Immunity, Capitalism, and the Antebellum New Orleans

“Science Laboratory”, Lincoln Hospital and Home, New York, 1931 (NYPL/ Schomburg Center)

Many believed that Union soldiers stationed in New Orleans, Louisiana, would soon die. Both Union soldiers and city residents expected that yellow fever—the mosquito-borne disease that caused epidemics, killed thousands, and disrupted cotton and sugar markets in the region—would kill the troops and relieve New Orleanians from Union presence. Union major general Benjamin F. Butler, responsible for numbers of men never exposed to yellow fever and now facing its risks, issued general orders that were unprecedented public health reforms for New Orleans. He established quarantine, demanded heads of households to sanitize their homes, and told Mayor John T. Monroe to hire unemployed people as sanitation workers. Despite Monroe’s noncompliance, Butler administered the reforms, levying new taxes on elites, distributing seized Confederate beef and sugar among the unemployed, and mobilizing teams to sanitize the streets. During war years, there were only a handful of officially recorded yellow fever deaths, emphasizing the importance of competent public health leadership (Olivarius, 231-234).

In Kathryn Olivarius’s Necropolis: Disease, Power, and Capitalism in the Cotton Kingdom (Harvard University Press, 2022), Butler is an outlier. New Orleans elites did not prioritize disease prevention as Butler did. Rather, they embraced yellow fever and used people’s immunity status to segment society through a process Olivarius calls immunocapitalism. People fell under the categories of acclimated (the haves) and unacclimated (the have-nots). Acclimated individuals survived yellow fever and had lifelong immunity. They were considered more creditworthy, reliable, and politically apt (9). Unacclimated individuals remained vulnerable and were “strangers”— they could not fully integrate with acclimated society without surviving yellow fever first (9). Thus, Olivarius’s central argument is that yellow fever was unlike other epidemics and pandemics that were able to subdue social and economic inequalities in other societies. Instead, in antebellum New Orleans, yellow fever and immunity status reinforced racial and class hierarchies.

Early into Louisiana’s acquisition, New Orleans was in the middle of its fourth yellow fever epidemic in a decade, killing scores of newcomers and prompting wealthy merchants and aldermen to flee (30). As the white population dwindled, fears of slave insurrections grew. Mass yellow fever death cast doubt on new Americans’ ability to survive and succeed in New Orleans and project confidence to local Creoles and the wider world. Most people who caught yellow fever died, and there was little understanding of the disease. Survivors were acclimated for life, which encouraged white Americans to embrace it and hope for immunity. To preserve the Cotton Kingdom, many projected the myth of natural immunity onto Black people to encourage racial slavery.

Adherents of the logic of racial immunity “insisted that all Black people, free or not, possessed a racial immunity so powerful that it protected even the most serious alcoholics from sickness and even the most depraved from death” (80).

Olivarius’s demonstration of the city’s self-induced incapacity to handle yellow fever epidemics is effective. The city’s board of health was responsible for disease prevention and management and was incredibly inept. Most members lacked medical or statistical training (84). Concerned primarily with keeping ports open and commerce alive, the board seldom kept an accurate account of how many people died from the disease. Assuming racial immunity, officials undercounted how many Blacks, free or enslaved, died too.

Haphazard public health policy helped generate the victimization of New Orleans’s commodity markets and those who profited from them. Cotton and sugar exports dropped substantially during fever seasons; planters were unable to sell their crops; and slaveowners feared for their economic health when the enslaved, contrary to the logic of racial immunity, became sick. Although there were doctors and nurses who performed their jobs with a genuine desire to help others, many medical professionals in the New Orleans area relied on consistent yellow fever cases for profits. Steady supplies of patients enabled doctors to acquire capital that they could invest in the South’s primary method of generating wealth: plantations (106). Solutions to reduce yellow fever cases threatened the business class.

The requisite to enter this elite class was immunocapital. This central concept is defined as “socially acknowledged lifelong immunity to a highly lethal, incurable virus” (115). Olivarius describes the merchant Vincent Nolte’s brush with yellow fever. Public acknowledgment of his survival was crucial for his success. His immunocapital engendered confidence among associates and banks who invested in him and rendered him socially desirable for family formation and political participation (115). White newcomers understood that to share Nolte’s fate, embracing yellow fever and proving immunity were required (119). More perversely, survival and death took spiritual meaning depending on class. It was God’s will if an elite died; it was a consequence of choice if a poor individual died (139).

Immunocapital, as a concept, enables Olivarius’s explanations for why New Orleans spent virtually nothing on public health. New Orleans stood in contrast to the national trend of cities enacting public health reforms (156-157). Disease prevention strategies such as quarantines were anathema to city officials, who considered them to be too costly for slavery, cotton, sugar, or banking industries in which they shared wealth interests (160). Public health costs were transformed into private financial burdens, but those with policymaking power decided that theirs would be relinquished at the expense of public welfare. Individual people paid for their medical bills, medicine, or life and death, so authorities did not feel responsible for promoting quarantines. Even doctors, such as Samuel Cartwright, objected to quarantines because “it was ‘safer for the public health to let trade be free than to shackle it [with quarantine]” (173).

Active, municipally-funded sanitation efforts occurred along class and race lines, which emphasizes the grip immunocapitalists held over public health. “In the busy commercial districts populated by cotton and sugar merchants, the city council routinely authorized the mayor to pay to fill potholes, repave streets, expand sidewalks, and reinforce the levee” (178). Meanwhile, in areas such as Marigny, where poorer residents, recent immigrants, Black, and disenfranchised people lived, the city council decided that the inhabitants would be responsible for cleanup and for fees if they did not (179).

The city’s elite exploited the lower classes. New Orleans drew revenue from a population that needed social services most: unacclimated, largely immigrant, and disproportionately poor people. The poor helped fund New Orleans “through a complex system of professional licensing fees, head taxes on arriving passengers, arbitrary fines, and stealth taxes” and licensed as much as it could outside of cotton and banking to raise revenue (189-190).

Protecting slavery and immunocapitalism were entangled and appeared more fragile as sectional tension rose in the country and epidemics increased. To Southerners, the Union threatened to end slavery and end disease denialism. Olivarius concludes Necropolis with a before-and-after illustration of military occupation’s role in improving New Orleans’ cleanliness and health, thanks to the aforementioned Benjamin Butler. New Orleans progressed on this front; “the war had proved that Black people were not entirely immune to yellow fever; that the city’s health could be improved; that quarantines were effective; and that northern critics of their system were not ignorant quacks but actually had some good ideas” (239). But postwar elites were determined to use immunocapitalism, reworking its logic of racial immunity to suggest that enslavement granted resistance to yellow fever, not Blackness as originally presumed. These elites continued to weaponize yellow fever to subjugate freedpeople and exclude them from full citizenship and capitalist participation (237).

Necropolis shows us how postwar New Orleans’ anti-infrastructure and anti-public health stances facilitated greater flows of people and products away from it. Olivarius provides an excellent account of how it ended up like this through society’s use of yellow fever to organize social and economic life. It challenges prior scholarship that suggests epidemics and pandemics can level out societies’ existing inequalities by examining how and why elites strived to consolidate their power over unacclimated groups. Necropolis will appeal to historians of capitalism and class- and racial formations and joins urban histories concerned with public health management. Although one question may emerge for women and gender historians—how did Southern white women utilize their immunocapital, given that many were direct participants of the slavery market and marketplace in general?

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Maniza Ahmed

Maniza Ahmed is a history Ph.D. student at the University of Chicago. She studies the political economy of domestic work in the 20thcentury US. Broadly, she is interested in labor, gender, and racial formations.