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Americans once believed the Irish caused cholera


A day after the holiday on which most everyone pretends to be Irish, the notion of anti-Irish bias seems more laughable than a Mike-and-Pat joke.

But in 1849, with Springfield enduring a cholera epidemic that killed about 75, anti-Irish sentiment lurked just beneath the surface of the reporting of Springfield’s newspaper, The Republic.

Of course, the paper didn’t have to name the ethnic group to which victim Clayton Shannon belonged. Most guessed that.

And everyone understood that when the paper said an Irishman found at McCarroll’s “grocery” before being taken to the hospital, it meant he had not gone there for groceries, but for drink.

Nor was there reason to treat as anything more than factual the news that railroad workers stricken with cholera in the “Deep Cut” near where the Ohio Masonic Home would be built were mostly Irish.

Finally, amidst the wave of Irish immigration following the potato famine, all Springfielders knew the Irish to be prominent among what the paper called the “class of people … particularly subject” to cholera who might have brought the disease here while traveling the National Road.

In the 1830s, when nearby New Carlisle lost 33 people to the disease, “many Americans believed that cholera was caused by the Irish,” Alan M. Kraut, a professor of history at the American University writes in a chapter of the book, “The New York Irish.”

During that earlier epidemic, John W. Scott, a professor of natural philosophy at Miami University in Oxford, pronounced that cholera was well suited to doing the wrathful work of God because it “hunts out with extraordinary precision the abodes of vice, the haunts of intemperance, debauchery and every moral and physical pollution.”

“Not since the flood has the Earth been swept by so universal a scourge … a divine judgment upon men,” he pronounced in a lecture called “Cholera: God’s Scourge, the Chastisement of Nations.”

Among the national sins that brought the plague to America, Scott listed slavery, the treatment of North America’s aboriginal citizens, intemperance, extreme political partisanship and a failure to keep the Sabbath holy.

Although their sinfulness might have been less easily treated, Springfielders felt they’d dodged the disease that had descended on New Carlisle by avoiding uncleanliness.

Beers’ 1888 History of Clark County reports the city tried to keep cholera at bay by organizing to “purify the streets and alleys.”

In his 1922 “A Standard History of Springfield and Clark County,” Benjamin Prince also writes: “At a meeting of the town council July 13, 1832, it was decided to enforce cleanliness and there was a day of ‘fasting and prayer’ observed by many.”

By 1849, some attitudes toward cholera had changed, said America University’s Kraut.

Most people on the Eastern Seaboard had come to believe the disease “had less to do with the Irish and more to do with the issue of uncleanliness and lack of urban sanitation,” he said.

“But cholera’s still equated with the poor,” he added. “Every disease has its politics.”

So did the Republic.

Because the early deaths came among “the colored population” and the Irish, the newspaper identified the cause of the deaths as “gross imprudence.”

The cases would have been avoided “with anything like decent cleanliness and care,” it said. “So far as we can learn, every death has been an absolute suicide.”

When the Republic stuck to its position through the subsequent deaths, the Urbana newspaper criticized it for failing to report the truth in an effort to keep its businesses humming.

Although the Republic’s editors bristled, two things eventually required them to change their tune: First, reports arrived of a larger outbreak in Cincinnati, where 8,000 would die; second, cholera brought down Springfielders from a class the Republic’s editors respected.

Among the dead was David King, whom the paper had said “by industry, economy and business tact” had advanced himself “from the position of a friendless orphan child … to the possession of a large fortune which was rapidly increasing.”

Editors also mourned the passing of Cyrus Williams, chief engineer of the Mad River and Lake Erie Railroad, who had succumbed after arriving by rail from stricken Sandusky.

Historians say rail routes linking Ohio’s cities contributed to the spread of cholera in 1849, the very year the Mad River Lake Erie Road would link with the Little Miami in Springfield to provide service connecting Sandusky and Cincinnati.

By Aug. 10 The Republic was admitting that cholera “has thrown everything out of gear” in its own operations, causing sickness among workers and carriers.

“We must therefore beg indulgence for our shortcomings of all kind,” the editors said.

The outbreak seemed to subside as September arrived, ending the time when Prince said “business was dull and all were melancholy.”

Caused mostly by ingestion of water tainted by human feces, cholera remained a problem in the United States until the 1880s, when water filtration systems struck a blow against cholera. Eventually, municipal water systems added chlorination to kill water-borne germs.

The history of cholera offers little in the way of smiles.

But there is this: After fleeing north from cholera-riddled Cincinnati, the people who arrived in the Hamilton County hamlet of Mount Pleasant renamed it Mount Healthy, a name that continues to keep cholera on Ohio’s historic map.


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