The 1832 Cholera Epidemic in New York State:
19th Century Responses to Cholerae Vibrio

By G. William Beardslee


Disease and History

"New York was probably the most thoroughly scourged

among the states. Each of the thriving towns along the

Erie Canal suffered in its turn, despite quarantines and

last minute attempts at 'purifications.' . . .Small villages,

even isolated farms, were stricken. And here the disease

was most terrifying; it had to be faced alone, often without

friend, minister, or physician. The appearance of cholera

in even the smallest hamlet was the signal for the general

exodus of the inhabitants, who, in their headlong flight,

spread the disease throughout the surrounding countryside[i]

The study of history has long required the application of sophisticated multi-causal analyses. Decades before "modern" historians proposed a greater sensitivity and appreciation to environmental factors and some aspects of environmental determinism, Frederick Jackson Turner wrote of the "mastering" powers of nature, the environment, and man's necessary adaptation to it. Turner's "Frontier Thesis" proposed that it was the presence of vast frontier lands which caused American history to be uniquely characterized by its individualism, nationalism, sectionalism, and self-reliant unilateralism. Despite his appreciation of the significance of the frontier's environment on history, Turner, and many other historians have curiously overlooked the impact and consequences of disease and pestilence upon American history preferring to perceive the "germ theory" with a very different connotation,

"All peoples show development; the germ theory of politics has been sufficiently emphasized. . . .At the Atlantic frontier one can study the germs of processes repeated at each successive frontier. We have the complex European life sharply precipitated by the wilderness into the simplicity of primitive conditions."[ii]

The influence of disease upon American history is an under appreciated historiographical component. It is true that within the last few generations of American historians, there has been a growing recognition that disease devastated native American peoples prior to and after the arrival of Europeans on the North American continent. But the influence of plagues, epidemics, pestilences, and poxes upon local, regional, and national events has been less studied. Relatively few historians, including European or world historians such as Hans Zinnser and William H. McNeill, have proposed environmentally oriented historiographical theories that highlight the analysis of disease upon global history.[iii]

In his Plagues and Peoples, William H. McNeill recognized Turner's contributions, but suggested that the "frontier" was a consequence of cultural differentiation, which itself was the result of environmental and geographical inequities. McNeill suggested that European's selective disease immunities, post-Napoleonic political equilibrium, technological changes, and a market oriented economy all propelled Western cultures toward North America and other world wide frontier communities. McNeill's global analysis synthesized an explanation for the existence of not only North America frontier experiences, but also in other locations at the forefront of European advancement. As McNeill suggests, the occurrence of disease, epidemics, and pestilence constituted a persistent and expected element of the "frontier experience."

The response by several New York State communities to the 1832 invasion of Cholerae vibrio provides an poignant opportunity to view man's social and political adaptation to this component of his environment. It is also a chance to understand another of William McNeill's biological/historical theories: man and microbe are engaged in a long term relationship; disease, pestilence, and plague are examples of microbial efforts to dominate their frontier-homo sapiens.

An additional benefit from an analysis of the 1832 Cholera Pandemic is that it illustrates the inextricability of regional, national and global "great events" as a part of local history. Local historians often do not give sufficient credit to their local events. Perhaps because they are seen as too common and familiar, local historians tend to perceive local history as less important, or that local history is only a part of the "great' events occurring on a national or global scale. It can be argued that it is actually the local event, particularly in the case of epidemics-the case by case occurrence of disease, that collectively creates "big history."

In each of the individual community's reactions are elements of the greater response by region, nations, and hemispheres to the global catastrophe inherent in the 1832 Cholera Pandemic. Every response, whether it be in (1) rural Otsego county, (2) the Village of Cooperstown, (3) Utica or (4­) Buffalo, provides a glimpse into that community's values, culture, and character. Each will also be compared to the response of the great metropolis of New York City.

Each community's response usually included the creation of some sort of public health response upon which later responses to other diseases and epidemics would be based. In many ways the 1832 local health board's responses to the Great Cholera Pandemic established the outlines of today's public health reactions to all epidemics.


