THE DEATH TOLL mounted daily as the crisis worsened. Residents were stunned the great storm from the northeast brought no relief from the fever. Some thought it was the stagnant air, trapped over the city since winter, now replaced by equally foul solids from the inland ether. A few blamed it on the shipload of spoiled coffee that had been dumped on the docks. The city ordered this removed, but weeks went by with no action because there was no one to carry out the orders. Others said the infection was carried by the refugees from the French islands. Others held this to be nonsense. Yellow fever could not be transmitted by one person to another.
Dr. Benjamin Rush said the cause was the climate. His theory was listened to as intently as were his prescriptions. He was America's most prominent doctor, educated at Edinburgh University, published author, signer of the Declaration of Independence, and a noted educator and reformer. As far back as Hippocrates, Rush noted, doctors had said mild winters followed by drought brought great illness. It was an observation borne out by previous outbreaks of the yellow fever in Philadelphia; although it had been many decades since the last, and that had been far less deadly. Also, that epidemic had ended after a large storm. Why not this time?
Diana and her people huddled in Elm Court watching the city's social structure collapse.
Most members of the Congress were already on summer holiday. But the heart seemed to go completely out of the residents when President Washington reluctantly agreed to return to the safety of his home in Virginia. Thomas Jefferson left the city for a home along the Schuylkill, and then spent most of his time writing cynical letters deploring the discomfort of the house that had been made available to him. One by one the few other great national leaders took flight.
Soon the courthouses were nearly empty. City offices closed. Only the mayor, Matthew Clarkson, and a few other council members dared death by remaining in town to fight the plague. But all efforts seemed so puny.
Daily, Diana walked down empty streets to the offices of the Federal Gazette. Andrew Brown was the only publisher to remain in the city. The Gazette was the sole source of news. Diana knew she looked like a specter on those daily walks, draped head to toe and heavily veiled, reeking of penny royal, drifting through dust which stood as deep as two feet in some places. No one ever spoke to her. The few people on the streets would go to great extremes to avoid another human being. No handshakes. No greetings. When a person saw another, he would make a wide berth.
At the Gazette she heard deplorable tales. Husbands abandoning stricken wives of many years. Mothers deserting ailing children. Helpless old people left to starve. Stranded servants too frightened to fetch water from the street. Diana, a close and cynical student of human nature, did not doubt these stories.
Although the cannon fire had ceased, the eerie silence that had enveloped Philadelphia was occasionally broken by crashing musket fire when frightened householders tried to purify the atmosphere with their guns. Everywhere there was the smell of smoke and rotting trash. Corpses of cats littered the alleys; killed by the foul air, it was said. Businesses were shuttered. The entire harbor out to the sea was choked with ships filled with cargo no one would unload. The captains had no other markets for their goods.
More refugees arrived. But this time they were denied entry and quarantined on the Delaware pesthole known as Mud Island. Hospitals barred victims with fever symptoms. The city was forced to take over Mister Ricketts's empty amphitheater for the ailing paupers and their orphaned children.
Doctors argued heatedly on methods of treatment. Sometimes, Diana thought, there were as many theories as victims.
Dr. Young and his adherents insisted the only course was massive purges and blistering on the wrists and back of the necks. Others added dust baths to this remedy, and injections of wine. Or chewing garlic. Or constant doses of vinegar and tobacco. Camphor was also considered a preventive, and the city was filled with people—especially children—whose throats were raw from breathing noxious fumes.
But mainly it was Dr. Rush's method of treatment that prevailed: intensive purging followed by equally intensive bleedings. As week folded into horrible week, he increased his purging and bleeding and urged his colleagues to follow suit in impassioned letters to the Gazette. He assured all he was seeing success by taking a quart of blood at a time, repeated several times a day. Diana remembered the late Dr. Franklin had mocked that the great fevers plaguing the Sugar Islands hadn't ceased until the last physician had fled or died. In her view, it was no jest.
But no matter what anyone did, people kept dying. Two hundred or more burials a week. Hundreds more lay decaying in their homes because no one would come to fetch their corpses.
