DONALD A. HUTSLAR
"God's Scourge": The Cholera
Years in Ohio
Between 5 August and 23 September 1834, fifty-six residents of the small
Ohio village of Zoar, Tuscarawas County, died of cholera. Zoar was the
home of a communal society of about three hundred German Separatists, per-
sons who had differed with the doctrine of the Lutheran Church and migrated
to the United States. During the summer of 1834 a boat on the Ohio Canal
stopped at Zoar with one sick passenger, Mr. Allen Wallace; he was carried
into the canal tavern (which is still standing) and nursed by the Zoarites until
he died. He was buried in the village cemetery. A few days later a woman
claiming to be his wife arrived to retrieve some money and papers Wallace
was carrying. Wallace was disinterred and the items were recovered from his
clothing. That night cholera broke out in the village.l
The cholera epidemics of the nineteenth century reflected a basic change in
society: industrialization, worldwide commerce, massive urban centers, social
unrest, a migratory population. The disease followed the ever-quickening
transportation systems, first the waterways, then the road networks inland,
and finally the quick railroad lines of mid-century. The disease was deadly in
its homeland of India due to poor sanitation and a dense population in the
cities; in western Europe and the United States, these two factors characterized
the industrial cities with the added complication of rapid transportation.
During the early 1830s western Europe struggled with political unrest and
unstable economic conditions,2 causing thousands of immigrants to cross the
Atlantic Ocean at about the time the cholera arrived in Europe. The United
States and Canada were aware of the danger; quarantine of the ports of entry
Donald A. Hutslar, long-time curator of history at the Ohio Historical Society, is a Ph.D. stu-
dent in architectural history at The Ohio State University. He would like to thank Professor
Joan Cashin of The Ohio State University Department of History for her assistance with this
1. Hilda D. Morhart, The Zoar Story (Dover, Ohio, 1967), 75. The disease may have been
spread through the communal dairy rather than Zoar's water supply, a highly efficient, en-
closed system supplied by a hillside spring on the opposite side of the river from the tavern.
The Zoarites discovered that liquids were an effective treatment for cholera.
2. R. E. McGrew, "The First Cholera Epidemic and Social History," Bulletin of the History
of Medicine, XXXIV (1960), 66-67.
Cholera Years in Ohio 175
was tried, but there were too many ships and too many immigrants. Cholera
was in the coastal cities of both countries by June 1832.3 The devastating
cholera epidemic of 1849 in the United States was fueled by similar condi-
The succeeding epidemics in the United States were driven more by internal
factors than external affairs. With the exception of Cincinnati, only minor
outbreaks occurred in the state of Ohio in 1854 and 1866. The work of
William Farr and John Snow in London had established that the source of
cholera was usually contaminated drinking water. The last pandemic in 1873
centered in the large cities in the United States and proved that sanitation re-
mained the major public health problem. Robert Koch, a German bacteriolo-
gist, isolated Vibrio cholorae in the early 1880s. Physicians finally knew
what they had been fighting for fifty years, though through trial and error
their regimen was basically correct--fluids and rest.
Louis Chevalier states the proposition that an epidemic emphasizes specific
behavior patterns which can be abnormal; however, if the social structure can
cope with the abnormalities, then it must be fundamentally stable.4 Despite
the rhetoric during the first two epidemics, and a severe economic depression,
the social structure did remain stable. Caution, not despair, greeted the epi-
demics after 1849, and sanitation became the byword. John Gunn's popular
self-help medical book, Domestic Medicine, summarized the approach: "Pure
air, good substantial living, temperance and regularity of life in all things,
strict cleanliness and a tranquil mind."5
Cholera and the Medical Community
"Shall there be evil in a city, and the Lord hath not done it?" John W.
Scott, professor of Natural Philosophy at Miami University, Oxford, Ohio,
opened his discourse "Delivered on the Occasion of a Fast Observed in
Reference to the Approach of the Epidemic" with these words from Amos
3:6. The year was 1833 and the epidemic was The Cholera, "God's Scourge
for the Chastisement of the Nations."6 Fifty years passed before Robert Koch
discovered the cholera bacilli, and during those fifty years physicians as well
as the general public learned both to treat and prevent the disease by empirical
methods. Cholera was still a scourge, but not a "divine" scourge.
3. John M. Woodworth, M.D., editor, The Cholera Epidemic of 1873 in the United States,
Executive Document No. 95, 43d Congress, 2d Session (Washington, D.C., Government
Printing Office, 1875), 563-93.
4. McGrew, "The First Cholera Epidemic and Social History," 71.
5. John C. Gunn, Gunn's Domestic Medicine, or Poor Man's Friend (Xenia, 1838), 725.
6. John Witherspoon Scott, The Cholera, God's Scourge for the Chastisement of the Nations
(Oxford. Ohio, 1833), 1-3.
176 OHIO HISTORY
To understand cholera and to appreciate the difficulties confronting nine-
teenth century physicians, a description of the disease is in order: Cholera is
an acute infection of the small bowel, and its symptoms are diarrhea, vomit-
ing, muscle cramps, dehydration, and collapse. The recommended treatment
is rehydration with a solution containing glucose, sodium chloride, sodium
bicarbonate, and potassium chloride.7 The solution replaces lost water and
electrolytes. Quick treatment is absolutely essential. Individual responses to
cholera vary greatly, from death in a few hours to total recovery in three to
five days. The death rate can be 50 percent in untreated cases, but is less than
one percent with prompt fluid treatment. Recovered patients have a natural
immunity, although a few will become carriers through chronic gallbladder
infection. Because of the bacilli's sensitivity to gastric acid, some nineteenth
century high-acid treatments worked. Several modern medicines, such as
tetracycline, lessen the severity of the symptoms but no long-term vaccine is
available. Cholera is now endemic in its old haunts of India, Asia, Africa,
the Middle East, and Central and South America, and localized outbreaks are
possible anywhere in the world. The last outbreak in the United States was
in Louisiana in the summer of 1986.8
For most of the nineteenth century medical practice was divided into several
areas: domestic medicine, or self-care, which was often supervised by the
woman of the household; academic medicine, practiced by the formally trained
physician; and folk medicine, conducted by the lay-healer.9 Medical texts
written for the general public abounded in the eighteenth and nineteenth cen-
turies, the best known being William Buchan's Domestic Medicine which
went through at least thirty editions in the United States.10 Mid-century edi-
tions contain the chapter "Malignant Cholera-Cholera Morbus," composed
of many physicians' opinions regarding treatment of the disease.
