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CHOLERA EPIDEMICS IN GIBSON COUNTY


By Roy P. King.

Cholera

Of the thousands of victims of Asiatic cholera, which was intermittently prevalent in the United States from 1832, when it first appeared in New York City, until the last epidemic, which occurred in 1873. Gibson county perhaps paid as large a toll of lives as any county in Indiana, with the possible exception of a few more thickly populated districts along the Ohio river. Twice in the history of the county has this dreaded scourge prevailed with fatal results. First in the summer of 1852. when a total of more than eighty deaths occurred, and again in 1873. when twenty or more victims were claimed by this disease. In each of these epidemics the death rate was extremely high and but a small number of the stricken recovered. In some instances almost entire families were wiped out of existence.

The awful carnage of war. the frightful harvest of death, due to disturbances of the elements, appalling industrial disasters, all bring sadness and gloom to a community so affected and leave deep and lasting impressions, but no message so terrorizes the heart of man as the whispered word that a certain and almost surely fatal plague is stalking over the land, dealing death, surely and quickly, on every side. The cry of fear dies on the lips, faces are blanched by the agony of the hideous thought and eyes look into eyes with indescribable horror at the mere mention that the dreaded contagion has manifested itself. Fear and suspicion enter the heart and mind and each one looks with fear and dread upon every other person, any one of whom may be infected with the pestilence. The conduct of business and the pursuit of pleasure cease and everywhere throughout the horror-stricken community there is that manifestation of gloom and sadness which an inevitable calamity alone can produce. In some homes already blighted by the contagion, often the living members of the family must bury their dead unassisted, and the only hands outstretched to them in aid and sympathy are from those men and women endowed with the heroic virtue to rise above the common level in times of greatest need. The pages of history are embellished with the noble deeds of such men and women, but other unknown thousands reap no such reward of fame. Of this great army of heroes and heroines. Gibson county, in its times of greatest stress, furnished an ample number. They entered the cholera stricken homes, cared for the living, gave burial to the dead and asked nor received reward, except that which comes from the consciousness of a noble deed well done.

In these latter days. when medical science and research and the modern methods of quarantine and disinfection have made possible the complete eradication of Asiatic cholera and many other contagious and infectious diseases, there is less to fear, though cholera is still numbered among the plagues for which there is no known specific remedy. However, it has lost its former horribleness to humanity by the certain knowledge that it is an infectious and not a contagious disease. This was discovered as late as 1884. In 1873. when the second epidemic occurred in Gibson county, cholera was still believed by physicians to be contagious.

First mention of Asiatic cholera is found in the early Sanscrit and Chinese writings, but the first notation in history was made in the sixteenth century, when it raged in India, where it has since been endemic. In 1817 it was contracted by the English soldiers in India and spread to China, Prussia, Germany and Russia. It reached England in the spring of 1832, appearing in London.

Cholera in North America

In June, 1832. cases were reported in Montreal, Canada, and in July of the same year the first deaths occurred at New York. In the following few months the epidemic spread to other Eastern cities, including Philadelphia, Baltimore and Charleston.
From Montreal the epidemic traveled westward along the great lakes and down the Mississippi valley. There is no record of it having claimed any victims at that time in Gibson county.

The second epidemic followed in 1845, emanating from the Tartary coast, reaching the United States in 1845 and followed the same course through the country, along the principal high and water ways. Strict quarantine enforcement in New York City stopped its spread at that point, but New Orleans. Louisiana, where it was also prevalent, had no such quarantine facilities and the scourge crept slowly up the Mississippi and Ohio river valleys. In 1849 Louisville, Kentucky, and Cincinnati, Ohio, were visited. At the latter place the death rate was extremely high, one hundred and sixty being recorded in one day.

Cholera in Gibson County

Cholera lingered throughout Ohio, Indiana and Illinois during the next four or five years and made its first appearance in Gibson county in the summer of 1852. At that time the Wabash and Erie canal was in progress of construction about seven miles southeast of Princeton. In this work two or three hundred Irish immigrant workmen were employed. The workmen were housed in temporary camps and little thought was given to cleanliness and sanitation, a condition most favorable for cholera and other diseases. Within a few days after the cholera made its appearance a number of deaths resulted and when it had run its course, in less than three weeks, an estimated total of eighty had succumbed.

