Cholera epidemic

Cholera epidemic

From the beginning of recorded history, 100’s of millions have died from the epidemics of: the bubonic plague “Black Death,” typhoid, typhus, smallpox, yellow fever, Spanish influenza, malaria, measles and AIDS.

Some notable recorded plagues include:

  • Plague of Pharaoh Akhenaten of Egypt, circa 1350 B.C.
  • Philistine Plague after capturing the Ark of God (I Samuel 5-6)
  • Plague of Athens, circa 430 B.C.
  • Plague of Justinian, beginning in 541 A.D., killing an estimated 25 to 100 million people, half of the world’s known population
  • Black Death, beginning in 1334, killing an estimated 75 to 200 million
  • Great Plague of London, beginning 1665, killing 100,000 people, including a fifth of London’s population

Jewish populations had higher rates of survival because they followed Mosaic instructions in washings, proper waste disposal and isolation of infected individuals for forty days. The Italian word for forty is “quaranta,” from which the word “quarantine” is derived.

The disease of the 19th century was cholera.

By the early 1800’s, 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, though this was unknown at the time. 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” ( “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.”

That same year, 1849, English physician John Snow observed that cases of cholera occurred close to a well in Soho neighborhood, confirming that the disease was spread through drinking contaminated water (Medical Times and Gazette; essay on the “Mode of Communication of Cholera”): “On proceeding to the spot, I found that nearly all the deaths had taken place within a short distance of the (Broad Street) pump. … The result of the inquiry, then, is, that there has been no particular outbreak or prevalence of cholera in this part of London except among the persons who were in the habit of drinking the water of the above-mentioned pump well. … In consequence of what I said, the handle of the pump was removed on the following day.”

In 1884, Nobel Prize recipient bacteriologist Robert Koch, having traveled to Egypt and India, successfully confirmed the identify of the cholera bacillus which aided in future treatment and prevention.

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Zachary Taylor had the nickname “Old Rough and Ready” for fighting the British in the War of 1812, the Sac Indians in the Black Hawk War, and the Seminole Indians in Florida. Zachary Taylor’s courageous victories in the Mexican War, being greatly outnumbered by Santa Anna’s forces, made him a national hero.

Zachary Taylor was elected the 12th U.S. president and shortly after was presented with a Bible by a delegation of ladies from Frankfort, Kentucky. His remarks were printed in the Frankfort Commonwealth, Feb. 21, 1849: “I accept with gratitude … your gift of this inestimable Volume. It was for the love of the truths of this great Book that our fathers abandoned their native shores for the wilderness. Animated by its lofty principles they toiled and suffered till the desert blossomed as a rose. The same truths sustained them … to become a free nation; and guided by the wisdom of this Book they founded a government.”

President Zachary Taylor had refused to be sworn in on the Sabbath out of religious respect. He addressed a Sabbath-School celebration in the City of Washington, July 4, 1849: “The only ground of hope for the continuance of our free institutions is in the proper moral and religious training of the children.”

When Zachary Taylor died July 9, 1850, Millard Fillmore became the 13th president, stating: “A great man has fallen among us and a whole country is called to … mourning. … I dare not shrink; and I rely upon Him who holds in His hands the destinies of nations to endow me with the requisite strength for the task.”

As 13th President, Millard Fillmore was remembered for:

  • sending Commodore Perry to open trade with Japan
  • admitting California, which had recently had the Gold Rush, into the Union as a free state
  • and when the Library of Congress caught on fire, he and his Cabinet formed a bucket brigade to help extinguish the flames

After being sworn into office, President Millard Fillmore, who was a member of the Episcopal Church, stated: “The Sabbath day I always kept as a day of rest. Besides being a religious duty, it was essential to health. On commencing my presidential career, I found that the Sabbath had frequently been employed by visitors for private interviews with the president. I determined to put an end to this custom, and ordered my doorkeeper to meet all Sunday visitors with an indiscriminate refusal.”

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