John C. Gunn's work of 1832, also entitled Domestic Medicine, replaced
Buchan's book in popularity by mid-century. A tenth edition, published in
Xenia, Ohio, in 1838 contains an extra chapter on "Epidemic Cholera," trac-
ing the history of the disease and giving "the conflicting opinions of the most
7. Sharp Merck and Dohme Merck, Merck Manual (New York, 1986), 110.
8. Twenty-Third Joint Conference on Cholera, U.S.-Japan Cooperative Medical Science
Program, Williamsburg, Virginia, November 10-12, 1987, "Environmental Aspects of Vibrio
Cholerae in Transmission of Cholera," 81-82. Microfiche. Eighteen persons were infected.
none died. Crabs, shrimp, and raw oysters from the Gulf of Mexico caused the outbreak.
Cholera is endemic in the Gulf. Another study, "Environmental Aspects of Virgio Cholerae,"
Ibid., 31-32, suggests that V. Cholerae is a symbiont of plankton. Other intestinal diseases show
symptoms very similar to cholera; Salmonella (food poisoning) and Escherichia coli (severe di-
arrhea) are two common examples. It is a logical assumption that not all illnesses and deaths
attributed to V. cholerae were caused by that bacillus.
9. Paul Starr, The Social Transformation of American Medicine (New York, 1982), 32-55.
10. William Buchan, Domestic Medicine; or, A Treatise on the Prevention and Cure of
Diseases (Waterford, N.Y., 1797). Several editions of Buchan are in the Ohio Historical
Cholera Years in Ohio 177
distinguished physicians, and their treatment of cholera."11 Gunn believed
that fear of cholera was as dangerous as the disease itself; therefore religion
was a valuable ally in prevention and treatment.12 He reflected the Protestant
view of Divine Providence, that illness and misfortune (God's Scourge) were
the rewards of moral error. This theme appears most often in the first cholera
epidemic in the early 1830s, and it reappears with less emphasis in 1849.
Beginning in 1849, and predominating in later epidemics, the practical prob-
lems of health and sanitation for all groups in society overshadow metaphysi-
Professional physicians in the United States were strongly influenced by
Benjamin Rush at the University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, and his con-
cept of one disease in the world and one treatment, copious bleeding together
with emptying the stomach and bowels with emetics and cathartics.l3 The
cathartic was calomel (mercurous chloride) which was often given in large
doses. Dr. Henry Yandell used up to 120 grains of calomel and repeated the
dose every two to three hours: "A frequent repetition was, however, not often
demanded, the patient either relieved or dead in a few hours."14 Buchan was
positive that calomel cured forty-nine of fifty cases. Calomel had many un-
pleasant side effects, other than mercury poisoning and death, including heavy
salivation; Buchan commented, "I say, better a sore mouth than a cold grave."
Many prominent physicians endorsed the use of calomel, including Daniel
Drake, the most influential physician in the American West.15
Calomel and other mineral drugs and heroic treatments were used by the
formally trained, or allopathic, physicians. Allopathists believed that reme-
dies should produce effects opposite to those of the diseases under treatment.
Opposed to the Allopathists were the Homeopathists, a small but active
group of physicians who felt that the remedy for a disease must produce the
disease's symptoms in a healthy person. Their success with cholera was,
needless to say, limited. Other schools of medicine existed, a few quite legit-
imate. (Ohio city directories during the mid-nineteenth century usually listed
physicians according to their schools of practice.) Depending upon the con-
temporary sources, one-third to one-half of Ohio's population were
Thomsonians.16 Samuel Thomson's botanic system was simplicity itself:
Cold caused disease and heat was the remedy. Thus, Thomsonian doctors
11. Gunn, Domestic Medicine, 711.
12. Ibid., 725. Gunn felt it was best "at all times and under all circumstances, to place a re-
liance upon Almighty God."
13. Starr, Social Transformation of American Medicine, 42.
14. Buchan, Domestic Medicine, 282, 284-85.
15. Ibid., 288. As late as 1912, in the fifteenth edition of The Fenner Formulary, calomel is
still listed as a purgative or "alternative," a drug used empirically to change the course of an
ailment. B. Fenner, The Fenner Formulary (Westfield, N.Y., 1912), xv. "Calomel,"
16. Starr, Social Transformation of American Medicine, 51.
178 OHIO HISTORY
quickly acquired the nickname "Steam Doctors." A rival botanicomedical
group known as the Eclectics absorbed the Thomsonian Medical College in
Cincinnati. The Eclectics, led by Wooster Beach, author of American
Practice of Medicine in 1833, rejected the use of minerals, especially mercury.