On Saturday, September 7, a bonfire set to ward off the fever was left unattended. It spread to Mister Kennedy's soap factory, which burned to the ground, taking an adjacent stable and warehouse with it. A few brave souls came out to fight the blaze, blankets soaked in vinegar draped over their heads. But it was no use. The incident spurred orders from Mayor Clarkson to end the bonfires. The orders were ignored. The fire was the major event in the city that day. The plague toll was a by now commonplace twenty-five dead. For the Jews in the community, the day had special bleak significance. It was Rosh Hashanah, the new year of 5544 on their ancient calendar. It was mentioned in the Gazette that only a handful were left to celebrate the day with Rabbi Jacob Cohen.
Diana would remember that Saturday for a different reason. For her it was the day of an unusual request. Mrs. Leclerc wanted time off from her duties. A silly request, since there were no duties for a seamstress to perform. Then she told Diana why. It had been noted by the African Society's leaders, Absalom Jones and Richard Allen, that no person with black skin had been infected. The word was spreading through the city that men and women of color were immune. Mister Jones and Mister Allen were urgently asking for volunteers to tend the sick and bury the dead. Black volunteers.
Mrs. Leclerc wanted to be one of those volunteers. "Everyone has been so kind," she said. "I lost everything. Family. Friends. My possessions, which I care nothing for. But here ... I have found a new life. I feel I must do something to repay—"
She burst into tears. She was terrified of what she was about to do. Especially since Diana's court seemed a haven. Not one person who lived under her roof had taken sick, although no one could say why. To leave such apparent safety would take great courage. More, Diana feared, than poor Mrs. Leclerc could provide. So she told her no. Firmly.
She thought of Moses and Aaron. God—whoever, or whatever that might be—certainly never granted them any immunities to compensate for their exile among people of fair skin. They caught all of the common diseases, including the childhood illnesses of Farrell and James Emmett, Diana told Mrs. Leclerc. In her experience, tropical skin offered no special protection.
The woman greeted this with visible relief. Strange. Diana had just informed her that she was as vulnerable as the rest of them. Still, she was no longer the victim of her conscience. Mrs. Leclerc could die along with the rest of them. For one week the black residents of Philadelphia rallied to their white employers and neighbors. They eased the desperately ill to their graves. Nursed people in conditions of unbelievable filth and squalor. Cared for their orphaned young. Fed them from dwindling supplies in their own kitchens. Drove the funeral coaches. Tenderly lifted rotting corpses into coffins. Wielded the shovels in the graveyards. And commended their souls to their Maker.
On Saturday, September 14, forty-eight people died. Among them were six blacks. The occasion was marked by a meteorite which fell in Third Street.
* * * *
From September sixteenth through the twenty-third, sixty or more people were buried each day. Some saw hope in this. The plague had to get worse before it ebbed. Now it was almost over, these optimists said. The following day was horror. Ninety-six people died. As month end neared, the toll was edging two thousand—already far more than the yellow fever outbreak of 1762.
That terrible day created a panic upon a panic. Hundreds more fled the city. The roads out, it was said, were jammed from edge to edge with wagons and livestock and foot traffic. There were stories in the Gazette of whole communities turning their backs on these people. Damning them to starvation or death by illnesses caused by exhaustion and exposure to the intense heat of the drought. Diana took bitter note of the worst of these heartless communities: Bethlehem, Nazareth, Easton, and Reading. Emmett had told her about these cruel folk. Could even he have imagined just how cruel?
On the twenty-sixth a note came from Dolly Todd. It had taken nearly two weeks to reach Diana, although the letter only had to travel a short distance from the Gray's Ferry home in which Dolly's husband had installed her and her family. Diana read it with relief. She had feared for her Quaker friend, whose pregnancy was near full term when they last spoke. The note contained the cheerful news that she had borne the child, her second son, William Todd. Dolly would be safe out of the filth of the city. The note urged Diana to join her on the cool banks of the river. It was an invitation Diana would have ignored even if she were not determined to see the disaster out. If she were going to flee, she would pick a place farther from Philadelphia than the far bank of the Schuylkill. But she took comfort her friend was out of this horror. It would be more than a month before she learned Dolly's true fate.
