The 1832 Cholera Epidemic
in New York State – Part 2
19th Century Responses to Cholerae Vibrio
VI. The North Atlantic Barrier: False Hopes
“Improvements in communications contributed further to enhancing the role played by cholera, for no disease in American history was so widely heralded at its first appearance (1832). The introduction of cheap newspapers and journals made it possible for the American public to follow the disastrous course of this pestilence as it advanced through Russia, Eastern Europe, and pushed northwestward to the Atlantic.”[xliii]
Public ignorance of an epidemic’s etiology and the politicization of its inherent public health issues, is not a deficiency limited to the twentieth century. While cholera ravaged Europe and seemed inevitably destined to emigrate to North America, New Yorkers, both City and State, were engaged in a curious debate. Those few in number who believed in cholera’s Contagionism clamored for the imposition of quarantines of people, goods, and products arriving at New York’s harbors and borders.
The predominant view, Miasmatism, resorted to non-medical arguments against quarantines. They argued that the establishment of quarantines would not contribute to the battle against cholera, but would simply promote “vulgar prejudices.” Quarantines were additionally considered contrary to “liberty,” and were the “engines of oppression, despotism, and bureaucracy.”[xliv] Despite these internecine medical community arguments regarding the nature of cholera, quarantines and other similar sanitary regulations were frequently imposed by New York governmental entities both prior to and after the discovery that cholera had successfully emigrated to North America.
It is historically interesting of how and where cholera first appeared in New York City and State. Many had predicted and prayed that the Atlantic Ocean would successfully prevent cholera from emigrating to the New World. Those expectations were dashed when cholera reports from Albany indicated the epidemic was present in Montreal and Quebec. Contemporary histories suggested that cholera first appeared in Montreal on June 6, 1832 amongst Irish immigrants and moved rapidly down the Champlain Valley into the Hudson Valley. By June 14th cholera was at Whitehall, and by the 18th it was in Mechanicsville just north of Albany. Cholera’s second invasion route into New York was up the St. Lawrence and along the shores of Lake Ontario. A probable third method was the direct entry of immigrants into the port of New York.
“Late Monday night, June 26, an Irish immigrant named Fitzgerald came home violently ill. The pain in his stomach grew worse during the night, and in the morning he called a doctor. When the doctor arrived, Fitzgerald was already feeling better, but his two children were sick . . .The children died on Wednesday, but not before they were seen by many physicians, all of whom agreed upon a diagnosis of Asiatic cholera. Mrs. Fitzgerald died on Friday . . .”[xlv]
A half century later in the 1870’s, hearsay evidence surfaced which suggested that prior to the outbreak in Montreal, cholera had arrived in the Port of New York aboard immigrant ships. The sick had been quarantined onboard; those who were not sick were released and shipped away from the city. At least one source has suggested cholera was present in New York at an early date in June but the fact of its existence suppressed by the Board of Health.[xlvi]
VII. Public Health Cholera Programs
New York City
“In June of 1832, the disease finally appeared in New York City. Its incidence increased with the heat of the summer, and well over three thousand were dead of cholera before it subsided in September and October. A good proportion of the city’s almost quarter million fled, or at least almost all those who could afford the luxury. Much of New York’s business life ceased abruptly. . . .most medical men remained in the city throughout the epidemic. . .”[xlvii]
Long before cholera’s June 1832 arrival in New York City, a Board of Health existed as the result of the City’s many experiences with prior epidemics. Throughout the eighteenth century, New York City had been repeatedly afflicted with many diseases including yellow fever, smallpox, measles, and diphtheria.[xlviii] Despite the establishment of a Board of Health, it should not be assumed that government typically played a dominant role in prior epidemics. Private individuals, groups, and charitable associations had long dominated the “public health” response to prior diseases. The 1832 Cholera epidemic would prove to be noticeably different.
