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Plague on the prairie
The cholera epidemic of 1833 and its impact on one Illinois town


Thirty-eight-year-old Frances Ellis suffered but a few hours before succumbing to the dreaded disease that Jacksonville, Illinois, citizens prayed would spare their small town.

The disease was cholera, and before the summer of 1833 was over, about 50 of Mrs. Ellis' friends and neighbors, plus her two young children and a niece, would die.

Mrs. Ellis' husband, the Reverend John Ellis, was traveling when his family died and did not find out about their deaths until he returned. Ellis, a Presbyterian minister and missionary, was one of the founders of Illinois College, located in Jacksonville. Mrs. Ellis was one of the leading women in Jacksonville at the time; she was a founder of a local women's social organization and a private school for young women. Mrs. Ellis school grew to become the Jacksonville Female Academy, one of the first schools for the higher education of women west of Ohio.

Illinois College Professor Jonathan Baldwin Turner described the deaths of the Ellis family members and the mood of the citizens of Jacksonville in a letter he wrote to his future wife, Rhodolphia Kibbe, in Connecticut, on August 28, 1833.

"Mrs. Ellis ... a lady of rare accomplishments, was taken sick one afternoon, and died before six o'clock. She had two little children; one was taken at one o'clock that same night, and died before morning; the other, and a niece, Miss Conn, a beautiful young girl of eighteen, died soon after. Mr. Ellis was away at the time, and when he returned he stopped at the church to attend prayer meeting before going to his home. As he entered the door he heard a friend praying for their 'stricken pastor so suddenly bereft of all his family.' He fell to the floor as if he had been struck by a butcher's ax. Immediately after this, forty-seven families, and as many single persons as could leave, fled."

Cholera was just one of the many diseases that pioneers such as the Ellis family had to battle in nineteenth-century America. Cholera, is a severe, epidemic disease spread when people swallow food or drink, usually water, contaminated with bacteria from a cholera patient or carrier. The disease causes profuse vomiting and diarrhea, which lead to rapid dehydration and, without treatment, death.

The 1833 cholera epidemic in Jacksonville claimed three-fourths of the Reverend John M. Ellis' family. His wife, Frances, and their two children, John and Frances, died from the disease and are buried beneath this marble headstone in Diamond Grove Cemetery in Jacksonville. Initially, their bodies were buried in the Illinois College Cemetery. They were moved to Diamond Grove sometime after that cemetery opened in 1868. The bodies of most of the other local cholera victims are probably buried in Jacksonville East Cemetery, the city's oldest public cemetery.

Cholera was probably the most terrifying of the diseases nineteenth-century Americans faced. It struck its victims without much warning. William McPheeters, a physician who treated patients during the 1849 St. Louis epidemic, wrote that the symptoms were "vomiting freely with frequent and copious discharges from the bowels; at first of slight bilious character, but it soon became pure 'rice water'; cramps in the stomach and lower extremeties and tongue cold; skin of a blue color and very much corrugated; urinary secretions suspended; eyes sunken and surrounded by a livid hue."

Some histories claim that India is where cholera, sometimes referred to as Asiatic cholera, first assumed epidemic form, in 1817. It is believed to have first arrived in America in 1832 and again in 1833, 1834, 1848, 1849,1850,1851, 1852, 1854,1855, and 1873, when it made its final appearance in North America.

The 1833 Illinois outbreak actually began in the summer of 1832 when federal soldiers from the east were recruited to help fight the Black Hawk War. That spring the disease, carried by Irish immigrants, broke out in Quebec and slowly made its way to New York City. Troops passing through the northeast were infected and brought the disease with them as they traveled the Great Lakes corridor to Fort Dearborn (Chicago). By the time they arrived the Indian war was over but the pestilence proved a much more formidable—and deadly—foe.


Notice of Governor Ninian Edwards' death from cholera, Sansamo Journal, July 27, J833.

Once in Illinois, the disease moved down the Mississippi Valley. The Illinois Patriot, Jacksonville weekly newspaper, reported on cholera attacks in several Illinois towns, including Quincy, Carrollton, and Galena, and attempted to allay the fears of local residents.

Following the deaths of Mrs. Ellis and her children on July 19 and 20, James G. Edwards, owner, editor and publisher of the Patriot, tried to calm his readers.

"Every requisite attention has been paid to the sick," Edwards wrote. "We hope our country friends will not place dependence on any exaggerated statements they may hear, concerning the ravages of the disease in this place, as the effects may be very injurious. Our accounts, thus far, may be depended on; and, should we be spared, we shall continue to give correct intelligence in regard to this subject."

The "intelligence" the Patriot had shared up to that point was that 10 people had died in Jacksonville in the previous three weeks. The first local cholera death, the Patriot reported, was a man named John Barber, a miller from the now extinct town of Middletown Mills near Exeter in Morgan (now Scott) County, who had been brought to Jacksonville.

Estimates vary greatly, but Edwards' published figures for Jacksonville's population and the number afflicted with cholera probably are the most reliable. On August 10, 1833, Edwards wrote that, according to Jacksonville physicians' estimates, from 200 to 300 people had contracted cholera in Jacksonville, out of a total population of 1,300. And of those 200 to 300 residents, 34 had died. Apparently many other residents, maybe as many as 600 or 700, fled Jacksonville to escape the cholera's grasp.

Two weeks later, the Patriot updated its list of cholera casualties and brought some encouraging news. "The Cholera—No new case of this disease has occurred in Jacksonville since our last publication. There have, indeed, been two deaths by Cholera, since last Saturday morning, but they were of some days standing. We have now every inducement to believe that this destroyer of human life has taken its flight, at least for a season, from this place." On August 24, 1833, the number of cholera victims in Jacksonville stood at 47.

Most histories of Jacksonville fixed the town's final toll from the disease at 55, but some accounts say as many as 100 people perished. The 1833 cholera outbreak also killed about 50 residents of Quincy and an estimated 33 people living in Carrollton, in nearby Greene County.

No official record of the number of cholera deaths in Illinois is known to exist. Death records were not required by law until much later in the nineteenth century, and newspapers rarely ran obituaries in those days.

Fortunately, Jacksonville and Morgan County histories recorded the efforts of two Jacksonville citizens who risked their lives to come to the aid of stricken neighbors, and also helped to bury those people they could not save.

Cabinetmakers John Henry and James Anderson both helped nurse the sick and prepared the dead for burial. Henry later wrote: "I was in every house where there was a death. I took fifty-three myself to burying ground and had them buried in a plain, raised lid cherry coffin."

Anderson added: "When a person died the measure of the body was sent us and we made the coffin out of cherry wood and lined it with domestic, but it was very seldom that any attempt at any ornamentation was made."

Henry and Anderson became revered citizens for their valiant efforts during the crisis. By their actions, they showed they had a strong sense of community responsibility and selflessness. Henry's leadership abilities carried him to service in the Illinois House of Representatives, the Illinois Senate, and to Congress. Anderson remained in Jacksonville, and continued to serve the community as a highly skilled cabinetmaker and undertaker until his death at age 88 in 1899.

The kindness shown by Henry and Anderson are even more remarkable when compared to the cholera account penned by Truman Post, another Illinois College professor at the time.

"The distress of the town was extreme. Society was not then knit together by acquaintance and mutual kindness. The people, gathered from all quarters, had not coalescense enough for mutual helpfulness. The wild, vague terror of a disease, regarded as contagious and killing with fearful rapidity, kept men aloof from each other. Families were isolated in mutual quarantine, and doors and windows were seen by one passing along the streets, thronged with pale and tearful faces, sometimes with the sick, who had no one to minister a cup of cold water ... Human society almost disintegrated by mutual fear ..."

Perhaps the most vivid contemporary account of the Jacksonville cholera epidemic was recorded by Professor Turner, who had come to Illinois College just a few months earlier to teach Latin and Greek.

Writing to Miss Kibbe on August 28, 1833, Professor Turner described the grief-stricken community. "From this time the daily yea, the hourly
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The first pandemic

Asiatic Cholera, a disease born of the micro-organism Vibrio cholerae, existed in India centuries before it appeared in the United States. The Hindus called it mordechim, or bowel death, and there are documented reports of its devastation in Jakarta, Indonesia, as early as 1503. Surprisingly, the pestilence maintained a geographical quarantine until the 1830s, when it first visited Europe with a vengeance. In 1831, Paris alone lost more than 18,000 citizens to cholera, when an epidemic broke out during the carnival season.