Her handsome young lawyer husband, John Todd, saw her to the safety of the old farmhouse and then turned back into the city. His own parents were too ill to move. They died several days later. John himself was afflicted. Delirious from the fever, he made his way across the river. And fainted on the doorstep. Dolly's mother helped her carry him into the house and placed him on a couch. A few hours later Dolly was stricken. She lapsed into a coma for several days, then recovered to learn that her husband and infant child were dead. But at least her first son, Payne Todd, survived. Years later Diana would wonder if his survival was as great a tragedy as his brother's and father's death.
For the moment, however, Diana believed the note to be good news. She saw it as a leavening to the tragic news that came the following day. A minuscule leavening, as small as the little animals that lived in the ether and somehow entered people's bodies to kill them.
It was another letter. From Mister Walsh. Diana was wrong in her belief that neither Anne nor Michael would leave without first telling her. The letter was even longer delayed than Dolly's. It was from Baltimore, where Mister Walsh had taken refuge with a cousin. Anne was dead.
The letter was rambling and hysterical. Full of guilt. Anne had seemed to recover. Then came the relapse. Exactly what followed was difficult to make out, so frantic the prose, so tear-smudged the ink. In desperation, Mister Walsh had chosen not to ask Diana for help. Although how could she have aided, sick and helpless herself from the summer flux?
In letters to the Gazette, Father Fleming had been urging his Catholic parishioners to follow the course of treatment prescribed by Dr. Rush. Only this would save them, he wrote, commenting that he himself had undergone the bleeding and it had prevented him from falling ill. Mister Walsh had sought out the good doctor. He almost turned back when he saw the scene in front of the famed physician's home. The front yard, sidewalk, and street were packed with people begging for help. Exhausted, Rush and his assistants strode through the crowd, ministering to the sick and the merely frightened as they stood. Purges were given. People vomited in the street. And always there were the lancets, plunging into vein after vein. Until the gutters ran with all the spilled blood. The blood dried in thick scabs upon the street, drawing huge clouds of mosquitoes.
But Mister Walsh had taken courage. He would have to be brave if he was to save his Anne. Dr. Rush had agreed to come. He purged her, then purged her again, until Anne's stomach constantly and involuntarily heaved and she screamed with pain from the cramps. And he bled her. Fifty ounces the first day, seventy-two the second. But he took only a pint the third day. He couldn't take more. Because Anne was dead.
The letter went on and on. Mister Walsh had become hysterical in his grief. He had left the city with only a horse and a barely packed saddlebag. But he couldn't escape what he had done. Diana could see him, weeping and beating his Catholic breast, praying, over and over: "To my fault ... to my fault ... to my most grievous fault."
"I killed her," Mister Walsh wrote in one clear, almost sane sentence. "I killed her as sure as if I had wielded the lancet myself. Oh, my darling, darling Anne . . ."
Diana knew when she saw Michael again it would be difficult to comfort him, because in one thing he was correct: he had killed her. Although he would have to share the blame with Father Fleming. But it was only his memory the two of them could blame together. Father Fleming had died of the fever as well.
But Diana would never have to face this task. In the fall, Mister Walsh's cousin would write to her. Michael became suicidal. The family had him committed to a home for the insane. He was dead before Christmas.
* * * *
Tragedy comes in threes, the folktales say. But this year they came three times three times so many more threes, it would take a mathematician of Euclid's like to count all the woes that piled up at everyone's doorstep.
For Diana, the next bleak incident came from her own household. It was her stalwart housekeeper, Miss Graham. This time there was no letter. The spinster failed to show up after four days. A little over a week into the plague, Miss Graham had informed her she could no longer in good conscience stay overnight at the Elm Court house. She had a sister fifteen years her junior, a widow with five children. They lived packed into two small rooms in a Water Street tenement. Miss Graham said—and she was firm about this— it would be necessary for her to go to her sister's home each night to help care for the children.
At the time, Water Street was the most notorious pesthole in the city. In the course of eleven days, forty people had died on Water Street, eleven in one family. Diana warned Miss Graham of this.
"If I'm to die," the housekeeper said matter-of-factly, "I'd soon it be with my own."
