This was my October Story Shuffle contribution. Listen here.
There are ghost books and haunted places in old Philadelphia, but I am not here to tell a fiction. I am here to offer a warning. Scary stories have everything to do with patterns, of what is unfinished: loss, sorrow, missed opportunity and vengeance. It’s not really a haunting. It’s a sinking. Of knowing you do not have control over what is coming, of what is coming for us.
I am not here with a ghost story, but with a warning. Someone in this room is going to die before the month is over, and it’s because of me. I believe the only way to save ourselves is to recognize the patterns, and I have found a pattern. But it could also be our undoing.
Let me explain.
In October 1793, some 220 years ago, a plague that had begun that summer in Philadelphia was reaching its apex. With quite a bit of distance, we call it today the Yellow Fever epidemic, thinking nothing of the terror it had caused.
In the early 1790s, Philadelphia was the nation’s capital, the second largest English-speaking city in the world, behind only London, and attracting budding intellectuals from all corners of the global West. Big wooden ships would dock where Penn’s Landing is now on a messy, active, loud wharf, unloading goods from around the world. On Front Street, Coffee shops filled with memories of revolution and ideas of the French Enlightenment.
Merchants in that same white exchange building at 3rd and Walnut and Dock Street near what is now the Ritz in Old City would buy and sell and trade goods coming in before those ships even docked. Philadelphia was Shanghai: the energy was palpable about a big, giant, growing market for commerce and ideas.
It was warm and muggy that October, not unlike now, and birds and rats and bugs and beggars would crowd the wharf looking for scraps and leftovers. The goods that were coming off ships were put on horse-drawn carts about brought to storehouses and shops throughout the big, crowded and bustling city.
But something came off those ships that was never intended to.
In fewer than 100 days in 1793, beginning that August and spiking in that October, nearly 10 percent of Philadelphia’s population was dead. Mass graves were dug in what open spaces were available, filled quickly by festering corpses, with thick, yellowish skin and an oozing decay.The city must have smelled awful.
Among other symptoms, yellow fever can loosen joints and tissue: there are stories of children collecting eyeballs as they collected in sewers after falling from the dead. New York and Baltimore closed their ports to goods and services from Philadelphia. By late October, more than 20,000 people — half of those who hadn’t already died — fled the city, including President George Washington to Germantown and much of the city’s elite, in what was the largest, fastest exodus in our country’s then young history.
Doctors and academics would share theories and experiences in the pages of the city’s half-dozen newspapers, and one kept being repeated: that Africans could not contract the disease.
So it was that the city’s slave and free-black populations were used: black men and boys were used to find, cart and carry the diseased dead to mass graves. Female black nurses and younger children were used to follow through the proposed cures and treatments that white doctors put forth in the newspapers: things like bloodletting and burning and other recommendations shared by Benjamin Rush and others who stayed on in the city to fight the case.
Despite the promise of immunity, many of these black workers found their tasks dangerous and took to all using a common good luck charm, stringing wind chimes to their carts and supplies. Just as cold weather and quarantine was slowing the outbreak, the sweet sound of wind chimes in the air was becoming synonymous with looming death in Philadelphia, like nowhere else before.
The research community then fussed with any number of different theories for why blacks died just as frequently as whites of yellow fever, many of the nurses and laborers died soon after their work began. In the end, Benjamin Rush, the acclaimed doctor, surgeon and Founding Father, would write in a letter that December to another great doctor friend of his in Baltimore that the sound of wind chimes would haunt Philadelphia for the rest of its days.
I believe his words have proven true.
Three decades later, President Andrew Jackson famously rejected the re-charter of the country’s national bank, located in the beautiful Greek Revival building at 4th and Chestnut. The bank building was famous for its garden of wind chimes behind the facade, which newspaper accounts referenced when they reported on the slew of suicides by financiers who lost everything in the the collapsed national bank system. Nearly a dozen were holding wind chimes when their bodies were found.
Thirty five years after that, the Great Train Wreck of 1856 killed nearly 100 from a Kensington church group in Fort Washington on their way to a picnic. A fashion for women traveling outdoors in the pre-Civil War era? Carrying wind chimes.
In the 1890s, the deranged H.H. Holmes murdered at least 27 and perhaps as many as 200 in what was one of the first and most violent documented American serial killers.
When he was hanged in Moyamensing Prison, right by where Pat’s and Geno’s stand today, without any explanation, Holmes requested wind chimes to be hung, which witnesses say, blew outside a near window as his body writhed before his neck snapped.
Coincidences can just be coincidences, but this is what has me concerned.
In each of these cases, always a generation apart, 35 years, someone central to the narrative discovered the pattern before the deaths began. Again and again, every 35 years, someone discovers the pattern in Philadelphia and it begins again, harkening back to those black Americans sent to their death in the yellow fever epidemic.
For centuries and across cultures, wind chimes are meant to be good luck. In Philadelphia, wind chimes are a sign of pain, suffering and death.
When that person shares this tale, soon after, there is the sound of wind chimes. A sound that is also always echoed at the end of that span of deaths.
Of course, as I started digging through this I found the timing is now, and so I had to warn of you.
In July 1976, a committee chairman of the American Legion told this story to many of his group members at the Bellevue bar on South Broad Street. Almost immediately, those members began to die of what was soon after called Legionnaire’s Disease. 200 years after the Declaration of Independence was first read in Old City, more than 30 people died and 220 got violently sick in the ensuing months before the hotel was closed at the end of October.
That was 35 years ago. No one has ever fully solved any of these murders or diseases or mass deaths.
I fear we are next.
Here is my solution. I have thrown out all of the wind chimes in my home, this is my last. I tell you this now only to warn you, and to have you watch me place this final one in this box to be thrown out. We are finally safe.