In my last column, two weeks ago, I was intent on producing the only piece in the paper that did not at least mention this whole public health situation that has dominated our lives, and our media coverage.
And so I wrote about the stuff I found interesting about my reading of the first half of Ron Chernow’s historical and scholarly biography of Alexander Hamilton, one of the pivotal figures in the Revolutionary War, the writing and ratification of the United States Constitution, and the formation and organization of our system of banking, commerce, trade and taxation during the formative years of our country’s existence.
In fact, many of us carry his picture in our wallets and purses – those of us who happen to have a ten-dollar bill on hand.
He came from the West Indies as an orphaned youth. He was taken under the wing of General George Washington in the Revolutionary War and became his right hand man, chief adviser and go-to guy, through and after the war, including Washington’s two terms as president.
Yes, Alexander Hamilton offered a topic that permitted a complete divergence from the volumes of information about issues of public health.
But then, I was a bit freaked out as I plunged into the second half of the book, to read about “a threat more fearsome” than anything else
People who lived in the large sea coast cities started getting sick and dying “from a ghastly disease that shook the body with chills and sever muscular pain. The red-eyed victims belched up black vomit from bleeding stomachs, and their skins turned a hideous jaundiced color.”
It was the yellow-fever epidemic of 1792.
Twenty people a day were dying, and government and commerce came to a standstill.
Carts laden with corpses rumbled down the cobblestone streets of Philadelphia accompanied by cries of “Bring out your dead.”
People stopped shaking hands and walked down the middle of the street to avoid other pedestrians.
Many people wore handkerchiefs dipped in vinegar across their noses. Some chewed garlic.
A number of families fled the major cities to the countryside.
It sounds all so familiar, but it was 230 years ago.
There were no telephones, radios or automobiles, and medical understanding and treatment were still in the relative dark ages.
The United States totaled 15 in number, having just added Vermont and Kentucky to the original 13 colonies. The U.S. population was about 3.9 million, compared to about 331 million today, some 85 times the 1790 population.
The epidemic claimed some 4,000 lives, which would be more than 300,000 people today, at that rate.
And if we fast forward to present day 2020, we are, just like in the 1790s, reminded that we really aren’t in charge or in control of our world.
Hopefully, with the benefit and wisdom of historical understanding and advancements in medicine and sterilization, we will have fewer deaths than that.
But still, let us not forget, we were not in charge then, and we are not in charge today.
Ken Garten is a Blue Springs attorney. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.