|The Cholera, a deadly illness that is acquired through the ingestion of a specific type of bacteria, was misunderstood for decades. Finally understood to have been spread through contaminated food or water, its symptoms included vomiting and diarrhea. Death, which could occur within three hours of the time of infection, was inevitably caused by dehydration.
from the Chicago Tribune, January 11, 1864:
That disease has committed great ravages in Chicago. It first made its appearance here in September, 1848, and frightened the people so much that they left the city very rapidly; still population showed a steady increase as immigration set in very strongly in this direction; the number of deaths was nearly three hundred per cent larger than in the year preceding – cholera was credited with 681 of the number It reappeared in July of 1850, and during that and the two succeeding months the people died rapidly. In August of next year it came again with still increasing virulence, and, continuing its ravages for two months, disappeared. July of ’52 saw the cholera fiend again at work, and his stay was of longer duration. He remained four months. The year 1853 passed away without a visit from him and the people breathed more freely. It was believed that the scourge had gone to his own place, and, the population almost doubled under the lightened pressure. But in June of 1854, as if anxious to begin his work as early as possible, the demon reappeared, and reveled in the destruction he caused. A few scattering cases had been noted in April, but they were denied by the city press, and everybody seemed determined for once to disbelieve in the recurrence of the awful visitation. The Board of Health persistently denied it till the 7th of July, although the mortality had been doubled in the previous month. But saw that now concealment was useless. The people died at the rate of sixty per day, and the death cart was seen continually in the streets. On Friday and Saturday, the 8th and 9th of July, the streets seemed full of hearses and coffins, and on Sunday there was a grand exodus, many hundreds of people fleeing from the city. Then the true nobility of nature shone out in all its glory. Some three or four physicians, of whom are now living in the city, devoted themselves to the work of treating the dying, and unappalled by the death stroke which fell all around them, worked almost without cessation; their labors were fearful, but they had their reward in seeing the plague diminish its virulence, and in receiving the thanks of a grateful people. The deaths occurred so rapidly that at first no accurate account could be taken of them. The interments in the first week of July were 242, in the second week 252, of these about three-fifths were credited to cholera, though there can be no doubt that the proportion was much greater. Of these 494 interments, only the names of 315 could be collected. In the remaining half of the month the deaths were 437 – total for July 931. In the following month the number of victims was reduced to 731, and in October 159; the total death record for those two months was 966, large in itself, but scarcely greater than the month of July. The disease was driven from the city in the early part of November and has not since been seen in our borders.
It is worthy of remark that the disease was chiefly confined to immigrants, of whom large numbers were attacked and died almost immediately on reaching the city; this accounts for the fact that the names were only partially obtained.