Cholera Epidemics in Buffalo, NY
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Two months after Buffalo is incorporated as a city, a cholera epidemic breaks out in June of 1832. City spokesmen (among them the physician and first mayor of Buffalo, Dr. Ebenezer Johnson) say it is caused by Irish immigrants in Quebec who had brought the dread disease with them from the old country. The Common Council's first action is to quarantine the city. All traffic - lake and canal boats, stages and coaches - is stopped immediately.
A man might be in apparent good health in the morning and in his grave the same night. The death carts patrol the streets, and when there is an indication of a death in a house , the driver would shout, "Bring out your dead." Bodies are not permitted to remain unburied over an hour or two, if it is possible to obtain carriers or a sexton to bury them.
By July, over 120 Buffalonians die from the epidemic.
Another epidemic will occur in 1849, when nearly 900 people of the recorded 3,000 cases die, and the worst in 1854.
Excerpt: John W. Percy, The Erie Canal: From Lockport to Buffalo
The year 1832 brought an unwelcome visitor to the area. That visitor was cholera. The horrible disease was epidemic that year and its presence caused a drastic drop in canal traffic.
It began in the spring in Montreal and Quebec where it killed over 3000 people in 11 days. At that time, no one understood the cause of the disease nor how it spread. Soon it had raced down the Champlain Canal to Albany as well as up the Hudson from New York City. The first casualty in Albany was in mid-June. Quickly, the infectious intestinal disease spread westward through the canal towns as travelers unwittingly carried the bacteria. Victims began their journeys in good health, but suddenly sickened and often died on the way.
Many theories were expounded to explain the epidemic.
- An early explanation was that it afflicted only the shiftless, the ignorant, the drunkards; the lowest level of society. If you avoided strong drink and closed your windows tight at night to keep out the dangerous night air, all would be well, the doctors said.
- But when the disease continued to spread and afflicted all classes of people, other theories were proposed. One theory blamed the disease on tainted soil (to some degree true) and a Utica newspaper proposed that people wear wooden shoes so they wouldn't absorb cholera through their feet.
- The most widely accepted theory was that cholera was spread through some sort of vapor in the air. Some canal towns took to putting large pieces of meat on poles in the hope it would soak up the cholera vapor. Others burned barrels of tar around the clock in the belief that the heavy black smoke would rid the air of cholera.
The air along the canal that year was murky from burning tar. Lime was believed by some to have the same power. Vats of lime bubbled on street corners to fumigate the air in canal towns. Emergency hospitals were set up all along the canal, in warehouses, barrel factories, a poorhouse; every inch of available space was pressed into service.
The sick were laid on beds of straw in evil-smelling, suffocating wards where the windows were tightly closed against the dangerous night air.
By midsummer, traffic on the canal had come nearly to a halt. Some canal towns refused to let boats enter, fearing entrance of the dread disease. Others rushed boats through, allowing no one to debark, not even passengers whose destination was their town.
As cooler autumn weather approached, the disease seemed to have run its course and the canal became busier than ever as boat captains tried to make up for some of the season's lost time. Records of tolls collected in 1832 show them slightly greater than the previous year, but considerably less than expected at the beginning of the year. The next year showed a healthy 19% gain over 1832.
Cholera struck again in 1834, this time causing such a serious loss of business on the canal that tolls were reduced by nearly half the increase of 1833. Buffalo was hard hit, and people who could, fled the city of nearly 15,000. Farmers from Tonawanda and other surrounding towns often refused to transport produce to the city, fearing contact with the dread disease. Stores closed and food was scarce in many of the state's cities.
Though we have no records to prove it, it is likely there were cholera victims in the homes along Tonawanda' s portion of the Erie Canal since it was low and swampy between the canal and the river and travelers from all over the state passed through it daily.
Modern medical knowledge recognizes that flies and other insects transmit the disease from infected humans through their food and body wastes At that time, canallers used the canal as a place to dispose of all their wastes.
Cholera epidemics were occasional visitors to the area in later years also, particularly in 1849.
What is cholera?
Cholera is an acute, diarrheal illness caused by infection of the intestine with the bacterium Vibrio cholerae. The infection is often mild or without symptoms, but sometimes can be severe.
Approximately 1 in 20 infected persons has severe disease characterized by profuse watery diarrhea, vomiting, and leg cramps. In these persons, rapid loss of body fluids leads to dehydration and shock. Without treatment, death can occur within hours.
How does a person get cholera?
A person may get cholera by drinking water or eating food contaminated with the cholera bacterium. In an epidemic, the source of the contamination is usually the feces (stool) of an infected person. The disease can spread rapidly in areas with inadequate treatment of sewage and drinking water.
The cholera bacterium may also live in the environment in brackish rivers and coastal waters. Shellfish eaten raw have been a source of cholera, and a few persons in the United States have contracted cholera after eating raw or undercooked shellfish from the Gulf of Mexico. The disease is not likely to spread directly from one person to another; therefore, casual contact with an infected person is not a risk for becoming ill.
What is the risk for cholera in the United States?
In the United States, cholera was prevalent in the 1800s but has been virtually eliminated by modern sewage and water treatment systems. However, as a result of improved transportation, more persons from the United States travel to parts of Latin America, Africa, or Asia where epidemic cholera is occurring.