The Sick Society

The Yellow Fever in the South—Scenes and Incidents at Vicksburg and Memphis, September 16, 1878. The Historic New Orleans Collection.

When historian Kathryn Olivarius published her 2019 article, “Immunity, Capital, and Power in Antebellum New Orleans” in the American Historical Review, she didn’t know just how pertinent her study of the social ramifications of epidemic disease in class society would be. By the time she published her book-length account of the same topic, Necropolis: Disease, Power, and Capitalism in the Cotton Kingdom, three years later, Olivarius needed a quick preface to address the elephant in the poorly ventilated room.

Necropolis tells the story of a regional ruling class that struck a devil’s bargain with disease, going beyond negligence to cultivate semi-annual yellow fever epidemics. As a commercial capital for the 19th century’s new world system, New Orleans could count on a constant flow of newcomers — free and enslaved — to feed the sickness personified as “Yellow Jack.” Rather than modernizing to tame death, the city’s “immunocapitalists,” as Olivarius calls them, crafted elaborate ideological justifications and social customs around the disease, using it to prop up the moribund slave-labor regime. With her necrotic New Orleans, Olivarius presents a portrait of a sick society, a picture that looks eerily familiar in the present-day light. —Malcolm Harris

Malcolm Harris: Can you tell me about the unusual role that New Orleans plays in the national and global economies during the period your book covers?

Kathryn Olivarius: New Orleans is really the city of the 19th-century United States, especially before the Civil War. It’s founded in 1718 by the French, and it alternated between French and Spanish control during the 18th century. It was always a city that kind of shouldn’t be there, in that it’s in a swamp. But it’s at the very base of the Mississippi River, which is the artery of the North American continent, and you have to have a city there to process all the goods flowing out of the Mississippi Valley. New Orleans was founded on this large riverbend, and most of the city sits about one foot above sea level. It’s very, very close to the water table.

By the 1790s, New Orleans was rapidly changing because of two commodities: cotton and sugar. These were sources of immense wealth to various empires in the Atlantic world. Sugar was successfully granulated for the first time in Louisiana in 1795, and the cotton gin rapidly increased cotton production. So this place, on the brink of a commodity revolution, was what America inherited with the Louisiana Purchase in 1803. New Orleans became the leading cotton export city during the antebellum period. And as these products were grown on a much larger scale—cotton was spreading into the Mississippi Valley—New Orleans became the primary supplier of cotton to the European market by about the 1840s.

With each decade, more and more cotton is flowing through New Orleans to ports around the world. This is in turn bringing lots of wealth and capital into New Orleans—as well as people who want to invest in the cotton and sugar industries. And of course there’s the slave industry, too. With the banning of the transatlantic trade, New Orleans becomes the biggest slave market in the United States and the center of the exclusive domestic slave trade.

MH: Being a hub of global commerce, the city also becomes a center of disease and disease spread. We traditionally think about disease waves as public problems to be dealt with, or at least we used to. But you depict a situation in New Orleans where yellow fever becomes not only epidemiologically endemic, but socially endemic, too. How does this society become based around disease?

KO: Yellow fever radically transformed the lives of millions of Americans before the 20th century. The disease needs three things: a hot, humid climate; a sizable population of female Ae. aegypti mosquitoes; and a large population of non-immune people living close together. In New Orleans in this period, epidemics appear every two or three years in the summer.

After the Louisiana Purchase, thousands of people are pouring into the region because they want to get on the ground floor of this commodity revolution, or they want one of these good government jobs that they see as a springboard to slave- and land-ownership. And as more people are coming in, more ships are coming in too, carrying these mosquitoes from the Caribbean.

By the 1810s, the epidemic outbreaks were so frequent that they shaped the city’s calendar. The epidemics would generally be from June or July to November, when the first mosquito-killing frost came. That’s three or four months of fever season, so it obviously impacted people’s lives then but it really impacted their lives the whole year round. It greatly influenced the timing of the cotton market. Come January, the cotton and sugar and slavery industries were absolutely abuzz—but what would happen is suddenly one day in late June or early July a case of yellow fever would be reported or rumored, and eventually there would be a tipping point, where enough cases were reported and the entire life of the city would switch.

