Cholera was one of the most deadly and feared diseases of the nineteenth century. An infected person could show no symptoms for several days, spreading the bacteria without even realizing it. In some cases, cholera caused vomiting and diarrhea so severe that a patient died within hours of showing signs of the illness.
In 1854, Dr. John Snow found a link between people who came down with cholera and contaminated water sources during an outbreak of cholera in London, but his theory that the disease spread through water sources was not widely accepted or well understood. In 1883, Robert Koch used a microscope and finally identified the specific bacteria that cause cholera.
In 1873, when cholera broke out in New Orleans, doctors could do little to stop the spread of the disease or treat sick patients. People could not prevent cholera, but they tracked the deaths as the disease spread along transportation and trade routes. Cholera spread up the Mississippi to Memphis, where state prisoners working on the railroad contracted cholera and carried it back to Nashville. From Nashville, the outbreak spread along the rail lines, causing deaths in Chattanooga, Knoxville, and Greeneville. In Jonesborough, anxious readers followed the approach of the disease in the pages of the Herald & Tribune.
Primary Source Activity:
You are now a history detective, use the newspaper articles from 1873 to follow along as the cholera epidemic sweeps through Jonesborough. Pick a name from the Citizens’ List below. While reading the paper, see if you can determine what happened to the citizen you picked. Were they a survivor, or were they a casualty of the epidemic? The accompanying Organizational Chart will help you keep track of the epidemic and your thoughts as you read. The Post-Activity Questionnaire will encourage you to look to other sources for additional research.
Note to parents, you can add an additional question to the Organizational Chart. You can also add two more names to the Citizens’ List.
Here are all the materials you will need to complete this activity. This activity is recommended for fifth grade and above. There are several, good vocabulary words included in the newspaper, you’ll most likely find them as you read along.
Some other thoughts to consider, how has our understanding of germs and diseases changed since 1873? Who were the helpers during the cholera epidemic? What is the difference between an epidemic and a pandemic? How did the epidemics of the late 1800s change the United States? Are we as a society today better prepared for a massive outbreak of a disease?
For additional research, this is a great link – https://www.history.com/topics/inventions/history-of-cholera
Above all, remember that historians are here to remind you that a future is possible. Moments such as the cholera epidemic might be difficult to look back on and study, but they teach us so much. Historians look to the past to give context to the present and to help inform the future.