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When the Cholera Plague Swept Dayton

This article appeared in the Dayton Daily News on March 8, 1931



By Howard Burba


     “They died like flies!”

     It’s an expression as old as the hills themselves; an expression that has been used from time immemorial to describe violent or wide-spread epidemics of disease.  From the earliest scourge of Biblical days, down through the yellow fever peril of the ‘eighties to the influenza epidemic during and immediately following the World War, our only means of describing the violence of such catastrophes has been to declare that “they died like flies.”

     Figuratively, the expression covers the vast cholera plague which swept the whole of the United States in 1849.  Insofar as it affected the city of Dayton, historians mention it but briefly.  A half-dozen lines are devoted to the statement that quite a few deaths were recorded here, though excitement was intense.  The truth of the matter is that for a period of six weeks residents of Dayton in 1849 were swept away by cholera a the rate of eight, 10 and 15 a day.  And that rate was maintained not only for a single week but for more than an entire month.

     It is difficult to appreciate the wild and exciting scenes that attended that plague because it is hard to realize that this community has not always been blessed with the modern methods of  battling disease that now exist.  To fully understand what a scourge of any kind meant 32 years ago we must try to visualize a little settlement of but a few thousand souls, without a railroad, without a yard of street paving, without a sewage system, without a hospital, without an ambulance, without a board of health, without quarantine regulations, without vaccine serums of any sort, without a trained nurse and with not many more practicing physicians than could be counted on the fingers of two hands.

     In wet weather the streets of the town were little more than miniature seas of mud.  There was no adequate drainage system, and the site of homes and business houses now high and dry in even the most violent rainstorm were in those days but little removed from swamps.  We have come a long way in the matter of prevention and cure since at the opening of the year 1849 reports began to reach Dayton of the fast spreading scourge over the southern states.

     There had been in 1833, a visitation of cholera within the settlement.  Before it had abated 33 lives had been claimed.  Everyone recalled that, too, with a shudder, though a merciful fate withheld from them the knowledge that before the year ended they were to witness a scourge that would make that one of 1833 pale into insignificance.

     First reports of a cholera epidemic sifted in from New Orleans.  Belated mail messages brought news of its spread to Memphis and on up the Mississippi river to St. Louis.  Late in January news from the east carried occasional reference to cholera deaths in New York city. Like a prairie fire, creeping slowly, seizing upon new fuel as it constantly extended its onward march, it crept to Pittsburgh and leaping across the Ohio river spread terror to settlements east of Columbus.

     It was not, however, until along in May that Daytonians became aware that if they were to escape the plague it would be nothing short of a miracle.  Deaths from the disease were reported in Springfield, and then it seemed that, almost over night, it had the city of Cincinnati within its grasp.  On May 15 copies of a Cincinnati paper reaching Dayton told of the sudden death of Judge C. H. Brough, of that place.  He was one of the best known men in his section of the state, and his passing was a signal warning that the cholera fiend was no respecter of persons.

     On May 11 the Cincinnati paper announced officially that the number of cases for the week ending with that date was 114, of which 32 had died.   “The Board of Health, now in session,” read the brief but tragic report, “announces 33 new cases and three deaths since yesterday.”

     “Maysville, Ky.-There were 10 new cases of the plague here yesterday.”

     “Louisville, Ky.—We report four new cases yesterday and one death.”

     And so the terrorizing dispatches ran, with no part of the south and east escaping.  The weekly Advertiser, upon which Daytonians of that date largely depended for their news of the outside world, did not “play up” these dispatches.  To find them it is necessary to search with keen eyes the most remote columns of the paper.  There was enough fear in every heart already without augmenting it by streamer headlines, of grim-faced gothic type.  One can, without the slightest stretch of the immagination, picture between the lines of those early papers the agony that had found a place in every local home.

     Then, in its issue of May 22, The Advertiser, under a single-line head, and that exceedingly small, carried this statement:

     “A death from cholera occurred in this city on Friday last.  William Munday, age 19, son of Mr. Benjamin Munday, residing at the corner of Sixth and Jefferson sts., died on that day after having been confined to his bed about 12 hours.  He came here from Cincinnati a day or two before his death, laboring under a severe attack of diarrhea which continued to increase until it assumed the form of cholera and terminated in his death.

     “We learn that an elderly man (we do not recall his name) residing in that section of the city known as Frenchtown, was also attacked on Friday night.  He, too, had returned from Cincinnati with the symptoms of the disease in his system.

