1832 : Cholera Epidemic Breaks Out In Detroit

June 25, 2018 all-day

Cholera epidemic begins in Michigan.

Flyer for preventing Cholera during the second cholera pandemic (1829–51)

On June 25, 1832, the Detroit Board of Health issued guidelines to prevent and cure cholera, including a list of medicines and dosage amounts for adults and children. Detroit’s Mayor Levi Cook added regulations restricting boat and ship traffic in the Detroit River and forbidding ships from any other port to come closer than 100 yards to Detroit shores. Ship passengers couldn’t land until they had passed a health officer inspection, and ship, boat and foot travelers were forbidden to cross from the Canadian shore to Detroit.

However, with the outbreak of the Black Hawk War in Wisconsin, numerous troop transports traveled up the Detroit River by Detroit on their way to Chicago, many carrying soldiers sick with cholera.

The steamer Henry Clay, for example, landed in Detroit to unload passengers sick with cholera.  By July 5, the first deaths occurred. The disease spread throughout Detroit, where 28 deaths resulted from 58 cases within two weeks. Roadblocks were set up to prevent people fleeing Detroit from entering other towns, but cholera spread around the state.

Throughout the months of July and August 1832, officials and residents in the settlements in Southeastern Michigan did what they could to protect themselves from cholera, including building fences, stopping visitors, inspecting passengers in coaches, posting armed sentries on roads leading to and from their communities, and throwing strangers out of inns and out of towns. By August 15, 1832, 96 people had died in Detroit. Father Gabriel Richard, who showed the first signs of illness on 8 September, died on September 13, 1832 of cholera. By October 11, 1832, the worst of the cholera epidemic had ended for that cholera season, but the next one would come with the summer and last until the cooler temperatures of autumn.

Modern science can identify the origins of diseases and suggest ways to counteract if not entirely cure them. Nineteenth Century physicians and local, state, and federal authorities didn’t always understand cholera’s causes or contagious capabilities. Some people blamed cholera on unpleasant smells or vapors and filthy living conditions. By extension, they could fasten the label “filthy living conditions” on groups they considered undesirable and inferior like the poor, black people, or immigrants. Others blamed cholera on sinful behavior and the wrath of a vengeful God.

People practiced hit- or- miss sanitation. They dipped or pumped drinking water from shallow wells, rivers, or lakes, and water sellers peddled water from wells or rivers. Householders deposited sewage in their streams or in cesspools which often they allowed to overflow or seep into the water table. People and municipalities established water supplies and sewage facilities for convenience and they often stood so close together that drinking water had the odor and taste of sewage.

Treatment of cholera in the Nineteenth Century often created more problems than the disease itself. Doctors bled their patients, purged them, and dosed them with opium. They prescribed astringents like lead acetate, and others used oral salt solutions. Doctors had no standard, objective guidelines for cholera diagnosis. They considered cholera a severe and often fatal disease and mistook milder diarrheas to be symptoms of other diseases.

The return of cholera to Detroit in August and September 1834 graphically illustrated its ability to quickly spread and kill. In the spring of 1834, Detroit’s population numbered 3,500. Cholera’s return in August caused the population to decrease by 700 by the end of September. Doctors were authorized to dispense medicine and priests distributed medicine to their poorer parishioners. Poor people received their medicine for free, but other people had to buy it.

Business virtually suspended operations, grass grew in the streets, and flaming tar barrels were scattered throughout the city because people thought burning tar would disinfect the air. The custom of the time called for the ringing of church bells when someone died, but officials suspended the custom because frequent church bell ringing led to panic throughout the city.

The 1834 epidemic was not the last for Detroit. Cholera returned several more times from 1849-1865

Sources :

Cholera in Detroit : a history / Richard Adler.

Robert McNamara, “The Cholera Epidemic of 1832 Killed Thousands and Created Panic”, About.com

“Two men and the 1832 cholera epidemic”, a chapter from Michigan Legends: Folktales and Lore from the Great Lakes State by Sheryl James via Google Books.

Detroit Cholera Epidemic: 1832 and 1834 (The Clio)

Cholera, the Invisible Enemy, Invades Southeastern Michigan and Monroe, December 18, 2017.

Leave a Reply