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AN AMERICAN PLAGUE by Jim Murphy Kirkus Star


The True and Terrifying Story of the Yellow Fever Epidemic of 1793

by Jim Murphy

Age Range: 10 & up

Pub Date: April 21st, 2003
ISBN: 0-395-77608-2
Publisher: Clarion

A mesmerizing, macabre account that will make readers happy they live in the 21st century. The yellow fever epidemic of 1793 snuck up on the people of Philadelphia during the hot summer; by the end of the year, some 10 percent of the city’s population lay dead. Drawing heavily on primary sources, Murphy (Inside the Alamo, p. 393, etc.) takes readers through the epidemic, moving methodically from its detection by the medical community; through its symptoms, treatment, and mortality; its effects on the populace, and what Philadelphia did to counter it. Individual chapters recount the efforts of the heroes of the epidemic: the quasi-legal committee of 12 who took over the running of the city government; the country’s preeminent physician, Dr. Benjamin Rush; and the Free African Society, whose members toiled valiantly to ease the victims’ pain and to dispose of the dead. Powerful, evocative prose carries along the compelling subject matter. Even as the narrative places readers in the moment with quotations, the design aids and abets this, beginning each chapter with reproductions from contemporary newspapers and other materials, as well as placing period illustrations appropriately throughout the text. The account of Philadelphia’s recovery wraps up with a fascinating discussion of historiography, detailing the war of words between Matthew Carey, one of the committee of 12, and Absalom Jones and Richard Allen, the leaders of the Free African Society—interesting in itself, it is also a valuable lesson in reading and writing history. Stellar. (bibliography, illustration credits, index) (Nonfiction. 10+)