In these days of pandemics, it is sometimes helpful to look back at the past to see how people coped with them at the time.
Although epidemics were not uncommon in New York State throughout the 18th and 19th century, the cholera epidemics of 1832 and 1849 seemed to hit especially hard. Cholera is a waterborne bacterial infection that usually attacks the small intestine and is often fatal. Transmitted through the water supply, especially through water contaminated with fecal matter, cholera causes severe diarrhea and dehydration and is sometimes called "Blue Death," because of the grayish tone skin can take from extreme dehydration.
Prior to the 1850s, few cities anywhere in the U.S. had made any organized attempts at sanitation and drinking water supplies were often contaminated by the raw sewage most municipalities dumped right into waterways, or allowed to build up in underground pits and cesspools for outhouses.
In account of the 1832 cholera epidemic at Poughkeepsie, Dr. Sherrill Hunting, author of numerous medical texts, described the symptoms thusly [editor's note: paragraphs have been added to assist with readability of this historic text],
"About the time when the Epidemic Cholera appeared in this village [Poughkeepsie], in a confirmed manner, some changes took place in the character of diseases, and in the situation of the health of the inhabitants, which subsequent observation showed to be precursory symptoms of the cholera.
"A langour and uneasy sensation was complained of by many, and diseases of the stomach and bowels were very common. At length cases of diseases occurred, attended with symptoms of unusual severity, and somewhat novel; they excited a great deal of anxiety and alarm, and finally engaged the attention of the public authorities.
"As has generally been the case, professional opinions were divided, as to the nature of the features of the new complaint that occurred. During the prevalence of the epidemic, every person in the village seemed to be affected with the primary premonitory symptoms; all had a preternatural red tongue, which sometimes was covered with a whitish slimy moisture; the pulse was small, quickened and rather chocked, it seldom beat free and easy, and in some cases it was very obscure, while the person was about and apparently in good health. In most persons, there was an uneasy sensation of the alimentary canal.
"What was considered the premonitory stage was a diarrhoea, pain and uneasiness of the stomach, nausiea or vomiting, and a difficulty of breathing, as though there was a deficiency in the supply of oxygen.
"When the symptoms passed this stage, the features constituting the formed state of the disease, have often been enumerated, and were about the same here, as were noticed to have existed in other places. Connected with the aforementioned symptoms, they consist of pain and uneasiness of the bowels, and more particularly of the stomach; a weighty or vacant sensation, a tight fullness of that organ, diarrhoea, vomiting, the discharge generally watery, whitish, and fluculent, sometimes dark brown or reddish; spasms generally more or less severe across the stomach, extending to the extremities; in some cases there are no spasms; coldness of the extremities and of the body; pale, purple or leaden colour of the skin; hands and feet moist; fingers shrivelled, withered and soaked in appearance; features livid; eyes sunken and surrounded with a dark zone; voice small, feeble, sepulchral; respiration very laboured; tongue in the moderate cases, red, furry, covered with whitish slime, or a white erect scurff, sometimes entirely clean and red; in violent prostrated cases, tongue pale, cold, blueish; pulse in mild cases, sometimes tense, generally in all, soft, small, slow, gurgling, nearly imperceptible, or entirely so.
"Some have had excessive thirst, others very little - no one case is marked with all those symptoms, but more or less of them are present to constitute the disease; but the invasion is not always in a regular train, sometimes it attacks suddenly, without the premonitory symptoms, except a red tongue and an altered pulse; this I believe always attends."
- From: An essay on epidemics: as they appeared in Dutchess county, from 1809 to 1825; also, a paper on diseases of the jaw-bones; with an appendix, containing an account of the epidemic cholera, as it appeared in Poughkeepsie in 1832 by Sherrill Hunting (1783-1886), published in 1832.
Sadly, Dr. Hunting's methods of treatment were the common ones at the time - he bled the patients and administered an emetic, or something to make the patient vomit. In severe cases, sometimes "external warmth and friction" were used to try to bring the patient around. He did note that in some severe cases, the blood drawn "remained black and unchanged in the bowl; it seemed to have lost the property of attracting oxygen from the atmosphere, as blood generally does when thus exposed." But dehydration was the real culprit with cholera, and in a time long before the use of intra-venous solution to re-hydrate patients, there was little period doctors could do once a patient was infected.
You can read Dr. Hunting's book yourself, along with the accounts of individual patients he oversaw. A digitized copy is available online courtesy the US National Library of Medicine. There are reports from the period that the book sold very well in Ulster County as well as Dutchess.
