From the beginning of recorded history, hundreds of millions have died from the epidemics of: the bubonic plague (“black death”), typhoid, typhus, smallpox, yellow fever, Spanish flu, malaria, measles, and AIDS.
The disease of the 19th century was cholera. By the early 1800s, the British Empire had grown to be the largest empire in world history, controlling over 13 million square miles and ruling over a half billion people, including the jewel of the Empire – India.
In India, various religious practices included bathing in the sewage-filled Ganges River. As a result, some contracted a water-born disease called cholera. When the British East India Company built railroads and sent steamboats up rivers, individuals infected with cholera could quickly travel back to Europe, carrying cholera with them.
Cholera spread by drinking unsanitary water. It was the first truly global disease, killing tens of millions in crowded cities in: England, Ireland, Belgium, Netherlands, France, Spain, Italy, Germany, Hungary, China, Japan, Java, Korea, the Philippines, India, Bengal, Iran, Iraq, Algeria, Tunisia, Egypt, Arabia and Africa.
In Russia alone, cholera killed over one million people, including the famous composer, Tchaikovsky. Immigrants infected with cholera brought it to America, Canada, Mexico, Venezuela, Brazil, and the Pacific Coast.
In 1832, Asiatic Cholera outbreak gripped New York. U.S. Senator Henry Clay asked for a Joint Resolution of Congress to request that President Jackson set: “A day of public humiliation, prayer and fasting to be observed by the people of the United States with religious solemnity.”
By 1849, cholera killed 5,000 in New York, with a mass grave on Randall’s Island in the East River. Eight thousand died of cholera in Cincinnati and 3,000 killed in New Orleans.
Spreading up the Mississippi, 5,000 were killed by cholera in St. Louis, which was about 6 percent of the city’s population, among them being Pierre Chouteau Sr., one of the St. Louis’ prominent early settlers.
Indian tribes along the Missouri River were devastated. In Chicago, 3,500 died of cholera. Harriett Beecher Stowe’s infant son succumbed to cholera, as well as former 11th U.S. President James K. Polk.
Cholera ravaged the Tennessee towns of Gallatin, Murfreesboro, Clarksville, Shelbyville, Franklin, Pulaski and McMinnville.
One letter noted: “Feb 11th 1849 Dear Aunt … We may be enjoying the society of each other … and … the next day … follow us to the grave. … The Cholera is very bad in Nashville. You must stay with us until it has abaited. We have had some severe attacks of the cholera morbus. … Ma and grand Ma have been very sick the baby is also sick … Your affectionate niece, Mary C.”
Cholera deaths caused Ohio to postpone its first state fair. Cholera spread along the Oregon Trail to the Pacific Northwest and the Mormon Trail to Utah. It killed an estimated 12,000 on their way to the California Gold Rush. In total, an estimated 150,000 American died from cholera.
On July 3, 1849, President Zachary Taylor proclaimed a national day of fasting: “At a season when the providence of God has manifested itself in the visitation of a fearful pestilence which is spreading itself throughout the land, it is fitting that a people whose reliance has ever been in His protection should humble themselves before His throne, and, while acknowledging past transgressions, ask a continuance of the Divine mercy. It is therefore earnestly recommended that the first Friday in August be observed throughout the United States as a Day of Fasting, Humiliation, and Prayer. … It is recommended to persons of all religious denominations to abstain as far as practical from secular occupations and to assemble in their respective places of public worship, to acknowledge the Infinite Goodness which has watched over our existence as a nation, and so long crowned us with manifold blessings, and to implore the Almighty in His own good time to stay the destroying hand which is now lifted up against us.”
New Jersey Governor Daniel Haines proclaimed a day of prayer and fasting which was published in the Paterson Intelligencer, Aug. 1, 1849: “Whereas the President of the United States, inconsideration of the prevailing pestilence, has set … a Day of Fasting … and whereas I believe that the people of this State recognize the obligations of a Christian nation publicly to acknowledge their dependence upon Almighty God … that abstaining from their worldly pursuits, they assemble … with humble confession of sin … and fervently … implore the Almighty Ruler of the Universe, to remove us from the scourge … and speedily … restore to us the inestimable blessing of health.”
In Ohio, Dayton Mayor John Howard proclaimed a day of fasting and ordered all stores to close. Hundreds of citizens knelt openly in the streets and prayed.
Tim O’Neil wrote “A Look Back – Cholera Epidemic Hit a Peak Here in 1849” (STLToday.com): “St. Louis was a fast-growing city of 75,000, with immigrants arriving by the steamboat-load. It also had no sewer system. … More than 120 died of cholera in April 1849. … The toll grew six-fold in May … reached 2,200 in July … in late July with a weekly toll of 640, seven times the city’s normal death rate. … The worst death rates were in the slums on the north and south ends of present-day downtown, where bodies were buried in ditches. … Cholera killed at least 6 percent of the city’s population. … The official death toll was 4,317. …”
After President Taylor’s day of fasting was observed Aug. 3, 1849, Tim O’Neil wrote: “The number of deaths dropped suddenly in August.”
To learn more on the faith of 12th President Zachary Taylor, click here.
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