Columbus, all in all, is a pretty healthy city, at least compared to much of the rest of the world.
In parts of Asia, Africa and Latin America, epidemic disease among people with limited resources is still a major concern. In the developed West, and especially in North America, we pride ourselves on our resistance to disease. And indeed, in recent years, the West has not seen many severe outbreaks of bacterial communicable disease.
Such has not always been the case.
Many people moving to the Ohio Country in the years after the American Revolution found many aspects of their new home that required a healthy respect. One might be attacked by a wolf or even a bear. But that wasn’t really so likely, as most and wolves and bears moved on as soon as they saw the new people coming. Native Americans were a bit more stubborn and from time to time fought rather hard to retain the land they had called home. But again, by the 1790s, when people began to move to Ohio in earnest, most of the major Indian Wars were over.
The threat of Indian attack would linger until 1816. But for most Ohioans, it was just that — a lingering threat — and not much else.
The biggest killer in the early days of Ohio was disease. Early settlers suffered from a variety of communicable diseases. Today it is hard to determine for certain what some of these diseases actually were since they were described variously as “the Ague,” “the Cold Ague” and the “Shaking Ague,” to name just a few. Today, the prevailing opinion is that most of these diseases were malarial fevers brought on by people living close to annual rotting masses of plant material left by frequently flooding rivers.
As the river bottoms were cleaned up by more rigorous agriculture, the threat of “River Fevers” declined rather rapidly.
By the early 1830s, the borough of Columbus was on the verge of sustained growth. Founded in 1812 to be the new capital city of Ohio, Columbus had grown very slowly because it was not easily linked by water or trail to the rest of the state. This changed with the arrival of the National Road and the opening of the Columbus Feeder Canal in the early 1830s.
Hundreds of new people began to arrive in Columbus. Many of the newcomers were immigrants from Germany and Ireland and were people who would soon become the majority of the population. Between 1832 and 1834, the population of Columbus increased from about 2,500 to 5,000.
And this was in spite of the fact that in that period, Columbus faced the worst assault by disease it had ever seen.
Cholera has been a fact of life in Asia in general and India in particular for several thousand years. It has only been in the past few hundred years that advances in water and land transport have permitted the bacterial infection to reach much of the rest of the world.
There have been several worldwide pandemics of the disease that takes its name from the Greek word for “bile” in the past 200 years. The first modern pandemic in the 1810s did not reach the Americas. The second pandemic broke out in India in the late 1820s and reached the United States by 1832. There were reports of cholera in towns along the Ohio River in 1832 but the disease did not reach the interior of Ohio that year.
Many people in central Ohio felt that perhaps they had been spared and that the disease would move on without affecting them. They were soon to learn that such was not to be the case. The disease was only dormant over the winter and returned with a vengeance in the summer of 1833.
In his history of Columbus, Alfred Lee described the arrival of cholera for the first time in the city: “The first case is said to be that of Negro woman living in a cabin on the east side of Front Street about 80 feet south of Broad. Next a white woman was seized in a stone house which stood on the northwest corner of Town and Fourth streets. These cases occurred about the middle of July.”
Cholera is a fearsome disease in which a bacterial infection of the intestines induces both persistent vomiting and diarrhea. People literally die of dehydration in short order if the lost liquids cannot be replaced.
Ironically, a common remedy of the period was to bleed people and thereby reduce the fluid levels of their bodies even further. Not knowing what actually caused the disease, people looked for causes in the environment and accidentally did some right things that needed to be done.
“The streets abounded in chuckholes, ponds of stagnant water stood on the commons, primitive swamps remained yet undrained, ashes, shavings and trash of all kinds were tossed promiscuously into the first alley or other convenient space, pigs and other foul creatures were permitted to roam at will, and the carcasses of dead animals were left to rot in the sun,” according to Lee.
The city appointed a Board of Health that began looking for a place for a hospital, if it might be needed. It soon would be. A street committee of the Board of Health began to drain the ponds, fill holes filled with water and clean “vile culverts” of the town. All of these actions were helpful but they were too little and too late. Cholera arrived in Columbus with a vengeance in late July 1833.
On July 20, Henry Stagg ate his usual hearty Sunday breakfast and shortly after became ill. He died six hours later. On the following Monday, a Mrs. McHenry became ill in the morning and died the following day. As Alfred Lee reported, “‘There is no cause for alarm,’ soothingly remarked the State Journal, but many people took the alarm nevertheless and fled to Delaware, Mount Vernon and other neighboring towns, where several of the fugitives were very soon afterward attacked, some of them fatally.”
From July 20, 1833, until the end of September, Columbus reported at least one death daily from cholera. By the time the epidemic had passed through town in September, 100 people had died.
Cholera stayed in the Ohio Valley for the next several years but Columbus was not affected. Some people came to believe that the disease was gone. They were wrong. Cholera would return several more times until intercepting sewers and clean water supplies removed the threat of the disease in central Ohio.
In much of the rest of the world, cholera is still a threat. In the wake of a 2011 earthquake, Haiti has seen more than 470,000 cases of cholera in the worst outbreak in recent history.
The plagues of the past are not all that far away.
Ed Lentz writes a weekly history column for ThisWeek.