Historically Yours: St. Louis cholera epidemic of 1849

Cholera, an infectious and often fatal bacterial disease of the small intestine, was epidemic worldwide in the 1800s. Typically contracted from infected water supplies, it caused severe vomiting, diarrhea and dehydration. Other symptoms included wrinkled skin, low blood pressure, dry mouth and rapid heart rate.

Little was known about cholera in those days. Doctors didn't know what caused it and were unaware it was infectious. At the time, no one knew anything about sanitation and good hygiene. Mankind had yet to make a connection between them and good health. That breakthrough wouldn't come until the American War Between the States. The simple act of washing hands would have gone a long way in stopping the spread of the dreaded disease.

There were many suspected causes for cholera. It was blamed on miasmas, an unpleasant smell or vapor. Filthy living conditions among the poor were also thought to cause cholera. Organized religions said it was caused by sinful behavior. Their leaders set aside state and national days of prayer to cure the sick and stop the dreaded disease. Suggestions to "avoid fruits and vegetables" and stay out of "night air and damp places" were common.

Diagnosing cholera and treatments of the day did little to save lives or stop the spread of this killer. Cholera was difficult to diagnose because early symptoms were often thought to be something else. Treatments such as blood-letting and purging were common for almost all ailments, so either way, the treatment only further weakened the patient and spread the disease.

The first known cholera in St. Louis was in 1832. More than 300 people died that summer, and more died during each of the following three summers. However, it was the epidemic of 1849 that wiped out nearly 10 percent of the city's growing population. That epidemic occurred between April and August. Immigrants were arriving in St. Louis by the steamboat-load, and neither the boats nor the city had any sewer system. The combination was deadly. One source says more than 120 people died of cholera in April. The Missouri Republican newspaper normally reported five or six deaths a week, but during the epidemic, weekly deaths ranged from 150-640. On July 18 alone, 88 burials were reported - not by name, but by how many were buried in each cemetery.

The number of deaths dropped dramatically in August. The official death toll from cholera is 4,317 but is probably not accurate as many people were buried outside the city limits.

While cholera was trying to kill St. Louis with disease, another tragedy struck May 17 of that year that almost wiped out the entire town. Read about the St. Louis Fire of 1849 in next week's column.

Elizabeth Davis was born and raised in Cooper County and has written Historically Yours for the Boonville Daily News for more than 10 years. In celebration of Missouri's Bicentennial, she has syndicated her column statewide and encourages readers all over the Show-Me State to submit topic suggestions for future columns to [email protected].