"Then have them come live here," Diana urged.
Miss Graham gave a sharp shake of her head. This was impossible, she said. She could not permit it.
"But why?" Diana asked.
The woman wouldn't answer. It was the way things would be, and she refused to offer a reason. So there was nothing Diana could do but grant her request.
For weeks Miss Graham arrived early every morning to work, and left for Water Street before dusk. Then, no Miss Graham. Another day passed; still nothing. On the fourth day, Diana determined to investigate. She wanted to go alone, but Mister Park wouldn't allow it. He said even in the best of times the section along Water Street where Miss Graham's sister lived was no place for a lady like Diana to dare alone. She could fire him for insubordination if she chose, but he would go just the same.
He carried his stoutest cudgel and wore his fiercest look for the journey. But Diana could tell that beneath the gnarly surface was a man as frightened as a small child. She pretended female weakness, and gripped one of his thick arms for reassurance. Soon as she laid a small hand on his forearm, she could feel his spine stiffen. His walk took on a bow-legged swagger. He growled fiercely at the few who dared to walk into their path.
It was late afternoon. The heat hung as close to the city as the swarms of mosquitoes that skimmed just past the fumes of penny royal that Diana had daubed heavily on her veil, gloves, and outer clothing. She tried to get Mister Park to follow her example, but he insisted the little biters affected him not at all. He said there was something in his blood that turned them away, and it was rare the insects made a meal on him. But within a few squares of the oasis that was Elm Court, he was already cursing under his breath and slapping at his exposed neck and face and hands.
The city was silent. It was a silence no one could grow accustomed to. Blocks away someone hammered on a door with its big brass knocker, and Diana could hear the hammering echo all along Race Street. Almost no one was about, especially children. She knew from the Gazette and the stories from her staff that the fever had been especially cruel to children. The young died faster and in greater numbers than their elders. It was one of the many oddities of the plague—equally as odd as how few old people had been afflicted. Or that not as many women had died as men.
They found the building just past Alum Court. It sat at a crazy angle on the bank, half buried in muck and rubble. The river stink was so thick, Mister Park accepted a handkerchief soaked in vinegar from Diana. When she saw the place, Diana began to get an inkling of why Miss Graham had insisted she not meet her sister. It was set amongst a nest of dirty yellow buildings, notorious in the city as a breeding ground for whores. She entered the building pitying Miss Graham, whose sister was a whore.
Everyone was mad in this place. Mad or dead. She could smell the rotting flesh as she entered. Mister Park tried to go in front of her, but she brushed past him into the dank warren. Silence. Except for the creaking of timbers. Or the cracks of steps as she ascended the stairs. She moved by instinct, hesitating at first, then quietly opening doors and looking inside. Most of the rooms were empty. Horribly, some were not. Skeletal remains swarming with maggots. Corpses fully dressed. Others gruesomely naked. One of the rooms held a coffin set upon a pallet. It was made of expensive wood and lined with soft cloth. In it lay a woman in a revealing dress of bold red. She wore flashing beads at her throat and wrists. The woman had doused herself with what seemed like gallons of cheap perfume. A whore at final rest. Was it Miss Graham's sister?
Diana stepped in to see. And the woman rose up. Mister Park shouted a warning and leapt forward with his cudgel raised to strike. Diana jumped in between, then saw something gleam at her and ducked aside just in time to avoid a knife so sharp that, although it barely brushed her, it sliced through her dress like a whisper. Mister Park swung around to strike again, then stopped. The knife cut seemed to have taken everything out of the whore. She sagged back on the satin pillow. But her eyes were still open and angry red. Her skin was yellow with oozing sores.
Diana asked her name. She got an obscene curse for an answer. She asked for Miss Graham. Another curse. And then the children. Five, weren't there? A short silence. She asked again. More silence. The woman began babbling. Meaningless babble. Except for a few obscenities, Diana couldn't make out a word. For a moment she thought wildly of that child Emmett had tended. The child with the pox. The only one alive in a community of corpses. What was her name? Emmett was insistent she remember. It was important to the child, he said. As were the other names in the commune. As she faced the dying whore, the names escaped her. Every single one of them that she had committed to memory. Ah, well, perhaps the shock. When this was over, she would recall. Yes, she certainly would. But she never did.