Following the first outbreak a majority of the men fled from the vicinity and excitement in the community was at fever heat. Victims of the disease were left lying for days before being given burial and it was almost impossible to secure men to do this work. A few of the Irish workmen stayed with their stricken friends and these few braved danger by burying the bodies in long trenches near the reservoir. All trace of their last resting place has now disappeared. Some few bodies were taken to Vincennes by friends, for burial in consecrated ground. A number of those who remained behind to care for the sick and dying gave up their lives.

Besides the foreign workmen there were also a few deaths among residents of the community, including one man and his wife who voluntarily ministered to the stricken canal workmen.

Meager accounts are given in the newspapers of that day of attacks of cholera in Princeton and one death, that of a man named Woods, is believed to have resulted from its effects. Little details of the tense excitement which must have prevailed were recorded by the press, but it is known that the people in general kept away from the infected district for weeks. The epidemic was of short duration and the excitement must have subsided in a short time.

Cholera Outbreak in 1873

The second visitation of cholera in Gibson county occurred in the summer of 1873. vivid recollections of which still remain in the minds of many older people. A small epidemic had occurred in the Eastern states in 1865, but in 1873 cholera again got a firm foothold in the South and traveled up the Mississippi valley. It became epidemic in Evansville and Mt. Vernon. Indiana. Cairo and Carmi, Illinois. Paducah. Kentucky, and many deaths occurred and it is from one of these infected places that it is believed to have spread Princeton.

Residing at the corner of Spruce and Ford streets in Princeton was Mrs. John Seabrooks. an aged lady, who for a living did washing. It is supposed she became infected with the disease from the clothing of some person for whom she washed, and who had been in some infected territory. Mrs. Seabrooks lived alone and one morning was found by her daughter lying on the floor of her room, in the last stages of what physicians pronounced to be cholera. She died a few hours later.

The news of Mrs. Seabrooks' death spread rapidly and excitement ran high in Princeton. For weeks residents lived in dread, but no other cases developed in the town.

Lack of proper sanitary measures, however, did not prevent infection from this one case. Instead of burning the clothing and bed clothing of Mrs. Seabrooks. they were taken to Indian creek, about three miles northeast of Princeton, where they were washed in the waters of the creek, thus infecting the water.

Near this creek lived the family of Henry Weatherly. consisting of husband and wife and five children, and Indian creek was the source of their water supply. How thoroughly the water was infected is shown by the fact that but one child. Margaret, then about two years old. survives. The other members of the family succumbed in the space of a few days.

Though Margaret Weatherly was the sole survivor of the family, yet she was the first to be attacked by the disease and it is the belief that her life was saved by a mistake on the part of her mother. For several weeks the father had been suffering from stomach trouble and had been taking morphine to ease the pain. A few days following the pollution of the stream Margaret was suddenly taken ill one morning and the mother, not realizing the deadly effects of morphine, gave the child the same sized dose the father had been accustomed to taking. The child grew worse and a physician was summoned from Princeton. By the time he arrived the mother had also been stricken with cholera and was writhing in its agonies. Margaret was in a stupor from the effects of the morphine, but by persistent efforts on the part of the physician, was kept from passing into the sleep of death, until the cholera attack, which was probably light, passed away and she gradually recovered. The mother, however, continued to grow worse and died early in the evening. Her death was followed the same night by the death of two other children and before morning Henry Weatherly, the husband, was stricken.

Nearby lived the families of John McDaniel, Robert Boswell. Mrs. Elias Pearson, a sister of Henry Weatherly. and James Carithers, a brother of Mrs. Weatherly. All these relatives and neighbors put aside their fears and gave aid to the ill-fated family. Henry Weatherly, soon after he was taken sick, together with the now remaining three children, was removed to the home of James Carithers. where Mr. Weatherly died a few hours later.

No other deaths occurred for three days and in the meantime the victims had been buried. The bodies were cared for by Mrs. John McDaniel. Mrs. Pearson and her daughter, Emma. All these soon sickened and died. Robert Boswell. who buried the bodies of Mrs. Weatherly and her children, also became a victim.

The next deaths to be recorded were those of two of the three remaining Weatherly children and four deaths in the family of Jesse Weatherly, a brother of Henry, who lived farther down Indian creek, the wife and three children being taken. All of these deaths occurred in less than ten days following the death of Mrs. Seabrooks in Princeton.

Excitement in the Weatherly neighborhood was at fever heat. Farmers stopped work in their fields and stock was allowed to suffer for lack of attention, livery one felt that the dreadful plague would not be checked until all were taken and families dumbly waited, watching and dreading to see who would be the first of their loved ones to be stricken. The infected neighborhood was shunned by those living outside and farmers drove for miles out of their way to and from Princeton, traveling by other roads than those which passed through the neighborhood. In the prevailing belief that the disease came out of the ground, vegetables and fruits were not eaten and gardens were allowed to go unattended throughout the summer. Not until cool weather arrived did the fear which possessed the people subside to such an extent that they resumed their natural vocations and mode of living.

