The plague spin of New Orleans

Jim Gabour
5 May 2009

Here it is, Influenza A, H1N1, swine flu, whatever you want to call it. It's an old and recurring situation. Once again people are getting ill, and some of them are dying. This may sound hard-hearted, but it has indeed happened before. Even here, a place that many still refer wryly to as "The City that Care Forgot".

Jim Gabour is an award-winning film producer, writer and director, whose work focuses primarily on music and the diversity of cultures. He lives in New Orleans, where he is artist-in-residence and professor of video technology at Loyola University. His website is here

Many of Jim Gabour's articles for openDemocracy are collected in an edition of the openDemocracy Quarterly

For details of Undercurrent: Life after Katrina, click here

New Orleans has somehow survived, even prospered, with the bad press a moderately murderous plague generates.

Between 1839 and 1860, more than 26,000 New Orleanians fell victim to "Yellow Jack", yellow fever and cholera. The annual summertime death-toll became such a fact of existence that northern newspapers awarded New Orleans the sobriquet "The Necropolis of the South". That characterisation in the press did not at first seem conducive to population growth.

From 1809 there had been massive immigration of working-class Irish to New Orleans, so much so that by the time of the founding of the first Irish Catholic church in New Orleans in 1833 - they wanted their mass in English rather than French - the numerical racial majority of the city had again become predominantly white. It was a bad time to be Irish, though, as the yearly epidemics began decimating the city. White plantation-owners became increasingly afraid of losing valuable slaves, and began employing Irishmen as the primary labourers on the new canal system. Thousands died, working under miserable conditions, even as the fever raged on around them.  

A large stone Celtic cross stands now in the "neutral ground" at the northern end of Canal Street, to memorialise the dead workers. The canals were eventually filled in, as a source of the very pestilence that killed the people who dug them.

The contagion news

Despite the ongoing epidemic, the city thrived. Its population grew from just over 70,000 in 1839 to almost 170,000 in 1860. In that final antebellum year, New Orleans's volume of trade equalled that of New York. The tide was to change quickly: in 1861, New Orleanians stopped dying of disease and began dying at the hands of their fellow countrymen. The losses of the civil war eclipsed the mortality rate of illness. Shipping ebbed in the Gulf of Mexico, plantation-owners died, slaves were freed.

New Orleans did not adapt quickly to the new rules of post-war life, and her prosperity ebbed.

But the people caught in the midst of an epidemic 170 years ago asked some of the same questions we are asking now, and looked for answers from the same sources:

"The question of most practical importance, in connection with this subject, is one upon which there exists as much variance and discordance of opinion, as in reference to the nature and origin of the fever. We refer to the subject of quarantine. This idea rests on the idea of contagion - a topic which has produced a world of wrangling and disputation.  Nearly every eminent physician who has lived for the last century and a half has written on contagion...

A selection of Jim Gabour's articles in openDemocracy:

"This is personal" (23 April 2007)

"Lessons in the classics" (6 August 2007)

"Native to America" (26 September 2007)

"The upper crust" (8 November 2007)

"Windfall" (17 December 2007)

"Ruling Louisiana" (25 July 2008)

"Hardware madness: Katrina's three years" (24 August 2008)

"Living with Gustav" (1 September 2008)

"Loot" (8 October 2008)

"Nine-inch nails in the White House" (31 October 2008)

"Living the American movie" (5 November 2008)

"Three regular guys" (8 January 2009)

"The redemption game" (20 February 2009)

"...Instances are cited where its appearance and extension in other towns and villages followed rapidly the introduction of a single case from New Orleans.  On the other hand, the non-contagionists ask, Why did not the disease spread and become an epidemic in previous years, when it existed here in a decided and palpable form? The year 1848 is particularly cited, when hundreds of our returning soldiers arrived here from Vera Cruz - where the fever prevailed violently - with the disease upon them, and when eight hundred died in our hospitals, and yet it did not extend to the people" (New York Times, 3 March 1854).

The spread of the disease then as now was national and international news, though because of primitive transportation and the awkward dissipation rate of existing media, the entire scenario unfolded at a much slower pace. Its eventual cure, with the subsequent cleansing and the rejuvenation of the city, never received as much attention as the previous death and horror. Readers, it seemed, were less interested in people living regular lives than in people dying horrifically. Life does not sell as many papers as death.

Just over half a century later, from 1914 until 1920, the city was visited by an even more formidable epidemic incursion, of bubonic plague. This time the government and medical community did the research more efficiently, finally (and rightly) placing their faith in rat-remediation.

During those six years, scientific and medical authorities captured and examined almost half a million rats, the process documented extensively online in Images from the History of Medicine. They tore down whole sections of the city that they dubbed "plague zones", and eventually the disease ran its course.

The New Orleans plague-dates coincided roughly with the further horrors of the first world war, and the press mostly ignored the fact that the city's inhabitants were fighting and dying at a high rate in a very different battle.  They died in their own neighbourhoods.

But more soldiers were relieved of their lives in Europe, and all went much more spectacularly, so the memory of the New Orleans bubonic plague too eventually passed from memory, a victim of poor press opportunities. There hadn't been much in the newsreels to get people interested about people getting sick in New Orleans, what with the war and all. The bubonic plague was just not page-one material.

The survival code

Three decades later the cold, ironic hand of Hollywood would change that perception. Elia Kazan's Panic in the Streets (1950) was filmed entirely on location in New Orleans. Richard Widmark starred as Dr Clinton Reed, a navy physician from the US health service who has forty-eight hours to stop an incursion of...bubonic plague in New Orleans.

The carrier is an illegal alien just off a boat from Europe, who is murdered in a card game by criminals Jack Palance and Zero Mostel. The corpse is brought to the morgue in a very strange condition, indicative of a serious illness. The man is finally diagnosed as a victim of bubonic (pneumonic) plague.  Health and governmental officials fear germs will spread to epidemic proportions, and order Dr Reed to take charge of the situation.

His mission is to track down Palance and Mostel, who had themselves become plague-carriers. Just find those two guys, and it will be over. The situation was made for great drama.

The incompetence of the governmental bureaucracy to handle such a situation in that film echoes resoundingly in New Orleans - a town that survived the health aftermath of the massive hurricane Betsy in September 1965, and forty years later, almost to the day, hurricane Katrina.

On 3 May 2009, the governor's office confirmed seven cases of H1N1 in the state, at least one here in the city. He held a press conference to say that seven people were sick. They are doing well, and in no danger, but they "they have it".

The combination of the strain's supposed origins in Mexico, and the massive new Mexican population increase in New Orleans since Katrina, might make you think Kazan's Panic... might have returned. But at the time of writing the lightning-fast media - from CNN to Twitter - have failed to pick up on that angle, and the local population is calm. True, not calm enough to take advantage of the bargain-basement airfare rates to the beaches and hotels of the Yucatan peninsula; but Richard Widmark's contemporary counterpart has not yet been called in.

So once again, to the bottom line. As long as the public's fear can be maintained, the pandemic will be a big threat and big news. Once audiences tire of the story and need a new stimulus, the disease will slowly ebb as a danger and a tragedy. The cures will become more effective, the deaths less frequent, the hype less stringent.

We'll be OK.

Take it from a town that's been there.

Had enough of ‘alternative facts’? openDemocracy is different Join the conversation: get our weekly email


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData