In December 1848, a boat filled with European immigrants docked in New Orleans. Many had fallen very ill. As those passengers who were seemingly healthy landed and spread through the city, they carried infection with them. New Orleans soon averaged 57 deaths a day. Some immigrants and some who were newly infected took riverboats up the Mississippi and its tributaries. Many died on the river and were buried during the journey. At least 30 of the infected landed in St. Louis, which soon averaged 60 deaths per day. One day that the next spring, 190 died.
The disease was cholera.
Cholera originated on the Indian subcontinent, where it remained for centuries before spreading to the rest of Asia and Europe. By the 1840s, it had spread to North America.
Some doctors recognized that one thing helped limit the spread of the disease—cleanliness. They tried many other things. A decade and a half earlier, the Board of Health for New York City published a handbill, proclaiming:
BE TEMPERATE IN EATING & DRINKING!
Avoid Raw Vegetables and Unripe Fruit!
Abstain from COLD WATER, when heated, and above all from Ardent Spirits, and if habit have rendered them indispensable, take much less than usual.
Later research found rehydrating essential for surviving cholera. Unboiled water allowed the infecting bacteria to flourish. Research also found that drinking alcohol could be a factor in retarding the infection.
In April 1849, a large, ornate steamboat left St. Louis, moving westward upstream on the Missouri River, heading to Kansas City.
By this time, the handful of doctors living here had heard of the movement of the disease toward Kansas City. Benoist Troost, Isaac Ridge, Charles Robinson, and Oliver Fulton saw the danger and tried to initiate a complete cleanup of all facilities that served the public. Two Catholic missionaries, Fr. Bernard Donnelly, and Fr. Benedict Roux, joined them. People, though, were unaware of how completely cholera could ravage a community. (This may have been in part because, in some areas hit by the epidemic, merchants tried to suppress information.)
Cleaning advanced slowly—slower, certainly, than the oncoming riverboat.
The first victim collapsing on deck made the crew realize they had a case of cholera. The captain immediately headed the boat toward shore and evacuated the passengers. He ordered a mixture of chlorate of lime and sulphur used to fumigate the boat. That completed, they re-boarded and resumed the voyage to Kansas City.
By their arrival, 60 had died. Most of the rest had the disease. The sickness spread through the East Bottoms, killing half of a newly arrived Belgian settlement, before striking a party of Mormons readying to go to Utah.
The disease struck Kansas City, Westport, Independence, and surrounding areas. Jackson County experienced a human explosion of residents escaping and running in every direction—living in tents, seeking to elude cholera’s scourge. Kansas City’s population of just over 1,000 declined through death and exodus by two-thirds. It hit Native Americans hard, some smaller villages disappearing completely. Steamboats and wagon trains avoided the town. Business activity froze; few people worked at all, except for the doctors and missionaries mentioned earlier. Several women joined them as they cared for the sick, buried the dead, and burned infected houses. Some lost their lives while easing the suffering of others.
That autumn, when Kansas City almost ceased to be, the disease softened. People started coming back. By 1850, it looked like the epidemic was all but over. Then, in the spring of 1851, it returned, reducing the population to 600 this time. Dr. Fulton died. Dr. Robinson applied a new technique of southern Missouri’s Dr. John Sappington, and saved the life of Dr. Ridge. It called for large doses of laudanum and the drinking of hot toddy.
In 1852, yet another epidemic arose, and Jackson County lost over more than100 people.
Kansas City became serious about cleansing the town. In late 1854, Dr. John Snow of London traced that city’s cholera to a single water pump, and found that boiling water before drinking it markedly decreased the number of people who got sick. That same year, Dr. Filipo Pacini of Italy isolated Vibrio cholerae, the bacillum that causes cholera (though it wasn’t until decades later, when Robert Koch rediscovered it, that Vibrio cholera became widely recognized as the disease’s cause). These discoveries led to the understanding that cholera spreads primarily through drinking unsanitary water that has been polluted by the feces of victims of the disease.
On May 5, 1854, Dr. Troost and the Health Committee issued a notice that “The CHOLERA EPIDEMIC is over!” The announcement went on to say, “Special and extra precautions are being taken for the health of those who attend the TOWN MEETING which will be held May 14th at Old Gillis House …” Near the end appeared the following:
We found that the liberal use of brandy and other spirituous liquors proved to be excellent protection against contracting this dread disease. You are advised, even though the epidemic is definitely over, to still use this certain preventive and, I might add, pleasant therapeutic measure. Officials in charge of the TOWN MEETING, acting on my advice, will have a liberal supply of liquors on hand for your use.
This may trigger the image of town meeting as more of a fraternity toga party, but there is scientific fact behind it. Apparently, if one is not given to imbibing massive amounts of alcohol, the drinking of “spirituous liquors” causes a more acidic stomach, retarding the Vibrio cholerae bacillum. If one is already given to heavy drinking, the body having adapted to the large amounts of alcohol appears to hinder the increase of acidity.
This announcement was premature by some years. Though no longer as virulent as it had been—residents had established a more sanitary environment—the disease remained to the end of the 1850s.