Cholera in 1835

At Bellevue there was an inexplicable delay in getting the train ready. Then there was a further delay and when the impatient watchers on the Green finally met their companions they learned that there had come close to being no caravan at all this year. For while Fontenelle’s men lingered at Bellevue they began to fall sick with Asiatic cholera.

This was the cholera’s third year in the United States. And this, the first outbreak of cholera in North America, was part of the pandemic which began, so far as modern scholarship knows, in India in 1816. It was mankind’s worst epidemic since the Parable of the Samaritan (7835) 219 Black Death; it may have been worse than the Black Death. It burned slowly in native India for seven years but reached the Ganges delta in 1826. In three more years it came to the Caspian Sea and by 1830 it was flaming across Russia and the Near East. The next year it was at Mecca, whence the pilgrims, dying by the thousand, carried it into the southern Mohammedan lands. ‘The years 1831 and 1832 were terrible years throughout Europe. From the Caspian Sea the pestilence crossed by boat and caravan to the Black Sea and ascended the Danube into southern and central Europe . . . traveled along roads to the headwaters of the streams of the Baltic drainage area … it accompanied all human travel.’ 1 England first felt it in the summer of 1831 and the next year it was all over the British Isles.

Wretched Irishmen packed in the holds of emigrant ships brought it to Canada early in 1832. They and their hosts died like flies. It traveled up the St. Lawrence and came to the United States down Lake Champlain and by canal boat to Albany. From Albany it traveled down the Hudson to New York, reaching the city in a dead heat with other cases that came directly across the Atlantic. Meanwhile it traveled westward by the Ohio River and the Erie Canal. (We noted that in the fall of 1832 Maximilian stopped at New Harmony in fear of cholera and perhaps acquired a light case.) It traveled down the Great Lakef and all but wiped out the unfortunate detachment of soldiers whom Winfield Scott was taking to subdue Black Hawk. That was the year when John Wyeth, coming back broke from his uncomfortable trip to the mountains, reached the panic-stricken city of New Orleans, hired out as a gravedigger at two dollars a day, helped fill excavations with the dead, and finally caught the disease himself but survived. New Orleans suffered dreadfully in 1832 but had another ghastly outbreak in 1833, and in that latter year Missouri, Kentucky, and in fact all the interior valley experienced the same horrors that the seaboard had seen the year before. (Hope of avoiding the cholera determined Captain Stewart’s route to St. Louis.) That year saw the end of the American epidemic as such but the disease smouldered in many places, to break out viciously in some of them every year and eventually in 1849 to sweep much of the country again and to find an excellent forcing bed in the gold rush.

In 1833 the disease went up the Missouri as far as Fort Union, though it lost some of its virulence on the way. Thereafter there were pockets of it along the Mississippi. One of these was St. Louis, where a few cases begot the usual terror every year. Baring an occassional steamboat case on the way to Independence, however, it goes no farther west. But now, on Just 10, 1835, at bellvue the first victim in Fontanelle’s party showed the familiar symptoms. The disease strikes like a thinderclap and sometimes runs its course in a few hours. Diarrhoea and vomiting are severe from the beginning and soon become violent. Prostration is complete. The severe fluid loss, which may produce blood loss as well, shrinks and wrinkles the patient’s skin. His face grows hollow, his nose sharpens, he begins to turn blue. He is at an extreme of agony. In a few hours, or, at most, a few days, he dies or rounds the turn and begins to mend.