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  • James Wheeling

The Cholera Epidemic of 1849

As has been the case for so much of my story’s time period, another event is coinciding with the current coronavirus outbreak. Cholera, an easily dealt with bacterial infection in our modern era, was a mystery to everyone in 1849. Here’s what happened: Cholera was not a new problem in 1849; there had been earlier outbreaks in 1832 and 1839, which originated in India and spread thru the continent affecting Russia, surged throughout Europe and Northern Africa and eventually crossed the Atlantic, hitting both North America and Central America. In the 1849 go-around, cholera ravaged Mecca, Russia, England, Wales, and Ireland. Many scholars and historical physicians have said the disease was carried across the Atlantic as the starving Irish fled the Potato Famine and arrived in cities like Boston, New York and New Orleans on ships carrying afflicted immigrants. From those cities, the disease worked its way up the Mississippi and Ohio River systems, and along the Oregon, California and Mormon emigrant trails. One has to ask, why didn’t they get it stopped? The answer is that until 1854, no one knew how the disease was transmitted. No one understood bacteria, viruses or infections. Personal hygiene and sanitation weren’t a consideration. Even in hospitals, doctors rarely washed their hands as they went from one patient to the next, never sterilized equipment and still believed in treating almost every ailment by using leeches to suck out the “poisoned” blood. Doctors did prescribe calomel for cholera victims, a cure that turned out to be as fatal as the disease because it contained mercury, so if cholera didn’t getcha, the mercury did. Factually, cholera travels in unsanitary water polluted with human waste. Consuming the water, or food washed in the water, led to infection. Dumping raw human sewage within feet of their drinking water was normal. It was common practice to scoop water from any water source, albeit a creek, a pond, or a river, without any consideration for where or what that water had been exposed to prior to the dip. And, when someone died of cholera, people touched the body as they hauled it away, didn’t wash their hands or discard any clothing that came into contact with the body and, thereby, contracted the disease. But, in 1849, doctors believed it was an air-borne disease that could be treated by lighting fires at cities’ crossroads, firing off cannons on 25-minute intervals and other interesting treatments for air quality. But, unlike today, social distancing wasn’t considered. That said, there are examples of whole communities retreating from their homes and towns for the entire spring, summer and fall – the time when cholera is most common – and surviving. Nativist Americans in 1849, specifically Protestant Irish, were quick to blame the Irish Catholics for the disease saying God was punishing them for their sinful religion. With the overcrowding in the eastern big cities, Boston and New York specifically, where immigrants packed themselves into tenement buildings, sometimes nine or ten people in one small room, it would have been easy to accept that they were being rebuked by a malevolent god. But when the disease spread to innocent travelers on their way to the Gold Rush, no one had an answer.

In the summer of 1849, as steamers were plying the waters of the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers, it was commonplace to see docks where sheet-wrapped corpses were unceremoniously stacked like cord wood, waiting to be picked up and hauled to the waiting “cholera pit.” It is estimated that over 7,500 people died in the Mississippi River towns (St. Louis and New Orleans mostly) in 1849 alone. In Ohio, Cincinnati had 8,000 people and in Columbus, 116 inmates at the Ohio Penitentiary died in 1849. Those were just the easy facts to find… As my story unfolded and my research came to back it up, the cholera epidemic in America in 1849 plays a significant role. I have always wanted my story to demonstrate that, while every story needs a villain, not all villains are human. Ten years ago, when I started writing my story, I had no idea that our world would face another such villain in a poignant, and tragic, parallel. Thanks to for providing some details in this blog.

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