An American Plague: The True and Terrifying Story of the Yellow Fever Epidemic of 1793

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1793, Philadelphia. The nation's capital and the largest city in North America is devastated by an apparently incurable disease, cause unknown . . .

In a powerful, dramatic narrative, critically acclaimed author Jim Murphy describes the illness known as yellow fever and the toll it took on the city's residents, relating the epidemic to the major social and political events of the day and to 18th-century medical beliefs and practices. Drawing on first-hand accounts, Murphy ...

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An American Plague: The True and Terrifying Story of the Yellow Fever Epidemic of 1793

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1793, Philadelphia. The nation's capital and the largest city in North America is devastated by an apparently incurable disease, cause unknown . . .

In a powerful, dramatic narrative, critically acclaimed author Jim Murphy describes the illness known as yellow fever and the toll it took on the city's residents, relating the epidemic to the major social and political events of the day and to 18th-century medical beliefs and practices. Drawing on first-hand accounts, Murphy spotlights the heroic role of Philadelphia's free blacks in combating the disease, and the Constitutional crisis that President Washington faced when he was forced to leave the city—and all his papers—while escaping the deadly contagion. The search for the fever's causes and cure, not found for more than a century afterward, provides a suspenseful counterpoint to this riveting true story of a city under siege.

An American Plague's numerous awards include a Sibert Medal, a Newbery Honor, and designation as a National Book Award Finalist. Thoroughly researched, generously illustrated with fascinating archival prints, and unflinching in its discussion of medical details, this book offers a glimpse into the conditions of American cities at the time of our nation's birth while drawing timely parallels to modern-day epidemics. Bibliography, map, index.

Finalist for the 2003 National Book Award, Young People's Literature
A 2004 Newbery Honor Book
Winner of the 2004 Robert F. Sibert Informational Book Award

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"A mesmerizing, macabre account...powerful evocative prose... compelling subject matter...fascinating discussion...valuable lesson in reading and writing history. Stellar." KIRKUS REVIEWS, STARRED REVIEW Kirkus Reviews, Starred

"Leisurely, lyrical tone...Murphy injects the events with immediacy...archival photographs...bring the story to life...comprehensive history." PUBLISHER'S WEEKLY Publishers Weekly

"laudable insight...Readers view the panic from several vantage points...allows his audience to share the contemporary complexity...truly absorbing" THE BULLETIN OF THE CENTER FOR CHILDREN'S BOOKS, STARRED REVIEW The Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books, Starred

"solid research and a flair for weaving facts into fascinating stories...extensive and'll have students hooked on history." SCHOOL LIBRARY JOURNAL, STARRED REVIEW School Library Journal, Starred

"History, science, politics and public health come together in this dramatic account...brings the 'unshakeable unease' chillingly close." BOOKLIST Booklist, ALA

"diverse voices...representative images...Everywhere, Murphy is attentive to telling detail...Thoroughly documented...the work is both rigorous and inviting." THE HORN BOOK MAGAZINE Horn Book

"Nobody does juvenile nonfiction better than Murphy...transparently clear and well-paced prose...grueseome medical details...also plenty of serious history" THE WASHINTON POST BOOK WORLD The Washington Post

"superbly written...represents nonfiction at its best...extremely accessible and outstanding annotated excellent choice" VOICE OF YOUTH ADVOCATES (VOYA) VOYA (Voice of Youth Advocates)

"Lavishly illustrated . . . Murphy unflinchingly presents the horrors. . . . he has produced another book that can make history come alive. . . ."—NY TIMES BOOK REVIEW The New York Times Book Review

"Murphy's dramatic history book...brings to life the determination and perseverance of a people whose future was uncertain." CHRISTIAN SCIENCE MONITOR Christian Science Monitor

