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The Great Cholera Epidemic of 1832

The Great Cholera Epidemic of 1832 struck the United States like a thief in the night. It entered Americas northern backdoor Lake Champlain in the damp spring of the year. Impoverished Irish immigrants carried the cholera bacteria down the St. Lawrence River aboard the death ship Carrick in May 1832. The disease spread quickly south to the lake ports of Vermont and New York. Within days and weeks, victims were falling ill with diarrhea, vomiting, abdominal cramps, and acute shock all within 4-12 hours. For the unfortunate victims, acute shock signaled the final collapse of the circulatory system. In western Vermont small villages, even isolated farms, were stricken, according to researcher Charles E. Rosenberg. Here the disease was most terrifying, he said. It had to be faced alone, often without friend, minister, or physician. The appearance of cholera in even the smallest hamlet was the signal for the general exodus of the inhabitants, who, in their headlong flight, spread the disease throughout the surrounding countryside. Cholera, Rosenberg noted, is linked with filth, ignorance, poverty, contaminated water, lack of public health, and newly developing communities. While cholera was the disease of the Industrial Revolution, it remains a killer. In 21st century Southeast Asia and India where poverty and filthy water are common a new strain of Cholerae vibrio has emerged. In 1996, cholera was responsible for thousands of third-world deaths. There is no use in becoming alarmed, cautioned a June 1832 Montreal-based newspaper that was widely circulated among French Canadians living in the Champlain Valley. When the illness appears, one must see a doctor and follow his instructions. The apothecaries have the necessary remedies in stock and their prices are affordable to all pocketbooks. There was no known cure for cholera in 1832. In the belief it could help ward off disease, some Vermonters hung a small cloth bag, filled with gum camphor, around the neck. One of the first reported cases of cholera that occured in either Vermont or New York was in late June; the victim was described as an Irish laborer, an habitual drunkard. He was likely a passenger from the Carrick. Within eight hours of being seized by local authorities, the man was dead. Other cases appeared around Burlington and began spreading from the shores of Lake Champlain. Cities west and south of Burlington suffered as well. The disease spread south beyond the lake via canal boats navigating the Champlain Canal to Albany then west, along the Erie Canal. In all cases, towns were filled with the horrible sounds of coughing and vomiting. By 1833-34, the disease reached Americas far west and killed fur traders and Indians alike. After a continental wake of suffering and death, the epidemic petered out by early 1834. 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, wrote George Washington Jonson, a North Country survivor of the 1832 epidemic. Many Vermonters on the eastern side of the Green Mountains looked down on cholera victims to the west, in the Champlain Valley. Isolated from a disease that moved first south, and then west, eastern Vermonters felt it was your own fault for contracting the disease (not unlike public reaction to AIDS victims during the 1980s). It is not known how many Vermonters died of cholera in 1832, but the numbers were high in the Champlain Valley. To the south, in New York City, 5,071 people died out of 500,000 residents. And over 9,000 people died in the Montreal-Quebec City region where the disease first appeared. Today, the antibiotic tetracycline is used to treat cholera, however, drug-resistant strains have emerged since the 1970s. The spectre of a future U.S. cholera epidemic haunts many public health officials. Source: Charles E. Rosenbergs The Cholera Years: The United States in 1832, 1849, and 1866, published by the University of Chicago Press.

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