"Ricketts," the whore was muttering. "Ricketts. They took 'em off to Ricketts's."
Diana knew to enter that amphitheater requisitioned for the poor was to be sentenced to death. Although, hadn't she heard it had been abandoned, the dying moved to the great, dilapidated mansion Andrew Hamilton had built many years ago on Bush Hill? In either case, she feared for the children and Miss Graham—if, indeed, the whore was Miss Graham's sister. Diana had no other options but to assume she was. She left the woman to die in peace in the final resting place she had so carefully prepared.
They retraced their steps back down Water Street, up Race, and then cut across to the High. Then past Diana's house to the circus. There were no bands to greet them this time. No crowds of eager people with shillings in their hands to press on the ticket takers. No one about at all, except a great crow sprawled noisily in a heap of dust by the entrance. It squawked at them as they entered, and Mister Park brandished his cudgel, but it paid him no mind. Inside the place was dark. The stands empty, the ring littered with garbage, bed ticking, and mounds of moldy blankets.
The last time she was here with Dolly Todd, the seats were packed until they were groaning. The wooden roof strained with the huzzahs, Mister Ricketts amazing one and all with his feats. The colors of the audience's dress flashed, colors to make a rainbow envious. But now no one could imagine there had ever been anything like a circus here. The only smell was the cloying, musty scent of stale blood and human waste.
They searched among the heaps of greasy blankets. They found two corpses, neither of them Miss Graham. Several more were lying in the stands, the fresh wounds of the lancet marking their arms. A few pitiful dribbles of blood stained the ground next to them, all that was left. Someone screamed from a side room off the stands. A woman. Mister Park and Diana rushed off.
Two black women were trying to load a middle-aged white woman on a stretcher, her skin the telltale yellow of the fever. She was begging them not to take her. Not to Bush Hill. She had survived this place, she pleaded. Let her stay. In an hour or so she would be well enough to make her own way home. As she wept and pleaded, tears streamed down their own faces as they pleaded in return: be calm, missus. They have doctors there. And medicine. Even food and drink. Help us, missus. No, no, please, missus. Don't fight us so. Finally she went limp. The black women noticed Diana and Mister Park. Not a word was exchanged. No need to. The woman had won. She was dead.
Diana and Mister Park set off for Bush Hill. They found Miss Graham. She was lying on the clumps of dead vegetation that had once been a lawn and garden. Around her were fifty others, some dead, others moaning and weeping bitterly in their misery. There was no remorse so great as that brought on by the yellow fever, it was said, and Diana knew it now to be true and no hoary folktale. Miss Graham was alive but unconscious, waiting to be carried inside to join the hundreds there for treatment. A young doctor paused over a man on the lawn to watch as Diana helped Mister Park lift Miss Graham up and over his heavy shoulders. The doctor didn't protest as they walked away. In fact, Diana thought for a moment that he looked relieved. Then he went back to work with his bloody lancet.
They carried her to Elm Court and laid her in her own bed. Diana nursed her for a week. Slowly she regained her health. Mister Park died three days later. His death was unusually swift. But it was the fever just the same.
As for the five children, Diana never found out whether they were real or part of the fiction Miss Graham had invented to hide her sister's seamy business. She tried to ask, but Miss Graham would always just stubbornly shake her head and go about her tasks in that firm, bustling manner she had.
Miss Graham stayed with Diana for another ten years, until her death by natural causes. And she never, ever was heard to speak again.
THEY BURIED MISTER Park in the Lutheran cemetery. He was a Methodist. But it was the only cemetery open. Just as Reverend Helmuth was one of the few ministers to stay with his flock to the last.
Diana quite liked the little minister. The man confessed that for a time he went through much soul searching. It seemed as if so many more Lutherans were dying than Quakers, or Catholics, or Methodists. Each day the boy he kept at the gate issuing tickets for burial saw scores of people arrive. The poor brave grave digger, a Mister Martin Brown, toiled all day burying corpses no one else would touch. The Lutheran driver was one of the few men who would lift a corpse into its box.
