The most feared killer of the 19th century was cholera. “Quite often a person would be taken with the cholera and in three hours would be dead,” recalled Bloomington physician William Elder. The rapidity in which it could take life was but one terrible aspect of this diarrheal affliction. In 1866, the monthly periodical Hall’s Journal of Health referred to cholera’s “viperic and malignant influence, which, in its remorseless tread, wrecks so much of human happiness and desolates so many hearthstones.”
Cholera outbreaks are usually traced to water contaminated with human feces. The illness takes the form of watery diarrhea, vomiting and severe cramps, with death resulting from dehydration, the collapse of the circulatory system and shock. Although London physician John Snow first made the connection between tainted water and cholera in 1854, for much of the 19th century it was incorrectly understood that cholera and other diseases were carried by “miasmas,” the term for the supposed deadly vapors emanating from rotting organic matter.
In late April 1866, The Pantagraph published a proclamation from Bloomington Mayor E.H. Rood warning residents of a visit by “this dreaded and dreadful disease.” Accompanying the proclamation was an ordinance compelling residents to clean miasma hotspots, such as damp cellars, outhouses, horse stables and pools of fetid water, with those failing to do so subject to steep fines. “Although we may not be able to avert entirely the impending calamity, we may, by extraordinary exertions, render its visitation comparatively harmless,” declared Mayor Rood. “The underwritten penalty for violation of the attached ordinance is DEATH. And with the advent of cholera, comes the dread executioner!”
It is thought cholera first reached McLean County in 1834, several years after its initial appearance in the United States. Local historian Milo Custer undertook an in-depth examination of cholera in Central Illinois, publishing his results in 1930. He indentified at least 140 deaths (though there were undoubtedly many more) in McLean and surrounding counties from 1834 to 1873, with at least seven distinct outbreaks.
Given that these eruptions occurred long before passage of the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906, it comes as little surprise that quack cholera remedies were popular in the summer months. In July 1849, for instance, the Western Whig newspaper (a predecessor to The Pantagraph) carried an advertisement for D. Jayne’s Carminative Balsam, deceitfully billed as a surefire “cholera cure.”
Quite often newspapers, at the behest of community leaders, suppressed news of local flare-ups, believing that the stigma of cholera would chase away business. In May 1854, The Pantagraph decried “such rascality” as antithetical to an honest and open press, while at the same time taking care to confirm “three or four” local deaths from what authorities believed was cholera.
The summer of 1855 marked the worst outbreak in this area’s history, with deaths likely numbering well above 70 souls. According to Dr. Charles R. Parke, cholera first appeared that year at a saloon and boarding house on the corner of Front and Center streets, where the illness claimed “five or six” German immigrants over several days. The Pantagraph reported at least five deaths between July 28 and Aug. 1, including Joseph A. Clark of Grove Street, three Germans and one Irishwoman, the latter four left nameless by the newspaper. On Aug. 18, frightened residents of all religious stripes gathered at the Methodist Church for a service dedicated to humiliation and prayer.
The DeWitt County community of Waynesville was brought to its knees that summer when some 50 residents (out of a population of 350 or less) succumbed to the water-borne killer. In June 1934, an aged Samantha Richards recalled the horror of this outbreak as seen from the eyes of a child (though she evidently misremembered the event as occurring in the summer of 1854). One evening she was sent on an errand with her sister and came across a woman lying dead on the street. Richards and her mother also watched neighbors carry as many as 10 bodies a night to one of the village’s two cemeteries. “Some were in rough boxes but most of them were buried in the bedclothes in which they died,” noted Richards.
Municipal water and sewage treatment systems played a paramount role in eliminating such outbreaks in the industrialized world, including the United States. Yet cholera is still endemic to much of the developing world, with more than 100,000 deaths a year attributed to this “dreaded and dreadful” killer.