The First Cholera Pandemic: 1817-23

To be sure, a couple of spectacular examples of what can happen

when an unfamiliar infection attacks a population... The Black Death of

the fourteenth century was the chief example. . .and the cholera epidemics

of the nineteenth century constitute a second. . .[iv]

Despite relatively scant historical acknowledgment, the periodic occurrence of pestilences, diseases, and epidemics have long been a part of American history. Almost as soon as the first Europeans arrived on the North American continent, and centuries before the Cholera Pandemic of 1832, American history was repeatedly afflicted with major and minor cycles of disease.[v] A partial listing of those known and recorded early diseases and epidemics would include at least the following events:

1657 Boston Measles
1687 Boston Measles
1690 New York Yellow Fever
1713 Boston Measles
1729 Boston Measles
1732 World Influenza
1738 South Carolina Small pox
1739 Boston Measles
1747 New England Measles
1759 North America Measles
1761 North America Influenza
1772 North America Measles
1775 North America Unknown illness
1776 World Influenza
1783 Delaware Bilious disease
1788 Philadelphia Measles
1793 Vermont Putrid Fever
1793 Virginia Influenza
1793 Philadelphia Yellow Fever
1793 Harrisburg, Pa. Unknown
1793 Middletown, Pa. Unknown
1794 Philadelphia Yellow Fever
1796 Philadelphia Yellow Fever
1798 Philadelphia Yellow Fever
1803 New York Yellow Fever
1820 North America "Fever"

Cholera had never appeared in North America or the western hemisphere prior to Second Cholera Pandemic in 1832. Although it is sometimes exceedingly difficult to determine if a prior illness and its symptoms constituted a particular disease, Cholera was probably first identified as a specific illness in the late 1700's. By the early 19th century its symptoms and peculiarities were well known and capable of differentiation from the other great fevers: Yellow Fever or Typhoid.

It is generally acknowledged that cholera had long been endemic to the Indian subcontinent and particularly to its northeast regions, the Ganges Delta.[vi] Medical historians suggest the reporting of a similar disease in ancient historical accounts. Historical reports from 1629 seem to describe a disease that at least closely resembled cholera, and in the late 19th century, Indian travelers' accounts appear to describe the classic conditions of cholera well prior to the first Pandemic of 1817; over the next several years the disease moved out of its historically affected region, and began a rapid and progressively westward movement along and over the Arab-Moslem trade/travel routes from India to the west extending to Muscat, the east coast of Arabia, Syria, and southern Russia as far as the Volga River. As suddenly as cholera had appeared, it abated by the early 1820's. This earliest outbreak and its transition from endemic to epidemic to pandemic is generally considered as the First Cholera Pandemic. Europe and the Americas were unaffected by this first pandemic.

Unlike other diseases that require human transportation, Cholerae vibrio, can exist outside the human body.[vii] It is a bacterium and under the microscope it is shaped like a comma. It only affects humans. Epidemiologists believe that it evolved in the Ganges Delta region and until the modern era, was isolated to that area. Until the arrival of Europeans and their technological transportation inventions including railroads, steamships and canals, cholera had been restricted to India.[viii] For this reason, Cholera has been called a "disease of the 19th century," and the "Pandemic of the Industrial Revolution"; without modern methods of transportation, it is unlikely to have become more than an epidemic.[ix]

Cholerae vibrio can survive for surprisingly long periods of time in many water sources including shallow wells, cisterns, or water storage tanks. It does not require an intermediary animal host or some form of agent (vector) for dispersal.[x] Once ingested and if it can reach the human intestines, the bacteria will there produce a toxin which inhibits the absorption of water and salts. The bacteria then effectively flushes the intestines of any competition and begins a massive replication of itself.

Cholera's physiological effects on humans are not appreciably different today than in the 19th century. Individuals, then and now, were generally unaware of their illness until a sudden onset of stomach cramps, nausea, fever, and explosive-severe-voluminous diarrhea. Within hours of the disease's onset, the cholera victim expelled immense quantities of bodily fluids. Deprived of the body's necessary fluids, the cholera victim's head, hands, and extremities turned cold, bluish in color, and death like in touch. Death often occurred within hours of the first symptoms and was generally "caused" by cardiac failure precipitated by the severe electrolytic imbalances. It was an ugly, nasty, and repulsive death. Individuals often lost consciousness and it was sometimes difficult to determine if individual had actually expired. Medical records frequently reported body "twitching" for hours after an individuals apparent death. In response, many communities forbade burials sooner than 24 hours after death due to this phenomenon.