In September of 1831, as the City prepared for the anticipated arrival of cholera, the Board (the Mayor, Aldermen, and City Recorder) established a committee to gather information regarding the European epidemic; it also, along with the Health Officer appointed by the state, enforced an initial quarantine issued by the Mayor during the winter of 1831-32.[xlix]
Many persons were highly critical of New York City’s lack of cholera epidemic preparation. In early June of 1832, and in response to the public criticism, Mayor Walter Browne expanded the quarantine to against all peoples and products of Europe and Asia. Eventually the quarantine prohibited ships from approaching closer than 300 yards to the city; vehicles were ordered to stop 1.5 miles away. On June 4th a city ordinance was introduced promoting the cleaning of New York’s legendary filthy streets; passed on June 13, the ordinance substantially reorganized New York’s sanitation departments.[l]
Within days after the outbreak of cholera in June of 1832, the NYC Board of Health was overwhelmed by public hysteria and the myriad details of the epidemic’s administration. In response to the crisis, the Board, without a real legal foundation, created a Special Medical Council and three man “executive committees,” staffed by several prominent physicians/citizens. Much of the city’s subsequent administration of its varied programs was overseen by these smaller “crisis management” committees.[li] In this respect, the 1832 Cholera epidemic was different than prior diseases and epidemics; instead of government’s prior tendency to disintegrate and disappear as disease approached, the New York City government remained on the field and played a major and dominant role in the public health response.[lii] Perhaps it was a mistaken reliance upon the prevalent medical delusion that cholera would affect only the intemperate or imprudent, but the result was a governmental public health response unlike any earlier effort.
Despite its tardy start, the NYC Board of Health and its associated committees, did take several reasonably decisive actions regarding the management of cholera. On June 17 the City approved the erection of several (5) temporary hospitals (not including the Bellevue almshouse) at various locations within the city. $25,000 was appropriated for their establishment and staffing; old banks, abandoned buildings, former schoolhouses, and at least one public building were converted to special “cholera hospitals.”[liii]
In addition to the establishment of hospitals, the City also created primitive welfare services, slum clearance programs, food and drug regulations, and the suppression of unsanitary nuisances. Streets, which had never been cleaned of the accumulation of several decades of excrement, dead animals, garbage, and other waste, were shoveled, swept, cleaned and covered with tons of chloride of lime (quicklime). The City’s worst slums were evacuated. These newly indigent and homeless persons required the immediate rental of several buildings as well as supplies of food, clothing, and drugs. Temporary housings or shanties were erected in several places within the city.[liv]
The City’s Commission of the Alms Houses, an early form of modern welfare services, was inadequately funded to completely assist the thousands of persons abruptly unemployed in consequence of the cholera epidemic. Private persons, charitable associations, and churches established soup kitchens, paid the poor to clean streets, “purify” their own homes, or to perform other “make work” projects.[lv]
From its first appearance in June, to its most serious levels of a hundred deaths a day in mid-July, to its ultimate disappearance by Christmas of 1832, the human and financial costs of New York’s “epidemic management control” measures were enormous. Fortunately the City’s finances were sufficient. No special appeals for private contributions were necessary; only city monies duly appropriated from the treasury were used, although thousands of private persons volunteered personal services to public programs. The February 18, 1833 Minutes of the New York City Assistants’ meeting contained a summary of the municipal expenditures:
“To the Several Wards $41,144.73
To the several almshouses 6,546.28
To the hospitals 45,173.08
To the Special Medical Council 7,748.00
To miscellaneous objects 16,096.23
To Chloride of Lime-on hand 979.09
Contrary to the municipal government’s response, many of the city’s residents reacted less admirably but historically consistent with prior public responses to epidemics. New York was not a huge city in 1832. Of its 250,000 residents, it is estimated that as many as a third (80,000) fled to the country where they thought the chances of epidemic were lower.[lvii] Of course, in their dispersal they carried the epidemic with them to places that would not otherwise have been affected.
