscom (1793) — chiefly remembered as the father of Betsy Ross, who by now had married her third husband, the first two having died in the war.

Philip Kellinger (1793) — elected the previous year, he was only 24 when he died.

Daniel Leech (1794) — a master builder acquainted with Robert Allison and Benjamin Loxley, both of whom were members.

Joseph Rakestraw (1794) — one of several members who worked on the "President's House," on 9th St. below Market.

William Williams (1794) — chief builder of the "Grand Federal Edifice," the parade float designed by Charles Willson Peale that led the 1788 Constitutional parade.

Joseph Clark (1798) — a founder of the Friendship Company which united with the Carpenters' Company. For a decade, Managing Committee Minutes tell of assistance to Clark's widow and the education of six children.

Minutes also yield poignant glimpses of how members aided their city during the perilous months of late summer and early fall.

Edward Garrigues, in addition to serving as secretary and a committee member for the Book of Prices, managed the Company's relief efforts. During the '97 outbreak, he often was the only one to attend committee meetings. For the entire decade, Garrigues also was president of the city's Board of Health.

Three members were part of a city-wide committee in October, 1797, who appealed through the "Pennsylvania Gazette" for assistance to those "impoverished by the yellow fever epidemic."

Thomas Savery — whose father, William, was the famed cabinetmaker.

George Ingels — at that time vice president of the Company and later president for 18 years.

William Linnard — best known for his military service as a captain of artillery in the Revolution, later as quarter-master general of the U.S. Army.

One month later, again in the "Gazette," the committee expressed thanks "for the outpouring of money to give comfort to the mourner, bread to the hungry, and consolation to the distressed widows and fatherless." Entrusted to their care were "1,300 heads of households plus 600 men on the roads." Donations totaled $20,500 — a huge sum in those days — plus 335 barrels of wheat, rye, buckwheat, Indian meal and potatoes.

Physicians had no cure for yellow fever, but that didn't stop them from trying, largely with copious blood-letting and purges. David Evans, credited with overseeing construction of Old City Hall on Independence Square, was one of 22 patients who consented to having drawn126 ounces (nearly four quarts) of blood. That he recovered from the disease to say nothing of the curative attempt is tribute indeed to his stamina.

Another effort — and equally ineffective — to control the disease was either to destroy or thoroughly clean garments and bedding of victims. An item in the "Pennsylvania Gazette" of January, 1799, recounts how a committee, including five Company members, "searched out, ward by ward, where the late fever prevailed and removed to the city hospital infected garments and bed clothes for fumigation and washing." One committee member was Joseph Wetherill, who in 1804 would lend the city $1,000 to erect a head house which still stands at the north end of New Market, at 2nd and Pine Sts.

Courtesy: The Free Library of Philadelphia
Bush Hill, a suburban estate built by Andrew Hamilton, an attorney credited with the design of Independence Hall, and later occupied by Vice President and Mrs. John Adams, was converted to a hospital for yellow fever victims. Stephen Girard, who became a famed financier, organized medical care and helped tend patients.

Six years earlier, during the first major epidemic, Andrew Hamilton's rural mansion at Bush Hill was converted to a hospital where victims could be housed as well as isolated from the rest of the population. Its location now would be below Fairmount Ave between 17th and 17th Sts.

Before the decade ended, two more members — and the Hall itself — would be touched by the fever's effects. On the morning of September 2, 1798, officers of the Bank of Pennsylvania, which had rented the Hall until completion of their new home on south 2nd St., arrived to open for business. To their horror, they realized it already was. The Hall's south entrance stood ajar; worse, so did the door to the vault, located in the northeast corner of the basement beneath a brick structure probably containing bank records. Gone were $160,000 in gold and bank notes.

Courtesy: The Free Library of Philadelphia
Nation's first gold vault was this unpretentious "fireproof" erected when the First Bank of the United States rented the Hall while its building on Third St. was underway. Later, the basement vault beneath this one was the scene of the largest bank robbery of the 18th century. The vault, used by other banks which rented the Hall, was finally demolished in 1873.

Since locks were undamaged, it looked like an inside job. Suspect number one: the night porter (Cunningham) who slept in the Hall and kept the vault key on a garter around his neck. Denying guilt, his claim could not be disproved since he shortly succumbed to the fever. Suspect number two: Patrick Lyon, the blacksmith who installed the vault lock and, presumably, could have retained a duplicate key. But someone would have had to admit him to the Hall, a detail overlooked in the furore. Lyon's protests of innocence availed nothing. He spent the next three months in the Walnut Street prison, so disease-ridden that guards abandoned their posts. Volunteers were recruited to keep prisoners from escaping.

Then the real culprit inadvertently turned himself in. Isaac Davis, a personable young house carpenter, began depositing sums too great even for a prosperous, older member. Questioned, he readily confessed to the robbery, abetted by Cunningham. Making good his escape from the city, Davis received the only punishment possible — expulsion by the Carpenters' Company.

Lyon, now exonerated, sued the bank on several grounds, which a jury (of which William Garrigues, a Company member, was foreman) deemed worthy of $12,000 in damages, an amount later reduced to $9,000.

In the new century, the scourge retreated but remained a threat until after the Spanish-American war, during which more Americans died in Cuba from the disease than from battle. It was then that Dr. Walter Reed, a U.S. Army physician, discovered the deadly link between mosquitoes and yellow jack. One result: completion of the Panama Canal. A second: the famed medical center in Washington, D.C., bearing his name.

Carpenters' Hall, 320 Chestnut Street, Philadelphia, PA 19106
Open free to the public daily, except Mondays (and Tuesdays in Jan. and Feb.), from 10am-4pm

Interested in using our pictures or information? Click here!

Copyright 1999-2015 by the Independence Hall Association,
a nonprofit organization in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, founded in 1942.
Publishing electronically as On the Internet since July 4, 1995.