Anyone having contact with the individual, his soiled bedding, clothing, or infected water sources was a potential victim and transporter of the disease. In its most virulent form, cholera's death rates were, and are, over 50% for adults and overwhelmingly fatal for the elderly, infants, and the otherwise infirmed.[xi]


The Second Cholera Pandemic: 1826-37

"The abrupt onset and fearful symptoms of cholera made

Americans apprehensive and reflective-as they were not by

the equally deadly, but more deliberate, ravages of tuberculosis

or malaria. 'To see individuals well in the morning & dead in the

morning is something which is appalling to the boldest heart'."[xii]

Just as suddenly as the First Cholera Pandemic abated in the early 1820's, a new cholera cycle commenced in 1826, and soon affected all of India and much of the Far East. In the West the disease traveled the familiar trade routes into Afghanistan and into Russia by 1827.[xiii] By 1831 cholera had infected all of Russia's major cities despite quarantines and sanitation measures. These defenses were ineffective primarily because cholera victims invariably infected nearby water supplies, including creeks, streams, and ultimately the major rivers. Russian troops carried the disease into Poland in the winter of 1831. By June of that year, it had arrived in Hungary, Austria, and Germany.[xiv] By April of 1832, cholera reached Paris.

The approach of the cholera pandemic toward Europe in the early 1830's was greeted with extraordinary public anxiety, dread, and concern in all the major cities. London and Parisian newspapers featured lengthy reports from Moscow and other cities to the east. Citizens of all the major European cities awaited the approaching pandemic in moods that can only be described as one of terror. It was the most feared of all diseases in the 19th century.[xv]

In a now famous letter dated April 9, 1832, the German poet Henirich Heine (1796-1856) graphically described the outbreak of cholera in Paris.

"On March 29th, the night of mi-careme, a masked ball was in progress, the chabut in full swing. Suddenly, the gayest of the harlequins collapsed, cold in the limbs, and, underneath his mask, 'violet-blue' in the face. Laughter died out, dancing ceased, and in a short while carriage-loads of people were hurried from the redoute to the Hotel Dieu to die, and to prevent a panic among the patients, were thrust into rude graves in their dominoes. Soon the public halls were filled with dead bodies, sewed in sacks for want of coffins. Long lines of hearses stood en queue outside Pere Lachaise. Everybody wore flannel bandages. The rich gathered up their belongings and fled the town. Over 120,000 passports were issued at the Hotel de Ville."[xvi]

With great justification, Cholera was perceived as a demonic, evil and foreign force similar if not worse than smallpox or the plague. In its most virulent forms, it was a highly efficient killer and often resulted in a 50% mortality rate among its healthy adult victims.[xvii] Deaths in India between 1817 and 1860 are generally considered to have exceeded 15,000,000 persons. Another 23,000,000 died between 1865 and 1917.[xviii] Russian deaths during a similar time period exceeded 2,000,000.[xix]

During the late winter-early spring of 1831-32, American newspapers, apprehensively, sometimes hysterically, reported the existence of the cholera in Paris. Despite severe quarantines (cordon sanitaire) and other protective measures, cholera invaded the British Isles at Newcastle in October of 1831. Within weeks, by April of 1832, it had spread north into Scotland and across the Irish Sea into Ireland.

The English response to the 1832 Cholera Pandemic is historically significant. In mid 1831 with cholera's "terror" loose on the continent and approaching the British Isles, the government established a board of health within the Royal College of Physicians. This Central Board of Health was proclaimed in June of 1831 and consisted of seven physicians, the comptroller of the navy, a deputy of the Board of Customs, director general of the army's hospitals, and several other similarly important officials. Among its first proposed recommendations, rules, and regulations, applicable to each town and village, was "there should be established a local Board of Health." Local boards were to consist of the local chief magistrate and clergymen, one of whom, would serve as a correspondent with London's Central Board of Health. Additionally, ". . .in each town or its neighborhood," temporary hospitals were to be established to which ". . .every case of the Disease as soon as detected . . ." might be removed. Finally, "The Houses from which the Sick Persons had been removed should be purified in the following manner. The wearing apparel and household furniture should be thoroughly washing and scoured, the walls and ceilings lime washed, the doors and windows of each apartment left open for many days . . ."[xx] Eventually, over 1200 local boards of health (822 in England and Wales, and about 400 in Scotland) were established in Great Britain.[xxi]

