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When lethal illness struck 1790s Harrisburg, residents took issues into their very own palms | Column – pennlive.com

They had suffered three years of disease and death. They would not tolerate a fourth year. They simply had to do something about it.

A fever spread through Harrisburg in the fall of 1792. It struck again the following year, more severe and deadly.

Alexander Graydon, Dauphin County’s prothonotary at the time, described the symptoms in his memoirs: nausea, violent retching, yellow skin, black vomit, illness lasting a week or longer, with some people dying in two or three days.

At the same time in 1793, a yellow fever epidemic plagued Philadelphia, raising fears among other towns in Pennsylvania, including Harrisburg, that the disease would spread, Graydon wrote. In his “Historical Collections of the State of Pennsylvania,” historian Sherman Day wrote that Harrisburg established a patrol to prevent infected people from Philadelphia from entering town.

Harrisburg had faced other diseases before the 1790s and many since, including the current pandemic. But none has been as perplexing as that which struck at the end of the 18th century. And as we will see, while some have generated controversy akin to that associated with COVID-19, none produced the level of civil unrest that morphed into vigilantism as Harrisburg experienced in 1795.

The exact type of that disease in Harrisburg, however, was a mystery.

As for the perceived cause? A culprit, or scapegoat, emerged: a mill dam east of today’s intersection of Front and Paxton streets.

The dam turned the “sluggish” Paxton Creek into a pond spread over several acres, Graydon wrote.

Residents believed miasma — noxious air from decaying matter — from the stagnant creek caused the fever. Miasma theory was a popular explanation for disease until it was replaced by germ theory after 1880.

As infections continued in 1794, residents decided it was time to act.

Offers refused

Residents appointed a committee to propose buying the mill from property owners Peter and Abraham Landis. Most of the 2,500 pounds would be raised by subscriptions from inhabitants, according to William Henry Egle in his “History of the Counties of Dauphin and Lebanon.”

But the Landises refused to sell.

In early 1795, residents increased the offer to 2,600 pounds and added a threat: If the Landises again refused, residents would destroy the dam.

But the owners rejected the offer, demanding more than 4,112 pounds.

This outraged lawyer Galbraith Patterson. Writing in the Oracle of Dauphin newspaper, Patterson accused the mill-dam owners of gouging desperate residents in a health crisis.

Patterson’s concerns weren’t limited to the fever’s physical effects. The disease was also bad for business.

Harrisburg was prospering before the dam was built, Patterson wrote: “(E)very industrious man had materially bettered his situation during the health of the place.”

Patterson also accused the Landises of hiring workers who did not contribute to the subscription to buy the mill.

The residents had acted patiently and fairly, according to Patterson. If the owners stuck to their unreasonable demands, then, he wrote in all caps, residents must “TEAR DOWN THE MILL-DAM!!”

Dam destroyed

So they did.

In April, the committee and a number of residents headed for the dam. The committee hired four people to dig a 12-foot-wide hole in the dam, according to Egle.

According to Day, the owners, with several armed employees, watched the destruction of the dam. The Landises threatened to sue, but they ultimately took the money that the committee had offered them.

With the dam destroyed, “it is now hoped that, under the blessing of Divine Providence, this once flourishing place may be restored to its former state of healthiness and prosperity,” the Oracle of Dauphin said.

Those who didn’t contribute money to the effort to buy the Landises’ property ended up paying a different kind of price.

They couldn’t find employment in Harrisburg, Day wrote, so they left.

What was the mystery disease?

Unfortunately, an account from the Landises’ perspective doesn’t seem to exist. It’s unclear whether their dam caused the fever or even what the disease actually was.

In a 2011 article in the journal Pennsylvania History, Suzanne M. Shultz and Arthur E. Crist Jr. of York Hospital concluded that the malady Graydon described was probably yellow fever because of the symptoms and the time of year in which it occurred. They added, though, that malaria shouldn’t be ruled out.

Yellow fever and malaria are spread through mosquito bites, not noxious air.

“The subsequent repossession of the land and destruction of the dam was one of those happy circumstances where the right action was undertaken for the wrong reason,” they wrote.

Joe McClure is a news editor for The Patriot-News. Follow him on Twitter: @jmcclure59.

More from Joe McClure:

• Prescription for tuberculosis a century ago? A shot of Harrisburg’s fresh air

• Spanish flu pandemic in 1918 took a deadly toll on central Pennsylvania

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