Cholera is spread when infected people contaminate water supplies. Rondout was particularly susceptible to these sorts of diseases due to its role as a busy port. A New York State Department of Health report from 1911 recalled, "Owing to the easy means of intercourse with the seaboard, Kingston has suffered severely on several occasions from epidemics and plague. In 1832 a cholera visitation was felt and in 1849 a repetition caused a fearful loss of life and a great depression in business. In 1852 it broke out again but the lesson learned in 1849 was so well taught and the city was so well cleaned that the epidemic gained no foothold and was soon stamped out."
Yellow Fever at Rondout, 1843
Not mentioned in the report was a yellow fever outbreak in the 1840s. An 1846 report to the Assembly on quarantine laws referenced contaminated vessels and quarantine laws for the Port of New York and the possible affects on smaller ports like Rondout. "By inattention to the laws, a vessel was permitted to pass to Rondout a few years ago, where a fever broke out and threatened the health and commerce of the city."
That inattention had to do with the schooner Vanda, which came to Rondout from Baltimore in 1843. Recounted in an extensive report in the New York Journal of Medicine, the outbreak of "malignant fever" also known as yellow fever, in August and September of 1843 was found to have been brought to Rondout by the schooner, purportedly from the West Indies. Yellow fever is a viral hemorrhagic disease spread by infected mosquitoes and symptoms can include not only the jaundice that gives yellow fever its name, but also headache, muscle pain, vomiting, and fatigue. Some victims can develop severe symptoms. Those who demonstrate severe symptoms have a 50/50 chance of dying. Yellow fever resides primarily in tropical areas, but when introduced to non-tropical areas where locals have little or no immunity, it can spread quickly.
Once word of the infection spread, "[t]his fear was so strongly manifested by the towns along the Hudson, as Rhinebeck, Poughkeepsie, etc., that the barges of these towns, carrying products for the market of the city of New York as well as passengers, were no longer allowed to be transported by the steamers which occasionally lay at Rondout, notwithstanding a contract for the whole season of navigation. More than this, the steamboats of the Hudson, notwithstanding Rondout is two miles from its place of landing, would no longer touch the same side of the river. Rondout thus, in a few days, was brought to the point of suffering a suspension of its business operations; and this business, it will be seen, in consequence chiefly of being the outlet of the Delaware and Hudson Canal, is a of a very extensive character. Deserted by the surrounding country upon which Rondout relies in part for subsistence, the inhabitants, had the non-intercourse with the city of New York been continued, would have been even threatened with starvation!"
Talk about social distancing. As it was, the prohibition on contact with New York City was for only a few days, for doctors in Rondout to get a handle on who was sick and who wasn't. And among the sick were the captain, mate, pilot, and one passenger from the Vanda. In the panic, others were scapegoated for causing the outbreak, including that "an old negro" had the fever, which later turned out to be false.
Ultimately, the Vanda and her crew were blamed by the general public, despite following all the rules. Bound from Baltimore to Point Petre, Gaudaloupe loaded with lumber. Although Point Petre "was sickly," it was not clear if yellow fever was in effect there. From there, the Vanda continued to St. Martin's, but the chief mate had been struck with typhus fever (a bacterial infection spread by biting insects like lice or chiggers) and died ashore. At St. Martin's the Vanda took on salt and pineapples and sailed for New York. They arrived in quarantine on August 7. The steward and another member of the crew had been ill with mild fever, but both were treated and discharged after a few days. The forecastle was whitewashed (caustic lime wash was a disinfectant at the time), the vessel ventilated, and all clothing and bedding washed. The Vanda was released from quarantine after just forty-eight hours and headed for Rondout.
By the time they arrived, the captain and mate were both sick, and other crew soon joined them. The captain was lodged at the Mansion House at Rondout during his illness. Any sick crew stayed aboard the Vanda. The North River pilot, a Hudson Valley resident named John Bailey, sickened and died while at Rondout, but apparently not from yellow fever.
The report also includes the testimonies of several area doctors, which indicate that there were cases of yellow fever present in the area before the arrival of the Vanda, as well as cases in Rosendale, despite having no contact with Rondout after the fever broke out there. The full report is worth a read, especially as you can read the frustration of the medical personnel with their italicized references to "terrible hatches" being thrown open aboard the Vanda as the culprit for spreading yellow fever, despite it being unlikely that any miasma (thought to be the culprit of spreading all sorts of diseases at the time, not mosquitoes) would have formed from a cargo hold full of salt and pineapples.