At first the good reverend assumed there were so many Lutherans dying because the people of his flock were relatively poor. He prayed it wasn't also because his people were greater sinners than the others. Then he realized there was no place else for people of other faiths to be buried. There was nothing else to be done but have the corpses convert to Lutheran. When he finally understood this, Reverend Helmuth ended the small charge required for burial.
Before the fever ended, one thousand would be buried in the tiny cemetery.
* * * *
The city was coming apart. The clocks had all stopped because there was no one to tend them. Sometimes the watch called the wrong hour the whole night because they were given the wrong time. The stories grew worse. Nurses looted patients. Hearses were sent for, and living bodies placed in coffins to avoid the bother of waiting until they were properly dead. Even heroes fell. Captain Sharp, of local Revolutionary War fame, hid himself in his room for days while his wife lay dying. The only people on the streets seemed to be doctors, nurses, bleeders, or the servants of the dead. The true heroes were the small people, many of them black. Sarah Bass, a widow Diana knew, went from home to home, nursing the sick far into the night. Another woman, Mary Scott—also black—nursed for fifty cents a day. Barely enough to keep herself alive. Many times she charged nothing. When one poor old woman insisted she name a price, Mrs. Scott answered: "... a meal, missus, on some cold winter's day." Caesar Cranchal, a friend of Mrs. Leclerc, refused all offers of pay for his help. He said it would be wrong. He couldn't sell life for money. Even if he should die himself. Which he did.
Meanwhile, misery heaped upon misery. The living starved and went about in rags, and the dead were to be envied. At least it was over. No more awful suspense. Diana finally had enough. She went to see Lydia Clarkson, the mayor's wife. Diana wasn't the only one who had decided to seize the reins if she could. There were other men and women like her who seemed to have come to the same conclusion at the same time, all of them middle-class or less. Merchants and carpenters and brick layers, salt makers and butchers; and shopkeepers like herself. Somehow order must be returned. Later, Diana thought the simultaneous decisions came because the rich and landed had fled. Ordinary people finally realized they held their fate in their own hands. Not unlike Dr. Franklin's jest about the plague ending in the Sugar Islands, she thought, when the last of the medical men had gone.
Lydia told her that scores of people had been to see the mayor. An organization was already beginning: the city had been divided into ten districts, and brave volunteers had come forward to police the area and see to the needs of the healthy as well as the sick. Streets were starting to be cleaned, the garbage carried away by scavengers—at musket point if necessary. Word had gone out all over the land for food, clothing, drink, anything at all that could be spared. No one knew if the cry would be answered. Even the greediest traders had stopped coming into the city.
A dark bit of plague humor summed it up for Diana. It seemed there were two Germantown farmers who had heard of the plague, but also had heard of the incredible prices being offered at market. They could not resist. The farmers found the city yellow as a pumpkin patch and filled with terrible odors. A breeze came up. The smell wafted over a crowd and ten fell instantly dead. The deadly wind shifted for the farmers. They ran screaming, but it overtook them. Both fell to the ground, one dead, the other senseless. The surviving farmer came to several hours later. Instantly he rushed to market, where he received five and nine for butter and four shillings for eggs. He returned home with fat pockets and sorrowful tales. The next day he loaded up his wagon again to return to Philadelphia. His wife wept and pleaded with him. How could he dare the plague again? "Be quiet, woman," he thundered back. "At four shillings an egg, I'd dare the Devil himself!"
The problem with supplies is what Diana wanted to see Lydia about. She had a plan, but she required wagons and drivers to carry it out. Lydia agreed. There was no need to consult her husband. He would support her in whatever she decided.
* * * *
Diana sent for Mister Park's sons, Bob and Little Tom. They were brutes in size and intelligence, but not in demeanor. They always had such sweet smiles on their faces that you had to forgive them their stupidities. She carefully explained what she wanted, watching closely for signs of fear. She saw nothing except dumb smiles and nods. Off they went, leaving her to feel a bit like she was sending them to the hangman. They scoured the city for Diana's lads—the peddlers. A dozen or more remained. She had packs waiting, filled to the brim with little baubles and trinkets for the farm women. All gifts.