Cholera first appeared in London in January 1832 and quickly made its way to Wales and Ireland. Once it reached the seaports of Liverpool and Dublin, the disease was destined to cross the Atlantic.

Cholera arrived in Canada on April 28, 1832, on board the Constantia, a clipper ship that had sailed from Limerick, Ireland. Of the ship's 170 passengers, 29 died from the disease and were buried at sea. Three other cholera-infested ships arrived soon after, the worst being the Carricks, which sailed from Dublin in May with 145 passengers, and arrived in Montreal on June 3. Nearly a third of its passenger list had been wiped out by cholera. But that was only the beginning. With no effective quarantine in place, the plague soon worked its way down the Great Lakes corridor.

America had plenty of warning but little defense for the disease. By the winter of 1831, teams of physicians in Massachusetts and New York were meeting independently to discuss how their communities could prepare for cholera. But without the scientific means to identify the cause or a cure, they could only await its inevitable arrival.

Cholera attacked on several fronts. On June 6, 1832, the Liverpool ship The Brenda arrived in Baltimore, reporting 14 deaths from cholera at sea. From there the pestilence moved up and down the coastline. The first reported cholera death in New York City occurred less than two weeks later. Soon, 100 deaths a day were being reported in the city According to one account, "cartloads of coffins rumbled through the streets" and "dead bodies lay unburied in the gutters." Citizens, eager to escape the disease, clogged the roads leading to the countryside, where they hoped to leave the scourge behind. The opposite was true, for they took it with them.

By August the disease had run its course in New England and was working its way south and west. Steamboats carried the plague down the Ohio and Mississippi rivers to New Orleans where it caused a panic. Again, flight seemed the only escape. According to one source estimated 15,000 of the Crescent City's 50,000 residents left New Orleans in a matter of weeks, virtually shutting the city down. Nevertheless, before the scourge left it had claimed 5,000 lives.

The Black Hawk War brought the cholera epidemic frontier Illinois. Federal troops under the command of then-Major General Winfield Scott passed through the Great Lakes corridor on their way to the front in June of 1832, and were transported on steamships previously used to transport Irish immigrants, many of whom were infected. By the time the troops reached Fort Dearborn on the southern shores of Lake Michigan, cholera was raging and an interim hospital had to be set up.

Sergeant James C. Steele, a soldier with U.S. Mounted Rangers during the Black Hawk War, kept a diary of his experiences. In August 1832, he made a supply trip to Chicago and saw ''the ded boddys of the soldiers laying along the shore of the Lake, that had died of the chora (cholera)." Presumably the corpses had been thrown from the steamships and washed up on shore.

Less than a month later, the disease made its way to the headquarters of General Scott's army at Rock Island. On September 1, Scott wrote to Secretary of War Lewis Cass: "The great calamity of our times has come upon the troops on this Island. The Cholera has raged among them. Since the 26th ulto, 146 individuals have taken the infection; 26 have already died, 22 are convalescent, 6 have been cured, and 92 remain sick. Of the latter, more than 60 are slight cases. From a personal inspection of every individual who has been in hospital, from the beginning down to sun-set to day, I am happy to say, that the disease is evidently checked and mitigated. We shall probably not lose 20 men more."

Scott was optimistic. His subsequent fears of bringing "disease and death upon those who vanquished the public enemy" were realized before the year was out.

Although the epidemic faded that fall, cholera returned the following summer and this time invaded the countryside. In July 1833, it reached Belleville, where former Illinois governor and amateur physician Ninian Edwards tried his best to comfort the sick and dying. Edwards himself contracted the contagion and died on July 20, 1833, the same weekend as Frances Ellis and her two children (see feature story) succumbed to cholera in Jacksonville.

In Springfield, residents waited for the inevitable. An editorial in the June 22, 1833 Sangamo journal prepared them for the worst. "We can no longer, with any degree of propriety, expect that our location, at a distance from any large streams, will secure us from a visitation by the cholera. It becomes our citizens to be prepared to meet it. All experience proves that the disease is within the control of medicine, if properly and timely administered. The 'destroying angel' may come upon us at a day and an hour for which we have made no preparation—and which may then prove fatal."

Two weeks later the "destroying angel" arrived in Springfield, brought by a visitor from Buffalo, New York.