Others within the private sphere of New York City reacted with great bravery, courage, and professionalism. Prominent within that category were those physicians who did not flee, but rather stayed in the city and administered to the thousands of cholera victims. A small group of medical practitioners emulated the British medical response and published a periodic newsletter during the epidemic. The Cholera Bulletin was published for only a few weeks during the summer of 1832, but remains an extraordinary historical resource and window into the world of the cholera epidemic of 1832.[lviii]
“In May or June, 1832, some English emigrant ships brought the disease to Quebec, in Lower Canada, where it soon spread and raged with great violence . . .Within a short time . . .it crept up to Kingston and Toronto . . .following Lake Ontario up to . . .Buffalo. The whole country was alarmed, and precautionary measures . . .were adopted to ward off its approach and guard against its ravages. Among these communities the little city of Buffalo, with its seven or eight thousand people did what . . .it could do to prepare for its approach.”[lix]
Hundreds of miles north-west from New York City, and in a community a fraction of its size, the threat of cholera terrorized Buffalo, New York. By the time most New Yorkers had learned of the early June presence of cholera in Montreal, the disease had already commenced its movement not only into the Hudson River but also up the St. Lawrence through Quebec, Toronto, Kingston, and toward Buffalo.
Acting with unusual alacrity, New York Governor Enos Throop called a special session of the Legislature for June 21, 1832. A “Public Health Act” was speedily passed by both Houses of the State Legislature and signed by the Governor within two days. In addition to a strict quarantine along the Upper and Lower New York-Canadian frontier, it also ordered the many communities along the St. Lawrence, Hudson, Lake Ontario, Lake Erie, Lake Champlain, and Erie Canal to appoint local public health boards. [lx] It also empowered each of the State’s cities and villages, not having a local health board to establish one. Over the next several weeks, communities all over New York established local boards of public health. “Usually manned by the overseers of the poor and other local officials” they were to serve as the shock troops in the ensuing battle against the cholera epidemic.
Within days of the June 21, 1832 “Public Health Law,” local health officials, quarantines, and inspectors of nuisances were appointed. Physicians and hotel keepers were ordered to report all suspected cases of cholera. Individuals were commanded to clean and purify properties. Persons maintaining “nuisances” were subjected to criminal prosecution.[lxi]
In Buffalo, the Common Council quickly met and appointed a Board of Health. Roswell Haskins, Dyre Tillinghast, and Lewis F. Allen were appointed and supervised by the Mayor, Dr. Ebenezer Johnson. Loring Pierce was appointed Chief Undertaker and Chief Nurse of the Sick. Daily meetings of the Board were held with the Health Physician and Medical Adviser, Dr. John E. Marshall. The Board took possession of and established a hospital in “The McHose House,” located in a hollow between Niagara and Ninth Street. Steamboats were stopped until medical inspections of everyone aboard had occurred; stage coaches were halted at the edge of the city. Canal boats were met and inspected while “country people were kept at a safe distance outside by their own fears of the contagion.” Everyone heeded to a variety of food and drug nostrums concerning fruits, vegetables, and the “dilution of water” with arduous spirits.[lxii] But the epidemic had its day and cholera’s consequences in Buffalo were similar to other communities:
“The cholera began its work fearfully and rapidly. One after another was stricken down, mostly among the more destitute, heedless, and imprudent, but occasionally the disease burst into the dwellings of the careful and more circumspect, and carried off its victims with awful suddenness. The coffin makers and grave diggers were constantly at work; many people hurriedly packed their trunks and left the city, while others stood appalled, knowing not whether to go or stay.”[lxiii]
“The Board of Health of the Town of Whitestown, to prevent any erroneous impression of the existence of the Cholera at Oriskany, deem it their duty to state that there has been but 3 cases up to this date, viz: Mrs. Cathare Wall, Aug. 30, mild, recovered; Mrs. Emiline Horton, August 31, severe, dead, and Philip Fincle, Sept. 1, severe, dead. Fincle was an intemperate man, and just returned from Utica, where he had been for several days.”[lxiv]
Located upon another of cholera’s water invasion routes, New York’s highly successful Erie Canal, Utica’s 1832 cholera experience was similar to that of other Canal situated communities. During the early summer of 1832, Utica’s newspapers indicate a dynamic and vibrant city deeply involved in the local, regional, and national political-economic events of 1832. Andrew Jackson’s veto of the bill re-chartering the National Bank created great interest. Substantial sectional controversy existed regarding the 1832 Tariff; Senator Henry Clay was expected to lead the anti-Jackson campaign in the Presidential elections. But it was the dreaded approach and terror of cholera which truly dominated the news.[lxv]
Similar to Buffalo’s actions, and apparently in anticipation to the June 21, 1832 “Public Health Law,” Utica’s Common Council established a local Board of Health with the appointments of Doctors Goodsell, McCall, Coventry, Peckham, and McCraith on June 18, 1832. In addition and at the same meeting, the Council granted Thomas Brennon’s petition as City Scavenger for additional compensation.