People who were rich and white—many of whom owned slaves and country plantations—were able to leave. You would get onto a carriage with your family, or perhaps with enslaved people whom you owned, and you would go to your country plantation. Or you would go to the north and you would take in theater and do business in New York. Some went to London or Paris to do their summer tours there. But that’s only for the very richest people, and many had no choice but to remain in town during epidemics because they did not have the funds or freedom to leave. And if you stuck in town, life would be very miserable. You would spend three months in utter fear that you were going to die. You would steel yourself to keep working because you would be fired if you didn’t, if you gave up your post in your grocery or wholesaler or merchant house. If you did get sick, you would spend all the money you had in the world and then some on doctors and nurses to try to safely take you through the acclimating process. If you survived, you would be known as an acclimated citizen; if you died, you were a poor and unfortunate unacclimated stranger. And you had about a 50% chance of living or dying of this disease in the 19th century.

And then, when the frost comes—so many people describe this in their letters and diaries—New Orleans bounced back to its former self overnight. Suddenly the street was filled with people, stores reopen, schools reopen. If you lived through this for many years, you became used to this kind of danse macabre, this semi-yearly pattern dictating the pace but also the emotions of your life.

MH: Sounds familiar. It struck me that the New Orleans economy looked more like the Caribbean slave-labor sugar plantations than the slave-breeding plantations of the Upper South.

KO: Even today New Orleans doesn’t feel especially American. People two centuries ago agreed that it looked much more like Havana than it did Philadelphia or Richmond, and that became a part of the justification for slavery. Theorists at the time said that black people could better withstand the climate and diseases of the tropical world and that this was a sign ultimately from God—but also from the environment—that black slavery was natural, even humanitarian, because black slavery insulated white people from places and labor that would kill them. This idea had existed for hundreds of years in the Atlantic world, and was refined by doctors who are stationed with the British Army, or the British Navy, in these Caribbean campaigns. And you see this idea really takes hold in New Orleans—against, by the way, all sorts of actual evidence.

Very quickly after the Louisiana Purchase, this idea emerged that Louisiana was too hot and too sickly a place for white people to do the majority of the labor. Only black slavery, it was said, could transform the swamps into profitable sugar and cotton plantations. And so they claim very early on that black people showed, if not complete immunity to yellow fever, at least extreme resistance to the disease. This is not true, it’s just a story. Black people could and did die of yellow fever, and this is documented in all sorts of literature and all sorts of diaries and plantation management books. And yet this mythology remains. This story becomes a defining feature of the logic of slavery on the Gulf Coast.

MH: You write that the proportion of enslaved persons in the city dropped from 50 percent in 1806 to 8 percent by 1860.

KO: Yeah, New Orleans was a majority Black city during long parts of the 18th century and the early 19th century, but the enslaved population does drop off quite significantly. Part of this is because enslavers in New Orleans are thinking, “why risk my valuable property here? This person could be put to much better use on my plantation in Mississippi, which is much safer overall than New Orleans during epidemics.”

MH: Can you talk about the “immunocapital” concept—your term for the system by which yellow fever interacts with this variegated labor market?

KO: Immunocapitalism is a system of class rule in which elites in New Orleans used yellow fever and the destruction that it brought to essentially divide and subjugate the masses, both black and white. So the people who are controlling the commercial and civic sphere—the rich white planters, the merchants, the politicians (who by the way are very often all three of those things at the same time)—came to see disease not necessarily as a curse, but as a kind of blessing. Because disease did a lot of work for them.

In other American cities at the time, where there’s disease, people are trying to ameliorate it, or cure it. That’s not what the New Orleans elite did. Instead they seemed to encourage the propagation of yellow fever, making the most of the mass death to consolidate their power on top of the cotton market. Early on after the Louisiana Purchase, elites noticed: Well, there’s nothing we can do to stop yellow fever. There’s no cure. There’s no inoculation. We don’t know how it spreads. We have no way of telling who’s going to live or die. And quarantines and other public health measures, which might work in New York, aren’t going to work here because we’re in a swamp. The two “solutions” they came up with were the notions of enslaved Black immunity and white acclimation.

In time, the city’s white population became stratified according to who possessed immunity to yellow fever—the so-called acclimated citizens. Acclimated people lived in better places, they had better jobs, they were more readily promoted. They were able to socialize and mingle in superior circles. You could even marry better—many fathers would bar their daughters from even talking to unacclimated men.

MH: Because they were likely to die on you?

KO: Right. And acclimation correlated with wealth because it opened up the doors to better employment, better connections, better lines of credit, and so on. So these labels really matter, professionally and socially.

MH: It sounds like acclimation was, conceptually, sort of analogous to certain kinds of education or skills, like having a college degree or knowing how to code. I tried to imagine how people would relate to that kind of labor market situation.

