“The Ghost Map” by Steven Johnson tells the story of the most severe outbreak of cholera in London’s history and one determined man’s efforts to analyze the outbreak. That man was Dr John Snow. The date was 1854. In the study Dr Snow mapped the location of each victim and interviewed family survivors, if any. At the time, health officials believed that cholera was spread by “ill humours”. London was notoriously known for its bad air and odors due to its dense population and lack of sewage management. Bacteria were unknown. Yet Dr Snow identified the one common factor of the victims – the Broad Street public pump. He effectively stopped the cholera outbreak in Soho by removing the pump handle on the contaminated well. Although his hypothesis was not well accepted for another twenty years, Dr Snow determined indirectly that cholera was spread by contaminated water and is credited with the development of the epidemiological method.
On Saturday evening 21 Apr 1855 at about nine o’clock, Capt Joseph MC Calhoon died. The cause of death was described as “attacked with Cholera or Cholera Morbus” in a letter from WH Turner, Esq to Mrs Joseph MC Calhoon. Capt Calhoon took ill near the mouth of the Missouri River. He tried to return to his family in Georgetown, PA but only made it as far as Alton, IL. His body was taken to St Louis by local Free Masons and later transported to Georgetown, PA by relatives. More details of Capt Joseph MC Calhoon’s death are found in the page – The Body.
In a letter written by Dr Isaac H Harriott II dated 15 Jul 1855, another incident with cholera took place. On 5 Jul in Keokuk, Dr Harriott booked passage on the str Ella bound for St Paul. Before the str Ella reached Montrose, IA two deck passengers had died of cholera. Permission to bury the two victims was denied by local health authorities on 6 Jul 1855. According to Dr Harriott, the two men were put into one box and buried about two or three miles from Montrose, IA on 7 Jul.
The same incident of cholera in Montrose, IA was described in Capt Adam Poe’s River Experiences. Cholera was so feared that Capt Adam Poe could not hire local laborers to load freight onto the str Ella. The disease was terrifying. A victim would lose up to five gallons of water a day, leading to a rapid painful death from dehydration. Capt Adam Poe’s opinion of Montrose on a scale of criminal to fair-minded was made clear. According to Capt Poe’s recollections, the steamboat carpenter made two rough boxes. The men were buried on a low island in the Mississippi River.
There was no Dr John Snow like person on the Mississippi in 1855. But it is not unlikely that these two incidents on the Mississippi, separated by four months and a hundred miles of water, had a common factor like the town well in Keokuk or another river town. Today contaminated water is still a serious worldwide problem. One estimate indicates that more than 100,000 deaths a year are caused by cholera infections.
Copyright © 2012 Francis W Nash
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