Cholera can kill more people more quickly than any other disease. Thousands can die overnight. More people died from cholera in the 100-year period from 1817-1917 than from three centuries of Bubonic Plague (Black Death) during the Middle Ages.
The disease is contracted by the ingestion of water and food with fecal contamination by Vibrio cholerae bacteria, resulting in acute diarrhea, dehydration, and death. Poor sanitation contributes to its spread.
It must have been frightening for early nineteenth century predecessors to read in the weekly Schenectady Cabinet about the advance of cholera throughout Europe. They were familiar with yellow fever, typhoid, and smallpox, but what was sure to come was worse. Every week, articles appeared describing its devastation as it spread.
The epidemic started affected India in 1817 and had reached Europe by 1831. By June 1832 it had arrived in Montreal on an immigrant ship from Ireland carrying 22 people who had died of the disease. On its first visit to North America, this plague traveled from Canada to the south via Lake Champlain and the Hudson River and westward by other paths until reaching Illinois and beyond.
Over the course of the epidemic, 150,000 of 13 million Americans would perish, about one in every 80 residents. The city of New York suffered a similar ratio, 3,315 deaths out of a population of 250,000, mostly in the poor and unsanitary neighborhoods where the African-Americans and Irish-Catholic immigrants lived. Albany’s loss was even higher, 422 deaths out of about 25,000 residents, about one in every 60.
The exact death toll in Schenectady is unknown. Some authors suggest a loss ratio comparable to that of Albany, but weekly newspaper death notices reported only 50 deaths out of 8,000 residents, one in 160. If so, why did Schenectady have such a lower death rate then Albany or New York? What were the responses from the public, or more specifically, from the clergy and medical professionals there?
The clergy opined that cholera was the punishment of divine judgment for the sins of wickedness, depravity, and alcoholism. Most victims lived in poverty, and the majority of cases were found in the non-Christian world. New York’s Protestant leaders interpreted the 1832 cholera epidemic as proof of God’s displeasure with contemporary morality. An editorial in the Western Sunday School Messenger declared:
“Drunkards and filthy, wicked people of all descriptions are swept away in heaps, as if the Holy God could no longer bear their wickedness… The Cholera is not caused by intemperance and filth … it is a scourge, a rod in the hand of God.”
(In Albany, all but two of the 422 dead were members of one of the city’s 14 temperance societies with a collective membership of 4,164. In 1825 the average American adult consumed seven gallons of alcohol, mostly whiskey and hard liquor. By the late 1840s consumption had fallen to 1.7 gallons per year per person due to the temperance movement and possibly the effects of the cholera epidemic.)
The Dutch Reformed Church Synod meeting on June 20 in the city of New York, along with other Protestant sects, called on President Andrew Jackson to proclaim an Official Day of Fasting, Humiliation, and Prayer. This message was delivered to him in person by New Yorker John Schermerhorn, an acquaintance. The President, citing the separation of church and state, said that prayer and fasting was a matter for clergy, not government.
Senator Henry Clay of Kentucky, a rival of Jackson, failed in his attempt to get Congress to proclaim an official day of prayer. New York Governor Enos Throop (1784-1874) of Johnstown also refused. (During Throop’s administration New York State opened its first “lunatic asylum,” a precursor of the modern psychiatric hospital, and also ended imprisonment for debtors.)
In Schenectady the City Council passed an ordinance requiring every housekeeper and physician to report all cases to the Board of Health via the Mayor’s office every day. A cholera hospital was established on the outskirts of the city and physicians were engaged to treat the poor at public expense. Dr. John Tonnelier, City Physician, intercepted canal boats passing through the city and prohibited them from docking if any crew member showed signs of cholera.
The Board also recommended that Chloride of Lime (Calcium hypochlorite, a.k.a. bleaching powder), which was available at drug stores, be applied to outhouses and cisterns. During the epidemic, Union College Professor Chester Averill published a paper suggesting that lime be added to the drinking water, but his advice was ignored.
The Board of Health may have been overly optimistic, saying that “relying upon a merciful Providence and making use of all the means in our power, we think there is no cause for alarm.” Even after the first death occurred there on July 12, a canal boat captain who came down with diarrhea in Albany and died seven hours after he arrived in Schenectady, there was no alarm.
The cholera then struck full force and every physician available was put to work. Dr. Daniel Toll, the founding vicep-president of the Schenectady County Medical Society in 1810, came out of retirement to help. When Union College student Alexander Vedder, later a very prominent surgeon and mayor of Schenectady, volunteered, he contracted cholera himself but survived.
Troy may have been less affected by the cholera outbreak, possibly because that city quarantined 180 immigrants on Green Island. But Albany faired terribly. Half the population was reported to be in mourning and most of the stores closed. Farmers were afraid to come into the community to sell their produce and food became scarce.
Some of the Schenectady patients’ medical records have been preserved at the Efner Historical Center in City Hall. Dr. Daniel McDougall submitted his bill for the 150 patients he treated between August 1 and September 17. The records indicated that a variety of drugs were prescribed, including opium, belladonna, and sodium bicarbonate.
When the plague arrived Union College cancelled its commencement and sent its students home. As in previous epidemics, the affluent fled the cities. In New York, about a quarter of the population left. According to his diary, Judge Samuel Jones moved his family from Schenectady to Duanesburgh until the crisis was over. His wife was the former Maria Duane, the daughter of Union College graduate James Chatham Duane (1824-1897), an 1844 Union College graduate born in Schenectady who served as Chief Engineer of the Army of the Potomac during the Civil War.
The epidemic ended in early September with a cold wave. Cholera bacteria cannot survive below 51 degrees Fahrenheit. The Board of Health, ever optimistic, declared that not a single new case of cholera had occurred in the last ten days.
Cholera returned to Schenectady in 1849 with 12 cases and four deaths. President Zachary Taylor proclaimed a national day of fasting and prayer to no avail. When his train passed through Schenectady on September 6 he was so sick with cholera that he could not make a public appearance.
A missed opportunity to discover the epidemiology of cholera occurred with the detailed study of the epidemic by the Union College Class of 1817. Lewis Caleb Beck (1798-1853) was commissioned by Governor Throop to go to Canada and find out what he could. Beck clearly demonstrated a spatial-temporal correlation of cholera, just as Dr. John Snow would observe in England 20 years later.
Dr. Snow, who performed anesthesia and was familiar with the physical properties of gases, ignored the popular theory that miasmas were causes of disease, and instead correctly interpreted his findings as a water-borne infection. When he removed the handle on the Broad Street water pump in Soho in London, cholera in that neighborhood promptly ceased.
Illustrations, from above: Le Petit Journal cover; portrait of Chester Averill (1804-1837); portrait of James Chatham Duane; a portrait of Lewis Caleb Beck.
James Strosberg wrote this essay for the Schenectady County Historical Society Newsletter, Volume 56. Become a member of the Society online at schenectadyhistorical.org.