Thursday, August 15, 2013


"The Slum" (Google image)
The cholera still lingers among the Irish people in this city.  On Saturday last, there were 4 deaths among this class and during the week, as will be seen as the report of the superintendent of burials; thirteen deaths, all but two, being among the Irish.  It is not surprising that the cholera lingers among them- living as they do.  We have heard of recent instances in which, when one of their number is seized with cholera, they set up a worse noise than can be heard at a wake, and immediately leave the patient to himself.  The city is very safe at this time- more so, we believe, than is usual at this season. (Lowell Journal, September 1849)
By the time this article hit the papers, people in Lowell, and especially the Acre, were beginning to breathe a sigh of relief.  While we in the 21st century think of August as the last days of summer vacations and barbeques, that was not so for our 19th century counterparts.  A very small portion of the population ever thought of weeks at the beach.  Summer meant the same routine as the rest of the year- long hours of hard labor in the torrid heat.  There was one thing that did dwell on the minds of those who lived in the cramped housing and poor conditions of places like Lowell- that was cholera, also known as cholera morbus.
The year 1849 was an especially bad outbreak.  A single case was found in June from a man who had gotten off the stage from New York and spent the night at the Washington Hotel.  The next morning, two doctors were brought in to confirm the case.  The end of summer was always the time when the disease spread its deadly effects through city neighborhoods.  The first death in 1849 was probably Mrs. Susan Googins, who died within 24 hours of contracting the disease in early August.  Within days, it began spreading at an alarming rate.  Newspapers in Boston and even in New York began reporting the death tolls in Lowell and similar cities.  Towards the end of the month of August, seven deaths were reported in 24 hours.  Within a week, 14 deaths were recorded in a two day period. 
The Registry of Deaths for the city showed a sad pattern.  The deaths became so frequent that the registrar began using the term ditto instead of the individual listing of cholera.  This shorthand was replaced with the simple symbol of “ as the death toll mounted.  Most of the deaths were those with Irish surnames living in the Acre, though many others passed as well.  Following the register day by day the disease can be traced down streets-  Fenwick, to Adams, to Suffolk, to Lowell to Cross.  Husbands died followed by wives.  The disease was especially hard on children and siblings who may have shared beds.  The surnames on the Registry of Death read like a litany- Quinn, Kelly, McDonald, Denihy, Donnelly, Harrington, Kelley, McNulty, Cassidy, McCabe, Doyle.  That represents 3 days with many of the names often repeated to include spouses and siblings.  Lowell's premier Irishman, Hugh Cummiskey, was not spared the devestation that spread its effects over the city.  His only son dies at age 8 in the middle of the plague.
Richard Duhig died of cholera
in the 1849 epidemic, St Patrick Cemetery
Why did cholera affect the Irish more than the rest of Lowell’s population?  Cholera was highly contagious and easily transmitted by food or water contaminated by the feces of those who had already contracted the disease.  It led to severe stomach cramping, dehydration, and severe diarrhea. Those who used canal water in the home or to dump waste into the canals helped spread the disease.  Pigs ran rampant in the Acre eating whatever they could find, dropping their feces.  Horse manure might lie on the street creating a breeding ground for germs. Visitors to the Acre often complained of the squalor.  It was believed that the disease could be spread by inhaling putrid fumes.  Living conditions were substandard with many people living in tight quarters, creating the perfect environment for contagion.  Children ran through the streets barefooted. Though there were wells for clean water even in the Acre, they may have been infected by the unsanitary conditions.   Probably the most prevalent factor for passing the disease was that many families shared the same toilet facilities and flushed waste into gutters.  The term “privy reaper” was well known.
The year 1849 was extreme for its deadliness.  There were outbreaks before that and after.  Slowly people became more educated about sanitation and preventative health care.  While the cry of cholera might bring alarm to those in the 19th century, there were a myriad of other diseases which they knew well could take their lives- typhus, influenza, even measles.  Life in the 19th century was predictably rough- and brief.

* After writing this entry I came upon a note about Patrick Heeren.  While others did run at the notice of cholera, Patrick was known to enter the homes of those infected and nurse them.  He lived another 40 years and is buried in St. Patrick's Cemetery.

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