Dr. John Snow's famous study of cholera cases among the users of the
Broad Street pump in the Soho district of London in 1854 finally established
how cholera spread. Disinfectants and waste disposal became as important as
medical treatment. Snow's findings countered the prevailing opinion that
cholera was a poison in the air that entered the body through the respiratory
passages, the conclusion of a report by the Royal College of Physicians in
the same year.17 Once the method of transmission had been established,
cholera became less frightening because it could be physically controlled
through the environment, an approach anyone could understand.
The Cholera in Ohio
Five cholera epidemics struck Ohio in the nineteenth century, with
Cincinnati as the focal point of them all because of its location on one of the
main routes of transportation in the United States, the Ohio River. This arti-
cle will focus on the small city of Xenia because it proved to be an excellent
source of information. Furthermore, Xenia did not have some of Cincinnati's
problems; it was not near a navigable water course or a main road. Therefore,
the community had no cholera during the first epidemic in the 1830s. By
1845, however, the city was connected to Cincinnati by a railroad line and
cholera arrived in 1849 in a once-isolated community. Sources for this article
include Xenia City Council records for the 1830s, local newspapers of the
1830s and 1840s, mortality schedules, and reports by the health officers in the
1860s and 1870s.18
Xenia, the "seat of justice" of Greene County, was surveyed and platted in
the autumn of 1803. The name Xenia is from the Greek word meaning hos-
pitality. It was suggested by Robert Armstrong, a Presbyterian minister, dur-
ing a meeting to name the new county seat.19 Xenia was incorporated as a
village in 1817 and as a city in 1834; its population was about one thousand
in 1820 and only fourteen hundred in 1830, according to the censuses. Many
of the first settlers in Xenia and Xenia Township were veterans of the
Kentucky Militia and had known the area during the frontier Indian wars of
17. N. R. Barrett, "A Tribute to John Snow, M.D., London 1813-1853," Bulletin of the
History of Medicine, XIX (1946), 531.
18. The Xenia city documents are located in the Wright State University Library, American
History Research Center, Local Government Records, Dayton, Ohio.
19. Michael A. Broadstone, ed., History of Greene County, Ohio, 2 vols. (Indianapolis,
1918), vol. 1, 104; Chapter V. "County Organization."
Cholera Years in Ohio 179
the 1770s and 1780s. (Old Chillicothe, the home village of Tecumseh, was
about three miles north of Xenia.) Xenia remained an out-of-the-way rural
market town until the arrival of the Little Miami Rail Road in 1845 connect-
ing it to Cincinnati and, later, Sandusky.
During the early 1830s the Ohio Canal, from Cleveland to Portsmouth,
was the main route connecting Lake Erie and the Ohio River. Construction
of the National Road reached halfway between Wheeling and Columbus. A
road network did connect most communities, but many roadbeds were unim-
proved, making travel difficult during inclement weather. The Ohio River
remained the principal transportation route connecting the western states with
the southern and eastern states. By 1849 both the Miami and the Ohio canals
connected Lake Erie and the Ohio River through central and western Ohio.
The Little Miami Rail Road ran from Cincinnati as far north as Sandusky,
Erie County, on a regular schedule. A good road network made travel easier
for wagons and carriages. Immigrants and travelers could reach the center of
the state in a day or two, and as a consequence the entire state was susceptible
to an epidemic such as cholera.
The Cholera Epidemic of 1832-33
The first cholera epidemic took hold in Cincinnati, but it only made short
excursions in the interior of the state. Columbus had no known cholera
deaths in 1832, compared to several hundred in Cincinnati. The Ohio Canal
brought the first cholera victim to Franklin County in June 1833; one hun-
dred deaths were officially reported in Columbus in July.20 Dayton had one
brief encounter with the epidemic when a group of twenty-four German im-
migrants arrived in town in June 1832. Nine died as well as two of the
nurses caring for them. No other cases were reported.21 For whatever reason,
the Xenia Free Press did not publish this information until 3 January 1833.
The Free Press published a lengthy letter, dated 26 October 1832, by Daniel
Drake containing advice on prevention and treatment of cholera-fluids,
calomel, rest. If the patient was near death, the Thomsonian plan could be
tried. (Drake was having nothing to do with the Steam Doctors.)22 The Free
Press reported on the cholera throughout the United States during 1832 and
20. Jonathan Forman, M.D., The First Cholera Epidemic in Columbus, Ohio (1833) (New
York, n.d.; reprint, Annals of Medical History, New Series 6, No. 5), 425. The census returns
of 1830 gave Columbus a population of 2,437. The Columbus Health Board attributed the
spread of cholera to intemperance and eating too much celery! Fresh vegetables were often
blamed for causing cholera (and "night soil" was used as a fertilizer).
21. J. D. B. De Bow, ed., Mortality Statistics of the Seventh Census of the United States, 1850,
Executive Document No. 98, 33d Congress, 2d Session (Washington, D.C., 1855), 587.
22. Drake thought a patient treated by the "Thomsonian plan" would usually die. His letter is
printed in full in Gunn, Domestic Medicine, 753-57.
180 OHIO HISTORY
1833 without mentioning a single case in Xenia, although advertisements ap-
peared for disinfectants, such as chlorides of lime and soda, and for burgundy
pitch plasters and alcoholic camphor as preventatives.23 A local drug store
advertised Dr. Zolicoffer's "Anti-Cholera Mixture," supposedly known only
to a few apothecaries in the United States, in the summer of 1833.24
Following the epidemic of 1832-33, the Xenia City Council prepared to de-
fend the city against a future outbreak of the disease. On 9 August 1834,
they appointed a Board of Health and proposed an ordinance restricting hogs
from roaming in the streets. On 16 September the council ordered the pave-
ment and gutters to be cleaned around the public well on courthouse square
and heard a proposal for the removal of all horse racks (hitching posts).
Ordinances banning hogs and horse racks became official on 15 April 1835.25
The council closely monitored the cleanliness of the public cisterns and wells
during the latter part of the 1830s.26
The prevention of cholera through sanitary measures was taken seriously
throughout Ohio, but local conditions were often impossible to overcome. A
city such as Cincinnati was simply too large and its residents lacked a cohe-
siveness of purpose. The Dayton City Council passed an ordinance on 17
December 1836 requiring physicians, canal boat captains, boarding house
keepers, and owners of taverns and coffee houses to report all cases of cholera,
or any malignant disease, to the mayor in writing within twelve hours of dis-
covery.27 Many physicians in Cincinnati, as elsewhere in major cities, kept
detailed records of their cases. Xenia physicians probably kept records, but
none have been found. Medical statistics, as a formal practice, had to wait
until the 1848 epidemic in England and the work of William Farr. Farr's de-
tailed analysis of disease, death, and demographics laid the factual basis for
sanitary reform by governmental action.
The Cholera Epidemic of 1849
"Where this destroyer will stop, or when, none of us know. Almost entire
families are smitten down in our happy land as if a judgment was upon us."28
Thus the editor of the Dayton Tri-Weekly Bulletin related the fate of the
Skinner family of Wapakoneta. Mr. and Mrs. Skinner and a daughter had
23. Xenia Free Press, 27 October 1832.
24. Ibid., 3 August 1833.
25. Xenia City Council Minutes, 9 August 1834 and 15 April 1835, Local Government
Records, Wright State University Library, Dayton, Ohio.
26. One cistern contained 11,000 gallons of water, two cisterns contained 6,750 gallons
apiece. Six wells with pumps were added in 1840. Xenia City Council Minutes, 25 September
27. The Dayton Tri-Weekly Bulletin, 22 June 1849.
28. Ibid., 2 July 1849.
Cholera Years in Ohio 181
come to Dayton to visit another daughter and son. Perhaps Mr. Skinner had a
premonition of death before leaving home, for he had settled his business af-
fairs in Wapakoneta. He died soon after reaching Dayton, and his wife died a
few hours later. The son and the visiting daughter died in the next two days,
followed by two children of the married daughter-six deaths in the same fam-
ily, from the same house, in five days. The newspaper's editor extolled the
virtues of the Skinner family, and no doubt the family did represent many
middle-class values of the period. Unfortunately, the disease of the allegedly
intemperate, impious, and filthy could be found among the middle-class; it
was losing its reputation as a judgment on the vices of society.
The 1848 epidemic in Europe reached New York and New Orleans in
December of that year, carried by French and German immigrants.29 The dis-
ease followed the waterways to the interior, becoming pandemic during the
summer. The following year, 1849, would see the epidemic at its worst.
Because of the severity of the epidemic, mortality statistics were compiled
with the population census of 1850.30 They bracket one year, June to June,
1849 and 1850, and record the worst months of the epidemic: 37,034 cholera
deaths were reported. For comparison, during the same period thirty-three
thousand people died from tuberculosis, twenty thousand from dysentery, and
29. Woodworth, The Cholera Epidemic of 1873, 608-11.
30. De Bow, Mortality Statistics of the Seventh Census of the United States, 1850, 1 June 1849
to 1 June 1850.
182 OHIO HISTORY
between ten and thirteen thousand from scarlet and typhoid fevers, pneumonia,
and dropsy. Ohio was divided into six reporting districts, and the majority of
cholera deaths, almost four thousand, occurred in the southwest district which
included Cincinnati, Dayton, and Xenia, while about one thousand occurred in
the midwest district which included Columbus. The other four districts to-
taled twelve hundred deaths.31
By this time the general public had become aware that cholera could not be
transmitted through the air, the main theory of the 1830s. This awareness
was reinforced by constant reminders in the newspapers even during the height
of the epidemic, as on the editorial page of the Dayton Tri-Weekly Bulletin,
22 June 1849. In Xenia, a medium-size city in the late 1840s, with a popula-
tion under five thousand, the local newspaper, the Xenia Torch-Light, kept
abreast of the cholera epidemic throughout the country as well as locally.
The first death occurred in Xenia on 17 May, 1849, not a local resident but a
visitor from Circleville. Cholera reached Kentucky, then Indiana, and, by 24
May, had entered Cincinnati. The Torch-Light editorialized in June that "The
disease is much less dreaded now," and "Think for yourself and act for your-
self, and fear not the cholera-but if sick, send for a physician in whom you
have confidence." This was good advice, mitigated, perhaps, by the adver-
tisement of a Mr. Thomas, a local daguerreotypist, who would take the like-
nesses of the sick and the dead "on the shortest notice."32
All the known deaths from cholera among Xenia citizens occurred during
the months of July and August, following the Torch-Light's advice. But ru-
mors of deaths abounded.33 In Dayton, a man from Cincinnati supposedly
stopped at the Farmers' and Mechanics' Hotel, owned by J. A. Kline, where
he died that night, 18 May 1849. According to the Lexington Observer and
Reporter, 18 July, the disease spread through the hotel and to nearby towns.
Then, on 19 May, a man from Xenia ate at the hotel, caught the disease then
returned to Xenia, where he caused fifty deaths.34 These stories, confused and
not true, are indicative of the rumors and fear of the disease prevalent during
the spring of 1849. Both the Xenia and Dayton papers mention the deaths in
Kline's hotel, with Kline himself dying on the 13th of June. No mention,
however, appears in any of the Torch-Light newspapers of fifty deaths in
Xenia in the latter part of May or in June. The Torch-Light of 28 June re-
31. With a population over 112,000, Cincinnati was a true metropolis compared to other Ohio
cities; Columbus and Cleveland had populations slightly over 16,000. Cincinnati had a death
rate at least triple that of the latter cities.
32. Stanley B. Burns, M.D., Sleeping Beauty: Memorial Photography in America (1839-
1883) (New York, 1990). This is a book of pre- and postmortem images, several dated 1849.
33. Kathleen A. Taylor, "Cholera Deaths Reported in the Torch-Light. 1849-1854," TMs.
Greene County Public Library, Xenia, Ohio.
34. J. S. Chambes, M.D., The Conquest of Cholera (New York, 1938), 224-25; Woodworth,
The Cholera Epidemic of 1873, 611. Both sources quote the Lexington Observer and Reporter,
18 July 1849.
Cholera Years in Ohio 183
ported that five of the Irish laborers working on the Columbus and Xenia rail-
road line had died, and that Dr. Samuel Martin of Xenia had turned part of his
stable into a makeshift hospital for the homeless Irishmen and had given
them free care.35 The first Xenian to die was Mrs. Hilliary Neal, who expired
on 12 July at the age of twenty-eight; she also had the honor of being the
first resident of Woodland, the new cemetery.36 Sexton David B. Cline,
whose reminiscence was later published in the Xenia Gazette, recalled that he
did not have a grave dug for Mrs. Neal because it was almost impossible to
find grave diggers during the epidemic.37
During July and August, the Torch-Light carried many columns about the
epidemic in Ohio: The cholera had reached Columbus and the State
Penitentiary, Dayton, Springfield, Piqua, Urbana, Eaton, Tiffin, and
Sandusky.38 Only one train ran daily between Cincinnati and Sandusky, and
that one delivered mail.39 Advertisements for "cholera specifics" filled the pa-
pers. People would try any remedy at the height of the epidemic. The Torch-
Light editorialized that the users of these questionable remedies "would make
it profitable to their heirs-in-law, by having their lives insured."40
"Greenough's Mixture" sold by the quart, and many who used it would never
again require medicine (a journalistic "dark humor" appeared during the epi-
The small village of Clifton, northeast of Xenia, had at least fifteen deaths,
perhaps as many as forty. The hotel (still standing) used water from a street
well. A traveler died in the hotel; six more expired in the same building; two
persons died across the street; several more died in the neighborhood.41 (The
Torch-Light of 13 September, however, claimed that the reports of
"depopulation" were greatly exaggerated, that only fifteen deaths occurred dur-
ing the epidemic.) In any event, the public well collected water from the
limestone strata, but it also served as a drain pit for nearby privies, barn
yards, kitchen waste, and microscopic bacteria.42
35. George F. Robinson, History of Greene County, Ohio (Chicago, 1902), 126. The de-
ceased Irishmen were buried near the railroad embankment between Xenia and Cedarville,
not in a cemetery.
36. R. S. Dills, History of Greene County (Dayton, 1881), 433-35. A typographic error
places the epidemic in 1848; later county histories copied the error.
37. Ibid., 433-34. The Xenia City Council hired four men to assist Cline; they were expected
to lay out the corpses, take them to the cemetery, and bury them for "four dollars a head."
38. Xenia Torch-Light, 9 August 1849. Eaton, county seat of Preble County, had 101 occu-
pied and 84 vacant houses at the beginning of August.
39. New Historical Atlas of Erie County, Ohio, "Visitation of the Cholera in 1849, 1852,
1854" (Philadelphia, 1874), vi.
40. Xenia Torch-Light, 9 August 1849.
41. Dills, History of Greene County, 676-78.
42. On the south side of Clifton is a deep gorge formed by the Little Miami River. Local
residents placed their privies near the gorge, thinking the cesspits would drain into the river.
Wells were dug north of the gorge and the privies. Unfortunately, the rock strata did not in-
184 OHIO HISTORY
Despite the severity of the epidemic, Xenia lost about eighty-five residents,
a small proportion of its population, approximately 1.3 percent, compared to
other Ohio communities; Cincinnati, for example, lost 4.3 percent of its resi-
dents. Xenia's citizens took the warning about cleanliness and public sanita-
tion seriously. The Torch-Light carried many articles on these topics during
the summer, as did local newspapers throughout the state. It is unfortunate
that the city council minutes are missing for this period; given the evidence
of the council's activity during the epidemic of 1866, they had learned by ex-
The Cholera Epidemic of 1854
The United States did not free itself of cholera following the large outbreak
in 1849, and small, isolated incidents recurred in Ohio. Thirty deaths occurred
in Sandusky, Erie County, during the summer of 1852.43 A woman carried
the disease to Dayton, where she recovered, but six residents of the house in
which she lived died; an estimated forty deaths eventually resulted from this
incident.44 Immigration ports as far distant as Quebec and New Orleans had
periodic outbreaks during 1852 and 1853. In New York during the month of
November 1853, twenty-eight immigrant ships arrived containing some
eleven hundred deceased victims of cholera. Oddly, however, the first recog-
nized case of cholera did not occur in New York but in Chicago in April
1854. The second recognized case occurred in Detroit in May. The immi-
grants landed, then quickly traveled west before they succumbed to the disease.
The epidemic began in New York in June.45
The Xenia newspapers devoted little space to local conditions because the
cholera was not particularly severe in Ohio in 1854. The Torch-Light carried
death notices from the small village of Bowersville in the southeast corner of
Greene County, where six members of the Moon family, five of the Shaner
family, and five of the Reaves family died during July.46 There is no evidence
of how the cholera arrived or how it spread so quickly through the three fami-
A few Ohio city directories of the 1850s (Xenia did not have a directory un-
til 1870) do reveal a significant change in public services, such as the advent
of the plumber. Cleveland installed a new water system in the late 1850s
cline towards the gorge but towards the wells. As a consequence, many residents died even
though the privies and wells had been placed in a logical alignment. Ibid., 667.
