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A Daughter Of Liberty

Yellow Fever Devastates Philadelphia


IT WAS A year people would look back on and swear they saw the dark times coming. Diana had to admit the signs were plentiful for those who wished to claim them. For the superstitious, the scientific, or religious, there was a host of cause and apparent effect to fuel any side of any argument. The winter of '93 was unusually mild: there was no snow, the frosts were moderate, and the creeks and streams hadn't frozen. In January the weather was so warm, people lay on their backs, shielding their eyes from a dazzling sun, to watch Monsieur Blanchard—the famed French balloonist—ascend from the prison yard and float over the city and across the Delaware.

In early April the fruit trees were blooming, and Mrs. Walsh commented excitedly that the birds had returned from their winter homes two weeks early. Even the old people couldn't recall a time when the passenger pigeons were so numerous; the carts in the marketplace were so overflowing with them—a dozen went for less than a penny. Much later, some said the presence of so many pigeons was a sure mark that the air was stagnant and foul.

May was very wet, and day after day a dismal driving rain from the northeast turned roads into a thick muck. Residents kept their fires burning later than usual. The streams overflowed their banks, creating marshes and swamps where none had been before. Alleys in the low areas were awash in filth.

June was suddenly hot. It was followed by the hottest, driest summer in memory. Rivers sank to rivulets. Marshes became stagnant pools when the creeks dried up. Drainage of streets and the less than adequate sewer system ceased. Firemen were called out to flush the gutters, and pits were dug at Fourth and High to receive the runoff, leaving thick scummy ponds. Fish entrails and animal corpses putrefied in the marketplace. On the Delaware, retreating tides left a stinking mass on the muddy banks. A horrible odor oozed up from the docks and all along High Street.

The dry spell became a drought. The drought a disaster. Out on the farms, Diana's women friends sent word the pastures had dried up, the grain shriveled. And their men were being overcome by the heat in the fields. Closer to town Diana saw men walking along dry creek beds usually waist-deep with water. All around them hung clouds of mosquitoes, buzzing and leaving streams of blood on naked flesh as the men slapped at them.

There were other foreboding signs. Dr. Rittenhouse had seen a comet in the constellation of Cepheus. Oysters were watery and inedible. Lightning shattered an ancient and noble oak in Kensington. In Ipswich, a midsummer hailstorm smashed windows, stripped the fields of their grain, and denuded whole orchards of fruit, while a few miles away all was calm and sunny. Animals were stricken with strange diseases, like the "yellow water," which afflicted horses in Jersey and cows in Virginia. For the human residents of Philadelphia, there had been outbreaks of mumps, flux, and scarlet fever.

For those who read the entrails of the political body, there was the presence of the Congress, which had taken up temporary quarters in Philadelphia until land speculators—including President Washington—had completed a new capital on the Potomac. Or that a federal bank had been created amid great controversy and settled in Lord Penn's city. Or that the Anti-Federalist—Democratic-Republican, sniffed Mister Walsh—party had been formed and quickly gained the upper hand in both houses of Congress.

More omens came in July when Philadelphia had some unexpected guests. First one ship, then another descended upon the city. They were filled with refugees from the West Indies. Sick, and gaunt and hungry, they were mostly from the French island of Santo Domingo. They told terrible stories of three years of warfare. There was a great revolution in the Sugar Islands. Carnage and slaughter. Whole towns were destroyed and great merchant houses brought to ruin.

There were tales of a pestilent fever ravaging other islands—also in revolt. Grenada, Dominica, Hispaniola, Jamaica, and even Barbados were stricken. As were Antigua and all the Leewards. They told of how the great port of Cap Francois had burned against the sky as they sailed to their escape. But that wasn't the end of their ordeal. There were agonizing voyages on ships stalked by fever. People were packed into cabins by the droves during the night, while during the day they sat on the decks under the hot sun until their skin blistered and peeled and blistered again. So quick was their haste to flee, they had little clothing, or food or drink aboard.