Equally as important as the establishment of a central governmental public health authority, was the publication of the official Cholera Gazette commencing in January of 1832. It purpose was to serve as a "clearing house" of cholera communications and information to and from London's Central Board of Health. The Gazette was published bi-weekly beginning on January 14 and provided "details of cases of cholera . . ."[xxii]


Causation: Sin, Contagion, Miasma, Injustice, Ethnicity, and Race?

"We have witnessed in our days the birth of a new

pestilence, which in the short space of fourteen years

has desolated the fairest portions of the globe, and swept off

at least fifty millions of our race. It has mastered every variety

of climate, surmounted every natural barrier, conquered every

people. It has not, like the simoon, blasted life, and then

passed away; the cholera, like the smallpox or plague, takes

root in the soil it has once passed."[xxiii]

As New Yorkers observed from afar, the fearful and inexorable westward movement of the cholera pandemic across Europe and into Great Britain, the debate as to its causation and proper treatment escalated. Fundamental to the entire discussion was the cultural non-cognizance that disease originated in a micro-biological "germ theory" world. Rudimentary modern concepts such as bacteria, toxins, personal cleanliness, and public sanitation were either unknown and largely absent from the social database. Quarantines were common and had been utilized for hundreds of years, but the scientific idea of contagion was confused and interrelated with religion, piety, sin, and "God's Justice."

In all probability, most New Yorkers, if they had been asked in 1831-2 what they believed to have been cause of cholera, would have answered that cholera/disease was some form of righteous consequence which afflicted those who were least likely to be in God's grace. As further proof they would cite that Cholera most often affected those persons who lived dissolute, alcoholic, drug related, sexually excessive, and filth ridden lives; cholera's victims were simply being punished by God. It was the consequence of sin and "was the inevitable and inescapable judgment" of the Divine Power. "Cholera was a scourge not of mankind but of the sinner."[xxiv] And, it was a known and seemingly irrefutable fact that cholera was most commonly found in those areas of the world least populated by Christians.

In contrast to the simple purity of Christianity's rationale for cholera, medicine, physicians, and other adherents of "reason," proposed theories which also recognized that certain social groups seemed more vulnerable. Similar to those who considered cholera the product of sin, knowledgeable and scientific people agreed that it was the imprudent, the dirty, and the intemperate who were more subject to cholera's terror. Instead of God's punishment, they proposed that cholera was "an influence in the atmosphere," a miasma (poison) that afflicted only those who had weakened themselves by exposure to certain behaviors, places, or "exciting causes." [xxv] Only those persons of irregular habits should fear cholera. The good, the clean, and the temperate would escape its presence. Only those persons whose systems were weakened or debilitated would contract the disease.[xxvi]

Confounding this more rationale theory was the long standing debate between the rival schools of thoughts regarding epidemics: Contagionism or Miasmatism. Many men and women of "reason" had long proposed that epidemics only occurred as the result of a miasma in the atmosphere which if encountered by a weakened individual caused disease. This theory suggested that the miasmatic atmospheric phenomenon was generated by rotting corpses, marshy land areas, and other putrescent matter exhaling vaporous emanations.

The rival theory, contagionism, was a precursor of the germ theory which would not be discovered until much later in the 19th century. In 1832, without an understanding of either microbiology or germ theory, its adherents were hard pressed and relatively few. Quarantines were the natural product of the contagion concept, but confusingly, many diseases including cholera seemed transmittable without direct personal contact. It would not be until the Third Cholera Pandemic of 1849, through the efforts of an obscure London scientist/doctor, John Snow, and his observations of cholera victims and their water sources, that the rudiments of a germ theory would be understood.[xxvii] Finally and only in the 1870's, with the discoveries of Louis Pasteur, and the 1882 identification of the cholera bacillus by Robert Koch, would the miasmatic theory finally be rejected.[xxviii] Only with these discoveries would the cholera bacteria's mode of transmission, primarily through the ingestion of contaminated water and foods, be fully comprehended.

