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p152 Behind the Yellow Fever in Little Palermo
Housing Conditions which New Orleans should Shake Itself Free from along with the Summer's Scourgea

Eleanor McMain
Head-worker of Kingsley House and President of the Woman's League

[The four introductory sketches are set down as they were told to the writer by one of the Italian Relief Committee.]

Some Glimpses of the Italian Quarter

I

He was a helper to a blacksmith, broad of chest and strong of limb, a picturesque young giant, the embodiment of physical strength and prowess.

I often stopped to watch him as he worked, and one day we began to talk together. He told me of his hopes and plans; how he was saving — saving — "and soon now — before many months" — he said one day, with a tender softening of his black eyes — "the little wife in far off Sicily is coming."

But while we talked together during those early summer days, an enemy had entered into the heart of "Little Palermo."

I was called on to do my part in fighting this enemy, and it had been more than a week since I had seen Tonio. Hurrying down St. Philip street one day, I heard a voice calling, and turning saw a young Italian boy about twelve years old, running towards me.

"Come quick," he said, "to Tonio! He wants you!"

Down the street, up a narrow alley across the little court, I followed him. In a tiny, low-ceiled, windowless room, I found my poor young friend, with eyes suffused and cheeks red and burning. He was half sitting, half reclining, on his little cot. Naught else was in the room save one chair and a rude wash bench which held a basin and pitcher. Jumping up at sight of me, he grasped merely hands in his fevered ones, and began excitedly — "I no sick — I no sick! but I tell you something."

"My poor friend!" I answered soothingly. "You are burning with fever. Now lie quiet till I get you a doctor."

"No, no," he exclaimed wildly. "I go to my work! I no sick, but I tell you something." Then sinking down on the little bed, he reached beneath the mattress and drew forth a bag. With fever-palsied fingers he counted out his treasure, one — two — ten — twenty — fifty — one hundred — two hundred — three hundred — three hundred and seventy-five dollars.

"There," he said, with a look of confidence, "you, my friend — for my wife in Sicily." Then he fell back exhausted upon his pillow.

While his comrade, a little lad who had called me, crouched whimpering in the corner, I rushed out to find a doctor. After four hours I was again at the entrance of the alley, and this time the doctor was with me. Tonio was wildly excited when he saw us, and staggered to his feet, saying over and over again, "I no sick, I no sick, I go to my work."

The doctor shook his head as he looked at Tonio; then round the stifling little room. "No chance here," he said to me. "The Emergency Hospital is our one hope, but," glancing at Tonio who was eyeing us suspiciously, "how to get him there is the question."

"Tonio, my friend," I said to him, "let us take you to a place where you can have nurses and medicine and get well. This is the doctor; come now with him and me." As I laid my hand on his arm the young giant shook himself free, and hurled himself at us with such fury that we beat a hasty retreat; it was only with the help of two policemen that we finally got him into the ambulance and to the hospital.

Late that night I got back to the hospital and to Tonio. Over him was bending a nurse, gently urging him to take some cold water from a glass. Tonio was glaring up at her, his teeth tightly clenched, all the suspect and hatred born of ignorance and superstition glowing in his fevered eyes. At sight of my familiar face, there came a look of intense relief. p154Grasping my hand as the nurse stepped aside, he began to mutter through cracked, parched lips, "I no sick, I go to my work!" Then again — "You wont forget — the money — for my wife in Sicily?"

Taking up the glass of water I held it to him saying, "Drink, Tonio, this is water to cool your fever and ease your parched lips;" but he clenched his teeth tightly and shook his head. "Look," I said, and lifting the glass to my lips drank a part of the water. "Ah," he gasped, stretching forth both hands eagerly for the glass which he drained greedily.1

"Take some more, Tonio," I said, as the nurse quietly refilled the glass and handed it to me. Again the look of suspicion, the tightly clenched teeth, and he slowly shook his head. Once more I raised the glass to my lips and immediately his trembling hands reached out for it and again he eagerly drank. Then holding fast to my hand, he gradually sank into a fitful sleep.

"What are his chances, doctor?" I asked. "Too late, I am afraid," said the physician, "he must have been ill two days before you found him."

Just at sunset the next day, I went again to see Tonio. He had been wildly delirious for hours, the nurse said, but now he seemed perfectly conscious and quiet.

"Well, Tonio," I said, "don't you like this bed, and is not your nurse all right?" He nodded approvingly, and a faint smile hovered about his lips.