Over the next several weeks (June-July), Utica newspapers indicated several deaths without a medical causation listed. It is entirely possible that the cause of death was other than cholera but it is historically suspicious and likely that these late June and early July deaths may have been cholera related. At the same time, the Common Council approved (1) pay raises for additional scavengers, (2) petitions for temporary hospital, and (3) reviewed prosecutions by the City Attorney against individuals for the maintenance of nuisances on their premises.[lxvi]
The cholera epidemic was slightly slower to appear in the interior of New York, and did not fully envelop Utica until late July and early August of 1832. Prior to August 14th, the cause for each death was treated circumspectly. Such discretion was justified due to the tendency to associate cholera with the “intemperate and imprudent.” With the early August deaths of Philo Rockwell, Esq., Clara Ostrom, daughter of David Ostrom, Esq, and sister of General John H. Ostrom, and Miss Gainer, daughter of Mr. William Gainer, “cholera” was definitively and publicly acknowledged as the cause of death. Over the next several weeks between August-September 1832, nearly a hundred obituary notices were published in Utica newspapers with the vast majority attributed to “death due to cholera.”[lxvii]
Local Boards of Health had been armed with significant authority and power by the June 21, 1832 “Public Health Law.” In Utica a local controversy erupted on August 15 amongst medical members of the board and its other members. Doctors Goodwell, Coventry, Peckham, and McCraith resigned as a result of the Boards “interference with their professional duties.” New members were immediately appointed including several well known personages: Ezra S. Cozier, William Williams, J.E. Bloomfield, Alfred Munson, Spencer Kellog, and Samuel Beardsley.
Unlike New York City’s municipal finances, the maintenance and popularity of the Board of Health and Utica’s temporary hospital during the epidemic was also a matter of some public controversy. Petitions to the Utica Common Council for articles furnished, lumber procured, payment for drugs, clothes, and providing work for the local destitute were staggering to a small community. The uncertainty of cholera’s causation, its social and personal costs, and the care received at the community hospital by Utica’s cholera victims eventually caused a mob of Utica Irish workmen to riot and attack the facility in the late summer.[lxviii]
The presence of cholera precipitated great anxiety in individuals and within communities. Surviving letters from persons residing near Utica depict the social and personal anxiety, fear, and terror felt by New Yorkers during the summer of 1832. In a letter dated mid July from Utica’s Mary and O. Williams to their son Othniel Williams in Salem, Massachusetts, his mother wrote
“. . .the Cholera is near us-to be sure-but it seems to be everywhere-perhaps not so at the East as yet, as in other directions-When it first made its appearance in Utica-it proved fatal for 2-3 days but there is now fewer cases-and less Deaths-the inhabitants have a great many left the place-Our physicians think there has no real cholera in Clinton yet-some severe cases of C.M.”
