The Year is…1853

by James Rada, Jr.

Cholera Kills Dozens in Emmitsburg

In July 1853, Emmitsburg residents started getting sick and dying. According to James Helman’s History of Emmitsburg, the first victim was an African American, named Isaac Norris.

Helman wrote, “…he was taken early in the night in a stable and died there; black men attended him, not knowing the disease; whether the doctor did or not, I am not prepared to say. Suffice it to say, he died during the night and was buried in Dr. Patterson’s field.”

Five people died during the first week as officials tried to determine the cause. They realized it was cholera, an intestinal infection. The most common symptom is a lot of watery diarrhea that lasts for days. The diarrhea can lead to severe dehydration and electrolyte imbalance. These symptoms can result in sunken eyes, cold skin, a wrinkling of the hands and feet, and bluish skin.

The cause of cholera is often unsafe water or food that has been contaminated by the bacteria. Poor sanitation and insufficient clean drinking water often led to cholera outbreaks in the 1800s.

The Gettysburg Compiler reported that 45 people in town and the surrounding area died. Victims included Dr. A. Taney and his wife; Joseph Moritz; Mrs. Agnew, a resident in the Eagle hotel; Rev. Thomas McCaffery; George Mentzer; and Samuel Morrison, according to Helman.

Rev. Thomas McCaffrey was a professor at Mount St. Mary’s College. The Story of the Mountain notes “…when the cholera broke out, he went to visit some of his former parishioners and townsmen who were taken down. He caught the disorder and died at the College, a martyr of charity, the glory of the Mountain village. Strange to say, his death was the only one on this side of Tom’s Creek.”

Besides the dying, many people were left sick and in a weak condition.

Some people tried to downplay the severity of the problem. A resident wrote a letter to the Adams County Sentinel saying, “Emmitsburg and the country around are as healthy as they ever were, fully as healthy as any other place in the Union.” The writer also tried to find other explanations of why people were dying, noting that George Mentzer had a stroke and Agnes Brown died of dropsy.

As the outbreak stretched into August, it became obvious that Emmitsburg had a problem.

Those who weren’t sick tried their best to help those who were sick. The Emmitsburg Chronicle noted in a 1951 article that the Rev. G. W. Aughinbaugh of the Reformed Church “evinced no small degree of courage and self-sacrifice in ministering to the suffering during its entire course.”

The Lancaster Daily Intelligencer reported on August 23, “A physician recently returned from Emmitsburg states that during the prevalence of the Cholera at that place, of which nearly forty persons have perished, but which is now abating, the water of several wells was found to be deleteriously affected, and also that a number of lower animals, reptiles, etc, have been found dead.”

“It continued dry the entire summer and very hot until the middle of September, when a very severe thunderstorm passed this way, drenching the earth and washing the surface as it had not been for many months. After this rain, no new cases occurred,” Helman wrote.

Helman notes the problem was in the well water and that once the town started relying on mountain water, such problems were overcome.

In early September, the Adams County Sentinel reported, “There have been no cases of cholera here for two weeks. Our town is very healthy at present, and most all of those who had left have returned. There were about forty-five deaths in all—town and country—from the commencement of the disease till the decline.”

The Chronicle noted in 1911 that the cholera epidemic was “instrumental in reducing our population from 700 to 350.” It was a drop in population that the town didn’t recover from until the early 1880s, according to U.S. Census data.

Cholera Bacteria Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

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