KO: I use capital deliberately here because people at the time describe their immunity as a form of capital in the way that Pierre Bourdieu describes it. They thought about it as a credential that would give you access to other things, just like a college degree would. It can’t be passed down and it can’t be traded, but you put in time and you risked your life and this is your reward.

MH: You’re writing about a split labor regime, where a large percentage of the workers are enslaved—you call them “embodied capital.” You use capital in both the Bourdieu and the Marx traditions at the same time, fusing them into this immunocapital concept, which brings this disjuncture between free and enslaved labor to the fore. Did you run into trouble with that?

KO: When I talk about enslaved people, the capital is much more in the Marxian sense. It’s much less metaphorical.

MH: You can measure it.

KO: You can measure it and you can value it in prices.

But this is one of the most frustrating parts of being a historian of the South, and a historian of slavery: there are so few sources that we have from the perspective of enslaved people that are unmediated by white people. Even slave narratives were written and rewritten and crafted for a white audience up north. So there are very few sources that speak to what I’m getting at here, which is, how did enslaved people feel about their immunity? How did their sense of self change if they became acclimated? Is it analogous to how white wage workers felt?

Some of this we can sort of discern—I think it’s fair to say that enslaved people were petrified of yellow fever like everybody else. And that they were obviously delighted to be acclimated, if they were, because first and foremost it would save your life and would prevent death in future epidemics. But I have found very, very few sources that speak to how acclimation changed how enslaved people thought about themselves and their position in the world relative to others.

The white immigrant workers shouted it from the rooftops when they were acclimated. They saw it as a springboard to a desk job. You’d no longer have to canals, you’d no longer have to compress cotton to load into steamboats. You could become a clerk or a bookkeeper or an accountant. And one day own your own cotton factory, purchase land, purchase people. It was like getting your college degree, where suddenly the world is your oyster.

MH: It seems like a bridge to modernity in some ways for some people, for the free workers who become acclimated. It’s a bridge to a different historical period than the one they’re coming from.

KO: Yeah, New Orleans was the country’s second-most-popular immigration destination, after New York City, during the antebellum period. And a lot of these people came through there because it didn’t have a health check.

MH: I don’t want to conflate immunity with class position because they are distinct in the Bourdieuian sense. But immunocapitalism produces this sort of immune overclass that develops a set of policy positions which include an antipathy toward public health measures. Does a lackadaisical attitude toward yellow fever become a conservative litmus test for pro-slavery politics?

KO: In this period, New Orleans spends far, far less on public health than does any other comparable American city. I’m talking about 2 cents on public health per person per year, compared with 69 cents in Boston. It’s the deadliest city in America by far, it has triple the average national mortality rate. And everyone derides it as a Necropolis or The Seat of Pestilence or The Great Charnel House or The City of Death

MH: Jesus.

KO: One of the most interesting parts of my research was that I came to see the official indifference to the public’s health as not a bug but a feature of this society. You see the elites routinely rejecting quarantine, and they spent very, very little money on sanitation—which was a big deal, especially because many people at this time thought that the disease is spread by miasma. People in New Orleans came to suspect that their city fathers were literally willing them to die.

So the question is, why did elites here act so differently than elites in other cities? Partly it’s that they took the conservative anti-tax position to the extreme. They genuinely thought that any kind of public health intervention would be ineffectual, a waste of money.

But they did get pushback, especially after big epidemics. In 1853 there was a devastating epidemic, still one of the worst natural disasters in American history, when 12,000 people died in the course of two and a half, three months. That’s a tenth of the city’s population overall and fully a fifth of its Irish-born population. Huge amounts of death, more than the city can process. The city council has a meeting in June, they briefly talk about yellow fever, they appropriate new funds for dealing with it, and then they all go off to their plantations and stay there until October. And this does create pushback.

But they counter the pushback by essentially denying disease, both as an epidemiological reality and as a social reality too. Increasingly by the 1850s, you see people saying, well, yellow fever is not that big of a problem. It’s not that serious of an illness, and anybody who’s temperate and well-mannered and courageous and manly will survive. It only kills the immoral, the drunk, the unfortunate. Your cousin in Philadelphia or your niece in Sligo who thinks of New Orleans as a “necropolis,” they don’t know what they’re talking about, these northern critiques of New Orleans’s health situation are a proxy for abolitionists attacking slavery.

MH: What happened when New Orleans is under military occupation? What were the expectations, and what was the reality?

