Reminiscences of the Cholera

By Thomas Frost

It is now more than sixty years since the strange and mysterious visitation, as it was then considered, known as the cholera morbus, for which fearsome name that of Asiatic cholera has since been substituted, made its first appearance in this country, or anywhere west of the Ural Mountains. Coming first from India, from the banks of the Ganges and the Indus, the dread pestilence moved steadily westward and north-westward until, creeping along the rivers of Russia, and desolating all the most considerable towns of that country, it reached St. Petersburg. There it raged with fearful severity, mowing down as with the scythe of Death more than a thousand persons daily. So dreadful were the features of the unknown malady, and so rapidly were its victims carried off, that the ignorant populace of the capital attributed it to poison administered by the doctors. A fearful tumult was excited by this belief, and it was with great difficulty that it was suppressed.

From Russia the dire disease spread rapidly into almost every country in Europe, and wherever it appeared created the profoundest awe and the most bewildering terror. In Paris it broke out with extreme malignity in March, 1832, and soon raged there with greater virulence than it had exhibited in any other city in Europe except St. Petersburg. The deaths soon reached from four to five hundred daily, and during April they rose to a total for the month of twelve thousand seven hundred. It was hinted that the ravages of this new and dreadful disease were caused by the poisoning of the meat sold in the markets and the water in the public fountains; and the dwellers in the slums became so infuriated by this horrible and absurd rumour that mobs perambulated the streets howling for vengeance on the poisoners. Many unfortunate persons were murdered in the streets on being denounced as the perpetrators of these imaginary crimes, and so paralysed was the arm of justice by the influence of terror that nothing was done to vindicate the majesty of the law. Everyone who could afford to leave Paris fled from it with precipitation, and the city was abandoned to desolation and anarchy. The legislative labours of the two Chambers were suspended, and the peers and deputies were the first to set the example of flight, though Louis Philippe and his family continued to reside at the Tuileries, with an occasional sojourn of a few days at Neuilly.

I have a vivid recollection of the mingled awe and terror which this fell disease inspired when it was announced that it had crossed the sea and made its first victims in this country. It had made its way across the continent from town to town on the banks of the great rivers, but into England it was imported by sick sailors. Many generations had passed away since anything like a pestilence had been known in England, and the cholera therefore created a panic among all classes of the people, which served to augment its virulence and render those of a nervous temperament more liable to be attacked by it. Doctors were utterly unacquainted with its proper treatment, and indeed had no knowledge whatever of the disease. Hence it raged without check wherever it appeared, and the rapidity with which it carried off its victims added to the terror inspired by its approaches. The first death at Lower Norwood, where my parents then resided, was that of the pastor of the Independent Chapel, situated only two doors from my father’s house. He died in a few hours from the time he experienced the premonitory symptoms, and such was the dread of infection that the corpse was buried the same night by torchlight, in the burial-ground of the chapel, wrapped in a sheet coated with pitch.

Though a period of seventeen years separated the first cholera epidemic from the second, the lessons which the former should have taught had not been so well learned as they should have been, and the latter, with which these reminiscences are chiefly concerned, inspired a wild, unreasoning terror in only a little less degree than that of 1832.

I remember a case at Mitcham, in which the women attending a patient were seized with a panic on the approach of death, and rushed out of the house, leaving the poor wretch, a woman, to die alone, the corpse being afterwards found rigid and distorted.

The apparently erratic manner in which the disease spread, sometimes carrying off victims from one side of a street and sparing the other side, sometimes smiting every member of a family in one house, and passing over all the other houses in the same street, was a puzzle to persons who had given no attention to the causes of the disease, and were content to regard it as a sign of the wrath of God, reasoning about the matter as little as did the Israelites whose relatives were swept off at Kibroth-hattaavah. They had not given sufficient attention to the laws of health to understand that the disease found its victims where those laws were neglected, whether from carelessness or from ignorance.

I remember two cases at Croydon in which all the inmates of the houses in which the disease manifested its dread presence were carried off by it. One occurred in a cottage in St. James’s Road, one of a row which had originally been level with the road, but had become overshadowed by the approach to the railway bridge. There were three victims in that house, and no other case in the same row, or in the neighbourhood. The other case occurred in King Street, one of several narrow, closely-built streets in the centre of the town, and the victims were a widow and her only child, the latter dying not alone, for, like Byron’s Haidee,—

 “——she held within
A second principle of life, which might
Have dawned a fair and sinless child of sin;
But closed its little being without light,
And went down to the grave unborn, wherein
Blossom and bough lie withered with one blight.”

