Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Do You Remember The Not-So-Glorious New York Fourth of July in 1832?

This afternoon, while organizing my books, I spent some time with the diary of Philip Hone (1780 – 1851), the one-term early 19th century Whig mayor of New York City.   Hone is remembered less for his stint as mayor than for his skills as a meticulous 19th century diarist.

While I had his diary in hand, two things crossed my mind: the impending 4th of July holiday and Texas Governor Rick Perry.

Obviously, it will be a reach to connect the two with Philip Hone, but it’s not impossible, as you will see.  

Several months ago (late April to be exact) the Hon. Rick Perry, governor of Texas, signed a proclamation declaring April 22 – 24, 2011 as Days of Prayer For Rain.  The official text reads as follows:

NOW, THEREFORE, I, RICK PERRY, Governor of Texas, under the authority vested in me by the Constitution and Statutes of the State of Texas, do hereby proclaim the three-day period from Friday, April 22, 2011, to Sunday, April 24, 2011, as Days of Prayer for Rain in the State of Texas. I urge Texans of all faiths and traditions to offer prayers on that day for the healing of our land, the rebuilding of our communities and the restoration of our normal way of life.


For some reason, that reminded me of the impending 4th of July holiday.  And that sent me to Philip Hone’s diary for the 4th of July, 1832. 

I picked 1832 for a reason.

Just like things have been in the state of Texas lately, times were tough in New York City in the summer of 1832.  But it wasn’t because of lack of rain.  Here’s Hone on the state of affairs on the morning of July 4th, 1832:

It is a lovely day, but very different from all previous anniversaries of independence.  The alarm about the cholera has prevented all the usual jollification under the public authority.  There are no booths on Broadway, the parade which was ordered has been countermanded, no corporation dinner and no ringing of bells.  Some troops are marching about the street, “upon their own hook”, I suppose.  Most of the stores are closed, and there is a pretty smart cannonade of crackers by the boys; but it is not a regular Fourth of July.  The disease is here in all its violence, and will increase.  God grant that its ravages may be confined and its visit short!

Several weeks earlier, on Friday, June 15th, Hone wrote:

Bishop Onderdonk has published a very sensible pastoral letter to the ministers of his diocese, urging them to make a spiritual use of the apprehended danger, and prescribing a form of prayers to be used in the service of the Church.”

On the following Monday, he noted:

Prayers were offered up yesterday in all the churches to avert the threatened visit of the cholera, and sermons preached to prepare the minds of the people for the affliction, which seems now to be considered inevitable.”

The prayers offered up in Bishop Onderdonk’s churches had much the same effect on cholera as Rick Perry’s three days of prayer had on Texas weather.  Despite the heartfelt invocations, the Asiatic Cholera, like the Texas drought, came anyway.

Prior to 1832, cholera was an Asian disease.  It was unknown in North America. Its causes and its treatment, while widely discussed in medical circles, were unknown.  

However, in 1832, all that began to change.

During the spring and summer of 1832, more than 30,000 mostly Irish immigrants arrived in Canada via the St. Lawrence River, docking at the receiving station of Grosse Isle near Quebec City.  While many stayed for a time in Quebec and Ontario, a large number headed to cities south of the border.  Plattsburgh.  Albany.  Buffalo. Kingston.  Burlington.  Worcester.  Hartford.  Boston.  New York.

The arriving ships told the tale:

28 April – the ship Constantia from Limerick arrived at Grosse Isle, Quebec. There were 29 cholera deaths on the crossing.

14 May – the ship Robert from Cork, with 10 cholera deaths during the voyage, arrived at Grosse Isle.

28 May – the ship Elizabeth from Dublin docked at Grosse Isle and reported 20 cholera deaths during the crossing.

3 June – the ship Carricks from Dublin arrived at Grosse Isle.  Cholera was rampant. 42 cholera deaths had occurred during the voyage.

By mid-June, cholera had moved from Quebec to Montreal and then further west to Lachine, Brockville, Kingston and Cornwall.  

Meanwhile, by mid-June, Irish immigrant arrivals from Canada in Plattsburgh, New York and Burlington, Vermont took sick with cholera and died there. Toward the end of June, the wife and two children of an Irish immigrant named Fitzgerald died of cholera in New York City. In a day or two, everything mushroomed out of control in New York City. 

New Yorkers were sure they knew the cause.  It was God’s punishment for something or other.  Or it was the Irish immigrants, since the disease was rampant in neighborhoods that were thickly settled by immigrants.  Immigrants were dirty, and carried the cholera.  Immigrants were “not like us.”

Wealthy New Yorkers left the city in droves.  Hone took his family and headed for the security of Rockaway to take some salubrious sea air and wait out the disease.

After the worst of the epidemic was over, Hone described the newly arrived Irish immigrants in his diary entry of 20 September 1832 .  He wrote:

Of these, a large proportion find their way into the United States destitute and friendless. They have brought the cholera this year, and they will always bring wretchedness and want. The boast that our country is the asylum for the oppressed in other parts of the world is very philanthropic and sentimental, but I fear that we shall, before long, derive little comfort from being made the almshouse and place of refuge for the poor of other countries.”

By the end of the summer, more than 3500 New Yorkers had died of cholera.  Its cause would remain unknown until 1854 when John Snow, by investigating the families that got their water from the Broad Street Pump in London, proved conclusively that its cause was not the wrath of God or Irish immigrants, but rather water contaminated with human waste.  

Cholera was a bacterial disease, caused by the organism Vibrio cholereae, shown above, that passed from victim to victim by exposure to polluted water.  

It was all explainable by simple science.

Of course, these days, the legitimacy of “simple science” is questioned by populist pundits, and the idea that “big government” should be involved in public health has become a matter for debate, underscoring the fact that there’s really no cure for “stupid.” 

Anyway, enjoy a Glorious cholera-free Fourth of July!

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