The disease known to us as cholera, appeared on the world scene several centuries ago, arising in the countries of southern and southeastern Asia. Since about 1800 there has been a pattern of worldwide epidemics arising from this area. One of these epidemics swept out of this area in the 1840s and arrived in Europe and devastated that continent in the years 1848-1849. By 1849 it had reached America. By late spring and early summer there were reports of major outbreaks in many American cities. 1849 was the year of the California gold rush, and this mass movement of people from one region of the country to another, undoubtedly contributed to its rapid spread. Gallipolis, as a port city on the busy Ohio River, would have been a prime target for an outbreak, and in the summer of that year the citizens were monitoring the situation carefully.
     Cholera, by this time, had become recognized as one of the greatest and most efficient killers of all time and its deadly reputation was well deserved. As a pestilence it ranks with plague and smallpox. It is characterized by the abrupt onset of diarrhea and vomiting that is often so severe that death from dehydration can occur within a matter of hours. Widespread fear and panic would often result from any rumors that cholera was suspected to be in a given area. What caused the disease and what caused it to spread was unknown at that time and this would lead to much speculation on how to prevent and treat the illness. The most prevalent theory of the time held that the illness was caused and spread by vapors. The smells generated by the disease were interpreted as the cause. During this epidemic the eating of potatoes and other vegetables also had come under suspicion.
     In July 1849, The Journal, Gallipolis’ weekly newspaper, reported on outbreaks of cholera in Montreal, New York, New Orleans, St. Louis, Cincinnati and other American cities. In each case there were hundreds of people who had died. Around Gallipolis there had been only a few sporadic cases, and there had been four deaths in Coalport in Meigs County. The busier, more urban areas of Gallia County, however, were to be spared. It was in the backwater townships of Walnut and Harrison where cholera would wreak its havoc.
     An account of this epidemic is recorded in the Hardesty History of Gallia County, published in 1882. The illness apparently entered the county when a Walnut Township resident, William Martt, assisted a family with a move in Lawrence County. He became ill immediately upon returning home. He was cared for by his family and neighbors. He died within a week. During that week other members of his family and friends came down with the disease. By the time the epidemic had run its course two weeks later, over a hundred people had become ill and thirty-seven, including eight members of the Martt family had died.
     With over a hundred cases in such a small area, the attack rate was extremely high. Anxiety, and indeed panic, must have been rampant. The account in Hardesty’s History mentions that many of the victims were buried without coffins and that, in at least one case, five of the victims in the Martt family were buried in a single grave, because manpower to dig separate graves was not available.
     Credit for subduing the epidemic was given to a Clay Township farmer, Mr. Middleswarth. Mr. Middleswarth had no medical training, but reportedly had been given a recipe for a cholera cure from a physician in New Orleans. He worked among the stricken, giving nursing care and advice. How much the “cholera cure” helped is not certain. Until the advent of intravenous fluid therapy in the 1900s, there were no treatments for cholera that were ever proven to be effective. The mortality rate for untreated cholera is around 50 percent. It appears to have been a little lower in this epidemic, but this is uncertain because the number of people who became ill is only estimated. Also accounts in The Journal indicated that there may have been another gastrointestinal disorder going around at the same time and this could easily have given rise to the opinion that this other condition represented mild cholera. He deserves enormous credit, however, for the care he gave to those people. In numerous cholera epidemics widespread panic would ensue, and the victims were often abandoned, even by their own families.
     The disease is spread by fecal contamination. Handling clothing and bedding of infected people could easily cause infection. In the cities, sewage contamination of water supplies was a major source of spread. But in 1849 none of this was known. Not knowing what the cause of this disease was, undoubtedly contributed to the sense of panic that always accompanied these outbreaks. This particular epidemic was most likely stemmed by the very fear that it produced. People simply would refuse to go near those who were sick.
     The outbreak in Walnut and Harrison townships was contained within an area of a radius of about four miles. The first victim to die in this epidemic, William Clark, died only four hours after becoming ill. Over the next two weeks his wife, daughter, his wife’s parents and another daughter’s father-in law would also die. Eight members of the Martt family would die and the corpses would lie unattended in the house for days because nobody was available to bury them. During the course of the epidemic, which lasted about two weeks, a total of thirty-seven people would die. Now, more than 150 years later a complete listing of the victims is probably not possible, but the following list shows those who could be identified.

Dr. James H. Hebard (physician from Gallipolis)
William Martt
6 other members of William Martt’s family (unnamed)
Jacob Allbright
Effa Allbright
Alexander Allbright (It is the family's recollection that there are three unmarked                             graves on the family's property. Alexander's name is tentative)
Elizabeth Page Martt
William Clark
Elizabeth Nida Clark
Unnamed daughter of William and Elizabeth Nida Clark
Peter Nida
Elizabeth Shuck Nida ( Peter and Elizabeth Nida were the parents of
Elizabeth Nida Clark)
Frederick Bickel (Father-in-law to William Clark’s daughter, Polly Clark)
Jacob Fillinger
Humphry Brumfield
Emily Drummond (there are possibly as many as eight other nearby
          unmarked graves, some of which might contain other cholera victims.)
Mahala Drummond
Samuel R. Drummond
Nancy Drummond
Samuel Drummond

     The above list accounts for twenty five people, leaving twelve victims unaccounted for. The Martt, Clark, Allbright and Drummond families appeared to be the hardest hit. The information on the Clark family was obtained from one of the present day descendants, but much of the rest of this information was gleaned from the cemetery books published by the Gallia County Historical Society. In compiling the list an assumption was made that those who died during July and August of 1849, and were buried in the cemeteries of Walnut, Harrison and Guyan townships, were cholera victims. The cemetery books used information from the actual tombstones which were still readable in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Undoubtedly many inscriptions from 1849 were by then unreadable. Because this would have been a time of enormous fear and stress, it is also likely that many graves went unmarked.
     It would be five more years before the spread of cholera by water supplies contaminated by sewage would be demonstrated. In 1854, a London, physician, John Snow, was able to show that the population that received its water supply from the infamous Broad Street pump was very likely to come down with cholera, while those that used a different water supply didn’t. Sewage contaminated water was ultimately pinpointed as the cause. It would then be only another three years before Louis Pasteur would introduce the germ theory of disease in 1857. It wasn’t until 1883, though, that the German physician, Robert Koch, discovered the Vibrio cholerae bacterium, and it wasn’t until well into the twentieth century that effective treatment with intravenous fluids was developed.
     Why was Gallipolis spared? Possibly just happenstance, but part of the answer may be in a Gallipolis city ordinance in 1847 that established the Board of Health. The ordinance directed the board to oversee and remove any “building, cellar, or lot or ground vault, or privy, which they may know or believe to be foul, damp or otherwise prejudicial to the public health.” Furthermore it directed that property owners would be subject to fines if drainage into street gutters was impeded in any way. They also supervised a system of grading the streets and filling sunken places so that standing water was eliminated. A report on the completion of this project was reported in The Journal in April 1849. This may have played an important part in preventing contamination of wells from sewage and runoff from improper outdoor privies.

**[November 9, 2010: While adding tombstone photos to the web site two more apparent victims were discovered. These were probably mother and son and were buried in Bethesada Cemetery in Walnut Township:
Catharine Williams who died 9/25/1849 age 48y 3m 25d wife of Jas. Williams
William F. Williams who died 6/14/1849 age 21y 6m 19d] NHE