KO: New Orleans, obviously, was a major city in the Confederacy, and when Louisiana seceded, New Orleans did too. But it was retaken fairly early on in the war. When the Union army occupied New Orleans, the expectation among town people was, “Just wait until August.” Because then, all these unacclimated Union soldiers are gonna die, and they’ll see that yellow fever is on the side of the South. When all these boys die it will vindicate us and our system.

Benjamin Butler, who was the occupying general, was really worried about disease, and like everyone in America he had heard the tales of New Orleans. He was acutely aware that most of the men in his army had never been this far south before, that they were decidedly unacclimated and vulnerable to this disease. So he installed a strict quarantine. He didn’t let ships come in or out without a thorough inspection. He doubled the salary of the quarantine officer, he cleaned the streets, he fired people who seemed to be the lackeys of the bureaucrats in New Orleans. He did a whole program of sanitation.

And it worked. There were only a few cases of yellow fever reported during the war years, even though hundreds of thousands of people came in and out of the city each year. It’s actually a miraculous demonstration of just how effective martial law can be in stopping diseases, I guess, and how effective quarantine could be when properly instituted and rigorously upheld.

But right after the war, when the Union army receded, the same people who had been in control of New Orleans before the war took up their former positions and went back to their old ways. The said, whatever happened during the war, let’s forget about that. Benjamin Butler was very much hated as a tyrant in New Orleans by whites, who associated the quarantine with him but not improved health. And right away health problems came back. There was a serious epidemic again in 1867, and periodic epidemics throughout the ‘60s and ‘70s, culminating in the epidemic of 1878, just after the end of Reconstruction. That was the worst in a generation; 5,000 or 10,000 people died in New Orleans alone, 25,000 people died across the Gulf South. It went all the way up to Memphis, which had never had yellow fever before.

But once again, in the midst of this devastating epidemic, you had this prevailing attitude among the commercial-civic elite, who say “Quarantines just don’t work here.” They said this even though they had proof that it did work during the war. It was only when immigration dries up so precipitously after the war, and when cotton goes elsewhere, that New Orleans could sort of shake itself free from this attitude.

MH: It’s this very evocative index for the failures of Reconstruction. In the Civil War period you have this occupation that ends slavery and yellow fever at the same time—and then you watch the authorities relinquish that position to disastrous effect. When you started this project, there was not a pandemic . . .

KO: Yes, I do not recommend writing a book about disease during a global pandemic. It was a little too much art imitating life.

But it was interesting and shocking and kind of scary, especially in the opening months of the pandemic, just how many echoes there were of life in New Orleans two hundred years ago. Covid is a much less deadly disease than yellow fever was. But I think we’ve gotten a small taste of what it was like for people living whole years according to the rhythms of a virus. One of the things that really impressed me is how exhausting it is to be scared, and how boring it is too. It’s this really weird combination of intense anxiety and fear, and an extreme sort of boredom. To me that’s the definition of pandemic time. This gives me a lot of sympathy for how people in the past must have experienced things.

And there were politicians like Donald Trump and Greg Abbott and others who stuck to the old line, that we can’t lock down because it’s not the patriotic thing to do. “Go back to work because we have to keep the economy going.” There’s a picture, when Trump had Covid in 2020, of him taking his mask off on the balcony of the White House. And I always think of that picture as an image of the 21st century’s first immunocapitalist. Here’s a guy trying to display his manliness, his courage, his patriotism, his political affiliation, all in one very potent image. The symbolism was that it’s your patriotic duty to take on disease risk.

MH: By the end of the book, I couldn’t help thinking that contemporary America is like one big New Orleans—in terms of Covid, of course, but even more so when it comes to climate change. We’ve got this archaic production system based on carbon emissions and relentless growth, and an elite in whose immediate interests it is to keep things going the way they are.

KO: It’s an entrenched elite that’s limited in their imagination and wedded to a system of production that is fundamentally destroying us all. But it is seriously profitable for them in the short term, and it’s against their interests to change anything. And because it’s so large and scary, elites use the scope and scale and the complexity to distract us from the fact that they could cap carbon emissions. You see this with immunocapitalists in New Orleans, too. They are always saying, oh, this is too big of a problem, what do you expect of us? But they’re not fixing their sights on the people and the systems that are making our world hotter and less hospitable to life. We do know what to do, we do have some sense of how to start going about this.

MH: But no Union army.

KO: Yeah, but no Union army.

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