Sunday, October 2, 2011

Fever And The Miasma: The Tale of Levi Chapin Comes To An End

(This is last part of the story.  Follow the hyperlinks to Part One and Part Two)

Yellow Fever Microbe (CDC slide)
Under a high-powered microscope, the organism that causes yellow fever looks pretty harmless; you can see it on the left.  In fact, it looks a lot like an exemplar of museum-quality abstract art.

Looks, of course, can be greatly deceiving.

If Levi Chapin died of yellow fever in eastern Virginia in September of 1833, we can know one thing with absolute certainty– it was not an easy way to die.

The disease gets its name from the yellow color that the victim’s fevered skin and eyes often turn.  In the Spanish-speaking tropics, it’s called by another symptom-descriptive name: “vomito negro” or “black vomit”. High spiking fever, icy chills, vomiting and bone-wracking pain are a few of the tell-tale symptoms of the disease once called “yellow jack”.

Today, when we speak of yellow fever – a disease that only a few U.S. physicians specializing in tropical medicine will likely ever see first-hand, we use cold, clinical terms like “flavivirus”, “arbovirus”, and “arthropod”.  We speak of etiology, vectors and vaccines. None of those terms were in common use in the early 19th century. 

What was first called “bilious remitting yellow fever” was a terror-inducing medical mystery, seemingly arising out of nowhere.

Of course, back then, people thought that cholera could be “caught” by eating under-ripe fruit and that malaria was the result of bad air.

Back then, nobody knew exactly why yellow fever happened, or exactly how to cure it. People spoke of “the miasma” and burned tar in roadways to ward off the disease. They quarantined ships in harbors so that sailors wouldn’t spread the disease by breathing on or touching the uninfected. Some thought the disease was caused by rotting vegetable matter; others saw it as God’s punishment for one thing or another.

Collecting the Near-Dead in 1793 Philadelphia
Yellow fever epidemics periodically carried off sizable portions of the urban population, especially in southern cities like Savannah and New Orleans. Still, prior to 1822, some northern urban areas suffered as well.  Estimates of deaths during the Philadelphia epidemic of 1793 were in the 4,000 – 5,000 range.  Carriages roamed the cobbled streets to collect the dead and the nearly-dead.  Note the pedestrian in the picture at right above covering his mouth so that he doesn't "catch" the disease.

In some communities, officials did not permit the burial of yellow fever victims in local cemeteries.  The disease was thought to be contagious long after death and some feared that whatever caused it lived on in the ground. Graves were dug in remote parts of potters’ fields and if an epidemic caused large numbers of deaths in a community, yellow fever mounds – mass graves of hasty burials – became a common sight.  

 Even as late as 1905, some municipalities such as Minneapolis had public health ordinances that classed yellow fever as a highly contagious disease along with cholera, smallpox, typhus and measles.  Bodies of persons who fell victim to these diseases had to be disinfected, placed in metallic caskets and buried as quickly as possible, with no viewing and only a private family funeral permitted.

If Levi Chapin had fallen victim to yellow fever in 1833 Virginia, it is highly unlikely that his body would have been returned to New Hampshire for burial. Fear of the disease would have dictated otherwise.

By the 1830s, the disease seemed largely confined to southern coastal and river cities.  The fever severely struck Norfolk and Portsmouth in southern Virginia in 1855. Even later, in the summer of 1878, about 20,000 people died in the Mississippi Valley, with the cities of Memphis and New Orleans being hit the hardest.

When New Orleans physician John James Hayes wrote his short handbook titled Yellow Fever: Its Nature, Cause, Prevention & Cure in 1858, he thought he had all the answers.  He wrote:

The disease called Yellow Fever results from a deficiency of atmospheric air in the lungs; from a want of the adequate quantity of it in the lungs; and consequently from a want of the due changes imposed by it on the circulating fluids; from a want of one fluid being converted into blood, and a want of the other being duly eliminated.

Dr. Hayes thought it was all about “air and fluids.”  Observing that the New Orleans poor suffered the most during the summer yellow fever season, he recommended a temporary lifestyle change.  He suggested that “the poor should quit their confined, badly ventilated houses, which, during an epidemic season—a hot season —I would call ovens, and live in the open air, in a free exposure.

Aedes aegypti
The true cause of yellow fever – a microscopic flavivirus spread by Aedes aegypti mosquitoes – would not even be suspected, let alone proven, for many decades after Hayes’s spectacularly bad advice to the New Orleans poor to sleep outside… with the mosquitoes.

