The Spatial Ecology of Yellow Fever in New Orleans, 1853

City of New Orleans, Louisiana in 1872. A steel engraving from a study by Alfred Rudolph Waud, engraved by D. G. Thompson and published in Picturesque America, D. Appleton & Company, New York, New York 1872, 1:265. Scanned from the book. From

Reading the Historical Geography Research Group’s summer newsletter led me (via a piece by David Beckingham) to look at an interesting moment in the history of medical cartography: a map by Dr. Edward H. Barton that was included in his “Report upon the Sanitary Condition of New Orleans” (part of the famous Report of the Sanitary Commission of New Orleans on the Epidemic Yellow Fever of 1853).

Caption: E. H. Barton’s Sanitary Map of New Orleans (1854) depicts “various nuisances and other causes” that he associated with yellow fever, cholera, and other diseases. Via Willoughby, 2018. This image was published by the New Orleans Sanitary Commission. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Public Domain Mark 1.0 License.

As Stevenson (1965) points out, this actually wouldn’t qualify as a spot map of disease, nor does it fulfil the claim for “presenting the localization of all the cases of yellow fever of the year”, though it does show the general locality. Indeed, he points out that this would have been a graphic challenge, given that there were nearly 30,000 cases in that year. Yet the map is important for the history of social cartography for two reasons: First, it presents an apparent association between locale and the clustering of disease, showing (in glorious detail), the location of “various Nuisances and other causes affecting the Salubrity of the City. . . . ,” such as cemeteries, slaughter houses, “vacheries,” [“nasties”] livery stables, sugar depots on the levee, factories of various kinds, open basins and unfilled lots, canals, drains, and gas works, not omitting “fever nests” and crowded boarding houses. It also shows pavements of stone, plank roads, and unsurfaced streets, as well as regions where soil had been disturbed and overturned, alongside information on the seven ships that – it was thought at the time – were the source of the disease. Second, it provides evidence of an association between topography and spatial layout.

Detail of E. H. Barton’s Sanitary Map of New Orleans (1854) depicts “various nuisances and other causes” that he associated with yellow fever, cholera, and other diseases. The dark lines “indicate disturbances of the soil, as digging for Railroads, earth thrown from Canals, Drains, or Ditches, or buildings laying down pipes for water or gas,” and the checkered lines “indicate such Nuisances as Cemeteries … Markets, Sugar depots on the levee … Fever nests, [and] Crowded boarding houses.” Via Willoughby, 2018.
Barton’s report showed how a plague spot “exists here on the river bank, because at this season (August and September) the river is low and the bank exposed, leaving an extensive surface—the common receptacle of all kinds of filth—and here, or not far distant, we find the large amount of unacclimated population; but it [the disease] first breaks out and spreads in St. Thomas and Madison streets, St. Mary street, about the Markets, at the triangle, Gormley’s Basin, &c. Sec. . . . — all filthy, crowded and badly ventilated localities.” (quoted in Stevenson, 1965, 257-258)

According to the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control, yellow fever is spread via Aedes (Stegomyia) aegypti, commonly known as the Yellow fever mosquito. It is a known vector of several viruses including yellow fever virus, dengue virus chikungunya virus and Zika virus. It thrives in densely populated areas which lack reliable water supplies, waste management and sanitation.

In fact, as Willoughby (2018) maintains, the construction of the city 300 years ago, which entailed draining the swamps and building flood walls against the Mississippi, shaped its landscape for the long term. In addition, massive demographic change that brought about a large influx of workers, including slaves, contributed to the emergence of New Orleans and its surroundings as a zone of yellow fever. The map featured above captured the city shortly after the most devastating epidemic of the disease, that killed nearly 15% of its inhabitants.

Barton was an anticontagionist – rather than supporting the idea of disease being spread through human contact – anticontagionists believed that contagion occurred due to the locale, namely – that the environment of the locale itself was blamed for the disease. (See full explanation in Gilbert, 2002). The local stench was supposedly a sign of this, though confusingly there was the added element of incomers (“foreign elements” bringing the disease with them via the ports. This was a theory that had barely progressed from Seaman’s yellow fever maps of New York, 1799 (see image below), which had similarly showed the apparent association between “the fever” and the port. Yet, the report is significantly more sophisticated, with detailed descriptions of sanitary conditions, along with tables of statistics.

Plate II from Seaman’s “An Inquiry into the Cause of the Prevalence of the Yellow Fever in New-York,” dated March 10, 1797. Medical Repository, 1 (1800, 2nd edition): 303-323 [Rare Books Collection]. Image via Historic Maps Collection, Princeton University Library © 2012  
The spatial ecology of the disease is clear from Barton’s report. What is saddening to note is the preponderance of cases having occurred close to the water, in low-lying areas. That same spatial patterning can be seen 100 years later in the redlining map of New Orleans, pictured below, which designated the districts by the water as being most at risk for defaulting from loans. It is no coincidence that the city surveyor coloured as red, namely “hazardous” vast tracts of areas inhabited by “Negroes”, who were spatially segregated from the white inhabitants of the city due to racial zoning laws from decades earlier. It is also a sad truth to find that the devastating effects of Hurricane Katrina in 2005 also disproportionately affected the city’s African Americans, still living in the flood plain 60 years after the city’s spatial patterns of poverty had been fixed on a map.