The Washington Post
Nobody does juvenile nonfiction better than Murphy. Here, in his usual transparently clear and well-paced prose, he tells the story of the yellow fever outbreak that paralyzed Philadelphia in 1793, when that city was the nation's capital. There are enough gruesome medical details to satisfy even the most ghoulish tastes, but also plenty of serious history, including a moving account of the largely unappreciated volunteer work of members of the Free African Society (Murphy calls them a "battalion of heroes"). — Elizabeth Ward
Publishers Weekly
In marked contrast to the clipped, suspenseful pace of his Inside the Alamo (reviewed above), Murphy here adopts a leisurely, lyrical tone to chronicle the invisible spread of the deadly disease that not only crippled Philadelphia (then the temporary capital of the U.S.) but also set off a constitutional crisis. The author evokes the stifling August heat as well as the boiling controversy surrounding President Washington's decision not to support the French in the war against Britain. The residents, so distracted by the controversy, did not take note of the rising numbers of dead animals lying in open "sinks," or sewers; swarms of insects festering, and a growing population of ill citizens climbing until the church bells tolled grim news of death almost constantly. Murphy injects the events with immediacy through his profiles of key players, such as local doctors who engaged in fierce debates as to the cause, treatment and nature of the "unmerciful enemy"-among them the famous Benjamin Rush. The text documents many acts of heroism, including the Free African Society's contributions of food, medicine and home care: the Society was rewarded afterwards only with injustice. Archival photographs and facsimiles of documents bring the story to life, and a list of further reading points those interested in learning more in the right direction. This comprehensive history of the outbreak and its aftermath lays out the disputes within the medical community and, as there is still no cure, offers a cautionary note. Ages 10-14. (Apr.) Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
From The Critics
In late summer of 1793, while George Washington lived and held office in a borrowed house in Philadelphia and worried about the United States' relationship with France, a mysterious disease began to cripple the city. First afflicted were the people who lived along the docks, but as temperatures rose and humidity clogged the air, sickness spread rapidly among the bustling population of 50,000 people. Within weeks, those who could afford it, including President Washington, his cabinet, and other public servants, had fled to the countryside. This left only the poor to cope with the ravages of a disease whose source and cure were much debated but ultimately unknown until the 20th century. As the dead piled up and city services broke down, a heroic few, including members of the black community, two or three doctors, and a handful of civic leaders, emerged to handle the crisis. In prose as gripping and suspenseful as a novel, Jim Murphy recounts the story of a city in chaos saved by the superhuman efforts of a minority concerned more about others than themselves. In today's atmosphere heavy with the threat of bioterrorism, An American Plague will have particular resonance for young readers. 2003, Clarion, 165 pp., Ages young adult.
—Myrna Dee Marler
Children's Literature
Like his many earlier books, Murphy has approached the yellow fever epidemic of 1793 as the story it is. History is story and Murphy knows it well. This is really the story of the mosquitoes that attacked Philadelphia, but the residents never knew or saw their enemy. Murphy looks at the politics, the fears, and the struggles that Philadelphians coped with during this amazing epidemic. Interestingly, their treatment of the ill has parallels in the modern world with AIDS. This book is a well-researched endeavor with innumerable sources that manages to captivate its readers. 2003, Clarion, Ages 10 to 14.
— Joan Kindig, Ph.D.
School Library Journal
This book tells the story of the yellow fever epidemic in Philadelphia and its effect on the young nation. Students will become immersed in the dramatic narrative as they read how fear and panic spread throughout the country's capital. The author masterfully weaves facts and fascinating stories in describing the course of the disease and the heroic roles played by a few doctors and the free African-American citizens of the city. Black-and-white reproductions of period paintings, maps, and news articles enhance this absorbing title. Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
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+)
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780395776087
  • Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
  • Publication date: 6/23/2003
  • Edition description: None
  • Pages: 176
  • Sales rank: 151,858
  • Age range: 10 - 14 Years
  • Lexile: 1130L (what's this?)
  • Product dimensions: 7.00 (w) x 9.50 (h) x 0.74 (d)

Meet the Author

Jim Murphy is the author of An American Plague , which received the Sibert Medal and a Newbery Honor and was selected as a National Book Award finalist. His Clarion titles include The Boys' War and other award-winning nonfiction.

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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 4
( 16 )
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Sort by: Showing all of 16 Customer Reviews
  • Posted May 12, 2013

    more from this reviewer

    This is not just about the Yellow Fever, this book is not full o

    This is not just about the Yellow Fever, this book is not full of information. This is the type of book kids should be reading for history....Awesome..Well done

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  • Posted May 28, 2012

    Mosquitos can Kill!

    This is an intriguing novel written about the epidemic that swept through North America in the summer of 1793. The story is based on well-researched facts about the plague and includes the viewpoints of citizens, political figures, and actual articles from historical documents. Murphy writes this novel and leaves nothing out, describing the role of President George Washington, the newly drafted constitution and even the free blacks in this country. This story shows the ways and conditions of early American cities at the time of our nation's development. A very interesting story, that you will want to continue to read to the very end.

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  • Posted December 9, 2010

    more from this reviewer


    This book is quite informative for a chapter book! I found it a lot more interesting to read than all the history books about the Yellow Fever Epidemic. Throughout the book there was pictures that seemed to put all the information together. So not only was i learning through the words, i was learning through the images. This book would be an excellent choice for anyone doing a report on this disease or just anyone that wants to educate themselves on Yellow Fever.

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted December 8, 2010

    Great Information

    This powerful, dramatic story by Jim Murphy traces the devastating course of this epidemic. The time period and conditions of the conditions that helped the disease spread throughout the nation's capital are vividly detailed and recounted in this powerful story. Jim Murphy does a great job in showing the heroic role that the free black Philadelphians played in saving their city along with the efforts of politicians and doctors, such as George Washington. The search for the fever's causes and cure provides a suspenseful counterpoint to this intriguing true story of a city under seige. I loved how thouroughly researched this story was as well as the fascinating glimpse into the conditions in American cities at the time of our nation's birth. It's a great story to have in the classroom because of the illustrations that it provides as well as the easy to read medical facts and information. Children will truly enjoy this story.