Further complicating an understanding of New Yorker's and American attitudes regarding the causation of cholera was a collection of other attitudes, prejudices, and philosophies characteristic of 19th century America. Social reformers, such as New York's George Henry Evans, perceived cholera not as God's retribution for sin, but rather as proof of man's inhumanity to man. Cholera was overwhelmingly a "poor man's plague," and the reason for that was rooted in America's underlying unjust social and economic systems. Social radicals were aware and incensed that on one day in July of 1832, over 100 persons died of cholera in New York City. Of that group, 95 were buried in the city's graveyard for the poor-Potter's Field.[xxix]

Others within American society saw cholera's causation as based in the unchecked immigration into the United States of foreign born persons-especially the Roman Catholic Irish. And of course, it was true that the Irish died in inordinate numbers during the 1832 epidemic. As the newest and the poorest immigrants, the Irish lived in the worst housing, under the most crowded circumstances, and were least able to afford good water, medical care, or flight from the epidemic.

Last and certainly not the least in historical significance, is that some Americans perceived that cholera's causation and occurrence was further proof that African-Americans were foreordained to suffer due to their social and genetic inferiority. As one might expect from their endemic poverty, African-Americans died during the 1832 cholera epidemic at significantly higher rates compared to those of whites.

"Whether free or slave, Americans believed, the Negro's innate character invited cholera. He was, with few exceptions, filthy and careless in his personal habits, lazy, and ignorant by temperament. A natural fatalist, moreover, he took no steps to protect himself from disease shared, to an exaggerated extent, the distaste of the poor for hospitals and the medical profession."[xxx]

1832 Cholera Pandemic and its public perception was a microcosm of American social life in general. From as many facets as there were spiritual, social, political, and economic divisions within the general community, cholera was received as proof, indeed as justification of their ideas. Medicine, religion, social reformism, ethnicism, and racism all regarded cholera as evidence of their individual agendas.


19th Century Cholera Regimens and Therapies

"The disease may properly be divided into

four stages; each of which has its own

peculiar symptoms, requiring some

modification in the treatment . . .first, the

premonitory stage . . ., second, . . violent

vomiting and purging, . . .third, . . collapse,

and fourth, . . .consecutive fever.

Nor surprisingly much of the the medical literature written between the 1832 Second Cholera Pandemic and the Third Pandemic of 1849, manifested characteristics of all or hybridized combinations of the pietistic, miasmatic, and contagionistic causation theories. Epidemic Cholera: Its History, Causes, Pathology and Treatment, written in 1849 by Buffalo, New York's Dr. C. B. Coventry is representative of the confusion relating to the causation and treatment of cholera.[xxxi]

Written nearly thirty years before Snow's, Pasteur's, and Koch's establishment of a "germ theory," Coventry's discussion of causation, and recommendations for treatment, are painful and uncomfortable to read. The ignorance of the underlying biology, microbiology, and "germ theory" causation of cholera combined with its suggested treatments provoke enormous empathy for cholera's helpless victims. Without exaggeration, cholera's piteous must have concluded that "the cure was worse than the disease."

As Coventry's treatise established, 19th century medical treatments for cholera were ultimately grounded in the tenet that "the disease may be properly be divided into four stages:" (1) Premonitory, (2) Cramps, diarrhea, and coldness, (3) Collapse, and (4) Consecutive fever.[xxxii] For each stage he suggested a treatment plan. Despite their antiquated and baseless nature, in comparison with other non-medical, homeopathic, naturalist, or simple "medical quackery," Coventry's therapies were considered conservative, logical, and humane.