Redline map of New Orleans, c. 1935, showing the desirability, namely the risk of loan defaults, of making bank loans to property in the city. This is part of a national programme of assessing neighbourhoods in major cities in the US. Ranking was according to four grades A to D, colour coded as green, blue, yellow and red, respectively; hence redlining (in fact, red shading would be more precise). Image via  NATIONAL ARCHIVES CATALOG


Gilbert, Pamela K. 2002. The Victorian Social Body and Urban Cartography. In Imagined Londons, edited by P. K. Gilbert: State University of New York Press.

Stevenson, Lloyd G. 1965. Putting Disease on the Map: The Early Use of Spot Maps in the Study of Yellow Fever. Journal of the History of Medicine and Allied Sciences 20 (3):226-261.

Willoughby, Urmi Engineer. 2018. The Ecology of Yellow Fever in Antebellum New Orleans: Sugar, Water Control, and Urban Development. Environment & Society Portal, Rachel Carson Center for Environment and Society Spring 2018 (1).

See also: Chapter 2. Disease: The city as organism in Vaughan, L. 2018 (IN PRESS). Mapping society: the spatial dimensions of social cartography. London: UCL Press.


Poverty concealed, but just around the corner

E.P. Thompson, the ‘New Left’ social historian of seventeenth and eighteenth working-class England has written how by the 1830s and 40s the working people were “virtually segregated in their stinking enclaves” – this was not just social segregation, but spatial segregation too, with the middle-classes getting as far out of the polluted industrial cities “as equestrian transport made convenient.” Even in comparatively well-built Sheffield,

‘All classes, save the artisan and the needy shopkeeper, are attracted by country comfort and retirement. The attorney-the manufacturer-the grocer-the draper-the shoemaker and the tailor, fix their commanding residences on some beautiful site.’

Even more was the case in Manchester, where the poor lived in courts and cellars “hidden from the view of the higher ranks by piles of stores, mills, warehouses, and manufacturing establishments, less known to their wealthy neighbours … than the inhabitants of New Zealand or Kamtschatka”. Thompson quotes a contemporary writer stating how:

‘The rich lose sight of the poor, or only recognise them when attention is forced to their existence by their appearance as vagrants, mendicants, or delinquents. We have improved on the proverb, “One half of the world does not know how the other half lives,” changing it into “One half of the world does not care how the other half lives.’ …”[1]

Victoria Bridge, Manchester by James Mudd, c.1864 (GB124.Q38)
Victoria Bridge, Manchester by James Mudd, c.1864 © Manchester Archives & Local Studies Central Library, M60991 (GB124.Q38)

It is in fact interesting to see how the notion of ‘How the Other Half Lives’ was later picked up by Jacob Riis in his own account of life in the New York tenements of the 1890s, where he describes how the unventilated courts were a breeding ground for disease, hidden away from the eyes of the people of the city.[2]

The spatial nature of poverty was especially apparent in the Cheetham Hill area of Manchester, which suffered from its geographical situation, sloping down to the railway in the valley of the Irk,[3] with houses arranged in cramped rows along excavated shelves separated and supported by flimsy retaining walls. This area of ‘classic slum’ was, according to Bill Williams physically invisible: “self-contained and shielded from view by the lie of the land and a facade of shops and public buildings, socially barricaded by the railway and industries in the polluted valley of the Irk, and so neglected and ill-lit as to be in a state of ‘perpetual midnight'”.[4].

I write in Mapping Society how no language, especially when used to describe marginality, is entirely neutral. When Engels was roaming the streets of London, visiting the slums, but also negotiating his way through the streets of ‘The Great Town’, he wrote: ‘The very turmoil of the streets has something repulsive, something against which human nature rebels’.[5] This could be interpreted as a repulsion against the lack of care towards the city’s poor, but equally, his words can be read as horror at the degradation of their behaviour as well. Out of sight is truly out of mind and it is thanks to the social investigators of a century and a more ago that we are a bit less complacent about the poverty that is situated just around the corner.


[1] Thompson, E.P. 1963. The Making of the English Working Class: Penguin Books (A Pelican Book), pp. 321-2. I’m grateful to Duncan Hay from Survey of London for bringing this passage to my attention.

[2] Riis, Jacob August. 1890. How the other half lives: Studies among the tenements of New York. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons.

[3]See Makepeace (1997).

[4]  The district became an area of high density settlement by Jewish immigrants from the 1870s onwards. Quote is from: Williams, B., 1985. ‘The Anti-Semitism of Tolerance: Middle-Class Manchester and the Jews 1870-1900’, in: Kidd, A., Roberts, K. (Eds.), City, Class and Culture. Manchester UP, Manchester, pp. 74-102, p. 81.

[5] F. Engels, The Condition of the Working Class in England (New York and London: Panther Edition, 1891 (first published Leipzig: Otto Wigand, 1845), p. 57.


