A yellow fever epidemic may have planted the seeds of inspiration for Washington Irving’s iconic tale of the a headless horseman. (Paramount/Courtesy Everett Collection)
At that time, New York City was in the grip of its tenth epidemic of yellow fever, a viral disease that killed 5,000 residents of Philadelphia in a single year and was on track to do as much cumulative damage in New York.
Yellow fever, which is spread by mosquitoes, was poorly understood at the turn of the 19th century.
Medical professionals speculated that it was caused by slum conditions in city centers (including landfill and stagnant water—this was closest to the mark).
They blamed West Indian refugees and shipments of rotten coffee.
They even pointed the finger at the luggage of foreign sailors.
The epidemics exacerbated post-colonial racial prejudice and encouraged xenophobia; Philadelphia built the nation’s first quarantine station in response to a 1793 outbreak.
Yellow fever threw a bright light on economic inequality in the affected cities: families with the means to do so, like Irving’s, fled the “miasmic” urban environment for more healthful climates.
Families that could not afford to seek “pure air” suffered not only from the virus, but from the terror of their neighbors: infected neighborhoods were marked with yellow flags or roped off, and few doctors were willing to treat the disease, the symptoms of which included the kind of bleeding and vomiting best left to horror films.