Physicians took what steps they could to keep the disease from spreading and. though they believed at that time that cholera was contagious and not merely infectious, they adopted the right means to stamp out the epidemic. Quantities of lime were sprinkled in all cellars, outhouses and damp places. Drinking water was boiled before being used and people were instructed to keep their doors and windows open and get as much fresh air as possible. More recent knowledge of cholera discloses the fact that the physicians could not have done better service had they known as much concerning cholera as is now known. Their service deserves high commendation, because they were then fighting against greater odds than would obtain at this time.

Fourteen deaths are known to have occurred in the Weatherly neighborhood in less than two weeks, and many older people declare that, including the death of Mrs. Seabrooks in Princeton, there were sixteen victims. Another small epidemic occurred in the vicinity of Wheeling, on the Patoka river, about eight miles northeast of Princeton. Five deaths are known to have resulted in a family named Hartwell and one or two more persons, names unknown at this time, are said to have died. The Hartwell home was burned, together with its contents, to check the spread of the disease. These deaths occurred at about the same time that cholera was raging along Indian creek.

The known total of deaths in Gibson county during the cholera epidemic of 1873 is twenty, but it is very probable that there were a few more. It was by far the worst epidemic of any disease which ever visited the county. Smallpox and other contagious and infectious diseases have claimed many more victims in the course of years, but these epidemics were not considered in such a serious manner.

Great credit reflects upon the physicians of Princeton and other towns in the county, for their brave service during the two cholera attacks. Though they had every reason to believe the infested homes were veritable death traps, they did not flinch in their devotion to duty, and fearlessly visited the stricken and did all in their power to ease their sufferings. In the present day a physician would go into a cholera-infected home with the positive assurance that he was running no risk, if proper measures were taken to ward off infection, but that knowledge has come since the last visitation of the disease in Gibson county.


In 1852 the practicing physicians of Princeton included Drs. W. W. Blair. J. J. Pennington. V. T. West. Andrew Lewis. Willoughby Walling. Hugh Patten, George B. Graff and W. G. Kidd. It is probable that all of these physicians were active in treating the cases.

The physicians of 1873 included Drs. W. W. Blair. S. E. Munford. John Malone. V. T. West. James C. Patten. Richard Smith and others.

Of all the physicians named in the foregoing lists. Dr. W. W. Blair is the only one surviving at this time (1914). Having passed through both epidemics. Doctor Blair is thoroughly familiar with the conditions which prevailed and recalls many startling, as well as some amusing incidents which occurred. In each epidemic he treated a number of cases of cholera.

One of the most tragic incidents of the epidemic of 1852 occurred in a family by the name of Ritzie. When the epidemic was at its height. Mrs. Ritzie was suddenly stricken and other members of the family were also showing indications of having contracted the disease. Mrs. Ritzie died before a physician could be summoned, but a man on horseback was sent for Doctor Blair, and it was after nightfall when the physician arrived at the Ritzie home. The messenger would not go near the plague-stricken house and Doctor Blair approached it alone. There were no lights in the house and a knock at the door brought no response. Doctor Blair entered the house and in the light from the dying embers in the fire-place a gruesome sight met his gaze. Upon one bed in the room lay the body of the wife and mother. Upon another, laying crosswise, with the head almost touching the floor, was the body of Mr. Ritzie. death having come but a short lime before the arrival of Doctor Blair, and upon the same bed. totally unconscious of the terrible tragedy which had been enacted about her. lay sleeping the little daughter. Margaret Ritzie, about six years old. Rousing the child from her slumber. Doctor Blair carried her from the house, mounted his horse and with the child in his arms rode to a neighboring house where he sought entrance. When the circumstances were learned, admittance was refused and the Doctor was almost forced to fight his way into the home so great was the fear of contagion. After much persuasion the family was prevailed upon to care for the little girl until she could be placed under the care of relatives. Margaret passed through the terrible experience without contracting the cholera, and later in life became the wife of Peter Hoffman, of Ft. Branch, where she is living at the present time.

In the epidemic of 1852 much trouble was experienced in procuring burial for the bodies of the unknown victims and in a number of cases bodies were found in isolated "shanties" along the canal, several days after death. In one instance the body of a man was found, so badly decomposed that no attempt at burial was made. The torch was applied to the building and the remains incinerated.

