The Doctress -or- A Secret History of 1793


Sarah Wood developed a morbid fascination with Philadelphia’s yellow fever epidemic of 1793 while undertaking research for her book, Quixotic Fictions of the USA, 1792-1815 (Oxford University Press, 2005). There had been yellow fever outbreaks before, but the humanitarian and political impact of the 1793 epidemic was unprecedented: 1 in 10 of Philadelphia’s inhabitants perished of the disease, often in squalid conditions, while Philadelphia’s political elite -including current President George Washington and future Presidents John Adams and Thomas Jefferson- fled the city for safer ground.

Writing a chapter on historical and fictional accounts of the epidemic, Sarah Wood was frustrated by the absence of first-hand female accounts: the literate, educated women she had expected to comment on the fever had also left the city at the outbreak of the epidemic, seeking refuge in the more salubrious atmosphere of their summer retreats.

When the ruling class returned, the men and women who had remained in the city and pulled it through the crisis were roundly denounced by the ‘fever narratives’ that were published and widely circulated across the United States in the months following the epidemic. West-Indian refugees, black churchmen, and ordinary tradesmen were all accused or, at the very least, suspected of misconduct. But the harshest opprobrium was reserved for the nurses who had worked at Bush-Hill Hospital. These working-class women were vilified as unfeeling, pilfering, drunkards, too busy copulating in corridors to care for patients in overcrowded wards. With little education, no political influence and no access to the press, the women were unable to defend themselves in print, and their stories went untold.

The Doctress; or, A Secret History of 1793 re-visits this dark, defining moment of US history from a female perspective, tracing the stories of three women -a Quaker doctress, a French refugee, and a runaway Caribbean slave- who are thrown together in the harrowing, yet unexpectedly liberating, atmosphere of plague-ridden Philadelphia. The novel, which is currently under construction, opens with the following letter and frontispiece. The letter is dated 1798, a year of increasing paranoia and xenophobia in political circles, and a period of political repression which saw Philadelphia’s Fall of 1793 re-figured as a compelling metaphor for the dangers of free-thinking refugees and the sexual freedom of women.

Philadelphia, 4th July 1798


It was the Fall of ’93 and the fever had but recently abated. I was called to attend the residence of Mme Lodi, a refugee arrived from Paris that summer, a widow of tender years and beguiling appearance. The patient had conceived an irrevocable mistrust of physicians and was already suffering the trials of a prolonged and difficult labour when her friends prevailed upon her to admit a doctor to the scene. By the time I arrived, the unfortunate patient was beyond hope, and neither mother nor infant survived the agonies of their cruel ordeal.

By some peculiar accident of fate, a packet of papers belonging to the deceased fell into my custody. I found a place for the parcel within my private secretary, under lock and key, and ready for perusal when circumstances allowed. The packet had unaccountably excited my interest and I was eager to untie its bindings and examine its contents. To my frustration, the twinned calls of duty and business kept me occupied throughout the remainder of the day, and it was late into the night before I could retire to my chamber and assuage my curiosity. Upon examination, the packet was found to contain a private manuscript, penned in a somewhat bold and outré style. I am unable to confirm with any certainty the veracity of the narrative; however, judging from the little information I have been able to procure, it would appear to be founded on fact.

The manuscript shone unwelcome and unlooked for light upon the murky events surrounding the morbid fever, which had so lately ravaged our burgeoning city. If its sordid pages are to be credited, then Philadelphia, during the fateful pestilence of 1793, appears to have been the scene of lewdness and violence unprecedented in the annals of our time. Indeed, when I had finished reading its awful, final lines, I shuddered lest it should ever see the light of day and hastily returned the packet to the safety and obscurity of the secret drawer.

Recent events, however, have occasioned me to alter my previous resolution and have induced me to forward these manuscripts to your publishing house with a view to bringing them before the Public. Influenced by the sanguinary course of the French Revolution, political convulsions shake the remotest corners of the globe, and even fair Columbia’s shores have fallen prey to the machinations of disturbant aliens and seditious Jacobins, who contrive to disrupt the unity and contaminate the virtue of the United States. Ours is a brave new world, one that has faced incalculable dangers and made innumerable sacrifices in pursuit of freedom and justice. The material and scientific progress we are daily making, though we inhabit a distant continent, promises to change the face of the civilised world. And yet amongst us there are those who have succumbed to vice and corruption, those who have imbibed the lurking poison that spreads its contagion far and wide. Coming under the influence of pernicious foreign agents, who are prepared to use the most wicked means to accomplish the destruction of our peaceful nation, these renegades from Liberty and Christianity indulge their most sensual desires; they conspire to undermine the virtuous principles of our revolution and overturn the present constitution of our government and society.

I fear events related in The Doctress will shock the refined sensibilities of my unsuspecting countrymen. This notwithstanding, the dangers that beset our fledgling nation must be set before the Public, so that patriotic and dutiful Americans can smoke out the enemies within our midst, expose their treachery, and purge them from our homes and from our shores.


  • About

    Sarah Wood studied English at Cambridge University and completed a PhD in early American literature at University College London. She held a Leverhulme Research Fellowship at Sussex University in 2004-05. In addition to writing The Doctress, she is a director of Unruly Media, and lectures in digital media, viral marketing, and the YouTube Revolution at several UK universities.

    Her entry 'The Doctress -or- A Secret History of 1793' appears in Bedeutung Magazine Issue 2/ Human & Divine, available here for purchase.