As you well know, in many ways the 1830s is a distant mirror of today. A time of promise but also unsettling social, political and technological changes, it, too, faced and survived its own pandemic: the Asiatic cholera, which appeared in the United States in 1832. Cholera causes severe abdominal cramps, sudden and profuse diarrhea and vomiting. The rapid loss of body fluids causes the faces of its victims to turn blue, and death by dehydration usually comes within a few days or even hours of onset.
Like COVID-19, cholera first broke out in Asia and spread through increasingly frequent travel and a global trade network. The first cholera pandemic occurred in 1817, and the world has faced at least six more outbreaks since. In 1831, the deadly disease again appeared and spread west. It killed hundreds of thousands across Russia, Austria-Hungary and Germany. Later that year it reached Western Europe and continued its spread into 1832. London saw 6,536 deaths and Paris over 20,000. Fifty-five thousand died throughout Great Britain as a whole, and 100,000 died across France. A voracious and increasingly ubiquitous news media—daily newspapers—spread fear even faster than the disease itself. Americans read how cholera ravaged Asia and Europe and hoped the Atlantic Ocean would protect them. It did not. By June, the disease appeared in Canada and the United States, where it initially struck New York and along the Mississippi River and soon spread, especially in rapidly growing urban areas. Days after the first deaths were reported in New York City, former mayor Philip Hone confided to his diary, “This dreadful disease increases fearfully; there are eighty-eight new cases today, and twenty-six deaths. Our visitation is severe but thus far it falls much short of other places. St. Louis on the Mississippi is likely to be depopulated, and Cincinnati on the Ohio is awfully scourged.”
No one knew what caused this terrifying disease or how it was spread. Was it contagious? Many blamed “miasma,” or bad air. Some said it was bad oysters, unripe fruit or other contaminated food. French doctors saw a link to poverty and crowded living conditions. Since there was no definitive test, many saw the signs and symptoms of cholera, that is, diarrhea or vomiting, and fearfully thought it was the dreaded cholera. Some saw this scourge as nothing less than the wrath of an angry God, punishing a sinful world. Others suspected that contaminated drinking water was to blame, but no one knew for sure until British doctor John Snow proved it in 1854 when he traced the source of a local cholera outbreak to a single neighborhood pump. Almost three decades later, in1883, a water-borne bacterium called Vibrio cholerae was discovered to be the specific cause of cholera.
Many Americans in 1832 blamed recent immigrants and their lifestyles, particularly the Irish. Philip Hone lamented to his diary that the disease was likely brought to western cities by
“emigrants from Europe; Irish and Germans coming by Canada, New York, and New Orleans, filthy, intemperate, unused to the comforts of life and regardless of its proprieties. They flock to the populous towns of the great West, with disease contracted on shipboard, and increased by bad habits on shore. They inoculate the inhabitants of those beautiful cities, and every paper we open is only a record of premature mortality. The air seems to be corrupted, and indulgence in things heretofore innocent is frequently fatal now in these ‘cholera times.'”
New York merchant, philanthropist (and early promoter of Santa Claus) John Pintard observed that cholera “is almost exclusively confined to the lower classes of intemperate dissolute & filthy people huddled together like swine in their polluted habitations.” He also cynically opined, “Those sickened must be cured or die off, & being chiefly of the very scum of the city, the quicker [their] dispatch the sooner the malady will cease.” As had been the case from the ancient world through the witch craze of the 17th century and beyond, the first impulse of many was to blame “the other,” i.e. social outcasts.
Newspapers and magazines ran charts reporting the number of cases and deaths day by day and stories of those who died in towns and cities across the country, often with frightening details. Without authoritative medical bodies like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) or the World Health Organization (WHO), periodicals were rife with letters and articles from named and unnamed experts offered often-contradictory opinions and advice. This only fueled fear and uncertainty.
How did early Americans react to this terrifying and often fatal illness, which caused patients’ faces to turn blue as fluids rapidly left their bodies? For many, they responded by implementing a 19th-century version of social distancing: they fled crowded cities for the countryside. Tens of thousands of New Yorkers—those who could economically afford to— sought refuge in rural areas, traveling by carriage and by steamboat and renting lodging wherever they could in rural villages. The poor, left behind in crowded conditions with faulty sanitation and fouled wells, were those most likely to succumb.
The fact that no one knew for sure what caused cholera did not mean people did nothing. Many prayed. Holden, Massachusetts observed a day of fasting and prayer on July 19, 1832 in response. The entire Commonwealth did the same on August 9th. Temperance lecturer Sylvester Graham proclaimed that it (and indeed all disease) was the result of poor lifestyle choices. He guaranteed that those who abstained from the “excitement” of meat, alcohol, and sex would be perfectly safe from cholera and attracted many followers to his prescribed “diet of brown bread and pumpkins,” as Ralph Waldo Emerson derisively described it.
Doctors typically treated cholera initially with bedrest and warm herbal teas made from spearmint, chamomile and other soothing ingredients. There was nothing wrong with that. Once fever commenced, however, medical treatment unintentionally hastened death by administering harsh drugs and treatments that caused even more dehydration, including powerful laxatives, enemas, emetics, bloodletting and blistering. Although he, too, prescribed harsh purgatives and blistering, at least one physician, Dr. W. V. Rhinelander of New York, advocated intravenous saline solutions, an effective treatment, although there was no safe means of doing so at that time. Indeed, IV fluids and antibiotics are the prescribed treatment for cholera today.
Ultimately, New York, with a quarter-million people the largest city in America, reported over 3,000 deaths from cholera, with thousands more nationally. The summer of 1832 was terrifying for most and tragic for some, but by the fall, the disease had largely passed. It would strike again in the 1840s, the 1870s, and beyond, but no one knew that then.
Today, good sanitation and clean drinking water have largely eliminated cholera in the developed world. However, it is far from eradicated. In our 21st century, cholera still infects 1.3 to 4 million people and kills up to 143,000 annually around the world. By comparison, as of this date (April 2), according to the World Health Organization there have been 896,450 COVID-19 viral infections and 45,526 deaths worldwide.
Taking off my historian’s hat for a minute, I end by reminding you of the obvious. While we can know the past we cannot change it. We do not know the future, but we CAN influence and even change it. We do not yet know how the COVID-19 pandemic will play out. We DO know that it is a contagious and potentially dangerous virus, spread by droplets every time an infected person breathes, coughs or sneezes. Those viruses can be spread on surfaces for up to a few days. Every infected person will likely infect at least two or three others, perhaps more. That is why isolation and social distancing are so vitally important NOW, at this relatively early stage here in the United States. If one person infects two people, and so on, it only takes repeating that process twenty times for a million people to become infected. Our personal actions can either significantly slow—or accelerate—the spread of COVID-19. YOU truly can help prevent death and suffering by staying healthy. So as our leaders both globally and at the Village have told us, please stay home, and stay well, for your own sake and for the sake of us all. Thank you and God bless.
Author Tom Kelleher is Historian, and Curator of Mechanical Arts at Old Sturbridge Village.