—William Furry


report, was 'He is sick,' 'He is dead,' 'He is buried,'" Turner wrote. "To meet a man at night and attend his funeral in the morning has ceased to alarm, much less to surprise. Some die in three hours, seldom do they live twelve, and very rarely twenty-four. As I have walked through the streets in the evening, I have seen through the windows and doors the sick and the dying, sometimes four or five in the same room in a log hut, some on the bed, others on the floor, and perhaps one or two sorrow-smitten beings crawling from bed to bed to give a cup of water or to brush away the flies. On every face was written 'Woe,' and on every doorpost 'Death,' and on not a few 'Utter desolation.'...For some weeks not a soul was seen approaching from the country, except here and there a man on a horse upon the full run for The doctor! The doctor! For Heaven's sake, sir, can't you tell me where is the doctor? My father is dying, my wife is dead, and my children are dying.' ...All this came to be answered at last by a stupid stare, or a shake of the head, or perchance, 'They are all sick.' For, at one time, out of eight or ten doctors not one could be had.'

A healthy doctor probably couldn't have helped anyway. The medical world in 1833 had little idea what caused cholera and therefore wasn't quite sure how to treat it.

One physician who studied the Jacksonville epidemic was Dr. Anson G. Henry of Springfield, and he put forth some unusual theories about how the disease was spread. He visited Jacksonville in August 1833 and wrote back to the Sangamo Journal, the weekly newspaper in Springfield, that he was "satisfied that moral causes (had) more to do in spreading cholera than physical (causes). Dr. Henry also criticized the people who ran from the disease, writing that "those who have been constantly exposed to its influence by their acts of humanity, have almost invariably escaped."

Asiatic Cholera made its final U.S. appearance in 1873 but the specter still haunted New York ten years later, as seen in this cartoon, which urged health officials to foe vigilant.

In a rebuttal sent to the Journal, an unknown Jacksonville resident challenged Dr. Henry's claim that the moral climate of Jacksonville spread the disease. The person acknowledged that while psychological factors could cause some diseases, only physical factors were at work in Jacksonville. "The timid and the bold, the temperate and the intemperate, the moral and the vicious — none, none, can claim exemption from this liability."

Some people, including many doctors, believed at the time that cholera somehow originated from the decomposition of animals or vegetables and was transmitted through the air.

To prevent the disease, doctors recommended that decaying food be removed and that lime be thrown into privy pits and sewers once or twice a week.

Among the "medicines" doctors prescribed for treating cholera were calomel pills, a powder used for intestinal worms; laudanum, a solution of opium in alcohol; powdered rhubarb; hot tea of sage, balm or thoroughwort; brandy in warm water; and teaspoonsful of pulverized charcoal mixed with brandy.

Professor Turner, in fact, wrote that he administered laudanum, tincture of red pepper in alcohol, and brandy to a very sick Illinois College student. The young professor said that he doubled and even quadrupled the doses he gave the student. "I will either kill or cure him at once," wrote Turner, who eventually cured the student of his cholera ailments.

One of the nearly five dozen Jacksonville residents who couldn't be saved was a seven-year-old boy named Alexander Carson, the son of Thomas and Catharine Carson and the first male child born in Jacksonville.

The Jacksonville cholera epidemic of 1833 lasted more than eight weeks, but its tragic consequences, according to historian Don H. Doyle, left a long-lasting mark on the community, leaving it with a reputation for being "sickly" and possibly costing it a chance at landing the state capital.

For further reading on cholera:

Medical Care in Pioneer Illinois, by John K. Crellin. Published by The Pearson Museum, Southern Illinois University School of Medicine, Springfield, 1982.

The Life of Jonathan Baldwin Turner, by Mary Turner Carriel, University of Illinois Press, Urbana, 1961.

"Asiatic Cholera in Central Illinois, 1834-1873," by Milo Custer. Published in the Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society, Volume 23, No. 1 (April 1930).

American Physicians in the Nineteenth Century, by William G. Rothstein, The Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore and London, 1972.

The Conquest of Cholera, by J.S. Chambers, MacMillan Company: New York, 1938.

The Cholera Years, by Charle E. Rosenberg, University of Chicago Press: Chicago, 1962.

Greg Olson is a Jacksonville resident who writes for the Jacksonville Journal-Courier. Mr. Olson served as the assistant to the executive director of the Illinois State Historical Society from 1994 to 1998.


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