     “We do not mention these cases with a view to exciting unnecessary alarm—but on the contrary to prevent it.  The report has gone abroad that there is cholera in Dayton and it is to remove the false impression which such a report is calculated to produce that we allude to the subject.  The cholera does not prevail here as an epidemic at present, and it is proper that the public should know it.  The above are the only cases that have occurred, and in both instances the disease was contracted away from here.  The general health of the city is as good now as at this season of the year and as yet there is no cause for alarm.  It becomes our citizens, however, to be exceedingly cautious and temperate in their habits.  They may do much, if they will, to protect themselves from the disease.  If all unwholesome meats and vegetables are abstained from, unnecessary exposure avoided, and if personal cleanliness is strictly observed there is good grounds to believe this community may escape the ravages of the disease.  But if people will show them -selves utterly reckless in regard to these things, giving unrestrained indulgence to their appetites and propensities, when they know a direful pestilence is hovering around us, they must not be surprised if they are suddenly made to feel the bitter consequences of their rashness and folly—their willful, inexcusable foolhardiness.”

     The good offices of the editor, however, went for naught.  Fear continued to mount.  And then on the morning of June 19, Dayton awoke to a realization of the fact that she was not to escape the pestilence.  Two more deaths and two new cases of cholera were reported.

     J. A. Kline was at that time running a hotel and boarding place known as the Kline House.  It was well patronized, especially by the working class.  Heavy rains had caused an unhealthy condition to arise in the rear yard of the place, so Kline ordered one of his employes—he also kept a livery stable in connection with the hotel—to dig a trench from the stable, down through the yard, with a view to draining off the water.  Kline himself directed the work.  That same night he was seized with an illness from which he died the following morning, and the employe passed away a day later.

     This, apparently, was the origin of the cholera outbreak here in 1849.  Within a week from the time Kline died six people, all residents or boarders at this place, had succumbed to the disease.

     John J. Pearson, a merchant, from up in Shelby co. came to Dayton to do some shopping, in company with his wife.  They stopped at the Kline House for dinner.  He was stricken with cholera enroute to his home and died before morning.

     William Hall, a blacksmith living on the Eaton pike, had spent the previous night at the hotel.  Two days later he was dead.  And then we find this comment by the editor of The Advertiser:

     “It is most important that our citizens clean up their premises and give prompt attention to cholera symptoms.  Since our issue of last Saturday there heave been several deaths and a number of new cases of the disease, most all having been residents of Kline’s hotel.

     “The number of deaths among the inmates of this house and travelers who stopped there from Wednesday to Saturday was six.  Every fatal case in the city has occurred among those who, either as boarders or travelers, had eaten or lodged in this ill-fated house.  A woman boarder removed to the Independent engine house is expected to die at any moment.  Efforts are being made to close up the hotel.”

     Then we have a picture of the excitement through which all this section of the state was passing.  Cincinnati residents, anxious to escape the disease, were flocking to other centers of population, and since Dayton was at that time connected with the Queen City by canal, the influx was especially heavy.  An Irish family named Turner bought tickets on a boat to Dayton.  The woman was taken suddenly ill, and the boat held at Hamilton while she was given medical attention.  Next day the boat proceeded on to Dayton.  Mrs. Turner died within a few hours after being carried from it at the canal landing.

     Hurriedly the physicians of the town assembled to discuss the situation.  They decided upon the immediate formation of a board of health.  This was done, and on June 20 the organization began functioning with these members: George B. Holt, president; J. Kinney, H. L. Brown, R. A. Kerfoot, S. B. Brown and M. G. Williams.  The city was divided into six zones for preventive work.

     Dayton had no hospital, but did boast an orphan asylum, maintained and operated by a group of charitable women.  They tendered the orphanage to the city as a hospital for the care of cholera cases, and it was accepted.  At the same time the board of health made provisions for securing a wagon and team to be used as an ambulance for the speedy removal of every new case of the disease to the hospital.

     “Cincinnati, June 22—Number of cases in Cincinnati for the 24 hours ending Tuesday was 61.    
     “Nashville, Tenn.—Twenty-three new cases of cholera have been reported here within the past 24 hours.”

     So seeped in word from the outside, and so terror here arose.  That the disease was making a successful attempt to gain a foothold here is shown in the first official report of the board of health.  No more pathetic story can be written than these figures unfold:

     “June 22—Three deaths.

     “June 23—Three deaths.

     “June 30—Five deaths.

     “July 24—Eight deaths

     “July 1,2—13 deaths.”