In a little while he began to mutter and we saw a shadowy pallor creeping over his face. Bending over him I heard — "I no sick — I go to my work" — then in a little while he began groping feebly for my hand — whispering — "I — I — not see — you — my — friend — hold — my — hand — so — it — makes — me — feel — stronger. — The — money — for my wife — at home — you — won't — forget?"

II

"Do you know," said a fellow-worker to me, "that Joe Orlando has the fever? There he is in that one room with his wife and his five little ones. Can't you get him out of there? You know him and can talk to him. He has just taken ill, and if we can get him out at once, he may get well and the others may escape the fever."

"No, no; I stay right here," said Joe, vehemently, a few hours later. "Look here," said I, "this bed is hard; you have to sleep with the others. At the hospital you have a bed to yourself, clean and soft, plenty of nice air, nurses, doctors, medicine, come!"

Reluctantly, after much persuasion, he consented. But my first visit to him found him restless, dissatisfied, begging to be taken away, back to the one bed in the one room with the dirt, the discomfort, the bad air. That was home to him, the one place where he longed to be.

"If he does not stop exciting himself and let us do what is necessary for him he cannot expect to get well," said the doctor and nurse. "Now look here, Joe," I said to him, "don't be a fool. You know Mary and Francesca came here, and they got well, didn't they? But how about tony and Antoinette and the others in your block that didn't come here. Did they get well?"

***

A thin, sallow, but very happy Joe met me a few days ago, and embracing me after the manner of our country, said, "Ah, a grand‑a place, the hospital — grand‑a-place‑a!"

III

He was a stranger from the country, and was taken at once from the lodging-house to the Emergency Hospital. "Write to my father," he said to me, "I have a father, mother and five sisters; get me what I need; I can pay. We have a strawberry farm at Independence, Louisiana. Do what you can for me, doctor, I don't want to die."

He was making a brave fight, but the chances seemed against him. Higher and higher went the fever. Word came from the father, "Save him, we will pay, do all you can." The dread black vomit came, and doctor and nurse looked grave. "You had better telegraph," they said to p155me. I sent the message that was to prepare them for the worst.

The next evening as my wife and I sat at dinner we heard a strange sound issuing from our front hall — a sound of sobbing and wailing. Rushing out we found an old man and with him six women (his wife and daughters), all clad in the deepest mourning.

"Oh! take us to him, they cried. "Take us to the place where his body lies. We have come from Independence to look upon his tomb."

"Why, my good people," I said, "sit down and stop crying, and hear the good news I have for you; there has been a change; the doctor has great hopes. He thinks that your son may live."

About three weeks afterwards a happy family party took the train for Independence. They were no longer garbed in mourning robes and they were willing to brave quarantine and to dwell in detention camps, for their son whom they had mourned as dead, had come back to them from the brink of the grave.

IV

In a clean, white bed, in the Emergency Hospital lay Salvadore, weak and very ill, but perfectly conscious and filled with suspicion of everything — doctors, nurses, medicines and all. He would have none of them. But he did not protest violently; he lay quiet, and when anything was brother him he would say, "Wait! my wife‑a come‑a give‑a me." She had been sitting beside him a little while when he said in a whisper, handing to her a box of capsules: "Look‑a Mary, they say I take‑a this‑a," picking up one capsule. "Now," (still more softly, lest any one should hear) "you give‑a this‑a one to the goat — if the goat‑a die then they want‑a poison me‑a." Hiding the small parcel under a fold of her dress, Mary slipped quietly away. After four hours had passed back she came, and her cries could be heard before she reached the hospital door. With hands clasped over her head and eyes wildly staring she rushed to her husband's bedside, and falling on her knees, she cried: "Oh! Holy Mother save us! the goat is dead! The goat is dead!

Relief Work Among the Italians

V

In the back part of the offices of Mr. Del Orto,º on Decatur street, the Italian Relief Committee has assembled each morning at ten o'clock since early summer. Sometimes before that hour on the day of my visit, on invitation of Mr. Patorno, the chairman, a group began to gather in the outer office and on the sidewalk. Black-robed women, each one with a child, either in their arms or clinging to their skirts, men and boys, some pale, weak and haggard looking; others strong and healthy, bearing no marks of their recent illness in their outward appearance, — about fifty in all, I suppose. Just a few minutes before ten two of the Italian Sisters of the Sacred Heart entered.

"Let the widows come first," said the president. One by one the black-robed women were admitted to this inner office and courteously invited to sit down at the table with the committee. Here their stories were listened to, the secretary the while consulting records and making entries. The sisters were occasionally referred to when some fact needed verification, and each one was helped according to her need and dismissed with kindly and cheering words.

