King Cholera Visits Milwaukee

Jul. 7, 2016
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A mid-1800s English cartoon depicting how cholera spread in an urban area.

In the mid-nineteenth century, there were few things more dangerous to a burgeoning city than infectious disease. Besides the obvious and deadly implications of a localized outbreak in the US (plenty of dead people), epidemics and pandemics could threaten the economic and political stability of a city.  Even a rumor of sickness in a city – particularly one in the rapidly-expanding American Midwest (known then simply as ‘the West’ – could keep both capitalists and laborers away and stifle growth and development. A city’s capitalists – as well as politicians, newspapers, and boosters – thus had a clear interest in stopping not only the spread of disease, but news of the illness. Milwaukee was not spared from this scourge, suffering through a series of cholera outbreaks between 1849 and 1854. The full scope of these outbreaks remains a mystery to this day.

“King Cholera,” as it was known, was one of the most feared sicknesses of the era. Spread by filthy drinking water or food, it attacked the small intestine and caused severe dehydration. Infected persons would produce up to five gallons of thin, white diarrhea per day. It caused sunken eyes and the loss of fluids often left the skin with a bluish-gray tint. The sickness could linger or kill a seemingly healthy person within hours. In 1849, a major North American cholera outbreak killed thousands in the US – 4,500 in St. Louis, 3,000 in New Orleans, and untold thousands in New York City. Even former president James K. Polk was killed by the disease.

A political cartoon depicts New York City’s efforts to keep cholera from spreading to the city via immigrant ships.

All through 1849, dark rumors of the disease reached Milwaukee from far-off places. With so many people moving in and out of the city every day – so often in large numbers and crammed into wooden ships – most in Milwaukee were merely waiting for the disease to strike. City officials prepared as best they could. Human and animal waste were ordered removed from the streets, a full one thousand wagons’ worth by the end of the March, but perhaps four times that much still laid in plain sight. The newspapers were filled with ads for potions and remedies claiming to prevent or cure the disease. Many were little more than ordinary liquor.

Many locals suspected that cholera would be introduced by someone from Chicago, where the sickness had already taken hold. The many Chicagoans visiting Milwaukee to escape the pestilence of their hometown were viewed with suspicion. When a steward on a steamer bound to Milwaukee from Chicago dropped dead, rumors ran that he was the area’s first victim. It turned out he had overdosed on concoctions said to prevent the disease.

An 18th Century view of the passenger docks on the Milwaukee River. Many feared these docks would be ground zero for the spread of cholera in the city.

Even more suspicion was cast at the downtown river docks – primarily the Erie, Huron, and Detroit street docks where the immigrant ships unloaded. It was there that first cholera cases were finally discovered in early July. After five or six deaths among the new arrivals, the city built bathhouses near the docks. All ships arriving in the city were ordered to remained moored until inspected by a health department official and all arrivals were required to bathe before entering the city. Other areas in which cholera was known to thrive were also targeted.

Despite these efforts, Milwaukee’s cholera epidemic hit just weeks later, breaking out in nearly all corners of the city at once. At the height of the panic, six to seven deaths were reported per day. Carts of the dead, stacked five high, became a regular sight in the city streets as they were pulled to local Potter’s fields for burial. By the end of August, the city reported that 100 people had been taken by the disease, although the real number was undoubtedly higher. Many deaths, perhaps a hundred or more, went unreported and many poor families buried their dead in unmarked graves. In same cases, foul smells led neighbors to discover dead bodies or even entire families in nearby homes. Fear over the disease spread far more quickly. One heartbreaking cases involved a 10-year-old boy dropped at a downtown dock afflicted with the sickness. Unable to enter the city, he remained at the dock with his friends until night, when he succumb. The boys buried their playmate in the muddy earth along the riverside.

By the end of August, just as suddenly as it appeared, the epidemic disappeared. Cholera returned to Milwaukee in 1850, however, with a forced likely even greater than the previous year’s outbreak. Information on the 1850 edition of the pestilence, however, is scarce. True facts and figures were suppressed in an effort to present Milwaukee as a safe and clean place to build a home, start a business, or lay down roots. Milwaukee officials accused Chicago newspapers of grossly misrepresenting conditions to the north in an effort to make their city appear more hospitable. Chicagoans accused Milwaukee papers of the same thing.

Cholera returned to Milwaukee once more in 1854, but not nearly at the levels of the first two outbreaks. The toll the disease took on the city is still unknown, but over one hundred years after its first appearance, a bit more light was shed on the subject in an unexpected way. In April 1951, a crew working to excavate land at the Maryland Avenue School made a gruesome discovery. They uncovered dozens of human bones, some buried as shallow at 18 inches below ground. A little archival digging revealed that the site was once home to the city’s Almshouse, where many of the poor and infirm victims of Cholera were taken. With the city overwhelmed by the need for body disposal during the 1849-50 outbreaks, the Almshouse had resorted to using an unmarked mass grave. Investigation of common council records of the era show that the death toll from Cholera may have been as high as 700 – a number far greater than the city acknowledged publically.

Want to see more sites where the city surreptitiously buried its dead? Hear about that and much more on Wednesday’s MONDO MILWAUKEE boat tour, hosted by Matthew J. Prigge. Get tickets here!

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