“I have just returned from funeral services from the home of W. White who died of cholera. I am not of opinion that cholera is as contagious as the smallpox, but I am far from being convinced that it is not communicable … The disease is on the wane and I hope will gradually pass away.” U.S. Supreme Court Justice John Marshall in an Oct. 2, 1832, letter from his Richmond home to his son, James Keith Marshall.
U.S. Supreme Court Justice John Marshall sent this letter, dated Oct. 2, 1832, from his Richmond home to his son, James Keith Marshall. (Photo courtesy: Preservation Virginia, John Marshall House Collection)
Cholera first infected Richmond in 1832. It would return three times, disappearing, finally, in 1866. Measured by the lives it claimed, it was less deadly than malaria or tuberculosis. Measured by reputation, it was more fearsome. “It was novel and terrifying,” observes historian Charles E. Rosenberg in The Cholera Years.
From its 1826 beginnings along India’s Ganges River, the initial cholera epidemic traveled by trade routes and through waterways polluted by human waste. Within a few years, it afflicted Asia, Europe, Canada and the northern United States.
The disease’s effects were so awful that among French speakers, “its acute, dehumanizing symptoms soon earned it the colloquial nickname of ‘mort-de-chien’ or ‘dog’s death,’ ” wrote Marshall S. Berdan in the Summer 1993 Virginia Cavalcade history journal.
Newspapers of 1832 carried the grim details and tallies of thousands of dead in Quebec, Detroit and New York City. In Virginia, cholera struck Norfolk first.
In a 19th-century version of watching ominous weather forecasts tracking the approach of a powerful but wobbly hurricane, Richmonders waited and hoped to be spared.
The period medical literature describing the disease is often as metaphorical as it is wrong. Professional physicians believed cholera arose from rainy spring periods that yielded to sudden bursts of summer heat. The resulting miasma caused toxic fumes.
Recommended prevention included the thorough cleaning of houses and public buildings and an application, like paint, of chloride of lime. Medicines claiming to mitigate the illness were advertised on the front pages of the 1854 Richmond Daily Dispatch. As one remedy boasted: “Not a single case is said to have occurred where this valuable medicine was used.” These medicines were often concoctions of calomel, aloe and rhubarb, among other things, including alcohol. Cholera’s sometimes-quick passage from people using this stuff was then trumpeted as evidence for its effectiveness.
Valentine's Meat Juice, created by Mann S. Valentine, was a popular cure-all tonic in Richmond in the late 1800s. (Photo courtesy: The Valentine)
What we know now is that cholera is a comma-shaped bacterium found in contaminated drinking water or in foods taken from or prepared in such water. The germ releases a toxin into the small intestine that produces diarrhea so severe it dehydrates the victims. The worst afflicted sink into a coma and die of cardiovascular collapse. The malady’s variations of intensity can kill in a matter of hours or produce a brief period of discomfort.
Richmond’s James River and the Kanawha Canal, in particular its Great Basin, where today stand the James Center and Omni Hotel, provided a perfect breeding ground for cholera. The basin was essentially a great stagnant germ soup. From there, cholera spread through the nearby homes of the poor and through urban slave quarters.
Todd Savitt, a historian specializing in 19th-century medicine and disease, writes that white Virginians saw cholera as a sickness of paupers, free blacks and slaves. “White Virginians often related high morals, clean living and orthodoxy to immunity during the cholera epidemics … Whites, who may have revealed symptoms of cholera, were often diagnosed with diarrhea, dysentery or fever rather than to be diagnosed with the poor man’s disease.”
And if race or economic class could not be blamed for the illness, then divine retribution provided another reason. Before the outbreak of the Civil War, historian Rosenberg says, “America was a holy land upon whose soil were waged the battles of numberless crusaders … To these zealots, cholera seemed, but a dramatic testament to the pertinence of their particular cause.” It struck down the enemies of righteousness.
On Sept. 8, 1832, the Richmond Enquirer reported, with a haughty sense of inevitability, that the first local victim was a “negro boy about 11 years old of weakly constitution and reported by his owner to have been subject to fits, and to have eaten imprudently of pears. He died after about five hours’ illness.”
Ten days later, the newspaper noted that another victim, a 55-year-old slave named Dorcas, possessed “gross habits” and, prior to getting sick, ate “meat, cheese, & etc. fried together.”
Cholera seems to have concluded its 1832 Richmond session in a matter of several weeks, by October’s end. From a city of approximately 16,000 people (roughly the number who today live in the Near West End between Interstate 195 and the city line) the disease claimed 453 lives -- 97 whites and 356 blacks. This didn’t include the 30 prisoners who died in the state penitentiary. The city’s potter’s field on Shockoe Hill received the remains of nine-tenths of the total dead.