In the summer of 1832 Asiatic cholera made its appearance in the west, and was especially severe in St. Louis. It, however, failed to reach Marion county that year. The cold winter of 1832-3 it thought had destroyed all the germs of the dread pestilence and when the spring, of the latter year came on but little apprehension was felt by the people of this county that the fearful scourge would visit them.
At that time there was no such thing as sanitary restriction thought of by the authorities of Palmyra, then the only town in the county under municipal regulation and organization. Filth abounded nearly everywhere. Privies were built carelessly, and from three-fourths of the back yards and gardens of the little town there came a fearful and disgusting stench. The spring branch was a receptacle for dead carcasses and a hot-bed for the generation and propagation of disease.
In May of this year a few cases of cholera, occurred along the Mississippi, and a negro died at Hannibal. On Sunday, June 2, there was a religious meeting down on Cherry Run, near the river. Among those who attended was Wm. Smith, of Palmyra. The next day after his return home he was stricken down and died in a few hours. The doctors in attendance pronounced his disease genuine Asiatic cholera. The news spread rapidly, but while there was some apprehension there was no serious disquietude, and nothing like a panic. The people did not know their danger. But the next day a Mr. Foster, a carpenter, who lived in the country, but was at work in town, died of cholera, and a Mr. Stephens, a one-legged citizen of Palmyra, was attacked and died very soon thereafter. Probably the next victim was the wife of Leven Brown, a hatter, who lived near the present site of Ingleside Seminary. Mrs. Brown died in a few hours with horrible cramps and agonizing pains and distortions. In a few hours thereafter a negro slave died. The dreadful contagion was now well afoot and walked through the town in the light as in the darkness. Soon the plague was general. One citizen after another was stricken down with remarkable rapidity and extraordinary suddenness. He who walked the street at noonday, in all the strength of vigorous manhood, was a writhing, struggling, screaming victim before nightfall, and at midnight was a loathsome corpse.
The physicians of the place were powerless. They were at that time Doctors Frye, Joseph Clark, Thos. P. Ross, Easton, Pollard, Shugart and Sloan. They worked incessantly, night and day, but their efforts were unavailing. All were allopaths and the medicines commonly employed by them in bowel disorders were calomel and jalap. But, inefficient and inappropriate as these may have been, it seemed as if all poor human remedies were of no avail. Two or three of the physicians themselves were prostrated and one of them, Dr. Ross, died. His wife survived him but a few days. Their bodies were buried in such haste that the location was not long remembered, or generally known, and has long ago been forgotten.
In a week or more, so rapid and terrible were the deaths that a panic seized the people, and they began to flee to the country for safety. Nearly all that could, either to the sparse settlements in Shelby or Monroe or far out into the trackless forests of the frontier. But in many instances here they were not safe. The contagion followed and destroyed them. Mrs. Loring, wife of Jack Loring fled to the country and died. Old man Shobe and others perished.
In a few days after the first appearance of the plague Palmyra presented a pitiable sight. The population of the place was only about 600 at the best. So many people had fled, so many had died or were caring for the stricken, that the town seemed to have been deserted and abandoned permanently. The people kept off the street and in doors. Only a physician hurrying along, .a messenger running swiftly, drivers of dead carts and grave diggers about their work could be seen. At all hours of the day and night the screams and shrieks of’ the poor victims, struggling like Laocoon in the embrace of the serpents, could be heard; while on Main Street the hammers of John Pickett and his brother coffin-makers kept up an incessant and ghastly “rat-tat-tat.”
All ages, sexes, and conditions were stricken. Negro slaves, men and women: lawyers, doctors, merchants, business men ; ladies, matrons, and maidens; little children, sweet and pure and innocent. Robert L. Samuels and Benjamin and George Clark (the two latter brothers) all prominent lawyers, died in the same sort of agonies endured by the humblest slaves. The husband stood by his poor suffering wife and sought to give her some relief in her dying tortures and twenty-four hours later died as she had. There were no discrimination’s; no mitigation’s of torture by reason of social condition, race, color, age or sex. Azrael for once was not partial to shining marks, and few indeed were the houses with the blood of the Passover on their lintels.
The operations of the disease were dreadful. The victim was taken with a profuse diarrhea, painless at first. In a brief time cramps supervened in the bowels, soon extending to the limbs. The poor subject now suffered the most dreadful torture until death released him. Sometimes be was insensible for some minutes, before his death.
