In 1793, yellow fever descended upon Philadelphia, and President George Washington fled the disease-ridden capital with the rest of the new national government in tow. About ten per cent of the city’s population died. The following year, an outbreak of the same pestilence hit New Haven, followed by reports of several hundred fever deaths in Baltimore. New York City’s port authorities blockaded ships of suspect origin, and citizen patrols sought to root out refugees, but, in the fall of 1798, the unmistakable signatures of the disease appeared upon the bodies of dead dockworkers. Thirty-five thousand of the city’s more than sixty thousand residents escaped to the countryside. Of those who remained, almost five per cent would die of the fever. A full-fledged epidemic had hit the young republic, and New York was the epicenter.
Like the novel coronavirus, yellow fever was zoonotic: the virus had originated in primates in West Africa, the RNA of which found a vector to human hosts through the bite of Aedes aegypti, an African mosquito. The scourge most likely arrived on the American continent by means of the slave trade. Medical doctors in the Federalist period had no inkling of the patterns and determinants that compose the science of epidemiology. The leading physician of the day, Benjamin Rush, conjectured that the disease materialized from the miasmatic vapor of certain rotten vegetables. The newspaper publisher and lexicographer Noah Webster averred that the pestilence emanated from the ash of a volcanic eruption in Sicily. Venesection, a popular clinical method to release “excitements” of the blood, did not work. Neither did blisters, sudorifics, nor dousing patients with buckets of cold water—all of which were, at the time, standard practice.
A young New York doctor named Elihu Smith kept a diary between 1795 and 1798. When the yellow fever struck, Smith was twenty-seven years old, a Yale graduate, and a co-editor of the first American medical journal. He went straight to the front lines, visiting the sick in their homes and making rounds at the city’s recently founded fever hospital, Bellevue. The first symptom of the fever was a splitting headache. Next, the patient turned yellow, began bleeding from the nose and gums, and “had the Black-vomit”—which came out of every orifice of the body. The afflicted often lost their minds, and screamed and raved their way to an early death. When he discovered that a fellow-doctor, Joseph Scandella, had caught the disease, Smith brought him to his own home, on Pine Street, in lower Manhattan, where Scandella soon died.
Like those of scores of other doctors who fought the epidemic, the names Scandella and Smith would surely have been lost to posterity—except that Smith was the best friend of a young magazine writer named Charles Brockden Brown. Smith’s literary contacts in Philadelphia had helped shepherd Brown’s first book into print, and the two had published a “poetical correspondence” in what was then a popular magazine, The Gazette of the United States. When the yellow-fever epidemic hit New York, Brown, who visited patients and hospitals alongside Smith, also caught the disease. He survived, but he awoke from days of delirium to discover that Smith, after caring for Scandella, had also died. Stricken with grief, Brown fell into a writerly frenzy, and, from 1798 to 1800, a million words poured from his pen, resulting in seven complete novels and the birth of a genre known as the American Gothic—dark tales of terror in which the monstrous and the irrational hold sway. First came “Wieland,” the plot of which centers around a malicious “biloquist” named Carwin, who can throw his voice across vast distances. By means of his disembodied voice, Carwin induces a fanatical preacher—the eponymous Wieland—to become a raving maniac who murders his own children. Needless to say, the novel is deeply disturbing.
Soon after “Wieland,” Brown published “Ormond; or, the Secret Witness.” The personal history of the title character includes the following details: “that he had executed secret and diplomatic functions at Constantinople and Berlin; that, in the latter city he had met with schemers and reasoners who aimed at the new modeling of the world, and the subversion of all that has hitherto been conceived elementary and fundamental.” This was instantly recognizable code to Federalist readers. Ormond, a mysterious and wealthy young man of boundless intellect, was clearly a member of the Illuminati, a secret society that enthralled the urban bourgeoisie of the young republic, terrified conservative preachers and their flocks, and resurfaced two hundred years later with an abundance of Facebook pages, TikToks, YouTube videos, Instagram hashtags, and a superclass membership that not only includes the usual assortment of Rockefellers and Rothschilds but also Tom Hanks, Rita Wilson, Rihanna, Madonna, Beyoncé, and Queen Elizabeth II.
Unlike the Elders of Zion or the grays of Zeta Reticuli (of alien-invasion fame), an actual group that called itself the Illuminati was founded, in Bavaria, on May 1, 1776. They were not dedicated to global domination so much as to the discussion of what were at the time dangerously radical ideas, such as secularism and women’s rights. The founder of the movement was a law professor at the University of Ingolstadt named Adam Weishaupt, but other members are hard to identify because they veiled themselves with pseudonyms. Carl Theodore, the Duke of Bavaria, banned the group in the summer of 1784, and three years later the society was no more. That should have been the end of it.
But, in the midst of the yellow-fever epidemic of 1798, as Brown scribbled maniacally about hidden voices, secret societies, and psychotic murderers, fears of the Illuminati exploded through what was the Internet of its time: the untamed print culture of late-eighteenth-century America. Books about the cabal included John Robison’s “Proofs of a Conspiracy,” from 1798, and William Cobbett’s “Detection of a Conspiracy,” from 1798. In a public sermon on Independence Day, 1799, the Hartford attorney William Brown described the Illuminati’s members as a conflation of global élites and “furious Africans,” brimming with “demoniac lust and barbarity.” The president of Yale, Timothy Dwight, underscored the darkest fears of all when he asked his Connecticut congregation, “Shall . . . our daughters [become] the concubines of the Illuminati?”
When medical systems fail, so do logic and reason, clearing a path for contagions of fear and blame. The Illuminati panic, exploding in a country battered by a covert enemy, which experts could neither explain nor contain, brought to the fore a theme that historians would later call the “paranoid style” of American politics. It endures, from Pizzagate to the Deep State to Fake News, and presently flourishes amid the chaos brought on by COVID-19. In March, Facebook rated as false more than forty million posts about the pandemic, a revelation that was followed by accusations by the New York Post’s editorial board that the Facebook fact checkers were themselves “fake news.” A theory that the virus emerged from a secret laboratory outside Wuhan, China, has moved from being a fringe conspiracy into a matter to be investigated by the U.S. Senate. The coronavirus vaccine, although it doesn’t exist, must also be a plot, because Bill Gates is surely out to destroy humanity and plant a chip in the brains of whoever’s left. One in ten Americans now believes that the United States government created the virus. “COVID-19,” the signs of recent protesters in Huntington Beach say, “is a lie”; in St. Paul and Boston, it’s a “hoax”; elsewhere in Minnesota, it’s a “fake crisis.”