Perspective: “The Dreaded Cholera” in Kentucky, 1832-1833

The 1832-1833 cholera pandemic was the first national pandemic in the history of the United States.

Think of your own church today, if you can try to imagine the loss of ten members within a few months; losses made even more painful in a congregation of less than one hundred to start with. As of this writing, God in mercy has spared our churches such sorrow upon sorrow.

 

[Author’s note: In no way do I wish to appear dismissive of the COVID-19 threat. Nevertheless, the 2007 film, Ratatouille, comes to mind, in which the culinary critic, Anton Ego, seeks, “A little perspective. . . . some fresh, clear, well-seasoned perspective.” Here is my best shot at Perspective” “The Dreaded Cholera” in Kentucky, 1832-1833[1] .]

If one casually walked up to a ‘water cooler’ conversation focused on a pandemic that, 1), had originated in Asia and spread to, and throughout, the United States; 2), began during an election year with the sitting president seeking a second term; and, 3), the president was held in contempt by many of his political opponents for reasons including social upbringing, education, and temperament – one could be forgiven if his thoughts did not run immediately to the Asiatic Cholera in 1832 and President Andrew Jackson. (One difference, however, between 1832 and 2020 was that in 1832, the president refused to call for a national day of prayer and humiliation, viewing it as unconstitutional.) The 1832-1833 cholera pandemic was the first national pandemic in the history of the United States. For the sake of brevity, yet still providing the intended perspective, this piece will address the case of Kentucky alone.

“Cholera is a waterborne infectious disease that attacks the small intestine via [drinking] water that is contaminated with the Vibrio cholera microbe,” and low-lying areas lacking sanitation provide excellent conditions to nurture it. The disease is caused by a bacterium typically found in somewhat salty, warm waters and is contracted by persons partaking of water, liquids, or foods contaminated by the microbe. Cholera produces extreme dehydration and is capable of killing a person within hours.[2]

Within the bounds of Kentucky, the city of Lexington bore the worst of the cholera in 1832-33. Originating in the Orient, the cholera traveled to America via Russia, then London, New York, and finally by steamboat (and perhaps other means of transport) to the country’s interior including Kentucky. In August 1832, Governor Thomas Metcalfe called for a day of humiliation and prayer as the cholera drew near (as the disease was understood in that era). By October, the cities of Louisville, Lexington, Frankfort, and Maysville were those most affected, but the losses that year were considered light.

By the early 1830s Maysville was four decades old and ranked among the major towns along the Ohio River. Most goods arriving from Philadelphia and other eastern cities destined for northeastern Kentucky entered the State through Maysville. The town had some four thousand inhabitants and boasted regular steamboat service with Cincinnati. Although “the dreaded cholera” visited Maysville in 1832, it returned with far greater mortality at the end of May 1833. Only seven weeks earlier, a terrible fire had consumed the brick buildings of one home and five businesses – including a coffee house and confectionery – in the town’s eastern portion. Maysville’s press announced:

It becomes our painful task to announce to the publick, the existence of the CHOLERA in our City to an alarming extent. On Wednesday morning last, the dreadful news was spread throughout the place, that there was a number of cases of a desperate character – embracing our most [temperate] and exemplary citizens. The panic spread as the disease extended, and our streets and houses may be said to have been deserted in thirty-six hours. It has now been forty-eight hours since the disease made its appearance, and we have interred TEN persons. . . . We have now lying dead and to be interred this morning NINE persons. . . .Our Physicians inform us that there are few more new cases this morning, but that many of the old cases are desperate. Our city is literally depopulated – all who could procure Carriages, Waggons, Carts or Horses, having left. Great praise is due [to those, including the Mayor] who have labored with unremitting industry, during those two days of affliction to relieve the agony of the dying. . . . Those citizens who have remained to perform the last duty to the dead, deserve the thanks of the public. Business of all kinds has ceased. We are happy to state that the disease this morning appears to be milder and more manageable.