Intemperance in New York: “Where Lager Reigns, 1883”

I spotted a tweet by the New York Map Society the other day, featuring a map of saloons in the city from 1894, one of many examples to be found during this period in the world’s most crowded cities. This was a period when temperance societies were fighting their hardest against the dual evils of poverty and excess drinking, preaching godliness and offering (mainly in vain) alternative attractions such as church and ‘mutual improvement’ in the form of public lectures and societies.

Liquordom in New York City, 1883. Robert Graham, 1883. Copyright Cornell University – PJ Mode Collection of Persuasive Cartography

As I write in my chapter on crime in Mapping Society, ‘intemperance’ was often linked with various other social evils supposedly relating to immorality – the one being often viewed as the progenitor of the other. In the UK, James Kneale has written, the social context of drink – the role of the drink trade and rituals of conviviality (‘treating’, or buying a round of drinks amongst friends or acquaintances) – became common discussion points in temperance documents.[ii]

The temperance societies in the United States had a similarly challenging role. In Chicago and other major cities the various temperance societies did battle with the large number of saloons on the city streets. Robert Graham’s 1883 pamphlet, ‘Liquordom in New York City, New York’, contained a series of maps of sections of the city’s streets, marked up with the various types of ‘liquor’ available. New York’s infamous Bowery district is shown with an almost uniform array of saloons on every street in the area, although closer inspection reveals lager beer is present on many more streets than ‘liquor’ (spirits). His pamphlet compares the numbers of saloons, or drink-shops, and the churches and schools in New York City, writing that:

‘It is an undoubted fact that just where the poverty and misery is greatest, there is the largest number of saloons. Granted squalid and overcrowded homes, with a minimum of comfort and a maximum of filth, it is not to be wondered at that saloons with polished woods, meretricious gilding, light, warmth, and freedom, should compete with and beat out of the field the three bare and comfortless rooms which are home only in name. To the real home in the city of New York, which is within the reach of every man in it, there can be no deadlier enemy than the 10,168 saloons which crowd its alleys and throng its courts.’[iii]

The attraction of the gilded interior was in contrast with the squalor of the surrounding housing. Almost simultaneously with Graham’s work, Henry Blair, a Republican senator from New Hampshire, was drawing up a map locating saloons across New York City to accompany his book The Temperance Movement or the Conflict between Man & Alcohol, published in 1888. I recommend viewing the map in all its glory on the Cornell website, but a snippet below gives one a sense of the masses of drinks establishments, yet also of the patterning of their distribution: denser on some streets and lighter on others. It is possible to see a regularity in this distribution, which I attribute to the patterns of street accessibility in the city, what we call in space syntax theory, the ‘movement economy’.

Looking at the analysis of the street layout of 1891, we can see that while there is a social logic to the distribution of saloons, it also follows a spatial logic: Christie and Forsyth streets (running left to right – that is, south to north – on the map) are both highly accessible streets at the neighbourhood scale; in other words, you would expect there to be much more passing traffic along those streets than on the streets lying to their east. On the other hand, when considering patterns of accessibility at a more local scale, the streets at the heart of Manhattan’s Jewish quarter formed a localised area of relative inaccessibility, which would have helped create a sense of an inward-looking district that simultaneously connected outwards along its main roads.[iv]

Detail of The Temperance Movement or the Conflict between Man & Alcohol (Saloon Map of New York City), 1888, overlaid on space syntax analysis of Manhattan c.1891.
The section of the saloon map is highlighted with a black, dashed box.
Original map by Henry Blair, 1888, copyright Cornell University – PJ Mode Collection of Persuasive Cartography. Spatial syntax analysis overlay by Garyfalia Palaiologou, 2017.


[i] Graham, cited in P.T. Winskill, The Temperance Movement and Its Workers: A Record of Social, Moral, Religious, and Political Progress (London, Glasgow, Edinburgh and New York: Blackie, 1892), p. 51.

[ii] J. Kneale, ‘The Place of Drink: Temperance and the Public, 1856–1914,’ Social & Cultural Geography 2, no. 1 (2001), p. 53.

[iii] The map states that ‘On the 30th day of April 1886, it appeared from the records of the Board of Excise Commissioners, that there were 9168 Licenses to sell intoxicating liquor in force in the city, and 1000 places, by estimate, were selling without license. Total number of saloons or places where liquor was obtainable, 10168; of which over 9000 licensed places are located on this map.’

[iv] The analysis of the street layout of Manhattan at the scale of the entire island finds the main north–south routes being the most accessible; at the more local, neighbourhood scale (segment angular integration at radius 2500, illustrated in the main space syntax image in Figure 6.10), it is avenues such as the Bowery, running on to become Second Avenue, that are the most likely to have generated high rates of pedestrian movement alongside significant vehicular transport. The inset of shows analysis of the same measure at the radius of 800m, a scale which predicts local movement flows. Full space syntax analysis of Manhattan over time can be found in G. Palaiologou, ‘Between Buildings and Streets: A Study of the Micromorphology of the London Terrace and the Manhattan Row House 1880–2013’ (Ph.D. diss., UCL, 2015).