A Disease That Haunted The Irish

Cholera is an infection of the human intestine and is recognized as one of the most efficient killers of all time; it works quickly to kill, often on the same day as infection. Cholera causes violent vomiting, cramps and diarrhea and is spread by contaminated excrement and handling clothing and bedding of infected people. In crowded cities, sewage-contaminated water supplies were a major source of its spread, but no one realized that until after 1854. Before that, it had arrived in America with Irish and German immigrants, crowded below decks on coffin ships with little or no fresh water or sanitary facilities for a rough six-to-eight-week passage across the Atlantic.

It decimated the polluted immigrant slums into which many immigrants were forced to live. In June 1832, an outbreak of cholera spread rapidly throughout the crowded, unsanitary dwellings of New York’s Five Points neighborhood before spreading to the rest of the city killing 3,500 in two months. Nativists blamed the disease on the life style of the poor – namely Catholicism, poverty and drink until the disease spread uptown, where well-to-do families kept the cause of death a secret. New York’s Croton reservoir was completed in late 1842 to bring clean water to the city for drinking and street cleaning, but the Croton Water Board objected to wasting that clean water in the Five Points. A second major outbreak occurred in 1849 killing 5,017. For the next 20 years, deaths in the Five Points area was triple that of the rest of the city.

In 1842, cholera also broke out in Saint Louis brought by German and Irish immigrants coming up the Mississippi from New Orleans where upon arrival; dehydrated from the voyage they drank great gulps of contaminated water. Like their countrymen in New York the Irish were forced into a filthy slum area called the Kerry Patch. As a result, the St. Louis death toll reached 4,500 in three months. The increase of immigrants in 1849 fleeing Ireland’s Great Hunger led to a second major outbreak that took more than 7,000 lives. In May 1849, the city took over Arsenal Island in the Mississippi and renamed it Quarantine Island. All ships were stopped there for inspection and those passengers who seemed ill remained in hastily built sheds until they either recovered or died, just like Grosse Isle in Quebec. Thousands were buried there before the island – cemetery and all – washed away in the spring floods of the 1860s after the city built dykes on the west side of the river and changed its flow.

However, the quarantining efforts failed to stop bacteria from infecting St. Louis’ water supply. With no other dumping site available, chamber pots were emptied into the streets and rain washed the excrement into the limestone caves beneath the city where raw sewage from the city was also dumped. It eventually overflowed into a low area near the Kerry Patch creating a putrid pool angrily called Kayser’s Lake. Henry Kayser was the city engineer who decided to divert the entire city’s waste water into the limestone caves beneath the city rather than build sewers to save money. In 1849, approximately one-tenth of the population of St. Louis died from disease.

Not knowing the true source of the disease, people blamed everything from sauerkraut to stench as thousands of new immigrants joined the prospectors who stopped at St Louis – the gateway to the west – to outfit for the journey to the recently discovered gold fields of California. Typically, cholera swept through the poorest areas first and was interpreted by the Nativist press as being due to the immigrants’ ignorance, laziness, and moral laxity. By the third week of June, cholera was killing roughly 100 people a day. Rev. John B. Druyts, Jesuit president of Saint Louis College, told the frightened students to place themselves under protection of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Those who survived were to chip in and buy a silver crown for her statue in the chapel. The effect of this holy resolution calmed the students. In what was called a miracle, there were no deaths within the school walls, although there were victims of the disease in almost every house around the College. In October 1849, a silver crown was reverently carried on a purple cushion to the statue.

On June 24, citizens crowded a public meeting and demanded that city officials do something or resign. The officials did what officials always do: they formed a committee. The committee not knowing the cause, immediately ordered coal, tar and sulfur pots to be burned in the streets. They banned fresh vegetables, especially cabbage believing the smell of sauerkraut was a contributing factor. They also kept public transportation out of the slums in case the disease might be airborne and ordered churches to stop all that infernal bell-ringing at funerals since it lowered the morale of the people. Then they spent $10,000 to buy slop carts and hired street cleaners, telling them to collect and dump liquid filth into the once lovely Chouteau’s Pond which had already become gray with industrial waste, creating another source of infection.

More practical prevention came in 1850, when the city drained both Kayser’s Lake and Chouteau’s Pond – not because it eliminated a cause of the disease, but because they finally installed a sewer system – and that, unintentionally, was what finally did the job. Cholera returned again before the end of the century, but it was never again as lethal.

Many are the stories of sorrow in the diaries of our immigrant ancestors who were forced to endure the squalor imposed upon them as a result of the bigotry that condemned them to substandard living conditions. There are also stories of resilience that allowed them to not only survive, but to climb out of the derelict districts and set a course for their sons and daughters that made them the major contributors that the Irish are today in every field of endeavor. But while we celebrate their accomplishments and contributions, we should never forget the hardships suffered by those who laid the groundwork.