For each of the identified four (4) individual stages, unique medicines and treatments were prescribed. Complicating the entire diagnosis and treatment process was the reality that 19th century physicians could not effectively differentiate between a myriad of similar illnesses. An upset stomach, food poisoning, common diarrhea, and dysentery were all considered more or less related to the 1832 Cholera. These lesser forms were typically denominated as Cholera morbus and lumped together with the more aggravated form which was usually denoted as Asiatic Cholera.[xxxiii]

Most physicians felt that cholera was particularly susceptible to medical management during its Premonitory stage. The onset of lesser stomach spasms and "painless" diarrhea was considered not part of the disease but a precursor; if prompt medical attention were received, individuals could escape, prevent, or otherwise avoid the disease. It was "not improperly termed the curable stage."[xxxiv] The Premonitory stage, and the medical community's fixation that it could be managed, was erroneous. The "curable stage" was simply one of the many common "stomach upsets" other than cholera. The conclusion that cholera was curable was based upon a faulty premise: all similar symptoms are the same disease and were related.

Treatment of the first stage (Premonitory) of cholera consisted of confining the victim to bed and the taking of some warmed mild aromatic drink such as spearmint, chamomile, or warm camphor julep. Once the individual had commenced to perspire, calomel, camphor, magnesia, and pure castor oil was administered.[xxxv] If the cholera victim had recently consumed food, an emetic such as ipecacuanha or sulfate of zinc was given. It was also recommended that bleeding of the victim be performed. "The object of the bleeding is to relieve the internal congestion," and should be discontinued if the victim faints.[xxxvi]

During the second stage, which 19th century medical professionals considered the actual onset of cholera, treatments were intensified. During this stage, as cholera's victims suffered excruciating nausea, massive diarrhea, cramps, physical collapse, cold clammy extremities, and a feeble pulse, medical therapies included, "put the feet and legs in water as warm as could be born, with the addition of mustard and common salt to the water; open a vein in the arm, and bleed from five, to sixteen to twenty ounces . . apply a large mustard cataplasm over the stomach and give . . .calomel, opium, an camphor, every half hour." If the patient continued to deteriorate, and was there any reason to think he would not, "Sulphuric ether in small doses should be given . . .at the same time an enema of a pint of chicken tea, with a table spoonful of salt . . .should be thrown into the bowels . . ."[xxxvii]

Few persons survived cholera's third stage which was sometimes called the "stage of asphyxia." The principle of treatment during this portion of the illness was to "arouse the dormant energies of the system." Larger doses of calomel and camphor were recommended; in addition, quinine and morphine were to be administered every half hour, and "a cholera patient . . . should never be left a moment without the presence of an intelligent nurse."[xxxviii]

If the patient survived the treatments prescribed for the third stage, further bleeding or the attachment of leeches was recommended for the fourth stage. More calomel, magnesia, camphor, opium, and morphine pills were given, and if during this stage of cholera, "consecutive fever" or typhoid appeared, "it may be necessary to resort to tonics and stimulants such as sul. quinine, serpentaria, carb. of ammonia, wine whey, oil of turpentine, etc."[xxxix]

Variations upon these therapies were as numerous as there were physicians. Some treatments emphasized exterior stimulants to the system, in hopes of energizing the collapsing patient, by rubbing the victim's body with rebefacients, the most common being combinations of mustard, oils of turpentine, and cayenne pepper.[xl] Other physicians routinely recommended immense dosages of calomel, a chalky mercury compound, until the victim's gums stared bleeding. The most common, and considered as conservative therapies, always included some combination of calomel, opium (laudanum), and bleedings.

More exotic and radical treatments abounded: tobacco smoke enemas, electric shock therapy, beeswax/oilcloth plugs forced into the victim's rectum to stop the diarrhea were among the most distressing encountered.[xli] Curiously, at least one physician, New York City's Dr. W. Rhinelander, located at 342 Broadway, suggested in July of 1832 that cholera could be treated by the infusion of saline solutions into the victim's veins.[xlii] Such a treatment along with a regimen of attendant antibiotics is the preferred therapy for modern cholera victims. When treated early the fatality rate is very low.


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]


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.

End Notes

[i]Charles E. Rosenberg, The Cholera Years: The United States in 1832, 1849,

and 1866 (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1962), 36-37.

[ii]Frederick Jackson Turner, The Frontier in American History (New York: Dover Publications, Inc, 1996), 3, 9.

[iii]William H. McNeill, Plagues and Peoples (New York: Doubleday-Anchor Books, 1976) 1-13; Hans Zinnser, Rats, Lice, and History (New York: Bantam edition, 1965, original publication 1935, 164-171.

