Don’t you just hate when you’re doing research and what you find out leads not to answers, but more questions? Such was my experience over the past two weekends as I dug deeper into the cholera epidemics in Buffalo.
After sitting in the damp and chilly bleachers watching my son’s football team get stomped on by a team they were supposed to beat, I ran over to the Buffalo History Museum, still clad in multiple fleece lined layers, to take a look at some municipal reports for the Erie County Poorhouse. I was interested to see if there would be any discussion of the cholera epidemics (of 1832 and 1849) and their impact on the poorhouse. As I have mentioned before, the Erie County Board of Supervisors Reports for this period are hand written and only available on reverse negative microfilm. With only an hour left before the Museum’s library closed, I knew my best strategy was to quickly review the documents, identify the pages pertaining to the cholera epidemics or the poorhouse and come back at a later date for a more thorough examination.
I rushed into the Museum’s research library and went straight to the shelf that held my rolls of microfilm. I nodded a brief greeting to the staff so that I could make the most of what little time I had left before the doors were closed for the evening. After quickly feeding the microfilm into the machine, I realized I had loaded it upside down. When the film was finally loaded correctly, I wasted a good bit of time fumbling with the machine trying to remember which levers controlled the quality and size of the image.
I did not find any mention of the cholera epidemic in the Board of Supervisors report of 1832, the year of the first major pandemic. I found that very odd because the disease had such a disastrous impact on many large cities. The hand written reports were extremely difficult to read and there is always the possibility that I missed something important. Also, it may be that there was no time to record any details of the epidemic, as it struck so quickly and with such ferocity. I will examine the reports again and also take another look at the reports for 1833 in the event that the Board needed time to process the events of the previous year before they could evaluate the impact of the cholera epidemic on the city.
I scrolled carefully on to the year 1849, stopping every time I saw the shapes that I came to know spelled the words poorhouse, poor, or cholera. Finally in a meeting dated October 8, 1849 there was some discussion of this disease. Members of the Board of Supervisors moved to give the recently (and temporarily) established Board of Health the authority to employ nurses and procure what supplies were necessary to deal with the epidemic. They further moved to make the Board of Health permanent and give them discretion to set quarantines where they were needed to contain the disease. I thought that was particularly interesting because physicians were arguing at the time that cholera was not contagious and quarantines were not necessary. Also, because of Buffalo’s strategic location on the Erie Canal, quarantines would have brought commerce to a screeching halt. However, the impact of quarantines on economic well being of the city was not mentioned in the proceedings.
Beyond that report, there was no mention of the disease itself, how many individuals had died, or if the epidemic was abating at all. The rest of the account focused on which municipal entity was financially responsible for the cost incurred by the Board of Health. Some argued that the Act of 1832, which established a temporary Board of Health to deal with the cholera epidemic of that year, maintained that all expenses relating to cholera and other “malignant diseases” be paid for by the county. Others insisted that the city of Buffalo should take on the burden of said costs.
There was also a discussion concerning the Board of Health established in the town of Evans to contain the spread of small pox. It was argued that Boards of Health should only be established to contain “malignant diseases”. Small pox was considered a “contagious disease” and, it was argued, if they allowed a Board of Health to be established to contain contagious diseases, what would stop another town from establishing a Board of Health to contain other diseases such as whooping cough! I found it very interesting that members of the Board of Supervisors were more concerned with malignant diseases (malignancy is the tendency of any medical condition to get progressively worse) than contagious diseases (those passed from one organism to another via direct or indirect contact). I am becoming very interested in the public perception of illness during this period before the germ theory of disease was understood and accepted.
The next logical place to investigate the impact of cholera on the Erie County Poorhouse was the actual records from the institution. There are no surviving inmate or hospital records for the year 1849, so I looked through the inmate records for 1832 in the hopes of finding some mention of the disease. Again, my investigation yielded very little information. Twenty eight inmates died at the ECPH that year compared to 14 in 1831 and 17 in 1833. The number of deaths in 1832 still seems low for an epidemic year. Cause of death was not usually listed in these records, although cholera was sometimes written in the margin as a cause of death in later years. However, 11 of the 28 deaths (39%) occurred between May and September (warmer months when the epidemic would have been at its peak). These mortality statistics suggest that the ECPH was not being used as a pesthouse (a place to house infected patients) during the cholera epidemic of 1832. It also appears that the institution's remote location with respect to the rest of the city (and likely the use of a well on the property) may have offered some protection from the spread of the disease. Clearly more research is needed.
So my investigation into the primary sources has left me with more questions than answers (what else is new?). Where were the people infected with cholera in the city of Buffalo treated? Why did the disease not hit the ECPH harder? What role did the Board of Health have in managing the epidemic during either pandemic year (1832, or 1849)? What did they learn from the epidemic in 1832 that helped in the containment of the disease in 1849? I’ll keep digging. Stay tuned…