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How Yellow Fever Turned New Orleans Into The 'City Of The Dead' Interview with Kathryn Olivarius

Engraving from a series of images titled "The Great Yellow Fever Scourge — Incidents Of Its Horrors In The Most Fatal District Of The Southern States."

Bettmann Archive/Getty Images

Interview on  NPR - All Things Considered

Some people say New Orleans is haunted because of witches. Others say it's haunted by vampires, or ghosts, or all those swamps. But if you were around between 1817 and 1905, you might say the city was haunted by death. And that death, in large part, was caused by yellow fever.

Yellow fever was fatal. It was gruesome. And in epidemic years, during the months between July and October, it could wipe out 10 percent of the city's population. Eventually, it earned New Orleans the nickname "Necropolis" — city of the dead.

Yellow fever didn't just kill. It created an entire social structure based on who had survived the virus, who was likely to survive it and who was not long for this world. And that structure had everything to do with immigration and slavery, according to Kathryn Olivarius, a history professor at Stanford University.

The disease is spread by mosquitoes and thrives in warm, humid places with dense populations. In the 19th century, New Orleans and other Southern cities made near-ideal breeding grounds. Historically, of the people who contracted the virus, about half would die from it. The worst year on record in New Orleans was 1853 — 8,000 of the city's residents died.