Persons who were known to have been in the infected district were shunned by their friends and neighbors for weeks following, and such fear of them was manifested that in some cases suffering resulted. This was especially true in regard to the Irish workmen who remained in the vicinity. They were not permitted to approach other persons.

An amusing incident has been related, showing that even though the Irish immigrants passed through a terrible experience, it did not dull their fun-loving disposition, if the occasion presented itself. The bodies of the more devoutly religious who died during the scourge were, in some instances, taken to Vincennes for burial and on one occasion several friends started to Vincennes with the body of a comrade. The coffin containing the remains was placed in a one-horse cart, very common at that time. Passing through or near Princeton the members of the funeral party could not resist the temptation to drown their sorrows with a few drinks, and when later they resumed their journey happiness had taken the place of grief. But little attention was paid to the cart as they walked by its side and all went well until they reached a point a few miles north of Princeton, when the sudden realization came to one member of the cortege that the cart was empty. The corpse had disappeared. Search was instituted and on a hillside a mile or more back, the coffin was found lying in the road where it had slid from the cart in going up the hill. The unfortunate victim was reloaded and eventually reached his final resting place at Vincennes.

Another amusing occurrence happened in Princeton during the epidemic of 1873. A few days following the death of Mrs. Seabrooks. an itinerant German butcher, who was accustomed to periodical sprees, suddenly fell on the sidewalk on the west side of the public square one morning. The cry was immediately raised that he had been attacked with cholera and for the next few hours the poor fellow was given a wide berth. However, the effects of his "jag" soon passed away and he sobered sufficiently to go home. Such an incident as this, while amusing, serves to illustrate the fear entertained by the public at large.

Henry Blumm. a well known farmer residing south of Princeton on the old state road, is the only remaining member of a family which died from the effects of the cholera epidemic of 1852. His father and two or three brothers and sisters were victims and were buried on the farm which was situated near the old Wabash & Erie canal, south of Francisco. Mr. Blumm was a baby at the time and has no recollection of any member of his family. He was taken and raised by a neighbor.

One death is known to have occurred in Owensville during the first epidemic, it being that of a Mrs. Whiteman. of Princeton, who was visiting at Owensville. She was stricken during the night and lived only a few hours.

C. R. Howe, one of the older residents of Princeton, was living at Owensville at the time of Mrs. Whiteman's death and was sent to Princeton to notify relatives of her death. Mr. Howe declares that Princeton was in a condition of great excitement due to the death of a man named Woods, from the effects of cholera. Mr. Howe came no farther than the end of the Evansville & Crawfordsville railroad (Chicago & Eastern Illinois), which was in process of construction. A crowd was gathered waiting for the arrival of a train from Evansville. After looking at the first railroad train he had ever seen. Mr. Howe returned to Owensville. being afraid to stay longer in Princeton on account of the cholera.

>In 1873 Gibson county was not the only locality to suffer greatly from the disease. At Mt. Vernon and throughout Posey county the epidemic was prevalent. Hundreds fled to higher points away from the river. Albion, Illinois, was a refuge for a great number and they remained until the scourge had spent its fury. Other cities along the Ohio river also suffered greatly, including Cairo, Illinois, Paducah and Henderson. Kentucky, and Evansville. At the latter place, however, the death ratio was not large.

For the most part the people of Princeton, fearing the disease, stayed at home and families kept as much to themselves as possible. But little business was transacted.

In the preparation of this article the writer has endeavored to record only well established facts concerning the two epidemics of cholera which visited Gibson county. The incidents related are largely reminiscences of people who passed through them, or have data in support of the authenticity of the incident related. A number of other stories concerning deaths, privations and the excitement which prevailed have not been recorded because they were unsupported by any reliable data. In many cases, names of persons and families mentioned are correct, so far as the memory of some old resident is not at fault. Every effort has been made to guard against errors of this nature. The desire of the writer is to perpetuate only the truth and keep fresh the memory of those upon whom honor and glory reflects. Incidents concerning the conduct of any person or persons which cast any other reflection are best forgotten. No doubt these occurred, but it is just as true that buried in the forgotten history of the past are many stories of heroic bravery and sacrifice, enacted by men and women whose names are forgotten by mortal man, but whose deeds are recorded by Him who "doeth all things well." They have received their reward.

Source: History of Gibson County, Indiana : her people, industries and institutions. Indianapolis, Ind.:
B.F. Bowen & Co., 1914.

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