43. Atlas of Erie County, vi.
44. Woodworth, The Cholera Epidemic of 1873, 634.
45. Ibid., 634-35.
46. Taylor, "Cholera Deaths Reported in the Torch-Light," 5. Bowersville was an isolated
farming community in 1854. The families are not adjacent to one another in the 1850 census.
Cholera Years in Ohio 185
which had enough pressure for a fountain on Public Square-an added attrac-
tion for the Ohio State Fair visitors in 1859. B. P. Bower, a "practical
plumber," advertised that he had been licensed by the city commissioners to
do work connected with the new waterworks, and that he could also install
complete bathrooms in private residences.47
The Cholera Epidemic of 1866
During the early 1860s cholera again became pandemic in India. Pilgrims
going to Mecca carried the disease to the Mediterranean, while English,
French, Austrian, and Italian steamships transported the pilgrims to
Alexandria. These same ships also carried passengers up the Atlantic coast so
that cholera arrived in Paris by the summer of 1865. Beginning in April
1866, cholera-infested ships docked at New York from Liverpool, Hamburg,
Antwerp, Le Havre, and London. Due to a strict disinfection policy by the
Metropolitan Board of Health, the disease was held in check until July.
Cholera joined the Army of the United States on Governor's Island in July,
and subsequently spread throughout the country by steamship and railroad
lines carrying troops to new posts following the Civil War.48 The death rate
in the army remained quite low due to strict quarantine and sanitation, about
47. Directory of the City of Cleveland, 1859-60 (Cleveland, 1859).
48. Woodworth, The Cholera Epidemic of 1873, 664-82.
186 OHIO HISTORY
250 in 1866 and 230 the following year. The epidemic continued to be most
severe in the Mississippi Valley: 8.500 died in St. Louis compared to 1,406
The number of deaths in Xenia must have been very low in 1866 because
the four standard county histories contain no references at all to the epi-
demic-nor the 1873 epidemic, for that matter.50 The report of the Xenia
Health Officer is missing, but his ledger does exist.51 Beginning in April
1866 every building and lot in Xenia was inspected, a total of 835 properties,
correction orders issued when necessary for bad sanitary conditions, then re-in-
spected one or more times. Xenia had four wards centered on the Public
Square. The First Ward, to the northwest, contained the fewest residences and
businesses, and, aside from a few "privy vaults" which needed cleaning, it was
in good condition. In the Second and Third wards on the south side of town,
as many as one out of three properties needed correction. Typical sanitation
problems included filled privy vaults (most common), dirty or flooded cellars,
garbage thrown into the streets or house lots, and unclean pig pens.52
The Health Officer and the City Council certainly displayed great energy
and resolve in cleaning up Xenia. Non-compliance notices were issued which
necessitated re-inspections, but the citizens must have responded; no reports
of a calamity exist, and the Health Officer could report 1867 as an unusually
The Cholera Epidemic of 1873
The last cholera pandemic in the United States began in New Orleans in
February 1873, although the disease had been prevalent in central and eastern
Europe for at least three years. It devastated the northern provinces of India,
and pilgrims to Mecca carried the disease to the Persian Gulf region. The dis-
ease moved into northwest Europe and England, carried by migrants, travelers,
and members of the military, and immigrants from Hamburg, Bremen, and
Liverpool brought the cholera to New Orleans.54 The epidemic spread rapidly
49. De Bow, Mortality Statistics of the Seventh Census, 672-73.
50. The bound volumes of the Xenia Torch-Light, which cover the Civil War years as well as
the year 1866, are missing from the Ohio Historical Society Library.
51. "Examination of Premises, Xenia, Ohio, 1866-1871." AMs. Greene County Public
52. Ibid. Entries are by date, from 26 April to 17 May 1866 and a re-inspection in August.
53. "Annual Report of the Health Officer, Xenia, April 13, 1868." "Examination of
Premises." Xenia City Council Minutes, Local Government Records, Wright State University
Library, Dayton, Ohio. As an interesting sidelight on the problems of urban sanitation, the
number of pigs and hogs in Xenia was tabulated in May 1870; there were 496 swine in the four
wards. Horses, cattle, and chickens were not counted but must have been numerous. These
domestic animals were common in Ohio's small towns until the end of World War II.
54. Woodworth, The Cholera Epidemic of 1873, 75-90, 109-11.
Cholera Years in Ohio 187
northward along the Mississippi and Ohio rivers and followed the rail lines
and roads inland. The disease reached Cincinnati on 27 May and Columbus
on July 4th. Over seven thousand victims died in 1873, over seven hundred
in Ohio.55 The United States Senate and House of Representatives passed a
joint resolution on 25 March 1874 requiring a report on the causes of epi-
demic cholera. President Grant forwarded the document to the House and
Senate on 12 January 1875.
The Cholera Epidemic of 1873 in the United States is a classic work of
medical reporting and health statistics. All the epidemics in the United States
are reviewed, many detailed case studies given for the 1873 epidemic, and a
bibliography of 314 pages is included.56 Dr. Halderman, physician at the
Ohio State Penitentiary, submitted a report for Columbus including a map
showing the deaths in the city.57 The City of Columbus took no sanitary
measures during the approach of the disease, whereas the penitentiary took ev-
ery precaution. Sixty-nine persons died in Columbus, twenty-one additional
died in the penitentiary. The cholera struck in the lowlands along the Scioto
and Olentangy rivers which contained railroad bridges, the waterworks, and
numerous factories and tenements for workers. Many private wells became
contaminated from overflowing drainage sinks and privy vaults.58 The toilets
on the trains emptied directly on the tracks and so it is possible a railroad
passenger brought the cholera to Columbus. The cholera-infected diarrhea
found its way into a well or the river. Once established, the infection could
circulate from the privies and sewers to the river and back into the water
system through the waterworks. The first cholera victim lived in a house
near the railroad bridges over the rivers.59
In contrast to Columbus and Cincinnati, the Health Officer of Xenia could
report that no epidemic disease had been reported in the city for the entire
year.60 No mention of cholera appears in the Torch-Light during the summer
months of 1873, just small reminders on the importance of cleanliness. The
efforts of the City Council and the Health Officer during the previous years
had been rewarded.