Mrs. Leclerc, a mulatto seamstress whom Diana recruited—more out of pity than need—told her it was then the English privateers struck. They gathered like sharks off a whaling ship, armed with the legal fiction that they had the right to search and confiscate contraband from the French ships. On Mrs. Leclerc's ship, a group of pirates had robbed everyone of what little they had managed to carry away. They found a cargo of wine, bound for America, and seized that. Finally they had taken off five black girls— "barely children," Mrs. Leclerc wept—for their pleasure and eventual profit. Two days later another privateer descended on them. They were angry because there was nothing left. And so they took the clothing and belts from their bodies. In final revenge they took off the water casks and sank them in the sea.

Mrs. Leclerc counted herself passing lucky. Other ships, and their passengers, simply vanished. In storms? On an uncharted reef? Or at the hands of "privateers" whose pillaging had been so monstrous they could afford no witnesses?

This stirred many a patriot's breast in Philadelphia, especially those opposed to Lord Washington's policy of neutrality, who sought war against the British for all the bloody Indian raids they were encouraging along the frontiers. The people of Philadelphia fed and housed these refugees. A thousand or more settled there—sorely testing a city already bursting the seams with a population of 55,000. Fund-raisings were staged. Fifteen thousand dollars alone was brought in by Mister Ricketts, who had built a wondrous circus just up from Diana's place. It was his last event of the year, and everyone who was anyone attended, including Diana and her friend Dolly Todd.

Yes, there was a great outpouring of charity. And no little sympathy. But Philadelphians didn't quite take these refugees into their heart of hearts, Diana noticed. No one was quite sure what to make of them. The exiles were mostly white and (formerly) rich. They professed Republican ideals and support of the revolutionaries in France and hatred for the British king. But the good folk of Philadelphia could not ignore the basis for their great misfortune. They were slaveholders, one and all. Their wealth had been founded and maintained on the ownership of other human beings. Which put in doubt their Republican fervor.

Not that black citizens of Philadelphia were looked at as being equal. Bigotry was a condition as common as all those pigeon bodies in the High Market. It was an ideal that was being tested here. A high principle. Slavery was a despised practice the civilized world condemned. Not to be confused with the reality that a man or woman of tropical hue had best step aside when encountering a fair-skinned better.

The generous, but frosty welcome of these refugees was eased somewhat by the fact that anything to do with the French was the current rage in the United States. Newspapers were already beginning to publish some items in that language. Salons and fencing studios were opened. Assemblies and balls were French-themed. And, to Diana's delight, so were the fashions. Waistlines were being pinched in, chemises spouting expensive lace froth, bodices a-dropping, and earrings a-dangling.

The refugees did their best to fit in. They were a little edgy in this strange new city with its frightening windows that opened up and down like a guillotine. But they mostly made the best of it. Still, the sudden presence of these foreigners was called the final and most compelling sign by the latter-day prophets of doom.

Yes, there was evidence enough for any who chose to be wise. After the fact. It was a wisdom Diana never claimed. Actually, she said, as far as she was concerned, 1793 had been one of the best years on record.

Women of means flocked to her house on Elm Court.

They came with fat purses and left with leaner ones, but glowing with pride in her colorful costumes. There wasn't an assembly or event that didn't see at least one person wearing a dress of Diana's design. The sewing and fitting rooms she'd built were soon outgrown, and she'd leased several other buildings in the court to expand. She now employed spinners, weavers, and seamstresses by the score all over the city.

It wasn't only for the rich that she designed. Just as Mister Walsh had predicted, the Lancaster Pike was bringing people to market who had once rarely left their farm. Tempted by the patterns Diana sent along with the young peddlers she financed, and remembering her own constantly repeated invitations, the farm women cozened their husbands into stopping at her shop on the way to market. They were flattered because Diana treated them as importantly as any grand city woman. She gave them coffee and tea and nourishment. Worried with them over their needs for church, or wedding, or christening. Taught them how to disguise ample waistlines, or smooth callused hands with gentle balms and lotions. Remembering the woman and daughter she had seen plodding along that dusty road into Philadelphia, she even had made up as gifts bright little sacks decorated with flowers to carry their shoes.