In the same letter his father also suggested great caution to his son,
“The Cholera as your Ma informs you is all around us but thus far it has not been permitted to come right to our dwellings. More than one half of the people of Utica, it it thought have fled into the neighboring towns & villages until this destructive scourge shall have passed over; but this I do not apprehend myself will be soon. What country in which the Cholera has once gained a footing did it ever entirely abandon? The cases in Utica are less numerous than they were at first and I think less fatal. They are yet from 6 to 12 daily and deaths from 2 to 6 which is indeed a large mortality considering the reduced population-nor is it confined to any particular class of people. It commenced among the most respectable and a full proportion of this class have died with it.”[lxix]
Several miles to the east, a Middleburgh, Schoharie Valley resident,
S.F. Kimball wrote his mother, Mrs. Rachel Kimball of Montgomery County’s Charleston 4 Corners, on August 7, 1832,
“Your account of the appearance of Cholera at the poor house is really melancholy and the account from our cities, and many parts of the country is truly alarming, although the latest reports from New York show a decrease of the number of deaths, yet it appears that many who now fall victim to the pestilence, are from among the more respectable classes of Society, & persons of Exemplary lives & Temperate habits so that there appears to be nor exemptions, & that although the intemperate & vicious are generally the first victims, the most temperate & prudent cannot say they are in no danger-this dreadful destroyer has made its appearance in the Eastern part of the town of Schoharie adjoining Duanesburgh & Bern, about 10 days since, up to Sunday there had been 11 cases & 4 deaths, the first case occurred some 2 or 3 weeks since, a woman came from Albany on account of the cholera or on a visit to her mother, she sickened about a week after her arrival & died immediately, about 10 days afterward the disease appeared in the neighborhood & the number of cases & deaths as above stated have occurred there-the inhabitants of Schoharie Village are very much alarmed, as the disease appears to be spreading in a direction towards them, the last new case was within three miles of the Village-the place where the disease broke out was about 8 miles, so that it has already spread 5 miles in that direction. The people of Middleburgh share in the general alarm, and are making preparations through the board of health for its appearance, they are about having a temporary hospital erected which I think is a prudent measure-there has occurred one case about five miles above us in the Town of Fulton, . . .a woman from Albany, she was on her way to Summit, taken sick below Schoharie & rode about 14 miles when she could go no farther, stopped at a public house and died in about 6 hours-much alarm was felt in that neighborhood but as it is now about 12 days since her death, & no cases appearing there, the immediate alarm has subsided.”[lxx]
Cooperstown, New York
“Mrs. Ouseley probably knows that cholera is in America, but I should not think it will prove a very bad disease among a people so well fed and so clean. We were told in Paris that the alarm, however, was very great, and that the people near the Canadas went armed to keep off the emigrants from Quebec and Montreal–particularly the Vermontese. Our last accounts are up to the 24th of June, and they say the malady is already abating among the Irish, who were principally affected.”
Letter from James Fenimore Cooper to William Gore Ouseley, July 23, 1832[lxxi]
New York City, Buffalo, and Utica were all particularly subject to the 1832 cholera epidemic due to Cholerae vibrio’s water borne mobility and its gestation period. Virtually every city along the Hudson, St. Lawrence, Lake Ontario, Lake Erie, Lake Champlain, and Erie Canal suffered in its turn despite the imposition of quarantines and the frantic efforts by local boards of health to “purify” and eliminate nuisances.
Cooperstown, New York is the county seat for Otsego County and is an interior New York county characterized then and now, by its great natural beauty, rustic farm life, and relative lack of industrial development. Although Cooperstown is idyllically situated on James Fenimore Cooper’s Glimmerglass Lake, and near the headwaters of the Susquehanna River, its geography was not such that vast numbers of travelers, tradesmen, newly arrived immigrants, and possible cholera carriers passed through its locale within short periods of time. As a direct result, Cooperstown’s cholera experience was noticeably different than the port and canal cities of New York State and from its own neighbors in the western part of Otsego County.
Cooperstown’s Freeman’s Journal served dually as the local newspaper and also as the official legal publication for not only the Village of Cooperstown but also for many of Otsego County’s rural townships during the summer of 1832. Its editorials, legal notices, and reports from other newspapers provide evidence of cholera’s effects in a rural New York county.
In the June 18th issue of the Freeman’s Journal, an excerpted news item from the Albany Advertiser noted the death of 42 emigrants from Ireland in Montreal from cholera: “Thus we have positive evidence that this dreaded disease has found its way across the Atlantic. Fortunate will be our country be, if this fatal scourge shall not invade its territory and depopulate our cities and villages.”
On June 26, only days after the State Legislature had passed the “Public Health Law,” the Cooperstown newspaper stated,
“The fact of this disease having found its way across the Atlantic, and made its appearance at Quebec and Montreal, was mentioned in our last number. We have since had accounts from those places of its extended, and extending ravage, particularly among the emigrants from Europe . . .The disease was of a very malignant character, more than two thirds of the cases having proved fatal.”