We have thus been explicit, that the people in the country may know the real state of the city. Our friends need not expect a Paper next week, as it will be totally out of our power to issue one.[3]

In Maysville, from May 30 to August 1, 1833, 67 perished, and some sixty in surrounding Mason County.

In 1833, the cholera returned with a vengeance and seemed to spread from Maysville to other parts of the State. In Fleming County, two entire families died within 48 hours – one of 12, the other of ten. Lexington, with six to seven thousand inhabitants (and 550 dogs), was hit the worst, with 502 deaths recorded from June 1 to August 1. In Lexington, then, no less than one of about every thirteen inhabitants perished over a two-month period. A number of communities suffered far more casualties in 1833 than the year prior. In Lexington, more than one thousand five hundred persons were “prostrated” by the cholera within two weeks after its appearance; on some days, up to fifty died (two-thirds of those prostrated recovered).[4]

Lexington area churches suffered from the disease. Within the Mount Horeb Presbyterian Church, “Mrs. Susan Cooper died May 27, 1833; Mrs. Betsy Ann Cooper died June 30, 1833; Edward Maguire, an elder, died July 4, 1833; James Simpson died July 8, 1833.” By September, the Second (or McChord) Presbyterian Church had lost ten members to death by various causes in recent months, most of them probably due to the cholera. At the end of the terrible summer of 1833, Second Presbyterian had been reduced to a congregation of 70 communicants.

Think of your own church today, if you can try to imagine the loss of ten members within a few months; losses made even more painful in a congregation of less than one hundred to start with. As of this writing, God in mercy has spared our churches such sorrow upon sorrow.[5]  

One of those at Second Presbyterian taken by the cholera was Thomas T. Skillman. In 1824, Skillman had been instrumental in establishing The Western Luminary, “the first religious weekly newspaper” west of the Appalachians and the organ of Kentucky Presbyterians. A history of the church notes that Skillman was an elder; he had “just returned from a meeting of the General Presbyterian Assembly when he fell a victim to cholera, June 9, 1833.” Were I to change the name of Skillman’s Western Luminary to, let’s say – The Skillman Report – today’s readers would readily grasp the broad, reformed-evangelical content in a news-and-doctrine context, and the excellence of that literary gem of the first one-third of the nineteenth century. An article (reprinted from London) in Skillman’s paper in June 1832 – almost one year to the day of his death – had reported on the progress of the cholera in Europe:

The progress of the cholera at Paris continues to be the leading, and almost the only topic of foreign intelligence. The destroying angel has unsheathed his sword against that great city, with a fiercer indignation than has been exhibited against any other metropolis in Europe. . . . Various calculations have been published as to the actual number of those who have fallen a sacrifice to the plague. It has been variously stated at 22,000, and even as high as 30,000. . . . Such has been the mortality of late, that the Government has been obliged to employ the artillery horses for this service [of burying the dead in trenches, by cartloads].[6]

Americans, including Kentuckians, were largely spared the ravages of the disease that year, but suffered grievously in the summer of 1833.

Many victims died within 12 to 48 hours, being “so dehydrated they no longer looked like themselves, but rather like skin stretched taut over bone and tendons.” Lacking an understanding of microbes and germ theory in that era, people avoided greeting one another on the streets, thinking the cholera to be contagious. The few physicians who did not succumb to the cholera themselves, not knowing how to treat its victims, applied doses of calomel (mercury) which produced vomiting and further dehydration. One author of Lexington’s 1833 affliction notes that orphaned children wandered the streets looking for food and shelter.[7]

By August 1833 the danger from cholera had all but passed for Maysville and Lexington. That time. North America experienced other cholera outbreaks following the 1832-33 pandemic. In fact, in July 1835 Maysville experienced cholera again, albeit lightly. The year 1849 witnessed another episode in the United States. The last major outbreak in North America occurred in the 1850s. In August 1855, Thomas Metcalfe – who, as Kentucky’s governor in 1832 had called for a day of humiliation and prayer – fell to the cholera. Today, this disease still devastates areas of the world where clean water and sanitation systems are relatively unknown.[8]    