Next came weak, haggard-looking men and boys. "These are the convalescents," explained one of the committee. They were given tickets to the kitchen, where proper food for the convalescents had been regularly prepared and served. Then the other men were brought in — sixteen of them — strong, well, perfectly able to work, but with nothing to do. They had been helped back to health and strength by the committee; now the committee was considering how to help them to help themselves. All of them were bound for the plantations when the fever caught them and stranded them here. They could not now possibly be a source of danger to any uninfected locality, for they were all immunes. "But who will let them in?" asked one of the committee. The writer was asked to interview the Marine Hospital authorities and see what could be done. The authorities assured me that while they were perfectly willing to furnish the would‑be travelers with p156clean bills of health, these would not be accepted in the country parishes, and the only thing to do was to send the sixteen men to a detention camp to stay the required time before attempting to get into the plantations. This meant an expenditure of money that the committee naturally wished to avoid, but it was the only thing to do — one of the many instances of unnecessary hardship that has been worked through the operation of senseless quarantines. Since then plans have been perfected for the handling of the laborers for the plantations by means of detention camps maintained by the planters and the railroads. The secretary of the Louisiana Association estimated that 10,000 Italians would be handled through New Orleans this fall en‑route to the plantations.

After the visit to the meeting of the committee, I went down to the kitchen maintained to furnish food to such fever sufferers as have had no means of procuring it. Here I saw 379 women and children receive food; meat stew, macaroni and bread for the well; milk, broth, crackers, for the sick and convalescent. In a room adjoining the kitchen were a number of tables, and here the unemployed men and boys were served with what was left after the women and children had been waited on. The women and children bring buckets, and take the food home.

The Italian Missionary Sisters have co‑operated with the relief committee throughout and have been able to give valuable assistance in the way of accurate information. For since the beginning of the trouble in Little Palermo they have been tireless in their gentle ministrations to the sick and unfortunate ones, coming from family to family with both spiritual and material comfort, gathering up the orphans and taking them home with them, when, as in some cases, there was no one left to befriend them.

An Old-Time French Dwelling and Its Occupants

VI

In visiting the Italian quarter,2 I found it very difficult to get full or accurate information in any instance. The people were suspicious, and in some cases refused to admit us to their premises. They spoke no English and understood but little. I could have found out nothing had not my companion spoken Italian, smoothing the way for me.


[image ALT: zzz. It is an old mansion in New Orleans.]

Ursulines street, Little Palermo, showing drainage gutters.

The first house visited was one of the old-time French dwellings, with solid brick walls, wide windows and doors, and beautiful, fan-shaped transoms. To‑day the place has a dilapidated, forlorn air. The ground floor of the main building is now used as a shop. The passage way at the side of this is broad and high, and like the court to which it leads, is paved with wide flagstones. The walls are very thick and it takes a long time for the heat of the sun to penetrate, and as we entered from the street the air seemed singularly cool.

Going to the court yard, we found a row of six small rooms (possibly 10 feet by 12 by 10) three above and three below, arranged as a wing to the main building. This wing is evidently a modern addition to the old house. It is built of wood; the thin walls are unplastered; there are no windows, but one door in each room, opening upon the court on the ground floor, and upon a narrow gallery above. A tiny fireplace with its chimney is the only ventilator when the door of a room is closed.


[image ALT: zzz. It is an old mansion in New Orleans.]

The court of an old French mansion in Little Palermo, showing how near to decay are buildings which are filled up to overflowing with Italian families.

In these little rooms the heat was intense. In each one of these rooms we found an entire Italian family. The first room on the ground floor housed a father, mother and four little children. The father died of yellow fever some weeks ago. All had it in that one room and one bed. They seemed dazed and miserable. We found the mother cooking macaroni on a charcoal furnace. They were being helped regularly by the Italian Relief Society (a condition true of all the Italian fever sufferers).

In the next room to this one lived a family of five children older than those in the family just described. One had died of the fever. In the other rooms were families of three, four, two and five. Most of them had but one bed, p157for the rooms would not permit two double beds. In one room only we found a small cot in addition. When we asked the landlady to let us go up the quaint, winding stairway that led from the ground floor to the upper stories of the main building, she vehemently protested. Why, we could not imagine, for conditions could hardly have been as bad there as in the wing (because of the great size of the rooms, the thick walls and the large openings) unless the large rooms had been partitioned off into a number of small compartments as is sometimes the case. The landlady further informed us that the house contained eleven rooms in all, bringing her usually $40 a month. At the time of our visit the tenants she had could not pay, and she was allowing them to remain for the present, rent free.

Just across from the wing I have tried to describe, parallel with it and about eight feet away from it, is a row of rough sheds or stalls, used to stable horses.