On July 2, 1832 the Journal’s editor wrote,
“We feel much gratified in being able to state unhesitatingly, that the alarm which pervaded our cities and large towns in regard to this diseases (Cholera), has entirely subsided, and that not a single case of the Cholera is known to exist within out borders.”
On July 9, 1832, in response to the “Public Health Law,” the Village of Cooperstown Trustees resolved:
“Board of Health
In pursuance of the provisions of “an act for the preservation of the public health, . . .The Trustees of the Village of Cooperstown, Resolved, that it was expedient to appoint a Board of Health in and for the Village of Cooperstown; And it was Resolved, that John Russell, Seth Doubleday, jr., Elery Cory, and Harvey Luce, be constituted and appointed a Board of Health in and for said Village, and that Dr. Thomas Fuller be appointed Health Officer.
The Board of Health are happy in having it in their power to state that our Village was never more healthy than at this time; yet we think it necessary, in order to promote the continuance of this blessing, to make some regulations which we feel confident will be observed cheerfully by all our fellow citizens.
1.Each and every inhabitant of the Village is hereby strictly required and directed forthwith to remove, correct, or abate, every and all nuisances on his, her, or their premises, arising either froms stagnant water, drains, sluices, tanneries, distilleries, slaughter-houses, hog-styes, stables, privies, depositories for the refuse of kitchens and cooking houses, or from any other cause whatever.
2. Every person Every person and all persons, are hereby forbidden to throw, place or put, or cause to be thrown, placed or put, any dead animal or part or parts of any dead animal, or any offal of any description whatever, into the Otsego Lake or Susquehannah river in said village.
3. Every Physician practicing within this village is hereby required to make from time to time, immediate report to the Board of Health of every case within his knowledge of the existence or the suspected existence of any malignant or contagious disease within said village.
4. The keeper or keepers of Taverns or boarding houses, and all other persons are hereby required to give immediate information to the Health Officer of the arrival of any suspicious person or persons within the said village, and also to the Board of Health of any other infraction upon the regulations herewith made and published . . .”
On July 30, the Freeman’s Journal published the Board of Health’s official statement, “The Board having learned that rumors were in circulation in neighboring towns that the Cholera was prevailing in this village, take this method to inform the public that there has not as yet been a single case of Cholera in the village, and they furthermore pledge themselves to report faithfully to the public if any case should occur.”
Cooperstown’s apparent good fortune continued and on August 4th, the Board of Health issued another statement, “The Board of Health of this Village, think proper to apprize the public, that the Village continues in a healthful condition, no case of the Cholera having occurred within its limits or in the neighborhood.”
Rural Otsego County
“Our letters from home are of late date. It appears that, though cholera has not been at Cooperstown, it is in many of the western villages. Mrs. Pomeroy writes, however, as if she were not alarmed, and says Cooperstown itself was never more healthy. I am not without hopes that its elevation will protect it.”
James Fenimore Cooper to Samuel F. Morse, September 21, 1832.[lxxii]
Cooperstown’s western rural neighbors were not as fortunate. The Towns of Otsego, Richfield, Worcester, and Hartwick all established Boards of Health in compliance with the June 21st “Public Health Law” and published their own rules and regulations in the Freeman’s Journal. Townships further west, and even more rural, presumably did the same. At the very western edge of Otsego County in the Township of Pittsfield, the evidence of the Cholera Epidemic of 1832 still exists. An analysis of the many small cemeteries for which there are records, on both sides of the Unadilla River in Otsego and Chenango counties, indicate several burials during the summer of 1832.
One such Pittsfield cemetery, the Zalmon Fairchild family cemetery, has been dutifully preserved by members of the family, and is located in the middle of a large farm field not far from the small hamlet known as Hoboken. Family records indicate that the entire Zalmon Fairchild family, one of Pittsfield’s earliest settlers, died in the summer of 1832.[lxxiii] Buried in the small family plot near their original homesite, it is a testament to the catastrophic consequences of cholera on a single family. It is also evidence that families were more subject to cholera if their water sources were shallow wells or easily infected surface water sources.
