Historians often cringe when the word “unprecedented” is used to describe current events like the COVID-19 pandemic. While many aspects of the pandemic are new, devastating diseases are not new to the world, nor to the American experience. In 1793, Yellow Fever killed 10 percent of Philadelphians, forced President Washington’s government to evacuate our first capital, and wrecked its economy for years to come. When cholera swept Cincinnati in 1849 Harriet Beecher Stowe lost her youngest child. It stretched her faith to the breaking point, yet she prayed that her loss might be used for the greater good. Three years later her prayer was answered with the publication of her anti-slavery novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin.
Her Cincinnati years prepared her to write the best-selling novel of the century. Cincinnati was the Gateway to the West for immigrants. For fugitive slaves crossing the Ohio River, it was the passage to freedom. But Cincinnati was also a breeding-ground for cholera, which comes from water-borne bacteria. After Calvin Stowe lost his first wife to cholera, Harriet befriended the lonely professor and the two were married.
Harriet wanted to be an author, but with a growing family she struggled to find time to write. So she hired help for several hours a week. Some of the women she hired were former slaves. Harriet always thought slavery was wrong but now, for the first time, she heard first-hand accounts from survivors whose children were sold away. Harriet could scarcely imagine their grief at this cruel separation.
Until cholera came to town in January 1849. It started among the poor. African Americans and immigrants often lived in cramped quarters, with poor sanitation. They suffered disproportionately then as now.
But by late spring the disease was spreading. Calvin was out of town, so Harriet wrote often. Doctors were getting “used up,” she said. There weren’t enough hearses to haul away the bodies, so farm wagons and furniture trucks were used. On the streets people burned coal fires, laced with lime and Sulphur to combat the miasma. One hundred and sixteen people died in a day. Although the mayor proclaimed a day of fasting and prayer, the bars were so packed that drinkers went out to the streets and imbibed next to coffins awaiting transport.
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SOURCE: Christian Post, Nancy Koester