Breaking Fevers, Sharing Wealth, Being Frank

A CITY PANICKED by a spreading virus that leaves thousands dying in its wake and civil authorities with little recourse other than to quarantine the afflicted and collect the dead—while feebly attempting to fend of mass hysteria. The foregoing scenario may be similar to the Ebola outbreak playing out in West Africa and inducing fear in American cities, but it actually describes an epidemic that struck the United States capital in the summer and fall of 1793. As Jeanne Abrams recounts in “Death Stalks the Capital”, the yellow fever that swept through Philadelphia was in many ways more terrifying than Ebola, as no one had a clue as to how the disease was spread and the prevailing treatment was nearly as harmful as it was ineffectual. Just as today, however, the public fear ignited partisan political finger pointing and tested the leadership of the young nation. One outcome of the 18th-century experience in Philadelphia was the realization that the federal government could wield its power to combat threats that individual citizens were powerless against, leading to the early establishment of public health services.

About a century later, in an America where unfettered capitalism and rapid industrialization led to unprecedented and concentrated wealth accumulation, one of the country’s wealthiest tycoons began practicing what he preached in his Gospel of Wealth. The bootstrap narrative of steel magnate Andrew Carnegie’s rise from poor Scottish immigrant child to one of the world’s richest men in the second half of the 19th century is driven by Carnegie’s genius, pluck, luck, manipulation, ruthlessness and sometimes steely hard-heartedness directed at the laboring masses. But when Carnegie decided to act on his admonition to the tycoon class, as our cover story, “Robber Baron Turned Robin Hood” explores, he did so with a vengeance. While today, most know Carnegie the man as only a musty character from a long-gone era, his influence most certainly still touches us, be it through his many endowed research institutions, charitable organizations, free public libraries and more. Indeed the model for wealth sharing that Carnegie practiced—“to help those who will help themselves”— continues to inspire many of today’s most successful and prosperous business people.

Another larger-than-life character in Carnegie’s era was an influential figure whose sometimes tawdry affairs and self-promotional genius would fit right into today’s cultural milieu. The beautiful and seductive Miriam Squier turned heads at Lincoln’s inaugural ball in 1861 and was a regular subject in gossip columns and scandal sheets thereafter. Along the way she married powerhouse publisher Frank Leslie, and after he died in 1880 legally changed her name to his and went on to become a dynamic force in journalism and a groundbreaking woman in business. The improbable, if often outrageous, life of Mrs. Frank Leslie comes alive in Nancy Rubin Stuart’s “The Empress of Journalism”.


Originally published in the February 2015 issue of American History. To subscribe, click here.