After experiencing a cholera outbreak and the Great Fire, 1849 was a difficult year for St. Louis. In addition, the city struggled to keep up with population growth. The U.S. Census shows the population of St. Louis nearly tripled between 1840 and 1850 from 35,979 to 104,978 residents.
On Tuesday’s St. Louis on the Air, host Don Marsh talked with Christopher Alan Gordon about his book, “Fire, Pestilence, and Death: St. Louis, 1849.” The book uses the Missouri Historical Society’s collections of stories from the people who lived through it.
Gordon is the director of library and collections for the Missouri Historical Society. He said the project took years of researching and delving into various publications, including the Daily Missouri Republican.
“You really get the feel of the times,” he said. “You know the city, you know the people; it’s a very intimate way of looking through history. By the time the book was finished, I felt like these people were my relatives.”
St. Louis in 1849
Gordon said St. Louis and the nation went through periods of transitions in the 1800s – such as the industrial revolution and massive waves of immigration from Europe. The influx of settlements was a burden on St. Louis due to the already existing sewer and infrastructure problems.
“One of the things that was most shocking is, when you go through the letters and go through the newspapers, how many times people talk about how filthy the city was. It must’ve just been absolutely horrible,” he said.
The filthy environment led to the city being a prime target of the cholera disease – which broke out shorty before in Europe.
Immigrant ships coming from Europe unknowingly carried the waterborne disease to New Orleans in 1848, which later spread up the Mississippi River.
Due to the lack of knowledge in medicine, it was a common assumption that cholera came from the exposure to “smelly, putrid air.” Gordon said a common practice to combat the disease was to burn things to purify the air, which led to the city setting barrels on fire each night.
While that proved insufficient, a common practice that did help was the serving of tea.
“[Tea] helps because cholera essentially kills through dehydration. You lose all your fluids and you lose them in a short amount of time,” Gordon said. “Despite the fact that there was all this quackery going on … it was simple things like giving people hot tea that would help cure them.”
Official numbers of recorded deaths from the cholera outbreak in 1849 is around 4,500. But Gordon said it is a much higher number, since the recorded deaths did not include those minorities infected or those who had left the city.
While the cholera epidemic was fatal, a fire outbreak which claimed 23 boats and 450 building left “very few fatalities, a handful really,” Gordon said.
He credits the low number of fatalities due to the firemen’s warnings and efforts, despite there not being an official fire department.
“These guys are really the heroes of the city,” he said. “Not only because of the work they did to fight the fire … but most people don’t realize that they also took up the job of caring for people during the cholera epidemic as well.”
Gordon’s book also delves into the history of the city’s racial issues, crimes, “park-like cemeteries” and stories of residents.
What: Christopher Alan Gordon presents “Fire, Pestilence, and Death: St. Louis, 1849”
When: Thursday, March 1, 2018 at 7:00 p.m.
Where: St. Louis County Library Headquarters, 1640 S. Lindbergh Blvd., St. Louis MO 63131
St. Louis on the Air brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. St. Louis on the Air host Don Marsh and producers Mary Edwards, Alex Heuer, Evie Hemphill and Lara Hamdan give you the information you need to make informed decisions and stay in touch with our diverse and vibrant St. Louis region.