Ultimately, forty people took sick and twelve died, which seems like a small number, but Rondout was a small town, and the deaths all took place between August 25th and September 15th. And the many doctors who contributed to the report in the New York Journal of Medicine relieved the Vanda and her crew of blame for the outbreak, instead focusing on the likelihood that the disease was indigenous to the swampy areas of the Rondout.
The Cholera, 1849
Just a few years after the yellow fever epidemic at Rondout, a cholera outbreak struck the nation. In 1849, communities all over New York as well as St. Louis, Missouri, Richmond, Virginia, Pittsburgh and Philadelphia in Pennsylvania, Cincinnati, Ohio, and Washington, DC. were again infected by cholera epidemics
The Jeffersonian Republican, a Pennsylvania newspaper, reported the national numbers in an article entitled "The Cholera" on Thursday, July 12, 1849. After the headline of cases and death (outlined above), the very first words of the article were, "The cholera has been fearfully prevalent at Rondout, the terminus of the Delaware and Hudson canal, where a large number of vessels are constantly lying, taking in coal."
A few days later, on July 16, 1849, the Oneida Morning Herald, based out of Utica, NY, reported, "The little village of Rondout, Ulster Co., situated at the terminus of the Delaware and Hudson canal has suffered greatly. So far there have been 60 cases and 27 deaths by cholera. Rondout is a village containing about 2,000 inhabitants."
Despite the deaths, several local residents pitched in to help. Dr. Abraham Crispell, a descendant of New Paltz French Huguenots, moved to Rondout in 1849 to start his medical practice. Almost immediately he was confronted with the cholera epidemic. He later served as a surgeon in the Union Army during the Civil War, working in South Carolina and Buffalo before returning to Rondout at the end of the war.
Daniel B. Stow was another Rondout resident commended for service during the cholera epidemic. A harness-maker, he and three others "performed the heroic work of burying the dead and administering to the needs of the afflicted," according to A History of Ulster County, Volume 2. He was married to Emily B. Delaney the same year, 1849. After the epidemic, he opened a his own harness making shop.
The cholera epidemic had a negative effect on the D&H Canal, however, as scores of boatmen, lock tenders, and other canal workers left the area to search for work elsewhere. The D&H Canal Company move 50,000 fewer tons of coal than estimated.
In all, over 80 people died in Rondout alone.
1849 was a momentous year for Rondout, and not only due to the cholera epidemic. It was the first meeting for the election of officers for the village (election held May 1, 1849). At their first meeting, a fire company was established for Rondout and taxes were raised to outfit it. They also established a board of health to "adopt suitable precautions against the danger of cholera" and set up the store house of the steamboat Emerald as a hospital.
Perhaps most interestingly was that the following year, in 1850, the rural cemetery of Montrepose was founded - a direct result of the deaths from the cholera epidemic.
As with many cities in the mid-19th century, urban churchyard cemeteries were becoming overcrowded, and public health officials worried about the spread of disease from miasma. Rural cemeteries were a popular, park-like alternative, and Montrepose was no exception. Many bodies were exhumed and reburied at Montrepose.
The need for the new cemetery became clear decades later. On March 30, 1909 the Kingston Daily Freeman reported that workmen at the site of the Holy Spirit Church found a skeleton where one was not expected. The church yard graves had previously been exhumed and moved to Montrepose. "An old man who stopped to watch the workmen digging said he could remember hearing folks tell that when the cholera epidemic was prevalent in Rondout, scores of bodies were buried at that spot with little ceremony. As soon as people died they were carried on wagons and dumped into holes dug in the ground and the drivers hurried away for more corpses."
For a town of a little over 500 people to have 80 deaths just a few years after two other epidemics must have been shocking. But it was the beginning of the end for epidemics at Rondout. Although several others broke out over the years, often introduced by steamboat, the losses were never as severe as in 1849.
Today, as officials in New York City are contemplating turning once again to Hart Island to bury those who have died from coronavirus, and as ships and individuals undergo quarantine, it can be helpful to remember that people in the past weathered such disasters as well.
Stay tuned next week for a follow-up article on sanitation and water quality projects begun in response to disease outbreaks and epidemics like the cholera epidemic of 1849.
Sarah Wassberg Johnson is the Director of Exhibits & Outreach at the Hudson River Maritime Museum, where she has worked since 2012. She has an MA in Public History from the University at Albany.
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