The Cholera Epidemic of 1832

Edited by Srtephen R. Powell

For more on the Cholera Epidemic click here to read the diaries of George Washington Jonson who lived through the outbreak of 1834.

The dreaded Asiatic cholera had been spreading over Europe in 1831, and while desperate efforts were made to keep it out of America, it was found to be in Quebec in the spring of 1832, having been carried it is thought by emigrants from Ireland. The scourge passed up the St. Lawrence, and by the time it reached Buffalo, the residents were so very apprehensive that it found receptive material, and the state in the young city soon became very serious. "It may be said that at the first visitation of the pestilence one-half of its victims were carried off by fear and fright," wrote Samuel M. Welch. Further, he said:

"Buffalo was severely afflicted by this visitation. The treatment of the disease was mostly experimental, its nature not being understood; indeed the epidemic at times seemed to have full sway, without check. A man might be in apparent good health in the morning and in his grave the same night. Often people were taken away for burial in the night of the day of their death.

"The death carts would patrol the streets, and when there would seem an indication of a death in a house, the driver would shout: 'Bring out your dead!' Bodies were not permitted to remain unburied over an hour or two, if it were possible to obtain carriers, or a sexton to bury them."

Citizens were wont to wear a little bag of "gum camphor" hanging from the neck; and there were few who did not feel that life was dear as well as uncertain, at the time when the reported cases of cholera in Buffalo exceeded one hundred in a day. The City Board of Aldermen early organized a Board of Health; and the first bulletin of that Board was issued on June 16th. The members were Ebenezer Johnson, mayor; Roswell Willson Haskins, Lewis F. Allen and William Ketchum, Joseph Clary substituting for Mr. Ketchum a little later. The first reported case of cholera in Buffalo was on July 16th, "an Irish laborer, an habitual drunkard," being the victim. He died within eight hours -of being seized. Two cases and one death developed next day; and thereafter the cases rapidly increased. The Board of Health established a temporary hospital in a brick building then known as the McHose House, on Niagara street. John E. Marshall was city physician, and Loren Pierce was undertaker and sexton. It was an appalling visitation but official figures are far below those of Mr. Welch's estimate quoted above; it seems that altogether, during the about two months of the presence of cholera in Buffalo, that cases totaled to only about 250, and the deaths to 120.

This text is Copyright 2001 all rights reserved by Stephen Powell and buffalonian.com. This electronic text may not be dupicated or used in any manner without written consent of Stephen R. Powell or buffalonian.com

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The Board of Health labored heroically, not only directing remedial measures, but personally coming into contact with the disease-stricken people. Roswell Haskins the printer and bookseller, seemed to be the most heroic; he "exhibited undoubted heroism; traveled in haste about the city, attended to the removal of many cases to the hospital, and in some instances carried stricken persons on his own shoulders down the stairs of squalid tenements." Laurentius G. Sellsted wrote regarding Mr. Haskins' work as a member of the Board of Health in that trying time:

"All honor to Roswell W. Haskins; for it was during this fearful scourge that his really noble nature showed to the greatest advantage. I would not undervalue the labor of his coadjutors-they did well-nobly the work required of them; but so untiring was the zeal of my lamented friend, so fearless was he in his daily encounter with the evil that it were public ingratitude to refuse the amaranth to his memory, and sacrilege to tear it thence. Day after day, hour after hour, did this faithful man visit the sick, dying and dead.


"...The death carts would patrol the streets, and when there would seem an indication of a death in a house, the driver would shout: 'Bring out your dead!"


"As many grave responsibilities were assumed when occasion demanded, an Act by the city authorities endorsed the acts of the Board, and a vote of thanks became their sole reward. Mr. Haskins was requested to write a sketch of the history of these dark days, but declined on the ground that he could not do so without making himself too prominent."

A recurrence of the epidemic occurred in 1834; and one of the fatalities then was the mayor, Major A. Andrews. Another epidemic developed in 1849, and again in 1854; but the worst and most memorable was the first, that of 1832, when people knew not how to combat the scourge, but knew much of its virulence. Captain Augustus Walker, in vol. v, Publications of Buffalo Historical Society, writes of its dreaded appearance on Great Lakes ships; on one occasion cases developed among a company of soldiers being shipped from one lake station to another. Soon the disease became "so violent and alarming on board (the 'Henry Clay')" that "as soon as she came to the dock, each man sprang on shore, hoping to escape from a scene so terrifying and appalling; some fled to the fields, some to the woods, while others lay down in the streets and under the covert of the river banks, where most of them died, unwept and alone." It was a terrible scourge.

Excerpted from the book: Hill, Henry Wayland, Ed. Municipality of Buffalo, New York, A History. 1720-1923. Lewis Historical Publishing Company, Inc. New York. Chicago.

For more on the Cholera Epidemic click here to read the diaries of George Washington Jonson who lived through the outbreak of 1834.

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This text is Copyright 2001 all rights reserved by Stephen Powell and buffalonian.com. This electronic text may not be dupicated or used in any manner without written consent of Stephen R. Powell or buffalonian.com