     There was no other topic of conversation.  There was no other prayer on the lips of Daytonians save that for deliverance from the scourge.  Everything else was forgotten; the black shadow of the plague hung heavy over every doorstep.  Not even crime could divert the attention of those who feared the cholera more.  Far down in a corner of a copy of the old Advertiser we find these few lines:

     “We learn that a woman in Fairfield was most inhumanely murdered by her husband yesterday morning.  He cut her throat and then attempted to cut his own but did not injure himself seriously.”

     Today it would have been a streamer-line story.  Then it was of no significance.  There was a more terrible fate than murder—and it had Dayton in its grasp.

     Elijah Crist, prominent citizen and an employe of the old Howard factory on Rubicon creek, just above the Patterson farm, went home from work in the late afternoon.  Next morning he was dead.  Aaron Osad, Robert L. Hagan, Jeremiah Tritt, Barnhart Speck, Daniel Stutsman and J. N. Fasnacht had their names added to the same casualty list.  The mortality among infants was especially great.

     On July 10, The Advertiser apologized for a scarcity of news in its previous issue.  It was explained by the fact that its editor and several employes of the plant had been seriously ill.  No deaths among the members of the newspaper force were reported, but in the same issue there appeared for the first time what was to become a regular department—a list of the dead and the place of their interment.  Let us take it for the first six days in July, that we may secure an idea of the way Dayton was capitulating to the plague:

     “July 3—Burials at Woodland, 2; Catholic cemetery, 6; Old Graveyard, 3.

     “July 4—At Woodland, 2; Catholic cemetery, 5.

     “July 5—At Old cemetery, 4; Catholic cemetery, 2.

     “July 6—At Old Cemetery, 5; Catholic cemetery, 2; Woodland, 1.

     “July 7—At Catholic cemetery, 2; Old cemetery, 2; Woodland, 1.

     “July 8—At Old cemetery, 3; at Woodland, 2.”

     There is chronicled a total of 112 deaths in the city between the 18th day of May and the ninth of July, an average death rate of two a day for a period of 50 consecutive days.  And this does not include rural residents who, contracting the disease in Dayton, died and were buried outside the corporation lines.

     Dayton history holds no more pathetic appeal than that issued over the signature of George B. Holt, president of the board of health on the 17th of July, 1849.  It reads:

    “ Many seem to think that since a board of health has been appointed and a hospital provided they have nothing to do but give notice to some member of the board that some individual has been attacked, and that then all their duty and responsibility rests with the board.

     “In several instances the board has been urged to remove suffering citizens by force from their own homes and families to the hospital.  The board has no such power, and if they had would not exercise it.  The hospital is provided for the stranger, the poor and the friendless.  We do not and dare not make our official characters an excuse for neglecting our duty to these and we anxiously instruct one and all of our fellow-citizens, when their neighbors are attacked, to hasten to their relief.  Wait not even for a call, and when called, refuse not to obey.  Volunteer your services.  By so doing you may save the lives of your friends and neighbors and receive in return the assurance and kind offices of others when, no matter how indifferent you may now feel, you may need help yourself.”

     Mayor John Howard came forward with a proclamation setting aside the third Friday in July as “a day of fasting, humiliation and prayer.”  He insisted that on that date every form of industrial activity cease throughout the entire day.  He ordered all stores closed, and all city and public offices locked against the transaction of business.  He appealed to the ministers of the city, and the churches were thrown open at daybreak that constant prayer might be indulged in for the entire day.

     Hundreds knelt in the street and prayed.  Ministers stood in the front doors of the churches urging pedestrians to pause for a brief moment of supplication.  But once since has there been a similar picture in Dayton; but once since has there been such a union of voices raised in appeal to a Higher Power.  That was during the agonizing hours attending the flood in 1913.  And yet the cholera epidemic of 1849 had a higher casualty list than was recorded in 1913.

     You may or you may not believe in the efficacy of prayer.  You have a perfect right to your own opinion.  But if you are numbered among those unfortunate enough not to believe in it, maybe you can find evidence in the cholera epidemic of 1849 to give you cause for thought.  That day of prayer was observed on July 22, and at a time when the death toll from the scourge was running all the way from 5 to 15 a day.  On the 12th day of August—less than three weeks later--the last victim had been claimed and the pestilence had passed away.

     As each day came and went and no new deaths were recorded, men and women doubled their energies to restore those who still were suffering from the disease.  Slowly but surely they were nursed back to health.  The early days of September found the city completely free of cholera or its symptoms.  But the scars were left for years on the heart of everyone who had passed through the siege.  There has not been a similar visitation since.  The prayers of the descendants of those who prayed on that July day in 1849 are that there never will be.