She also sent the dolls, dressed in her finest. To each one was pinned a letter. A letter begging for help.
* * * *
On October 1, seventy died. On the fifth, Father Fleming was buried. On the seventh, the toll was eighty-two. Ninety on the eighth. More than a hundred on the ninth. The same on the tenth. And on the eleventh of October, Black Friday, 120 people breathed their last.
The weekend of the twelfth, another storm broke. It rained steadily for two days. The following two days the weather was brisk. The death toll was lighter. People began hoping the end of the plague was in sight. Then sixty died. Then eighty. And then eighty-one. At any one time, Lydia Clarkson said, at least six thousand people were ill.
Little Tom took sick and died. Diana knew it was she who had killed him. She ordered the house scoured and painted. The court itself she had flushed out with precious water. She did her best not to shiver at the mosquito swarms the water attracted. She had more oil poured on the worst of the standing pools to murder the wrigglers. But the luck that had been with her from the start seemed to end with Little Tom's death. The stable man followed. Then his assistant. Her cook, Mrs. Kenrick, became ill. But she rallied, with no apparent danger of relapse. Diana and the rest huddled in the house. Waiting. Who was next?
The first wagon crossed the river on October 21. lt was from the Widow Grubb of Chester, who clutched one of Diana's dolls in her hand. The wagon was heaped with supplies. Diana wept as the lad helped the driver unload the wagon into the city's warehouse. She prayed it wasn't the last. More wagons came, and livestock, and blankets and medicines and clothing. And not just from Diana's farm women. The city's pleas were finally being heard. Within three days, 36,000 pounds of goods had arrived, and there were more crossing the river; so many that the ferrymen were shamed out of hiding at last and the long wait on the far banks of the rivers ceased.
Like magic, it rained again on October 21. The temperature dropped to the mid-fifties and a brisk wind blew in from the seas, sweeping away the smell of smoke and the enormous insect swarms. The death toll dropped to fifty-four, then thirty-eight, then twenty-five. On Sunday, October 27, only twelve people died. The plague was over.
On October 28—again like magic—the first packets returned. People poured back into Philadelphia. Boards came off the windows of shops and houses. The heavers went back to work at the docks. The ships came in to unload their goods. Within a week all seemed normal.
The people who returned found a place different from what they had left. The streets were sparkling, the marketplace cleaner than anyone had ever seen it. The crowds of beggars had dwindled to nearly nil. The same with the poor, and the orphaned. It was no wonder, Diana thought, because most of them had died.
Some said it was human spirit that conquered the plague—people like Diana, or Absalom Jones, or Lydia and Matthew Clarkson, who finally forced their will upon the fever. Others said it was the last storm that cleared the air and ended the drought. A few said it was proof of the power of prayer—even though most of the ministers had fled their flocks.
But Diana always believed the end came for different reasons. A little over a week prior to the arrival of the Widow Grubb's wagon, Dr. Rush had been publicly branded a fool. Already his colleagues were turning their backs on his drastic cure, and had adopted far milder methods of treatment. Methods that at least allowed the body to heal itself if the fever gave it the chance. The number of deaths, she noted, plummeted from that time.
The plague's final toll was never counted. Gravestones held no clues. It was the rare person's grave that had a mark. And what of all the corpses that had no name? And never would? Some said the death toll was over ten thousand. Others mocked this, charging this figure only counted people of means. Twenty thousand was the number they favored. Diana would live to see even this eclipsed by scholars who said it was more like thirty thousand. From a city of 55,000.
Whatever the number, Diana only knew this: there was one murderer in this piece. The man who slew her friends. And thousands of others. He was a famous man. One of the signers of the Declaration of Independence. A hero. A man of science, renowned even abroad.
Before the plague, Diana didn't believe in Hell. She thought the notion superstitious. Now she believed, prayed, even, that the hell-fires burned as eternally and painfully as promised. For it, she had some fuel. A great villain she was sure would make a lovely flame.
His name was Dr. Benjamin Rush.
NEXT: The Master Weaver Of Donegal
A Daughter Of Liberty