George Washington Papers

To George Washington from Oliver Wolcott, Jr., 20 October 1793

From Oliver Wolcott, Jr.

Smiths House, Falls of Schuylkill [Pa.]
October 20th 1793


I have had the honour to receive your Letter dated the 14th instant1 and have lost no time in obtaining the best information in my power, on the several questions therein stated.

The malady with which the City is afflicted, has been progressive, from the time of your departure, untill Monday the 14th instant, at which time it had nearly extended through the City—Several small remissions have been observed during that period, all of which were confined to cool days, when the wind was in the northern quarter2—whenever the wind has shifted towards the South, the number of the sick & the mortality have invariably increased. On monday there was a slight fall of rain—which was succeeded by cool days and several frosty nights—the mortality of course greatly diminished and but few comparatively fell sick—the three last days have been more warm, and the unfavourable effects, are at present rather increasing.

From repeated observations it may be infered that the cause of the malady still exists—that its activity is increased by heat & diminished by cold—and that the City will not be purified and rendered safe, untill after heavy rains or severe frosts.

It was very lately Doct. Rush’s opinion that the disorder was more violent & more fatal, than at the time of its first appearance in the City.

Nothing certain is known of the number of victims; for some time, information on this point was carefully concealed; but from data which cannot be very erroneous—I judge that more than four thousand persons, have died.

Mr Willing was for some time sick, but has recovered, Mr John Ross, has resided in the country, and is I presume well; Mr Sergeant & Colo. Franks are dead—several gentlemen of the name of Howell have died, & among them a relation of Mr Rawle who was much esteemed—the accountant of the War Department, has been indisposed, but he has recovered and is now in the Country.3 There is no point on which the public opinion is more unsettled, than in respect to the degree of danger which attends any given position in the vicinity of Philadelphia. It is certain that some gentlemen of good sense and those not deficient in firmness on ordinary occasions, have removed from the villages and estates in the neighbourhood of the City, to more interior situations—a greater number who have not removed, remain at home compleatly insulated from society.

I have regularly obtained good information of the state of the City, and the adjoining places, and it is my opinion that the disorder is generally if not solely communicated by specific contagion—that its ravages have been confined to no age, sex, or temperament—and that it has affected those classes of citizens most extensively, who have been most exposed to intercou[r]se with each other—I mention in proof of this opinion, that six Clerks of the Treasury Department, seven persons employed by the Collector of the Customs—a number of Clerks in the different Banks and three persons in the Post Office have fallen victims—several others have been affected, who have recovered—being in the whole, a very great proportion of all those who have been exposed—A number of persons, belonging to, or resident in the Country, have contracted the disorder by occasional visits to the City—Mr Powel doubtless lost his life in consequence of a humane visit to his house in town, to provide for the accomodation of a favourite servant. The malady moreover appears to be contagious by having been constantly observed to extend and diverge, from infected places. though it is now spread nearly through the City, yet there are some neighbourhoods where it has not yet appeared.

There has all along been a considerable diversity of opinion, in respect to the cause, nature and manner of communicating the malady. some have supposed that it was generated in the City—certain facts have however, been recently stated to me, by men of indisputable honour, which leave no doubt on my mind that it was introduced by an American Vessell, with French passengers & property from Hispaniola—It has also been asserted on respectable authority, that there has been no instance of the disorder being communicated to any person, who has constantly resided out of the City. I must admit that of the numbers, who have died in the villages and places adjacent to the City, I have known of no instance where the person affected, had not visited the City—if the observation should be found true in the latitude it has been made, it would militate with the opinion, which I have advanced and would go far to prove, that a residence near the City, admitting the malady to continue, would be absolutely safe.

The Philadelphians will not abandon their present expectation, that the City will be purified and safe before the meeting of Congress, without painful reluctance—in that event it would be their wish and that of the people adjacent that Congress should convene, as near as possible to the City. Lancaster, Wilmington & Germantown have been mentioned—it is supposed that the latter place would under all circumstances afford the best accomodations.

I have made full enquiry & entertain no doubt that the town is free from contagion—it is certain, that at present, not an individual is affected with the prevailing malady.

I have conversed with a Majistrate of the place and am informed by him & other persons, that if events should render it necessary, every exertion will be made to accomodate Congress and the public Officers—the School House, with the adjoining buildings, may in my opinion, at a small expence, be fitted up & attired, so as to afford tolerable accomodations for the two houses & their immediate Officers.

I have called at the house of the Attorney General near Germantown, and was informed that he was at Lancaster, but was expected soon to return—it was suggested that your Letter had been recd and that measures had been taken for engaging a house, the result of which, were not known.4 Col. Hamilton is in New Jersey, on his way to this place, I shall therefore retain the Letter to him, untill his arrival.5 Genl Knox is I presume from the best information I can obtain, at Boston, to which place, I shall address the Letter transmitted to me by Mr Dandridge, which has been just received.6

It has been just told me, that Doct. Phile, the Naval Officer is dead; though unfounded reports are often circulated I fear that this is true. I have the honour to be with the most perfect respect Sir, your most obedt & humble servant

Oliver Wolcott Jr

ALS, DLC:GW; ADfS, CtHi: Oliver Wolcott, Jr., Papers.

1The draft specifies that Wolcott received GW’s letter “On the evening of the 17th instant.”

2The draft says “western quarter.”

3Jacob Roberts Howell (d. 1793), a lawyer, notary public, and city councilman, was William Rawle’s brother-in-law, having married in 1788 Elizabeth Burge (b. 1767), a sister of Rawle’s wife, Sarah Coates Burge (1761–1824). Joseph Howell, Jr., served as accountant of the War Department from 1792 to 1795.

4Wolcott was referring to GW’s letter to Edmund Randolph of 30 September. See Randolph to GW, 22 Oct., for his efforts to engage a house for GW.

6Wolcott was referring to GW’s letter to Henry Knox of 15 October.

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