History shows that several pandemics have struck in New York State – one of the less remembered is known as the Second Cholera Pandemic of 1832.
New York was among the most thoroughly scourged among the states.
A person may get cholera by drinking water or eating food contaminated with the Vibrio cholerae bacterium. Although cholera can be acquired from under-cooked marine life, in an epidemic, the source of the contamination is usually the feces of an infected person. The disease can spread rapidly in areas with inadequate treatment of sewage and drinking water and New York City, Buffalo, and Utica were all hit particularly hard due to the bacterium‘s water borne mobility.
Virtually every city along the Hudson and St. Lawrence Rivers, Lakes Ontario, Erie, and Champlain, and the Erie Canal suffered despite the imposition of quarantines and frantic local efforts to “purify” and eliminate public health nuisances. In June 1832 cholera appeared in Quebec and Montreal and then in Prescott, Kingston, and York in Canada.
Thriving towns along the Erie Canal suffered as well as small villages and even isolated farms. The appearance of cholera was the signal for the general exodus of inhabitants of larger communities, who, in their headlong flight, spread the disease throughout the surrounding countryside. The disease was terrifying. Like the current coronavirus pandemic, it had to be faced alone, often without friend, minister, or physician.
The pandemic was compounded by miasmatics, an obsolete medical theory that held that diseases — such as cholera, chlamydia, or the plague — were caused by noxious “bad air” (sometimes called night air).
Personal habits were also thought to be a major cause and public health officials sought to protect people they called “poor and vicious” from themselves. Cleanliness helped, but also New York City banned “green and unripe fruits of every kind.” Leaders of the Temperance Movement charged whiskey as the culprit. “Strict Sabbatarians” thought the disease was due to improper regard for the holiness of Sundays.
Many people traveled then on the Erie Canal or on stage coaches on turnpikes passing through communities like Utica, where the Common Council established a Board of Health on June 16, 1832 to make regulations to “prevent the introduction and spread of the disease in the city.”
Property owners were directed to purify and cleanse their house or business and to remove unwholesome substances or water. Lime or chloride of lime was to be used by all to purify residences and other buildings.
A temporary hospital was erected on Broad Street and 50 bushels of lime was bought “for the use of the poor.” Canal boats were directed to a quarantine were they could be “cleansed and purified.” By August 13th Utica had four fatal cases, and the alarm had spread across the city.
It was estimated that 3,000 people left Utica “in search of a securer refuge from the mysterious disease.” All told, Utica had about 200 cases of cholera and about 65 deaths.
A writer in The Utica Daily Gazette 15 years after the episode said that “the bolts of death fell thick and fast. The dead were hurried to their graves as soon as the breath left the body, unaccompanied by friends and without the usual ceremony.”
By September 11, 1832 the board of health announced that there was no danger to people returning to Utica. On September 25th no new cases were reported. As abruptly as the 1832 cholera pandemic had appeared in New York, it dissipated and was largely gone from the State by December of the same year.
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.
Illustration: A hand bill from the New York City Board of Health in 1832 (courtesy New York Historical Society).