The strong smell of vinegar and camphor emanating from the room at the end of the hall overtakes your senses... you open the door and peer into a darkened room...do you dare enter?
Welcome to the "sick room"...a place no one wants to visit. A place no one wants to end up.
It's August of 1793 and Philadelphians are in the middle of a hellish battle. The lucky ones have escaped the city, removed to their country homes or perhaps to stay with relatives. Coffee houses, churches, and city offices are closing their doors.
Do you have a fever? Does your head ache? Are you suddenly feeling a chill? Did you go down to the waterfront with all that rotting food and putrefying filth? You were told not to venture down there…that’s where you catch the fever. It’s contagious!
You saw what happened when your mother fell ill. Her eyes were inflamed with a yellowish color, even her skin turned a ghastly shade of yellow. And you saw her vomit up those black clots of blood. The Yellow Fever. That’s what they are calling it.
Your neighbor on Fourth Street, Edward Burd, reported the following:
“My house is entirely Shut up—People dying all around it and no venturing there without risque, the Disorder being so easily taken that many people hardly know how they have caught ye Infection. From ye best Accounts I can collect there must have been 500 or 600 people buried last Week.”
President Washington left for Germantown along with his cabinet members. You heard almost twenty-thousand people left the city. Some say that’s half of the entire population!
You pause by the window and look out at the once bustling street below. Everything has become quiet. So quiet. The fervor of people packing up their homes has passed. Most of the houses on your street are empty now except for a few servants left behind as guards. But you can hear the death carts… their squeaky wheels moving up and down the street. And you hear the drivers as they call out “bring out your dead!” They move on to the Southeast Square where huge ditches have been dug just across from the Walnut Street prison. Only a few receive proper church burials.
The few doctors and politicians left in the city are in disagreement. They don’t know what causes the fever. And they don’t agree on how to treat it.
But YOU know what goes on in that room at the end of the hall. You’re the one who changes the bed linens after the doctor uses the bleeding remedy. He ran his lancet across your mother’s arm and bled her until she fainted. And you know what happens after the doctor makes her drink that mercury concoction. The doctor wants to purge everything that remains in her body. You’ve heard about those French doctors across town, the ones who think this treatment is barbaric. You decide if you fall ill you will race to Bush Hospital.
It’s time to go back into the sick room. This time you’ve brought along a fresh tussie-mussie full of lavender. You hope it will make a difference.
Author's Note: All regular tours of the Physick House will include a "visit to the sick room" from August 13th through October 30th, 2016. Will you be brave enough to enter? Click here for further details: "Pestilence Prevails...Fever in Philadelphia"