Typical of an Entire Block

This building is typical of the entire block, I was told; large houses, closely built, small courts covered over in part by added buildings and now used as dwellings and stables; in almost every room a family and rarely more than two rooms to a family. Every house had the ghastly white strips of paper about the openings, showing where the Marine Hospital Fumigating Corps had been at work. For every house and almost every family has yielded up its victims to the fever.

In the next two blocks the appearance from the outside was the same, but we could not gain admission. One woman who would not let us in volunteered this information. "I got‑a ten‑a room‑a — thirty-two people‑a — twelve‑a sick — three die."

On another street are houses with six large rooms, three up stairs and three down, and a wing with rooms upstairs and down. The downstairs rooms have no side openings. The front has a door and window opening to the street; the second room opens by a door into the front room and by a door into the room in the rear, which in turn opens into the court-yard only by a door. The rooms above these are similar, but seem dryer and less musty. The rooms in the wing face the court-yard and are well lighted and ventilated, having a door and window to each room. They were evidently built at the same time as the main portion of the house and have high ceilings and thick walls. The court-yard is large, sunny at midday, but poorly drained, a leaking hydrant making little pools of water in the uneven places. The odor that hung over it was stifling. There is but one closetb for the whole building.

The three rooms on the ground floor of the main building, housed a family of six. All had the fever. Two died. In the ground floor rooms of the wing (two rooms) lived a family of five. Two had the fever. Both recovered. Upstairs the front room housed a family of eight. Five had the fever. Two died. In the upstairs middle room a family of four lived. They were not yet stricken with the fever. And in the two upstairs wing rooms a family of eight lived, two of whom had been ill, but recovered.

p153

[image ALT: zzz. It is an old mansion in New Orleans.]

A court yard in "Little Palermo," the Italian quarter of New Orleans. The greater part of this yard is covered with a clutter of oyster shells.

Another house of similar type on the same street had:

One room, large, ground floor, no windows, large front door; occupants 9; 6 had the fever; 2 died.

Two up-stairs rooms; occupants, 7; 3 ill; husband died.

One up-stairs room; occupants 5; 2 ill; both recovered.

One room; occupants, 2; no sickness.

Three rooms; occupants 5; no sickness.

A house on another street showed:

Number of Rooms
to a Family
Number in the
Family
1 6
1 2
2 7
3 6
1 2
2 very small 3
1     "       " 2
1     "       " 1

One tenant was very ill with fever the day of our visit, a young woman, only six months in this country. Neither she nor her husband could speak a word of English. Three others in the house were convalescent. In these three last houses then (and there were several unoccupied rooms) the number of p158families admitted to was ten, eleven and twelve in thirty-one, twenty-seven and twenty-nine rooms.


[image ALT: zzz. It is an old mansion in New Orleans.]

The interior of a court showing passage out into the street — Women and children predominate in these houses because the men are many of them on the plantations.

A lodging-house was next visited. We were not admitted, but were told that as many transients as 10, 20, or even 30 odd are frequently accommodated in one room over night. "But not for the night," said the woman — "they go off to the plantations right away." That they do not all get away at once, is proved by the number in these lodging-houses, who suffered from the fever and to whom the Emergency Hospital was a blessing. One of the Missionary Sisters of the Sacred Heart said to me "Why, what could be done for them? They had no room — no air — nothing."

That this situation is common among the lodging-houses is testified to by the Missionary Sisters, by Mr. Patorno, head of the Italian Relief Committee, and by the secretary of the Louisiana Immigration Association, all of whom are most anxious that some measures be adopted that will serve to protect the Italians when they come to us from these deplorable conditions.

Types of Houses in Other Quarters of New Orleans

Some of the facts gathered by Mr. Towles, a student of Tulane University, who investigated housing conditions in the neighborhood of Kingsley house, show how far the situation in "Little Palermo" is duplicated in other districts.

The following are conditions found in one square block which in the 493 rooms of its 71 houses, housed 144 families comprising 517 people. Three types of houses were found:

1. Two‑story brick buildings divided into tenements; two rooms each; rooms large; no side windows. First floor tenements have one window to each room — really a door, and is so used; ventilation, especially in winter, bad. Upper tenements far superior to those on the ground floor; dryer and better lighted.

2. Three‑story (usually corner) buildings; first floor used as bar-room or shop; second and third stories rented out to families in suites of one, two and three rooms; court-yard and rear buildings once used to store goods, now rented to families; rear buildings are double-sided, two rooms on each floor. The worst one of this type, not a corner building, had once been a store. All three stories are now rented to families, the ground floor having only the two front openings and a small side door leading into an alley that is never dry and into which the sun never shines; the house is a death-trap. The upper stories are well lighted, but fearfully dilapidated and sanitary arrangements past belief.

