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July 21, 2017

Historian fools Southwest Airlines with joke about Philly's yellow fever epidemic

It would be unfair to expect the social media guru for Southwest Airlines to have an encyclopedic knowledge of the various plagues that have hit U.S. cities in the early days of the country. I certainly don't.

Still, it's hard not to chuckle at that person experiencing mild panic after seeing a tweet from a historian saying his flight into Philadelphia was bringing the yellow fever.

Penn is hosting a conference this weekend for Society for Historians of the Early American Republic, meaning a bunch of historians came into town Thursday.

David Head of the University of Central Florida was on Southwest flight #1793 into Philly, and being a guy who knows early American history, decided to make a joke about Philadelphia's yellow fever epidemic of 1793. Southwest was fooled.

You're probably thinking, "That's not funny." And you're right, it shouldn't be to most people. But for historians studying the early American Republic, it's a real gut buster:

Since we already have you here, let's do a little history lesson ourselves, shall we? What was the yellow fever epidemic of 1793? Here's a brief synopsis from Harvard:

Yellow fever is known for bringing on a characteristic yellow tinge to the eyes and skin, and for the terrible “black vomit” caused by bleeding into the stomach. Known today to be spread by infected mosquitoes, yellow fever was long believed to be a miasmatic disease originating in rotting vegetable matter and other putrefying filth, and most believed the fever to be contagious.

The first major American yellow fever epidemic hit Philadelphia in July 1793 and peaked during the first weeks of October. Philadelphia, then the nation’s capital, was the most cosmopolitan city in the United States. Two thousand free blacks lived there, as well as many recent white French-speaking arrivals from the colony of Santo Domingo, who were fleeing from a slave rebellion. Major Revolutionary political figures lived there, and in the first week of September, Thomas Jefferson wrote to James Madison that everyone who could escape the city was doing so. The epidemic depopulated Philadelphia: 5,000 out of a population of 45,000 died, and chronicler Mathew Carey estimated that another 17,000 fled.

Horrifying? Yes, but as the Historical Society of Pennsylvania notes, it brought out some of the best of Philadelphia — and in some cases, the worst:

Commentators during and after the Yellow Fever epidemic observed that the episode brought out the best and worst in Philadelphia’s residents, as municipal leaders, prominent physicians, and everyday residents struggled to understand the cause of Yellow Fever, to manage the outbreak, and to escape its brutal path. While none succeeded in stamping out the disease, historical accounts of the city’s lively response to the fever reveal much about the civic, cultural, and intellectual workings of early America’s largest and most prosperous city.

You came for the silly tweets and left a little bit smarter. We're all winners.