A remarkable incident occurred while the fell disease was in the full swing of its ravages. The wife of a working man living in the Old Town, a low-lying and densely populated quarter, was attacked by it, and at once removed to a temporary hospital that had been established on Duppas Hill, a tabular eminence overlooking the town, and in the thirteenth century the scene of the tournament in which the son of Earl Warrenne was by misadventure slain. There her husband went, on his return from labour, to ascertain her condition, and heard with a shock which the reader may imagine that she was dead. When the poor fellow had in some degree recovered from the blow, he expressed a wish to see the corpse and take it to his home. He seems to have been unable to realise that his wife was really dead, though the nurses and doctors assured him that she had passed away. The idea that life yet lingered in the form that was apparently lifeless grew upon him as he gazed and though he may never have read “The Giaour,” he may have felt the force of the thought so finely expressed by Byron in the lines that introduce his picture of the Greece of his day:—

“He who hath bent him o’er the dead,
Ere the first day of death is fled,
The first dark day of nothingness,
The last of danger and distress
(Before Decay’s effacing fingers
Have swept the lines where beauty lingers),
And marked the mild angelic air,
The rapture of repose that’s there,
The fixed yet tender traits that streak
The languor of the pallid cheek,
And—but for that sad shrouded eye,
That fires not, wins not, weeps not, now,
And but for that chill, changeless brow,
Where cold Obstruction’s apathy
Appals the gazing mourner’s heart,
As if to him it could impart
The doom he dreads, yet dwells upon;
Yes, but for these, and these alone,
Some moments, aye, one treacherous hour,
He still might doubt the tyrant’s power;
So fair, so calm, so softly sealed,
The first, last look by death revealed!”

Whether it was feeling or reason that inspired the thought that life yet lingered in the apparently inanimate, but not yet rigid form, which the loving husband conveyed to his humble dwelling, it was undoubtedly to that inspiration that the woman owed her preservation from death. For she was not dead. Signs of returning animation were perceived when the supposed corpse was placed upon the bed, and the neighbour women who came in to perform the last sad offices for the dead were there to welcome her on her return to life. I will not attempt to describe the feelings with which the husband beheld the eyelids of his wife unclose, and the rose-tints return to the pallid cheeks. Like the Greek painter who, conscious of the inadequacy of his art to fully portray the grief of Agamemnon for the loss of his son, covered the countenance of the old king with a veil, I draw the curtain upon the scene, and leave it to the imagination of the reader.

Among the remedies for the cholera which came into vogue during the prevalence of the epidemic of 1849, the rubbing of the stomach with brandy and salt obtained a considerable degree of repute; and the chemists vied with each other, as in the recent epidemics of influenza, in the concoction and advertising of various cholera mixtures, one of the most efficacious of which was a preparation of opium and chalk.

The lessons of the cholera were not so entirely neglected on this occasion as they were after the epidemic of 1832; but it is a sad reflection on our legislation that we were indebted to the ravages of disease, or rather to the fear inspired by them, for sanitary reforms which ought to have resulted from foresight. There had been sanitary inquiries by Royal Commissions between 1842 and 1849, but little had been done towards carrying out the recommendations which resulted from them. The existence of cholera in India, and the causes which produced it, had long been known; but so long as its ravages were confined to the people of that country no one seemed to think that it concerned the people of England. It was known, too, that whatever might be the true causes of zymotic diseases, concerning which medical opinions differed, accumulations of filth, contaminated sources of water supply, and an impure condition of the atmosphere tended to produce their outbreaks, and to aggravate their virulence. But then we had been used to these evils since the days of the Plantagenets, and though they had become intensified with the increase of population and the growth of the large towns, had not Malthus taught us that epidemics of disease were one of the means used by divine providence to prevent the numbers of the human race from exceeding the means of subsistence?

The cholera epidemic of 1849 roused the public mind from its lethargy, and prepared it to act upon the recommendations of the General Board of Health and to comply with the Sanitary Act of that year. The old wells of London were closed, and the like course was adopted in Croydon, where a constant supply of practically pure water was obtained by boring down to the chalk. Other towns followed the example, one of the foremost being Birmingham, which received a supply which enabled the inhabitants to dispense with the insalubrious rain-water butt. Sewerage works were undertaken where no efficient system of drainage had before existed. Attention was called to the important questions of sewage disposal and the pollution of rivers; and though much even now remains to be done in this direction, and in the improvement of the water supply of the large manufacturing towns of Yorkshire and Lancashire, sanitation has been cleared of most of its difficulties by better knowledge of the philosophy of cause and effect, so that we no longer regard the calamities resulting from our own ignorance and neglect of the laws of nature as the inflictions of Providence.