3. Old French style; two or three stories high; vaulted passage; small paved court; courts damp, usually darksome, mere niches at the back of the houses; no openings in middle rooms, upon light or air.

The general features of all houses visited in this block were these: The houses are closely built, jammed together; with no side openings. Twenty-five per cent of the yard space is damp and gloomy. Entrance to second stories is only by vaulted passages, or through back alleys. Where the houses are three or more rooms in depth, the middle ones are dark, without outside ventilator. There are no genuine rear tenements; the yards being generally too small, but shed-rooms and outhouses are used as such. There is no fire protection whatever.

The toilet conveniences are the worst feature of the section; vaults are in fearful condition; 70 per cent of them are bad. Of the 144 families, only 35 have separate vaults. The rest share water supply, yard, and toilet conveniences with their neighbors — sometimes two families, three, four, five, and in a few instances even six and seven families. The floors in many of the tenements on the street level are wet and rotten. Not a single bath-tub was found in the district visited. One family of eight lives in one room with one window; one bed and trundle-bed accommodating them at night; a family of six and another of five, each in one room; a third of eight in two rooms, unventilated. The majority of the families live in two rooms. Reliance for water supply in nine-tenths of the houses is upon cisterns, so inadequate that many run dry in time of drought. Some of these were found to be in poor condition, the tops rotten and broken. p159(The fixing of these cisterns was one of the first tasks in fighting the fever.)

The population of the block was made up of 145 men, 187 women, 85 boys, 100 girls — a total of 517. Twenty-nine per cent were foreign born — mostly Italians.

The average rent paid was $6.30, 54.4 per cent paying over 15 per cent of their income for rent; 14.4 per cent over 30 per cent — figures which must be compared with 14⅔ per cent as given by United States Department of Labor as a fair share for rent. Fifteen of the families own their homes. The average income was found to be from $5 to $10 per week, 47.7 per cent getting less than $5, and 76.7 per cent getting less than $10. The disposition of this income is seriously affected by certain parasitical agencies of a questionable sort in the neighborhood — an instalment house, an insurance company and a lottery shop.

The streets surrounding the block are unpaved in part and appear never to have been cleaned — not within the memory of the present residents. The drainage is of the worst; gutters are cleaned once or twice a year. Yet certain good points can be noted — the streets are wide and sunny and river breezes sweep through and purify. The neighboring breweries and mills flush the gutters occasionally; the land is high; the water runs off well; and the banquettesc are in good condition.

The needs which stand out pressingly are better tenements, sanitation, public baths, more schools and playgrounds. (We have one now.)


The Author's Notes:

1 The Sicilians, I am told, have a legend that when the cholera occurs in their country they are poisoned to death by the authorities, if they are considered hopelessly ill. The yellow fever coming suddenly upon them, from they know not whence, has been regarded by them as the same thing, or something similar, and they have been distrustful and suspicious of the many efforts that have been made to help them.

[decorative delimiter]

2 In September Miss McMain went into one of the worst fever districts, to see what sort of quarters were to be found in blocks where the records of the Marine Hospital Service showed the disease had been especially prevalent. The neighborhood chosen lay between Chartres and Decatur streets, where they are crossed by Barrack, Hospital, Ursulines, St. Philip and Dumaine — four blocks which then had tallied 77, 39, 50 and 53 cases, or one-twelfth of the entire number of cases for the city.


Thayer's Notes:

a I transcribed the text from the original pages of the November 4, 1905 issue of an unidentified public health journal, bound in with other New Orleans material in a collection (TD 525.N4N5) at the University of Chicago's John Crerar Library; Scott S. Ellis has identified the journal as Charities, published in Chicago, Illinois and kindly sent word to me. My transcription has been carefully proofread and is thus presumably errorfree; if, of course, you should find the inevitable error, please let me know.

Little Palermo was a neighborhood of New Orleans, so named for its Italian, mostly Sicilian, population. The city had become very used to epidemics of yellow fever in the 19c (see this graphic account by Grace King). The 1905 yellow fever epidemic in the Crescent City, however, was the last in the United States; five years earlier, Walter Reed had shown that the disease is transmitted by mosquitoes — a finding that paved the way for its elimination.

[decorative delimiter]

b i.e., a water-closet or toilet.

[decorative delimiter]

c banquette: Louisiana French for a sidewalk. The word has not had this meaning in European French for several hundred years now.


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Page updated: 10 Jan 07