As we consider the uncertainties of a little-known disease in our own day, perhaps those who are in Christ Jesus by faith may be led by His Spirit to humble themselves anew – in repentance and prayer and praise – remembering that they are the spiritual descendants of a congregation delivered from captivity by the God who was pleased to do so by smiting one member of every household of the captor nation: “And Pharaoh arose in the night, he and all his servants and all the Egyptians; and there was a great cry in Egypt, for there was no home where there was not someone dead” (Ex. 12:30). And as the Apostle Paul writes:

For the Scripture says to Pharaoh, “For this very purpose I raised you up, to demonstrate my power in you, and that my name might be proclaimed throughout the whole earth” (Rom. 9:17). Of course, the captivity of Egypt is meant to point us toward the immeasurably more destructive, enduring captivity of our own sin, the release from which is found in Jesus Christ alone. . . . But for the one not in Christ, may he, by grace, repent and look in faith for pardon of his sins to this One who is proclaimed, Whom the inspired volume says has “died for the ungodly” (Rom. 5:6) and “gave Himself for our sins,” (Gal. 1:4), “. . . inasmuch as it is appointed for men to die once and after this comes judgment” (Heb. 9:27).

Forrest L. Marion is a Ruling Elder at the Eastwood Presbyterian Church (PCA) in Montgomery, Ala.


[1] The writer gratefully acknowledges the review of this article by Dr. Randy Sedlak and Dr. Den Trumbull, physicians and longtime members of Eastwood Presbyterian Church. Any errors, of course, are my own.

[2] Cheryl Truman, “Lexington’s 1833 cholera epidemic chronicled in new book,” Lexington Herald-Leader website, Oct. 27, 2014, accessed Mar. 19, 2020. The article is based on Terry Foody, The Pie Seller, The Drunk, and The Lady: Heroes of the 1833 Cholera Epidemic in Lexington, Kentucky; “Cholera,” History Channel website, Sep. 12, 2017, accessed Mar. 19, 2020.

[3] G. Glenn Clift, History of Maysville and Mason County, Volume one (Lexington, Ky., 1936), 170, 173-78; Gayle Anderson Braden and Coralie Jones Runyon, A History of the Christian Church, Maysville, Kentucky (Maysville, Ky., 1948), 31.

[4] F. Garvin Davenport, Ante-Bellum Kentucky, A Social History, 1800-1860 (Oxford, Ohio, 1943), 21; “A Behind the Scenes Look at the Home of William and Lucy Croghan, Eliza Croghan and Cholera in Kentucky,” Locust Grove Louisville website, Jul. 12-14, 2015, accessed Mar. 18, 2020.

[5] Robert Stuart Sanders, Sketch of Mount Horeb Presbyterian Church, 1827-1952 . . . (Lexington, Ky., 1953), 14; Minutes, Second Presbyterian Church, Lexington, Ky., 1818-1833, microfilm, page containing, “Report of McChord Church up to 23rd Sept. 1833,” Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) Dept. of History, Montreat, N.C. (archive now closed).

[6] Robert Stuart Sanders, History of the Second Presbyterian Church, Lexington, [Ky.], of the United Presbyterian Church in the USA, 1815-1965 (Lexington, Ky., 1965), 89; “Foreign News,” Western Luminary (Lexington, Ky.), Jun. 13, 1832.

[7] Truman, “Lexington’s 1833 cholera epidemic,” Oct. 27, 2014.

[8] Clift, History of Maysville, 179; “Kentucky: Gov. Thomas Metcalfe,” National Governors Association, www.nga.org/governor/thomas-metcalfe/, accessed Mar. 22, 2020.