2003 National Book Award Finalist:
Young People's Literature

Jim Murphy

An American Plague:
The True and Terrifying Story of the Yellow Fever Epidemic

Clarion Books / Houghton Mifflin Company

About the Book

The death of a young French sailor on August 3, 1793 marked the beginning of a crippling epidemic that took hold of Philadelphia, then the nation's capital, and threatened the stability of a fledgling country, leaving between 4,000 and 5,000 dead. Using medical and non-medical accounts to recreate the fear that took hold of the city, the author spotlights those who were forced to flee, President Washington among them, and the heroic residents who stayed to help combat the spread of the disease. An American Plague brings together science, history, politics, and public health to tell the story of a nation in crisis.

About the Author

Born in Newark, New Jersey, Jim Murphy is the author of more than 25 books for young people, including Inside the Alamo, The Great Fire, and A Young Patriot: The American Revolution as Experienced by One Boy. Mr. Murphy earned his B.A. in English from Rutgers University, and has held jobs as an apartment cleaner, a bookseller, and working on open steel construction sites 30 stories up on Manhattan skyscrapers. He and his family live in Maplewood, New Jersey.

Selected Backlist

Across America on an Emigrant Train

The Great Fire
Inside the Alamo
The Journal of James Edmond Pease: A Civil War Union Soldier: Virginia, 1863

My Face to the Wind: The Diary of Sarah Jane Price, a Prairie School Teacher, Broken Bow, Nebraska, 1881 (Dear America Series)
West to a Land of Plenty: The Diary of Teresa Angelino Viscardi (Dear America Series)
A Young Patriot: The American Revolution as Experienced by One Boy


In all respects it seemed as if August 3 1793, was a very normal day in Philadelphia, with business and buying and pleasure as usual.

Oh, there were a few who felt a tingle of unease. For weeks an unusually large supply of wild pigeons had been for sale at the market. Popular folklore suggested that such an abundance of pigeons always brought with it unhealthy air and sickness.

Dr. Benjamin Rush had no time for such silly notions, but he, too, sensed that something odd was happening. His concern focused on a series of illnesses that had struck his patients throughout the year – the mumps in January, jaw and mouth infections in February, scarlet fever in March, followed by influenza in July. “There was something in the heat and drought,” the good Doctor speculated, “which was uncommon in their influence upon the human body.”

The Reverend J. Henry C. Helmuth of the Lutheran congregation, too, thought something was wrong in the city, though it had nothing to do with sickness of the body. It was the souls of its citizens he worried about. “ Philadelphia . . .seemed to strive to exceed all other places in the breaking of the Sabbath,” he noted. A increasing number of people shunned church and went instead to the taverns, where they drank and gambled: too many others spent their free time in theatres which displayed “rope-dancing and other shows.” Sooner or later, he warned the city would feel God’s displeasure.

Rush and Helmuth would have been surprised to know that their worries were turning to reality on August 3. For on that Saturday a young French sailor rooming at Richard Denny’s boarding house, over on North Water Street, was desperately ill with a fever. Eighteenth century record keeping wasn’t very precise, so no one bothered to write down his name. Besides, the sailor was poor and a foreigner, not the sort of person who would draw much attention from the community around him. all we know is that his fever worsened and was accompanied by violent seizures, and that a few days later he died.
Other residents at Denny’s would follow this sailor to the grave – a Mr. Moore fell into a stupor and passed away, Mrs. Richard Parkinson expired on August 7, next the lodging house owner and his wife, Mary, and the first sailor’s roommate. Around the same time, two people in the house next to Denny’s died of the same severe fever.

Eight deaths in the pace of a week in two houses on the same street. . .but the city did not take notice. Summer fevers were common visitors to all American cities in the eighteenth century, and therefore not headline news. Besides, Denny’s was located on a narrow out-of-the-way street – really more of an alley than a street. “Its is much confined” a resident remarked, “ill-aired, and in every respect, is a disagreeable street.” things happened along this street all the time – sometimes very bad things – they went unnoticed by the authorities and the ret of the population.

So the death did not disrupt Philadelphia much at all. Ships came and went: men and women did chore, talked, and sought relief from the heat and the insects; the markets and the shops hummed with activity; children played; and the city, state and federal governments went about their business.

No one noticed that the church bells were tolling more often than usual to announce one death, and then another. They rang for Dr. Hugh Hodge’s little daughter, for Peter Aston, for John Weyman, for Mary Shewell, and for a boy named McNair. No one knew that a killer was already moving through their streets with them, an invisible stalker that would go house to house until it had touched everyone, rich or poor, in some terrible way.