Cincinnati was less fortunate. Author Lafcadio Hearn, who worked as a re-
porter for the Cincinnati Daily Enquirer, wrote a column about the appalling
sanitary conditions in Cincinnati, "The Balm of a Thousand Water-
55. Ibid., 34-35.
56. Among the list of contributors to the report are 103 physicians from Cincinnati and
Hamilton County. J. S. Chambers' book, The Conquest of Cholera, is a summary of Ex. Doc.
No. 95 augmented with newspaper accounts.
57. Woodworth, The Cholera Epidemic of 1873, 360-68.
58. Ibid., 361.
59. Ibid., 363-63.
60. Xenia City Council Minutes, April, 1875.
188 OHIO HISTORY
Closets."61 High water had cleaned out four miles of sewers and the contents
lay in sink-holes on the west side of the city: "The effect is terrible." By
this time, the Cincinnati City Council as well as the residents knew how to
protect themselves from cholera; however, sewerage systems cost tens of
thousands of dollars and the United States was gripped by an economic de-
pression, the Panic of 1873.
Public Health and Sanitation
From archaeological evidence, it is apparent that the ancient civilizations
from the Near East to the Indus River Valley understood basic hydraulics and
sanitary practices and provided themselves with clean drinking water and sew-
erage systems. Baths, flushing latrines, and sewers date to the third millen-
nium B.C.62 The Romans were very conscious of public health and sanita-
tion and carried similar facilities to every part of their Empire. Many of the
Christian monasteries adopted these facilities. Christchurch Monastery in
Canterbury, England, is a textbook example with its complete water and sew-
erage system constructed in 1150. Due to its sanitary practices, the
monastery escaped the Black Death in 1349.63 Most Ohio towns could not
boast such a system five hundred years later.
The importance of sanitation and cleanliness to public health was under-
stood by many public officials through the centuries following the Roman
Empire: The gradual increase in population, the growth of urban centers with
compacted, inadequate housing for laborers, improved land and water trans-
portation-and a myriad of local complications, religious, political, commer-
cial, economic-often made the best efforts to supply clean water or provide a
sewerage system ineffectual.
Books on sanitation became available to Ohioans during the first quarter of
the nineteenth century.64 Probably many Ohioans did not know or care about
clean drinking water or waste disposal during this period, however, because
61. [Lafcadio Hearn], "Hold Your Noses! The Balm of a Thousand Water-Closets,"
Cincinnati Enquirer, 11 May 1874, p. 8.
62. Lawrence Wright, Clean and Decent: The Fascinating History of the Bathroom & the
Water Closet (Toronto, 1967), Chapter 1, "Man Becomes House-Trained." Another well-re-
searched overview of sanitation is Reginald Reynolds' book, Cleanliness & Godliness (New
63. Wright, Clean and Decent, 26. The original plans are extant for this ingenious system.
64. Abraham Rees, The Cyclopedia: or, Universal Dictionary of Arts, Sciences, and
Literature (Philadelphia, n.d.), s.v. "Cholera"; John Beckmann, A History of Inventions,
Discoveries and Origins, trans. William Johnston, ed., William Francis and J. W. Griffith
(London, 1846), s.v. "Paving of Streets," "Quarantine." Beckmann wrote several essays on
public health and sanitation, derived from Classical sources, in the latter eighteenth century.
Rees compiled similar material from the Encyclopaedists; the American edition of his
Cyclopedia, published about 1815, contains a description of cholera.
Cholera Years in Ohio 189
outside the large cities of the cast coast, the United States was still a predom-
inately agrarian society, and Ohio had thousands of acres of unsettled land.
The city of Xenia did not have a public waterworks in the 1830s, only
wells and cisterns which served both the residents and the fire department. Of
course, the city did have numerous private wells and cisterns. The "Town
Engineer," a post created by the City Council in the spring of 1839, took
charge of the wells, cisterns, and pumps belonging to the city, and kept them
clean and in repair.65 A modern water system with two pumping stations was
constructed in 1887, but a municipal sewerage system had been constructed
earlier because the City Council recommended disinfecting the sewers with a
device called the "Duncan Disinfecting Chest" on 23 July 1883. Municipal
water works remained rare in Ohio until mid-nineteenth century. Cincinnati
had a privately funded pumping station in operation in the early 1820s, the
first in Ohio.66 As for waste disposal, the residents of Cincinnati, as in most
communities, including Xenia, simply utilized the streets, letting hogs and
rainfall dispose of the excess; human waste drained into cesspools or was
conveyed to a river. Xenia succeeded in controlling the problem. If they did
nothing else, the cholera epidemics, particularly those of 1832-33 and 1849,
revealed the public health problems inherent in urban centers.