Situated as she was on High Street, well above the main market, Diana saw these women before they had turned their raw goods into coin, which was quickly snapped up by the hawkers and thieves who preyed on their kind. She and Farrell set up a barter system: so many birds, or a pig, or bushels of grain, for such and such item or items of clothing. This led to a profitable resale business. She and Mister Walsh had even invested in a stable and saddlery shop at the end of the court to care for the farmers' animals and harness. Now they were building a warehouse to hold the goods their joint enterprises were bringing in.

Much more was possible. She could see a time when a blacksmith and carpenter would be necessary. A bakery might also bring more profit if she turned the grain into flour and then bread instead of just selling it straight out.

Yes, it had been a most rewarding year. And it was all because of the dolls.

It was a once-in-a-lifetime idea. And like ideas that plunge forward like a cockerel let loose among a new flock of shapely hens, it came not piecemeal, but as a whole vision.

She saw the dolls fully dressed in her designs. She saw them carried to her spacious and well-appointed salon by ladies as anxious as those hens when they spied the cockerel. She saw those ladies fingering expensive cloth and buying without thought of price. She saw her spinners at their spindles, the weavers at their treadles, the needle makers extruding the fine flawless wire they would pierce so exactly and burnish so smoothly that her seamstresses would smile and nod and blush when complimented on how well they kept their hands. And the fabrics, oh, the fabrics! Cottons and linens as soft as silk. Silks so light a bolt would weigh less than a pound. Dyed with colors only dreamed of in the gods' royal courts.

But she went at it with characteristic caution, spending the best part of a year on her plan. She ordered dolls in a number that had the Cogleys gasping and barely objecting to her bulk-rate offer. She hunted close and far afield for the cloth, sending back any goods that didn't meet her standards. She sought out the best men and women in the crafts for her purposes. A few came to live with her. Others took her coin to hold themselves in readiness when her orders came. They would work in their own homes, paid by the piece, but so handsomely that no upstart competitor would find it possible to cozen them away.

The entire process to Diana's success took the better part of five years. She spent an enormous sum getting her surroundings ready for the carriage trade she knew would come. The old boardinghouse was remade like new. Cracked brick and aging mortar fell before her workmen, old wood replaced and fresh paint applied, a grand front door added, along with brass work and expensive iron all about. The inside was gutted from the cellar to the attic eaves. There was a spacious and well-lit salon to receive her customers; fireplaces and chimneys installed so that not a cold draught could spoil the most isolated corner. For the homier touch, she had an enormous kitchen built out over the back gardens, which she landscaped with plants and herbs and spices that would draw comment in the dullest conversation. At first only the farm women gathered in the kitchen, but soon even some of the grandest ladies found themselves basking in its cheery glow, shoes off, feet up, gossiping freely with their country cousins.

She befriended her neighbors on Elm Court, and at her expense had the whole thing repaved with new drains and gutters so there was no chance of filthy water spattering her customers' shoes or dresses. She tore out the latrines near the well and had new ones built in a far corner. She kept them sweet with lime, and connected them to the house with an arbored walkway. She had deepened and covered the well, so she was one of the few people in town with fresh water at all times of the year. She put in another garden around the well and sprinkled the area with tables and chairs for people to take their ease. She hired servants to tend her customers' needs—housing them in apartments she'd refitted in a small building on one of her leased lots. She helped Farrell draw up a set of books so exacting it would take no more than a moment to trace the fate of a penny.

She also had James Emmett enrolled in a school with a notorious taskmaster, who guaranteed to cram his head with learning and empty his heart of its wilder stirrings. It seemed to be working. James Emmett was soon going about the house spouting Greek and Roman quotations, and the scrapes he got into were of such a minor nature, she hesitated to chastise him too severely, because there was such improvement. When he reached his teens, the scrapes seemed to stop altogether, which made her suspect the boy was only growing cannier with age. But overwhelmed by her business ventures, she adopted a "what I don't know won't harm me" attitude.

Farrell had been so taken by the Church since that first mass, he spent all his spare time studying his catechism, or helping in church affairs. He was talking about becoming a priest himself, which disturbed Diana. Besides believing it a waste, she couldn't see such a passionless young man taking up the life of the Book. Perhaps if she didn't comment beyond a "that's nice, dear," he'd grow out of it, take a wife and raise a family. Although argument number two in the matter of the priesthood also seemed to fit the situation of Farrell and marriage. What kind of a woman would have him? She imagined her son would see the marital bed as a duty to be performed as quickly and as efficiently as he did his sums.

