1798 Yellow Fever Epidemic

New York City

Outbreaks of yellow fever were an almost annual occurrence in the decade 1795-1804 and reached epidemic proportions in New York similar to Philadelphia’s outbreak five years earlier from July to October 1798. Some 2,100 of the city’s population of about 35,000 died of the fever that year. The toll included prominent citizens such as Anti-Federalist Melancton Smith and printer Thomas Greenleaf. Street vendors hawked “Coffins—coffins of all sizes.” Many of the dead were buried in mass graves on what is now the site of Washington Square Park, which then was on the outskirts of the city.

In 1799, the city’s two chartered banks, the Bank of New York and the branch of the Bank of the United States, relocated from Wall Street to Greenwich Village, also on the outskirts, during the expected fever months. The sites of the banks became the West Village’s Bank Street.

That same year, the state chartered the Manhattan Company, which proposed to alleviate fever outbreaks by supplying purer water to the city. Sponsored by Aaron Burr, its real purpose was banking. Burr inserted a clause into the charter that allowed any surplus capital the company had to be “employed in the purchase of public and private stocks, or in any other moneyed transactions or operations” that were legal. The Manhattan Company was supposed to supply a lot of water and do a little banking. Instead, it supplied little water and did a lot of banking.

Securities prices rose during the epidemic and by December were significantly higher: Bank of New York from 132% to 134% of par; BUS from $464 to $500; US Deferreds from $63.75 to $67.50; US Sixes from $73.75 to $80; US Threes from $45 to $50.