Many communities in Ohio passed health codes during the cholera years,
but their effectiveness depended upon enforcement by local government and
local funding. The Civil War bolstered the efforts for health reforms because
of the large number of wounded and disabled soldiers returning to all commu-
nities. Health Commissions and Sanitary Fairs became common throughout
the northern states during the latter part of the war. Afterward, the Federal
Government constructed hospitals as well as "homes" for disabled veterans
and for children orphaned by the war, with Xenia receiving the "Ohio
Soldiers' and Sailors' Orphans' Home."67
S. F. Forbes, public health officer for the city of Toledo, wrote one of the
finest reports in Ohio in 1866. Forbes, who recognized that public health
measures could not keep pace with the rapid growth of urban, industrial cen-
ters, emphasized the importance of sewerage, paved streets, and a clean water
supply to reduce all contagious diseases which "kill more persons than does
65. Xenia City Council Minutes, April, 1839.
66. Cincinnati Directory Advertiser for 1832 (Cincinnati, 1832), 187-88; Woodworth,
Cholera Epidemic of 1873, 349. Fourteen miles of pipe carried the water through the city.
Unfortunately, the waterworks distributed cholera-infested Ohio River water to its customers.
It was the practice of the steamboat lines to wash bed linen both on board and on shore, and the
government report on cholera of 1875 credits this practice with the widespread outbreaks of
the disease in Cincinnati.
67. Xenia City Council Minutes, "Report of Health Officer," 13 April 1868. A. H. Brundage,
the Health Officer, commented: "The vast hospitals of the late war called forth the resources
of hygiene, and demonstrated the life-saving power of preventive measures."
190 OHIO HISTORY
Among the excellent technical literature which became available in the third
quarter of the nineteenth century is George Waring's 1876 book, The Sanitary
Drainage of Houses and Towns. While Waring erred on the dissemination of
cholera (he thought it could be carried by sewer gas as well as water), his ad-
vice on household sanitation was excellent and covered all the "modern" de-
velopments such as flush toilets, bath tubs and showers, wash basins, water
traps, and hot and cold tap water. These technical achievements were ideas
whose time had come: American urban society had developed to a point that
sanitary measures had become a necessity, not a luxury.69
Cholera was a dangerous disease in a century of dangerous diseases. It had a
strong psychological impact, particularly during the epidemics of the 1830s
and 1840s. Its progression from India into Europe and the British Isles could
not be prevented. Americans, informed by their newspapers and immigrants
about the failure of quarantines to halt the spread of the disease and of the in-
ability of physicians to cure the victims, knew that cholera would eventually
come to the United Sates. Ships could be quarantined at the major ports of
entry in Canada and the United States, but many other ports existed for the
steady stream of immigrants.
The symptoms of cholera were not progressive, as in the gradual wasting
away of the consumptive, but quick and violent. The victims even repelled
physicians hardened to scenes of death and dying. To add to the psychological
pressures, nobody knew how cholera was contracted or whether it could be
treated. Thus it is small wonder that the epidemic of the 1830s was regarded
as a "Scourge of God." As Charles Rosenberg points out in his scholarly
study of the New York epidemics, "Asiatic cholera was a disease not only of
the sinner but of the poor."70 Americans viewed their own "poor" as a hardy,
pious, and industrious class of laborers intent on rising in the world, while
recent European and Irish immigrants seemed to personify the intemperate and
impious element of society.71 In cities and towns the poor usually found
68. S. F. Forbes, Annual Report of the Health Officer of the City of Toledo, for the Year 1866
(Toledo, 1867), 3,21.
69. George E. Waring, The Sanitary Conditions of City and Country Dwelling Houses (New
York, 1877). (Note the bibliographic entries under the heading "Architectural Mechanics.")
Rural Americans, and small farming communities, did not feel the same pressures. Most rural
farmhouses are still supplied by a well and human wastes are conveyed through a septic tank.
Ground water, contaminated from many causes, is probably a greater problem today around
farming communities than it was in the nineteenth century.
70. Charles E. Rosenberg, The Cholera Years (Chicago and London, 1962), 55.
71. Samuel Williams was an Ohio pioneer and lay preacher who had little tolerance for
Cholera Years in Ohio 191
themselves crowded into the worst houses and tenements, in the worst loca-
tions, and they could not afford to leave when an epidemic struck.
Statistically, cholera did claim more "poor" victims.72 Blacks are often men-
tioned in contemporary literature as being the victims of cholera because so
many lived in the so-called poor districts or slums, but this writer found no
evidence of their being blamed for carrying the disease.
Cholera was considered a contagious disease during the first epidemic,
spread by personal contact or through the air by "invisible animalcula";
Avoid the slums and their denizens, avoid the cholera. This theory had to be
abandoned as the disease became pandemic, attacking all society. Sanitation,
as a preventative measure for all diseases, proved to be the most important
civic achievement of the forty years of cholera epidemics. Xenia, with its
straightforward policy about cleanliness for all residents, proved that cholera
could be prevented by simple means. Mechanical techniques for sanitary sys-
tems had been available long before cholera appeared in the United States, and
the disease provided the impetus to install such facilities as piped water and
covered sewers. Cholera's most important contribution, however, is evident
today in public health programs that encompass all members of society.
people and events he did not understand. The following excerpt from a letter by Williams
(Cincinnati, 8 June 1849) to his brother combines his own intolerance with ethnicity, religion,
and temperance: "The present aggravation of the epidemic arises mainly from the reckless
dissipation of the German population on last Sabbath, at their 'Musical Jubilee' on 'Bald Hill,'
back of Columbia, where several thousands of them spent the day in drunkenness, & eating
fruits & poisonous viands, pastries &c.--These furnish most of the new cases." Samuel
Williams, "Autobiography," TMs. The Ohio Historical Society Library, Columbus, The origi-
nal manuscript is in the collections of the Ross County Historical Society, Chillicothe.
72. Rosenberg, The Cholera Years, 57.