“Disease has become a largely individual experience for Americans in the last third of the twentieth century. American communities no longer need react collectively to the threat to re-create the anxiety with which Americans, early in 1832 awaited a possible outbreak of cholera.”[lxxiv]
As abruptly as the 1832 Second Cholera Pandemic appeared in New York, it dissipated and disappeared by December of the same year. It is unclear why it ended so abruptly. Perhaps it was the dispersal of people as they fled from New York, Buffalo, or Utica; or maybe it was a subtle change in New York’s summer climate that changed the disease’s life cycle. Some have suggested that despite the confusion propounded by the Miasmatics, the Contagionists and their “obsolete” quarantine theories were actually able to affect the disease’s movement. The answer is unknown.
A similar epidemic, the Third Cholera Pandemic, returned to the United States in 1849. It is believed that over 150,000 Americans died during the two pandemics. Another 50,000 died in the Fourth Pandemic of 1866.[lxxv]
The world is presently engaged in the Seventh Cholera Pandemic. In June of 1997, The World Health Organization announced that more cases of cholera had been reported in the 1990’s than in any other decade since official reporting had started. Despite world-wide public health efforts, cholera is in its Seventh Cholera Pandemic and has caused millions of cases and tens of thousands of deaths.
Latin America, which had been free of cholera for over 100 years, has suffered over 1,400,000 reported cases of cholera since 1990. In Asia, a new and more drug resistant strain of Cholerae vibrio emerged and caused over 200,000 cases in India, Bangladesh, and the other nations of South East Asia. In 1996, cholera was responsible for more than 200,000 cases and many thousands of deaths.[lxxvi]
As in New York’s experience in the 1832 cholera epidemic, we can expect that the historical consequences of the Seventh Cholera Pandemic will be profound and yet, curiously underappreciated. Cholera in particular remains an unpopular, “dirty” event and is overwhelmingly associated with filth, ignorance, poverty, contaminated water, lack of public health, and newly developing communities. It was, and is, a disease of the Industrial Revolution. The processes which permitted the shift from endemic, to epidemic, and finally to pandemic (trains, canals, steamboats) are also the product of a society shifting from isolation and third world living conditions, to exposure and engagement in world-wide higher standards of trade and travel. The same historical/scientific process which allowed cholera to become an epidemic (Age of Enlightenment, science, reason, Industrial Revolution, and medicine) eventually resulted in its control by Europeans and Americans.
Many other social, medical, and historical consequences of the 1832 Cholera Epidemic are also underappreciated. Without the establishment and efforts of the many hundreds of local boards of health in 1832, the later advancement of public health organizations in the 19th century would have been slower. The idea of protecting a community water’s supplies, if only of not disposing of dead animals within it, was of great significance. The sharing of information by physicians; or the publication of medical case histories in New York City’s Cholera Bulletin was of profound importance in the advancement of public health.
Of course, the enhancement of one idea often witnesses the subsidence of another. Miasmatism, which had been on the increase, was reconsidered. At the occurrence of the Fourth Epidemic, Snow’s theories relating to London’s water supplies, were seriously considered. But it started with the suggestion that community’s should protect their water supplies.
On another scale, the 1832 Cholera Epidemic also played a part in the further enhancement of “reason and science” as opposed to spirituality and the idea that cholera was God’s retribution for sin. If the good, the temperate, and the prudent were struck down by cholera, perhaps it was not God’s will after all but something else. And of course, once the question, “what could that cause be?” was asked, the rest is history.
The 1832 Cholera Epidemic was also part of the 19th century process which resulted in the concentration of governmental power at state levels. Public health administration by its very nature results in the centralization of governmental. Without New York’s June 21, 1832 “Public Health Law,” it is doubtful if many local boards of health and their application of state-wide standards would ever have occurred. Modern public health administration is also characterized by the shift from local volunteers to state professionals.