[iv]McNeill, 3.

[v]A definition of certain epidemiological terms is appropriate. In relation to cholera, Endemic is defined as a disease that occurs continuously in a particular population. In contrast, an epidemic is the occurrence of an infectious disease that affects many people at the same time in the same geographical area. Pandemic is a disease affecting a majority of the population of a large region or one that is epidemic at the same time in many different parts of the world.

[vi]Kenneth F. Kiple, ed. Plague, Pox, & Pestilence (New York: Barnes & Noble Books, 1997), 142.

[vii]Kiple, 142.

[viii]Kiple, p. 144.

[ix]Geoffrey Marks and William K. Beatty, Epidemics (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1976), 191.

[x]Recent research suggests that Cholera vibrio may exist outside humans in a state of dormancy or spore like state within tiny crustaceans known as copepods or zooplankton. If water conditions are too cold, nutrient poor, or deficient in certain salts, the bacteria's metabolism plummets into a state of dormancy. When conditions improve the bacteria revive and start replication. The exact conditons which trigger the bacteria into and out of dormancy are not yet completely known; See, Catherine Dold, "The Cholera Lesson," Discover, Vol. 20, No. 2, February, 1999, 71-75.

[xi]Kiple, 142.

[xii]Rosenberg, 3.

[xiii]Marks, 194.

[xiv]Marks, 194.

[xv]Marks, 199.

[xvi]Marks, 195.

[xvii]Kiple, 142.

[xviii]Kiple, 142.

[xix]Marks, 193.

[xx]Rosenberg, 197.

[xxi]Ibid., 198-99.

[xxii]Rosenberg, 198.

[xxiii]Michael Durey, The Return of the Plague: British Society and the Cholera, 1831-2 (Dublin: Gill and MacMillan Humanities Press, 1979), 7.

[xxiv]Rosenberg, 40.

[xxv]Rosenberg, 40.

[xxvi]Ibid., 41.

[xxvii]Durey, 66-67.

[xxviii]McNeill, 234-236

[xxix]Bernhard J. Stern, Society and Medical Progress (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1941), 134.; See also, Rosenberg, 57.

[xxx]Rosenberg, 60.

[xxxi]C.B. Coventry, Epidemic Cholera: Its History, Causes, Pathology, and Treatment (Buffalo, New York: Geo. H. Derby and Co., 1849).

[xxxii]Coventry, 58-66.

[xxxiii]Rosenberg, 74.

[xxxiv]Coventry, 59.

[xxxv]Calomel is a mixture of mercury and chlorine and was used as a cathartic in the 19th century. It often serves as an insecticide and fungicide today. Camphor

is a tough gum like extract from the Camphor tree and was commonly used as a stimulant in the 19th century. It is used in the manufacture of plastics or as an insect repellent today. Magnesia is still used as an antacid and mild laxative. Castor oil is a fatty extract from the castor bean and has long been used as a cathartic. It is also used as a mechanical lubricant.

[xxxvi]Coventry, 86; Opium is a

[xxxvii]Ibid., 91.

[xxxviii]Ibid., 93.


[xl]Ibid., 96.

[xli]Rosenberg, 66-67.

[xlii]Charles E. Rosenberg, The Cholera Bulletin, Conducted by an Association of Physicians, Volume I, No. 1-24, 1832 (New York: Arno Press & The New York Times, 1972), 106.

[xliii]John Duffy, Epidemics in Colonial America (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1953), 141.

[xliv]Rosenberg, 79.

[xlv]Marks, 201.

[xlvi]Marks, 201.

[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.

[xlix]Rosenberg, 83.

[l]Duffy, A History of Public Health in New York City, 283.

[li]Rosenberg, 27, 84.

[lii]Rosenberg, 83.

[liii]Rosenberg, 29: See also, Duffy, A History of Public Health in New York City, 441.

[liv]Rosenberg, 88-89.

[lv]Rosenberg, 89

[lvi]Rosenberg, 86.

[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.

[lxi]Rosenberg, 24.

[lxii]Allen, 247.

[lxiii]Ibid., 247.

[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.

[lxviii]Rosenberg, 93.

[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,

[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.

Home | Search | Early America Review | Movies