The More Things Change, They Actually Don’t


This is the second in a series of weekly posts leading up to the Nov. 3 Presidential election. The theme of which is – as the saying goes – the more things change, well, they actually don’t.

For the first installment of this series, you can check it here.

And if you skipped it, here’s a quick recap. Two centuries ago, New Orleans was visited upon by furious episodes of epidemics, political corruption and contempt, populism, vigilantism, violence and voter intimidation.

Sound familiar? Consider all of this a cautionary tale for our nation and our times. Turns out that 19th century New Orleans set the tone for the age in which we currently reside.

The primary sources for this story are the Lafayette Cemetery Research Project, a Presbyterian minister named Theodore Clapp, and Herbert Asbury, who wrote one of the consummate histories of New Orleans called “The French Quarter.” (He also wrote “Gangs of New York,” by the way.)

It all begins with a virus. Actually, a whole bunch of them. Between 1796 and 1906, there were 39 epidemics of Yellow Fever and Cholera in the city. Between 1882 and 1883 alone, 10,000 residents died from the plagues – one third of the city’s extant population at the time. (The city was depleted of residents at the time; thousands had fled North for fear of pestilence and degradation.)

Wrote Asbury: “While the politicians of these eras were not to blame for the astounding misery and death caused during this era, they were certainly responsible for for the conditions which permitted the epidemics to reach such appalling proportions.”

Neglect. Insouciance. Corruption. Greed. Incompetence. All led to a civic wipe out. But how were the people to know?

From the Lafayette Cemetery archives: “The commercial interests of the city insisted strenuously that the state of affairs should not be made public, and the real-estate speculators were wild with alarm lest the truth should be told.”

Real-estate speculators? Hmm.

“Those who intimated that the vile condition of the streets were frowned upon as defamers of the city. It was pleasanter to discuss magnificent future schemes of improved drainage than to take immediate and practical steps towards setting the city in order.

“When all attempts to conceal the truth became useless, and the full horror of the situation broke upon the people of New Orleans, dismay and despair succeeded for a while all levity and hope. The newspapers, as if to atone for their first silence, now spoke of nothing but the epidemic.”

Indeed, even the local (fake news?) media had a hand in the deception. The deaths and the dread. And to think, there wasn’t even cable news back then.

To think.

From the Lafayette archives: “Business was suspended; the levee was a desert; pleasure was hardly thought of; the bar-room and club-houses were scarcely visited. Vice was cowed; the haunts of the libertine were deserted.”
The symptoms of it all? “It began with a cold, a hardly perceptible chill, an ebbing in the head, an apparently insignificant fever, and, a little later, pains in the back ensue.

“These warnings were made light of by the laboring poor. Those who lived from hand to mouth could not afford to live on account of ill feelings, which strong men living in a insalubrious climate learn to slight.“

The Haunts of the Libertine. Ebbings in the Head. Insalubrious Slights?

Great names for a band.

Minister Clapp recorded in his diary: “Many persons, even of fortune and popularity, died in their beds without aid, unnoticed and unknown, and lay there for days unburied. All the stores, banks and places of business were closed. There were no means, no instruments for carrying on the ordinary affairs of business.”

But, dear reader, as bad as this account seems, fear not. Things got better. From an official account of the times: “The board of health officially declared the city free of the epidemic on the 13th of October.”

Which, by perchance, happens to be today’s date.

If only. Bring out your dead.




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