In the months preceding her opening for business, she asked the Walshes to introduce her to society. It took no coaxing. She began attending the dances and assemblies they recommended. She became acquainted with Dr. Benjamin Rush and his family, as well as half a dozen of his colleagues. She was on social terms with the mayor, Matthew Clarkson, and especially his wife, Lydia. She met Israel Israel, the prominent tavern keeper—not Jewish, she learned to her surprise, although she soon became friendly with a host of people from the Holy Congregation Mikveh Israel Assembly. Also in her circle were the wives and daughters who had followed their husbands to Congress, although this was a transient trade and not to be depended on.

Finally, all was ready. There was not another drop of paint to spread, or errant thread to snip. So she sent out the dolls.

Their arrival at the homes of the wealthy women of Philadelphia was not a total surprise. People knew she was an expert on fashions. They had already begun to ask her advice, which she gave for free, and a few had even urged her to open a shop they could frequent. She had more than just a shop in mind, but widened her eyes in interest when the subject came up. Mrs. Walsh had been letting out broad hints about some stunning notion in the making from her lovely, young, and oh so respectable widow friend.

What was a great surprise was the costumes the dolls wore. Each was different, designed especially for the woman who received it—from color and material, to the shoes and jewelry. Each costume was familiar enough to make its potential owner feel safe, but looked at as a whole, was startlingly unique. Each doll bore a card: Diana Shannon will begin receiving at two o'clock on Monday. Below the print was a carefully inked personal message asking her "friend, Mrs. Such-and-such, to please attend, for I fear this will not be a great success, and your comforting presence would be a welcoming cure to the malady of the lonely failure sure to afflict me."

Not one woman failed to attend. Not one woman failed to buy. And not one woman was not back in the company of her friends and daughters for each fitting. Diana's success was instant. So quickly did her business bloom, she was forced to expand, then to call on Mister Walsh to accept his offer to invest, so she could expand again. Her circle of friends and acquaintances grew, although she felt more at ease in the plain company of the ladies from the farms. Their problems and complaints seemed more real to her, their victories much larger because they were hard won. Still, it was nice to walk down any street and never fail to meet at least one person who would smile and nod their greetings. It was very nice indeed to be Diana Shannon.

There was one well-born young woman, however, she became quite close to, whose company she enjoyed more each time they met. The woman in question was not a customer. She was a Quaker. And when they first met, she was called Dolly Payne.

She came to the shop in the company of a few non-Quaker friends. She was dressed entirely in white, including her little cap with pitch-black curls peeking out, and her eyes were wide and blue in amazement at wonders all around her. Wonders that her religion's custom discouraged. Yet she didn't seem envious of her friends' purchases, but instead clapped in delight as each was guided to her discovery by Diana.

Dolly returned many times. To Diana's initial amazement, she was knowledgeable in the realm of fashion. And curious. She asked Diana a thousand questions, and posed as many problems for theoretical solution. It wasn't just dresses and dressmaking she knew about. Her head was filled with facts and information rare for a woman of these times. All of which she was anxious to discuss. Although, as time went by, Diana realized that Dolly had rarely expressed an opinion of her own. Actually, she went out of her way to avoid such a situation, throwing back a generality, or leading the conversation to safer ground. Still, Diana liked her. And although they were only a few years apart, Diana thought of her as the kind of little sister she would have liked to have.

She also felt sorry for her. Dolly was from an important family that was in decline. Her father, John Payne, had once owned a great plantation and many slaves in Virginia. After the Revolution he returned home marked by the blood he had seen and the Republican spirit it had let loose. He brooded for several years. One day he suddenly came to life. He sold his plantation and freed his slaves, packed up his family and their belongings and made the perilous journey to Philadelphia, where they had permanently settled.

