How Yellow Fever Turned New Orleans Into The 'City Of The Dead' : Code Switch Some years the virus would wipe out a tenth of the population, earning New Orleans the nickname "Necropolis." The gruesome disease killed thousands, scapegoated immigrants and upheld white supremacy.
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How Yellow Fever Turned New Orleans Into The 'City Of The Dead'

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How Yellow Fever Turned New Orleans Into The 'City Of The Dead'

How Yellow Fever Turned New Orleans Into The 'City Of The Dead'

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AILSA CHANG, HOST:

It's Halloween, and the country is in full haunting season. But the city of New Orleans has a reputation for being haunted all year round. This goes back to the 1800s when a yellow fever virus wiped out tens of thousands of New Orleanians.

Leah Donnella of NPR's Code Switch team has our story.

LEAH DONNELLA, BYLINE: If you get your history lessons from Netflix, you might think New Orleans is haunted because of witches, like on "American Horror Story: Coven."

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "AMERICAN HORROR STORY: COVEN")

ANGELA BASSETT: (As Marie Laveau) You are a witch. I can smell the stink of it on you.

JESSICA LANGE: (As Fiona Goode) Well, I didn't expect you to like me.

DONNELLA: If you're more into the Travel Channel, you might think it was all the swamps.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Places that are surrounded by water somehow contributes to this very bizarre phenomenon that we call ghosts.

DONNELLA: But if you were around between 1817 and 1905, there's a good chance you'd say New Orleans was haunted by death. In epidemic years, the yellow fever virus could wipe out up to 10 percent of the city's population. It was spread by mosquitoes. And in the summer of 1853, it killed nearly 8,000 people. The virus earned New Orleans the nickname Necropolis, city of the dead. And it wasn't a pretty way to die.

KATHRYN OLIVARIUS: Victims experienced jaundice, so they sort of turned yellow.

DONNELLA: That's Kathryn Olivarius. She's a professor at Stanford who studies the history of yellow fever. She says yellow fever would lead to chills, nausea, headaches, fever, convulsions, delirium. Olivarius says it was a disease that turned holy men away from God.

OLIVARIUS: Even pious victims screamed profanities as the end neared.

DONNELLA: About half of people who got yellow fever would die from it. You might think all this death was keeping people away from New Orleans, but actually, people were flocking there. Olivarius says it was like the antebellum Silicon Valley.

OLIVARIUS: It was the place where if you were an ambitious white man you went to make your fortune.

DONNELLA: That was because of slavery, the cotton industry and New Orleans' strategic location on the Mississippi River. But Olivarius says that there were only a handful of people who made it in New Orleans.

OLIVARIUS: Most people never were able to break into the sort of upper echelons of society. And so you have people quite literally arriving in a death trap.

DONNELLA: Today there's a vaccine for yellow fever. But back then, the only way to get immunity from the disease was to survive it. Still, there were tons of myths and misinformation floating around.

OLIVARIUS: That people who eat a lot of tomatoes will get yellow fever or people who eat too much fruit will get yellow fever.

DONNELLA: Another widespread myth - that you couldn't get yellow fever if you were black. Olivarius says prominent doctors spread the lie that black people were naturally immune to the disease, and she says that lie was used to justify slavery.

OLIVARIUS: If black people are naturally resistant to yellow fever - therefore, black slavery is natural, even humanitarian, because it protects white people from spaces and labor that would kill them.

DONNELLA: But here's the thing. Even if they didn't want to admit it, many people knew that black folks weren't immune. At slave markets, few people were willing to buy a person who wasn't already acclimated to yellow fever.

OLIVARIUS: So you're dealing with a Gordian knot of contradictions that all ended up furthering the cause of white supremacy and the expansion of racial slavery.

DONNELLA: Yellow fever - it killed thousands, terrified even more and was a longstanding tool of white supremacy. How's that for a horror story? Leah Donnella, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HOUSE OF THE RISING SUN")

THE ANIMALS: (Singing) There is a house in New Orleans they call...

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