The mysterious plague of 1770

Over 200 years ago, Haiti was rocked by a terrible earthquake, and then by something worse. Over 15,000 people died from a mysterious plague that no one could quite figure out. It was a hundred years before people discovered the cause of the disease.

On June 3, 1770, the earthquake struck Haiti, centering on the city of Port-au-Prince. Few buildings were engineered up for a seismic event, and there was widespread architectural devastation. The earthquake shook up the social and political institutions of the time as well. In the chaos, many slaves took the opportunity to escape into the countryside. Their escape proved exactly how much Haiti had depended on their labor for stability. An entire group of people responsible for harvesting and cooking the food had gone, and people everywhere faced starvation. The slaves hiding in the countryside also reduced the amount of wild food available for gathering by city-dwellers. Haitians were facing starvation.

Which might explain why people bought shipments of meat that were otherwise unsaleable from Spanish merchants. The meat had come from cattle that had been sick, and soon afterwards, people began dying in droves. The sickness, which started with weakness and fever and ended with painful, blackened lesions and death, spread through the cities and the countryside. No one could figure out what exactly the sickness was, or how to avoid it.

The earthquake, the plague, the escaped slaves, and the fact that the Haitian revolution followed relatively closely on the heels of it all, caused other countries to take interest. People around the world speculated on what exactly had caused the estimated 15,000 deaths. French officials thought it was smallpox. Noah Webster, who was an epidemiologist before he found his true calling, believed it was the Black Death.

Today, few believe that either smallpox or the Black Death could spread through the city with such speed. The plague has popped up in cities after earthquakes, when people are forced to live in close proximity, out in the open, with few sanitary facilities. San Francisco had a problem with it after 1906. But the spreading of the sickness in Haiti was so fast that most modern experts agree it could only have one cause — anthrax. Anthrax spores disperse especially well from dead bodies, and can survive high temperatures. Some speculate that anthrax was the fifth plague of Egypt — "the hand of the Lord will bring a terrible plague on your livestock in the field. On your horses and donkeys and camels and on your cattle and sheep and goats" — but even if anthrax wasn't Biblical, it had been feared since ancient times.

As soon as the tainted meat was purchased, people transported it throughout the city. It would have made an excellent substance to use for trade. Kitchen facilities were destroyed., and firewood was scarce; since few people had the ability to cook the meat, they ingested the it smoked or salted, and got intestinal anthrax. A few people must have made the connection between the meat and the sickness, but it made little difference. Even if people suspected the meat was bad, famine was rampant just after the earthquake, and many would have taken their chances. Within a few days, the plague was everywhere, and the bacteria multiplied inside people to spread even further.

Although the mysterious plague sparked speculation well into the mid-19th century, it dropped off the historical map by the late 1800s. Today, it's mostly known to medical historians as one of the earliest descriptions of a huge anthrax outbreak.

Image: Arthur Friedlander

[Via CDC, Bacteria: The Benign, the Bad, and the Beautiful]