It was a courageous act Diana wished had been appropriately rewarded. John Payne may have been noble, but he was no businessman. He put his money in Revolutionary dollars. What was left over he invested in the starch-manufacturing industry. The dollars were worthless. The factory bankrupt. His wife Mary was forced to open their house to boarders. There was no shame in this, as far as Diana was concerned; the Paynes were vastly connected, and their boarders consisted of some of the most famous men of her time. People like Thomas Jefferson, Aaron Burr, and many other prominent members of Congress.

But Mister Payne didn't see it that way. He retreated to his room and his bed for the rest of his life. Yet he still ruled his family with an iron hand. He would call them up and issue his orders from behind closed doors. No one would ever think to disobey them. There was no resentment in this from Dolly. She was a good Quaker girl who would never question her father. She also loved him deeply, and confessed to Diana she was constantly in fear for his health. The love was returned. And so was the concern. John Payne doted on his oldest daughter. What father wouldn't? Diana thought. There were few women she had met who were so beautiful. Black hair, blue eyes, a face that was a perfect oval. She was so lovely, men would gather at corners where they knew she would pass just to get a glimpse of this Quaker maiden in her white dress and modest cap.

But Dolly wasn't all she appeared. She was capable of temper. When they knew one another well enough to confide, Diana related her own history: Emmett. The journey from New Kent. Their marriage. Emmett's death. Dolly wept, then swore a surprising oath at Frenchy McShane and said she wished she were a man so she could wipe out his kind. An amazing admission from a Quaker.

Dolly also yearned for a life that was forbidden to her—witness her interest in Diana's wares. She confessed to Diana that when she was a child her grandmother used to give her little gifts of jewelry. This was all done in secret, because her parents frowned on such things. She kept the jewelry in a little bag which she wore on a string about her neck and tucked out of sight. One day, on the way to school, she lost the bag in the woods. It was never found, because she couldn't alert anyone and get help in her search. She said she knew it wasn't very important. Especially considering the terrible things people suffer in their lives. But just the same, she said, catch her in a weak moment, with no one around to see her, and she still wept at the memory of her grandmother's lost gifts.

Then Dolly married. To a young and handsome Quaker attorney named John Todd. Although the marriage was arranged by her father, Dolly said she loved John more than life itself. Diana guessed she believed her. Or, at least, hoped it was so for Dolly's sake. Her first child was a son they named James Payne Todd. Then, in that wonderfully mild and sunny January of 1793—the year everyone later said was so full of foreboding—she became pregnant with her second. Dolly brought all of her clothing to Diana, who helped her let them out, then coaxed her into allowing her best seamstress to make alterations so the dresses didn't look like they'd just had their seams ripped open and resewn to allow for a swelling belly. Dolly was easily convinced.

The year continued. From mild, to storm, to drought. Then the people came from the Sugar Islands. Diana and Dolly went to Mister Ricketts's marvelous circus in the great wooden-domed building he had built. They cheered with all the others as Mister Ricketts rode his horse about the ring. Standing on its back. Performing unbelievable acrobatic feats, such as leaping over ten horses. He even went through the complete manual of arms with a musket while riding a horse, then fired it and hit a target so true that people gasped in astonishment.

The weeks went on and Dolly grew in size. Then gloomy news arrived from Boston. Should she have added this to the list of the signs of doom? Diana wondered later. Ruth was frantic. The chandlery was in danger because of her husband's generosity to all his sailor friends who came to visit, and sup, and drink, and borrow. She desperately needed a loan or Isaac was for debtor's prison. Diana dispatched Farrell with the money. She sent James Emmett with him, because she knew they would be tempting Satan or worse if he stayed in Philadelphia without his brother's supervision. She instructed Farrell not to turn the money over directly, but to pay the debts, take over the business until it was sturdy again, and then—when the time was right—to leave it in the far more capable hands of young Samuel. Farrell wasn't to return until this was accomplished, and yes she would be fine, thank you very much, and could do without his assistance for a few months.

Then there was the tempest in Ipswich and all that hail in so small an area. And the great Kensington oak was blasted into twelve pieces by lightning.

No one knows when the first person died. But on August 19, Dr. Benjamin Rush lost a patient on Water Street.

The diagnosis was yellow fever.


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