Not surprisingly, yellow fever was always news, whenever it occurred.  Even reports of a few isolated cases in places far from home made the local newspapers all over the country during the 19th century since local editors speculated that those few cases might be harbingers of a much larger epidemic. Then as now, newspaper folks liked to be on top of epidemic disease stories, even though nobody knew that mosquitoes were the real culprits.

So, if Levi Chapin had actually contracted yellow fever in Virginia in September of 1833, there is a very good chance that the newspapers would also have reported some evidence of the disease in some part of Virginia around that same time.  In fact, there were numerous yellow fever stories in US newspapers during the month of September 1833, but they were all about the outbreak and progress of the New Orleans epidemic.  Virginia, Washington and Maryland were not mentioned.  Moreover, I have not yet located any newspaper that reported Levi’s death.

If Levi actually died of yellow fever, no newspaper of consequence took notice. Here’s what they were writing about (from The Newburyport [MA] Herald, 13 September 1833)

There are lots of newspaper stories on New Orleans, but none about yellow fever in eastern Virginia around mid September of 1833.
So, perhaps that part of the story is wrong as well.  Unconfirmed and uncorroborated family stories are interesting to read and speculate upon, but they carry no real weight as evidence. Think of them as clues that goad us on to investigate things just a little bit more.

So, the results of this inquiry into the circumstances surrounding the death of Levi Chapin are mixed, but not completely unproductive. Evaluating the quality of the evidence we find is part of what we do as researchers. Facts get weighed and sifted; new discoveries can sometimes prove old evidence to be faulty.

We now know that the 1862 Chapin genealogy conflated Levi’s brother and nephew who were both named Stephen, and got Levi’s year of birth wrong.  We now know that while the 1963 History of Walpole, New Hampshire was right about Levi being an inventor and having patents (plural), the description of those patents was incorrect.  We now know, thanks to an early 19th century journal, exactly what Levi invented and how it was supposed to work. We now know that Google Patents has lots of interesting information, but not for those early patents issued prior to the 1836 fire at the Patent Office. We now know that researchers can use the Journal of the Franklin Institute to re-capture some of the information that was lost in that fire. And that the Google Patents “Search/ Optical Character Recognition (OCR)” software still needs a bit of work. Plus, we know lots more about moulding planes and 19th century tool-making than we know when we started.

Still, we do not know if Levi Chapin actually died of yellow fever in eastern Virginia in 1833. We do not know if he ever actually visited his son Philip in Baltimore or his nephew Stephen in Washington.  Why he chose to travel to Virginia in the first place is currently lost to history, as is the final disposition of his patents – the “Improved Chapin Hanging Saw” seems not to have made much of a mark in the sawmill business.

In fact, the inquiry process itself raises a few questions not previously considered. For example, let’s suppose that Levi Chapin actually did die of yellow fever, as they stories say. The early symptoms of the disease often take nearly a week after exposure to appear. Could Levi have visited New Orleans, been bitten there by a virus-carrying mosquito, and then returned to Virginia by boat, shaking and feverish, thinking he had a bad case of some flu-like illness? Moreover, are there other records in archives in Baltimore or Washington – when his close kin lived – that could shed more light on his demise and his travels?

There are now many more lines of inquiry to consider in the quest for facts about the life and death of Levi Chapin and I’ll continue to explore them as opportunities present themselves. Not all family history problems have easy solutions, but since much of the thrill is in the hunt itself, finding a few new doors to open and more clues to explore is its own reward.

Finally – there’s one other minor thing of genealogical interest that came to light while searching through Google Patents.  Plug in a bunch of related family names, and all kinds of curious things come out . . .

On 5 April 1870, a man living in Alton, Belknap County, New Hampshire named Smilie Tilton received patent number 101,545 for an “improved extension table.”  Smilie Tilton – who also invented and patented an “improved” wooden cheese wrapper and an “improved” calf-muzzle -  was married to a woman named Mary Elizabeth Bancroft (1840 – 1886) who was born in New Hartford, Connecticut.

Turns out that Mary E. Bancroft was the granddaughter of Westfield, Massachusetts plane maker Nathaniel Chapin and thus, the great-granddaughter of Levi Chapin – the man whose death sparked the search and this series in the first place.

There’s no doubt in my mind that inventor-entrepreneur Levi Chapin would have likely approved of his great-granddaughter’s choice of an inventor-husband.  He may even have liked the feel of the wood that Smilie used to make the model of his “improved” extension table, pictured in the patent file below.

Maybe it was even Chapin wood, from a Chapin family tree in Walpole, New Hampshire about a hundred miles away.

1 comment:

  1. Very interesting post. My mother told tales told to her of epidemics in Montgomery, AL at the turn of the century when her great aunt abbie would flee the city ahead of the closing amid fires burning to prevent the spread of whatever epidemic it was.