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  • Posted December 7, 2010

    more from this reviewer

    I Also Recommend:

    It is contagious

    Jim Murphy's informational book about the yellow fever is great. Along with providing primary sources as part of the illustrations, the details about the fever are incredible. The readers will understand the fear that the citizens of Philadelphia went through. This Sibert 2004 winner book is captivating and intriguing. It is amazing to read about all the things the people did to protect themselves from this disease, and what others went through in order to find the cures. This book has both cowards and heroes of the true nature. One may also choose to read the fictional version of this historical event, "Fever 1793".

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 6, 2010

    A Nation in Devastation

    Told by Jim Murphy, An American Plague is a detailed, historical overlook of the mass outbreak of Yellow Fever in 1793 Philadelphia. America, just having come out of the Revolutionary War, was struggling to get on its feet with their mass financial debt, not to mention the oncoming French Revolutionary War which was on the horizon, excepting the US to return its generous favor to aid them in their revolution. The last thing young America needed was another crisis on the local level; however, that is exactly what ensued.

    Starting with a traveling French sailor, the disease rapidly spread, though, the town did not think much of it at first due to the coincidence of the time in which fevers commonly spread during hot weather. It wasn't until the prestigious Dr. Benjamin Rush, whom had seen the disease while an apprentice at the age of sixteen, took a giant bold step and declared it to be the horrific Yellow Fever (Murphy, 2003, p. 15). Ignorance and fear fueled disbelief, but it wasn't long until the evidence of an approaching epidemic of a plague, partly due to the amazingly rising death toll, was incontrovertible.

    The city soon executed a mass exodus, though others stayed behind, locking themselves tight in their homes. News papers issued lists of preventives, some reasonable, some just plain silly, and others caused more panic and paranoia.

    After about five months (August to January), the city seemed to be rid of the fever; however, the disease continued on across borders, devastatingly affecting other countries.

    Being a bit of a history buff, especially with events surrounding the American Revolution, I found this book extremely fascinating. This piece of work could be used, of course, in social studies lessons, ranging from the social issues caused by the disease locally and also how the disease devastated countries far beyond the U.S. border to international issues and how those events of the past have effected they way we live today (our personal lives as well as our government). Children can get a sense of the differences of time from then and now that is displayed in the book: life was not as easy on citizens as it may seem today where medicine and beliefs are concerned; the fact that the U.S. was just getting started; and, just because we won a great victory in the Revolutionary War obviously didn't promise that life would be easy at first.

    I highly recommend this book to teachers and children who are simply interested in American history. A great read for the American history buff - young and old!

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 9, 2008

    A reviewer

    Jim Murphy¿s book has four major awards to its credit: Newbery Honor Book 2004, Boston Globe - Horn Book Award 2004, Orbis Pictus Award 2004, and the Robert F. Sibert Medal 2004. Having recently read this informational work, I can understand why it is highly acclaimed. Murphy tracks the Yellow Fever epidemic of Philadelphia in 1793 from its questionable beginnings to the bitter end. Information taken from the journal entries of the locals, as well as excerpts from the newspaper, The Federal Gazette, allows the reader to gain insight into how the deadly disease affected every citizen of Philadelphia. The use of these primary sources in the book make this a ¿must have¿ for any teacher responsible for instructing students in early American history.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 9, 2005

    An amazing trip back in time

    A true informative and fascinating book for young and old readers. Loved to read and learn so much at the same time. Truly interesting for a non-fiction. It can be read like a novel. Congratulations!

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 16, 2005

    Fascinated with history

    This book was good in details but to really get in depth in the yellow fever epidemic i really recommend fever 1793 i thought it was more powerful with a begger struggle and more developed plot.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 10, 2005


    This is a really good book! It has lots of infroemation and really gruesome details!

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 20, 2004

    Fever spreads throughout Philidalphia

    I loved An American Plague because it has a lot of terrifying problems. When the fever spreads it kills almost 3,000 people leaving 100 behind. If you want to find out more read An American Plague.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 29, 2003


    Reading this book, I discovered that long before SARS and West Nile Virus, America's first medical epidemic changed the course of history. Murphy seems to have a gift for weaving facts into absorbing and provocative stories about America's past. I couldn't believe that in summer of 1793, half of Philadelphia (temporary US Capital) fled the city; a quarter of those who remained died; without any papers George Washington fled and could not convene the government outside the quarantined city, setting off a constitutional crisis; and Philadelphia's free blacks heroically nursed the sick and dying and were condemned for their noble work! This is great, little-known history that explores US history and politics, the history of medicine, African-American history, and current day epidemiology. What Murphy has done for the Alamo (Inside the Alamo, Delacorte,) the Civil War (The Boy's War); etc. etc. he has done here. A read that I know will have my children and my students riveted. I can't recommend this book highly enough.

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    Posted July 22, 2010

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    Posted December 16, 2009

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    Posted February 18, 2009

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    Posted May 18, 2010

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