As can be observed, the consequences of the 1832 Cholera Epidemic in New York State and its myriad individual, social, medical, and political significance are multi-level in its causality. Yet, and most curiously unappreciated of all, is the simple idea that disease is of elemental importance to historiography. In the twentieth century, historians have witnessed the trivialization of history in many ways. Analyses which attribute social, political, and economic causation have been denigrated by frivolous politically motivated agendas. The influence of disease upon history should be understood as fundamental to historiography. It is as essential a part of understanding the “frontier,” as it is in understanding the most current “environmental historiography” of the late twentieth century. As the American historian Carl Becker said, “In the history of history a myth is a once valid but now discarded version of the human story, as our now valid versions will in due course be relegated to the category of discarded myths.”[lxxvii] If this be the definition of hisory then The Cholera Epidemic of 1832 and its influence upon history has too long been an unappreciated myth.
[xliii]John Duffy, Epidemics in Colonial America (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1953), 141.
[xlvii]Rosenberg, The Cholera Bulletin, i.
[xlviii]John Duffy, A History of Public Health in New York City: 1625-1866 (New York: Russel Sage Foundation, 1968), 440.
[l]Duffy, A History of Public Health in New York City, 283.
[li]Rosenberg, 27, 84.
[liii]Rosenberg, 29: See also, Duffy, A History of Public Health in New York City, 441.
[lvii]Charles E. Rosenberg, ed., Medicine and Society in America: The Cholera Bulletin: Conducted by an Association of Physicians, Volume I, Numbers 1-24, 1832 (New York: Arno Press and the New York Times, 1972), i.
[lviii]The Cholera Bulletin’s first publication occurred on July 6, 1832, and was within three weeks of the first acknowledged case of cholera in New York City. It was published three times a week until August 31, 1832 and is an invaluable social and medical history resource document containing cholera’s statistics, medical editorials, and physician’s success and failure notes/articles written during the epidemic’s critical summer months.
[lix]Frank H. Severance, ed., Publications of the Buffalo Historical Society, Volume V, Lewis F. Allen, First Appearance, in 1832, of The Cholera in Buffalo (Buffalo, New York: Buffalo Historical Society, 1902), 245-46.
[lx]Duffy, A History of Public Health in New York City, 283.
[lxiv]Microfiche, NYSHA, “Utica Sentinel & Gazette, Vol. 8, #35, Tuesday, August 28, 1832.
[lxv]The staff and resources of the NYSHA Library and Archives are acknowledged for their expert and personal assistance extended over several months during 1998-9
[lxvi]Utica Sentinel, Vol 8, #28, July 10; Vol. 8, #29, July 17.
[lxvii]Microfiche, NYSHA Archives, Utica Sentinel, Vol. 8, July-October, 1832.
[lxix]Letter from O. and Mary Williams to Othniel Williams, July 10, 1832, New York State Historical Association Archives Williams Collection.
[lxx]Letter from S.F. Kimbal to Rachel Kimball, August 7, 1832, New York State Historical Association Library Archives, Kimball Collection.
[lxxi]James Franklin Beard, ed., The Letters and Journals of James Fenimore Cooper, Letter No. 285 of July 23, 1832, Hotel de l’Europe, Brussels, Belgium,of September 21, 1832, Vevay, Switzerland, James Fenimore Cooper to William Gore Ouseley, British Legalion, Washington, D.C., Vol. II, 278-79.
[lxxii]Beard, Letter No. 298, Vol. II, 335-337.
[lxxiii]In addition to Zalmon Fairchild’s role as one of the earliest settlers in Pittsfield, he was also the foreman of the Cooperstown jury at the celebrated criminal trial of Burlington’s
schoolmaster Stephen Taylor, who was charged, convicted, and hanged for the murder of one his pupils, ………………… in 1828.
[lxxiv]Rosenberg, Cholera Bulletin, i.
[lxxv]Kenneth T. Calamia, ed. “Cholera at Home and Abroad,” Jacksonville Medicine, www.dcmsJaxmed.com
[lxxvi]Maria Neira, “Cholera: A Challenge for the 21st Century,” World Health, Vol. 50, Jan.-Feb. 1997, No. 1, 9.
[lxxvii]Carl Becker, Everyman His Own Historian (New York: 1935), 247.