As soon as he was dead, the victim was buried without ceremony. Within an hour or so after being taken, if the attack was violent, word was sent to the coffin-makers, and work was begun on a coffin often before the stricken patient had reached the second stage of the disease! Quite frequently the bodies were buried close to the houses in which they died, those having charge not desiring to wait for the arrival of the dead carts to convey the corpse to the “cholera graveyard,” west of town, where many were buried. The dead carts went about, with usually a negro slave for a driver, to gather up the corpses of the victims of the pesitilence, and bear them to the graveyard. The cry of the driver was likened to that of those who drove, the dead carts in the time of the great plague in London, and who made their regular rounds through the streets, stopping in front of houses and calling: “Bring out your dead!
By the 15th of June, the contagion began to abate, and by the the 1st of July it had entirely disappeared. During its prevalence in Palmyra, out of a population of about 600, there had died 105 persons, of whom 50 were whites and 55 were blacks. Among those who died were,
- Wm. Smith
- ____ Foster (carpenter)
- _____ Stephens (nicknamed “Peg-Leg)
- Robt. L. Samuels
- the brothers Benj. Clark and George Clark
- Wm. Blakey, Jr
- Thomas Chapman
- _____ Duncan, (potter)
- Samuel Wilson
- ______ Wimer
- _____ Pritchett
- _____ Catron [brother of Justice Catron of Tenn.]
- Richard Chandler
- Joseph Pettis
- Dr. Thos. P. Ross and wife
- _____ Mardis and wife, who lived on Ross Street
- Mrs. Anderson, mother of Thom. L. Anderson
- Mrs. Jack Loring
- Mrs Thos. Wise
- Mrs. Gen. David Willock
- Mrs. John C. Pickett
- Mrs. Geo Winlock (landlady)
- Mrs. Eubanks
- Mrs. Langsdale
- Miss Virginia Lane
- Some died in Winlock’s Hotel, some at Frye’s. three negroes died at Frye’s within ten minutes. One day there were 17 deaths and burials.
Concerning the events of this year, Mrs. Mathews wrote in her journal:
January 1, 1833 —– No very cold weather yet, and at this time warmer than it was at many times last summer. The wheat and grass growing, and seeds of different kinds. I saw lettuce come up as well as ever I saw it in my life. Last season was very cold and dry; there was no rain from 27th of May until the 27th of July, so that the corn that stood did not ripen before the frost killed it, and now it is moulding and rotting so that it seems that our bread will be short another year. There is a great of wheat sown, and it looks well at this time. People are generally healthy, though we still hear of that fell destroyer of the human race, the cholera, very near us.
June 8 —- The spring very dry and warm, until the last of May. Corn came up well and was less trouble than I ever saw. Everything seems to favor us; weather fine. The first day of this month, the cholera entered Palmyra, and who can tell when it will stop or what amount of desolation it will cause? It has been there eight days and about 60 have fallen under its dreadful power. I have not heard of one person that has taken it that has survived, but all have to surrender. It seems to defy any medicine that is now in use. Oh, Lord~ stop its progress, if consistent with thy will, for all diseases of our body and mind are subject to thy might and all-conquering power. The sun has not shone one whole day for two weeks; cold, rainy weather all the time and waters high.
July 22 —– I haven’t heard of any more new cases of cholera for a week; am in hopes it is done.
September 2 —– Dry and warm; no rain since the first week in July, more than to lay the dust once or twice. Everything dried up, and the earth like an ash-bank, and the leaves falling from the trees as early as this. Chills and fever current more that I have known for five or six years. A great scarcity of water: the springs all dry in many places.
September 15 —– We had a very fine rain today, the first since the 1st of July. Thank the Lord, Oh, my soul! and every power within me join to praise His holy name, for His mercy endureth forever.
November 12 —– A warm, dry fall, so far, chills and fever common, and the most distressing colds I ever saw, with high fever and sore throats. Last night there fall a shower of lights resembling stars. They came from the east and went towards the west, like snow squalls. The shower commenced about two o’clock and continued until daylight, with the most astonishing splendor; the lights would often numbers of them burst at a time, and streams of the brightest light pour from them, three or four feet in length. From every place that I have heard, these lights have been seen.