Beginning in the early 1830s, cholera epidemics killed thousands of United States citizens, including many Ohioans. Cholera first appeared in the United States in 1832, apparently arriving with European immigrants.
Cholera is a disease that is spread by drinking water or eating food that is contaminated with human feces. People who contract cholera generally suffer from severe diarrhea, vomiting, and cramps. People with this illness can die from dehydration within a few hours or days after the symptoms first appear.
Cleveland residents were the first people in Ohio to contract the illness. Migrants or businessmen who traveled across Lake Erie probably brought the disease. Cholera tended to be most virulent in cities because of their poor sanitation systems. By the autumn of 1832, the illness had reached Cincinnati, probably brought by people traveling along the Ohio River. The Ohio and Mississippi Rivers allowed the disease to spread quickly across the United States in all directions.
Cholera also reached Ohio's interior. Canals provided a relatively stagnant source of water that allowed cholera to fester. As a result of drinking this stagnant water, canal workers commonly died from this illness. While canals, railroads, and steamboats benefited Ohioans economically, these modes of transportation also brought disease. The worst cholera epidemic to affect Ohio occurred in 1849. Eight thousand people in Cincinnati died in this epidemic, including Harriet Beecher Stowe's infant son. Many Cincinnati residents fled the city and ended up in Mt. Pleasant, a community that escaped the illness. The town residents soon changed its name to Mt. Healthy in honor of its good fortune. In Columbus, 116 inmates at the Ohio Penitentiary succumbed to the illness. Former President James Polk, a resident of Tennessee, was the most famous person to die of cholera in 1849. Cholera resulted in the postponement of the first Ohio State Fair and the Ohio Constitutional Convention of 1850-1851.
Cholera most commonly struck during spring, summer, and fall. Cold winters, at least in Ohio, routinely killed the cholera germ. Unfortunately for people stricken with cholera, the treatment, at least before the American Civil War, was almost as bad as the illness. Doctors routinely prescribed calomel for cholera victims. Calomel contained mercury, and numerous people died from mercury poisoning or suffered other ill effects from this drug.
Cholera epidemics continued in the United States until the early 1900s. As sanitation improved within the United States, including chlorination of water, the illness became less common. In modern nations, cholera cases are very rare. In developing countries, cholera remains a not-uncommon disease. The standard treatment for cholera today is to keep the ill person hydrated with germ-free water or other fluids.
Image: The oldest Jewish cemetery west of the Allegheny Mountains. It has eighty five graves and was used from 1821 to 1849, when the cholera epidemic filled the cemetery.