The cholera epidemic of 1832 killed thousands of people in Europe and North America and created mass panic across two continents.
Astoundingly, when the epidemic struck New York City it prompted as many as 100,000 people, nearly half the city's population, to flee to the countryside.
The movement of the disease across continents and countries was tracked closely, yet how it was transmitted was barely understood. And people were understandably terrified by horrific symptoms which seemed to afflict victims instantly.
Someone who woke up healthy could suddenly become violently ill, have their skin turn a ghastly bluish tint, become severely dehydrated, and die within hours.
It would not be until the late 19th century that scientists knew for certain that cholera was caused by a bacillus carried in water, and that proper sanitation could prevent the spread of the deadly disease.
Cholera Moved From India to Europe
Cholera had made its first 19th century appearance in India, in 1817. A medical text published in 1858, A Treatise On the Practice of Medicine by George B. Wood, M.D., described how it spread through most of Asia and the Middle East throughout the 1820s. By 1830 it was reported in Moscow, and the following year the epidemic had reached Warsaw, Berlin, Hamburg, and the northern reaches of England.
In early 1832 the disease struck London, and then Paris. By April 1832, more than 13,000 people in Paris had died as a result.
And by early June 1832 the epidemic had crossed the Atlantic, with Canadian cases reported on June 8, 1832 in Quebec and June 10, 1832 in Montreal.
The disease spread along two distinct pathways into the United States, with reports in the Mississippi Valley in the summer of 1832, and the first case documented in New York City on June 24, 1832.
Other cases were reported in Albany, New York, and in Philadelphia and Baltimore.
The cholera epidemic, at least in the United States, passed fairly quickly, and within two years it was over. But during its visit to America, there was widespread panic and considerable suffering and death.
People Were Puzzled By How Cholera Spread
Though the cholera epidemic could be followed on a map, there was little understanding of how it spread. And that caused considerable fear. Dr. George B. Wood, writing two decades after the 1832 epidemic, eloquently described the way cholera seemed unstoppable:
"No barriers are sufficient to obstruct its progress. It crosses mountains, deserts, and oceans. Opposing winds do not check it. All classes of persons, male and female, young and old, the robust and the feeble, are exposed to its assault; and even those whom it has once visited are not always subsequently exempt; yet as a general rule it selects its victims preferably from among those already pressed down by the various miseries of life and leaves the rich and prosperous to their sunshine and their fears."
The comment about how the "rich and prosperous" were relatively protected from cholera sounds like antiquated snobbery. However, since the disease was carried in the water supply, people living in cleaner quarters were less likely to become infected.
The Cholera Panic in New York City
Citizens of New York City knew the disease might strike, as they were reading reports about deaths in London, Paris, and elsewhere. But as the disease was so poorly understood, little was done to prepare.
By the end of June, when cases were being reported in the poorer districts of the city, Philip Hone, a former mayor of New York, wrote about the crisis in his diary:
"This dreadful disease increases fearfully; there are eighty-eight new cases today, and twenty-six deaths.
"Our visitation is severe but thus far it falls much short of other places. St. Louis on the Mississippi is likely to be depopulated, and Cincinnati on the Ohio is awfully scourged.
"These two flourishing cities are the resort of emigrants from Europe; Irish and Germans coming by Canada, New York, and New Orleans, filthy, intemperate, unused to the comforts of life and regardless of its proprieties. They flock to the populous towns of the great West, with disease contracted on shipboard, and increased by bad habits on shore. They inoculate the inhabitants of those beautiful cities, and every paper we open is only a record of premature mortality. The air seems to be corrupted, and indulgence in things heretofore innocent is frequently fatal now in these 'cholera times.'"
Hone was not alone in assigning blame for the disease. The cholera epidemic was often blamed on immigrants, and nativist groups like the Know-Nothing Party would occasionally revive fear of disease as a reason to restrict immigration.
In New York City the fear of disease became so prevalent that many thousands of people actually fled the city. Out of a population of about 250,000 people, it is believed that at least 100,000 left the city during the summer of 1832. The steamboat line owned by Cornelius Vanderbilt made handsome profits carrying New Yorkers up the Hudson River, where they rented any available rooms in local villages.
By the end of the summer the epidemic seemed to be over. But more than 3,000 New Yorkers had died.
Legacy of the 1832 Cholera Epidemic
While the exact cause of cholera would not be determined for decades, it was clear that cities needed to have clean sources of water. In New York City, a push was made to construct what would become a reservoir system which, by the mid-1800s, would be supplying the city with safe water.
Two years after the initial outbreak, cholera was reported again, but it did not reach the level of the 1832 epidemic. And other outbreaks of cholera would emerge in various locations, but the epidemic of 1832 was always remembered as, to quote Philip Hone, the "cholera times."