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Our Rich History: Epidemics in 19th Century Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky; we have persevered

By Steve Preston
Special to NKyTribune

Part 20 of our series, “Resilience and Renaissance: Newport, Kentucky, 1795-2020”

As we “hunker down” and practice self-distancing, it’s worth noting that we residents of the Tristate are much more resilient than we think. Since settlement began in the late 1700s, this area has faced epidemics on par with what we are currently experiencing, and without the amazing scientific advancements we have now.

The daily newspapers contained lists of those who died from cholera. Source: Cincinnati Daily Gazette, October 25, 1832, p. 3.

Many of the sicknesses that swept through Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky early on were illnesses that have now been eradicated, thanks to vaccines and improved sanitation. Others, such as influenza, still ravage communities. Yet we have persevered.

Even as the settlements of Cincinnati, Covington, and Newport were in their infancies, exposure to sickness was a threat. In order to protect themselves from Indian attacks and other dangers, people settled in groups and were often confined to small areas for safety, such as in Fort Washington. In such close quarters, personal space and hygiene often suffered. New settlers and soldiers arrived frequently, adding new pathogens to a populace vulnerable to each other’s illnesses. People became more crowded and sanitation worsened. All this led to the first major epidemic to sweep through the area, smallpox.

Beginning in the autumn of 1792, Cincinnati citizens and Northern Kentucky settlers were battling a smallpox epidemic that would prove more deadly than any other hardship that came with living in the area. The outbreak was so severe that it derailed General Anthony Wayne’s planned offensive against the Native American confederacy that Wayne hoped to contain. It would not be until the fall of 1793 that Wayne would lead his army north, culminating in his victory at Fallen Timbers in 1794. E. W. Mitchell’s article, “History of Epidemics in Cincinnati,” (University of Cincinnati Medical Bulletin, November 1920, Vol. 1, no. 1, pp. 10-18; available here) states that one-third of the settlers and soldiers in the area died from the smallpox outbreak. Smallpox in the region would be a scourge, even though Dr. William Goforth introduced the smallpox vaccine to the settlements here in 1801.

By 1807, the military presence in the area had moved across the river to the recently completed Newport Barracks. Newport Barracks, Kentucky’s Forgotten Military Installation, written by Joseph L. Donnelly, mentions a comet that appeared in the sky on September 30, 1807, as a harbinger of an influenza epidemic that overcame the military post.

The flu was not the only outbreak at the barracks. Private Sam Bonker succumbed to smallpox in 1807 while stationed at the Newport Barracks. Typhoid would also visit the post, as well as the Cincinnati region two years later in 1809.

Arguably the deadliest disease to sweep the region in the 1800s was cholera. Four separate epidemics of this disease would affect the area, in 1832, 1849, 1866, and 1873. The first outbreak that would reach Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky in 1832 actually began in 1826 on the other side of the world in India. Caught off guard, Cincinnati would lose 571 citizens to cholera in 1832. This first outbreak would stretch into 1833 and 1834, resulting in 831 deaths.

Burying the cholera dead. Courtesy of FGGAM.

One notable casualty was early settler, Reverend James Kemper. The first Presbyterian minister north of the Ohio River, Kemper and his family arrived here in 1791. He had survived smallpox and all subsequent epidemics up to 1832. The Kemper family lost their son, Elnathan, to the illness on August 17, 1834. The Reverend Kemper oversaw the funeral and burial. On the way back to his home in Walnut Hills, Kemper fell ill. He died the next day, August 20, 1834, another victim of cholera.

The cholera epidemic of 1849 proved the deadliest of the waves of the disease. Over 8,000 Tristate citizens would die from cholera. Around 4% of the total population of Cincinnati would perish. The use of calomel, a medicinal purgative containing high amounts of mercury, certainly did nothing to help, even hurting the efforts to quell the 1849 epidemic. Subsequent outbreaks of cholera in the Cincinnati area in 1866 and 1873 resulted in fewer deaths. The 1866 outbreak claimed 1,406 lives, and the 1873 outbreak killed 207 people.

The specter of cholera hanging over a city. Courtesy of FGGAM

Along with the major outbreaks of the above illnesses, measles, whooping cough, diphtheria, and polio also visited the Tristate during the 1800s. With each passing epidemic, treatment and sanitary conditions generally improved. Cincinnati, Newport, and surrounding cities weathered these waves of illness and in many ways, mirror the citizens of these areas today in their strength and courage

Steve Preston is the Education Director and a Curator of History at Heritage Village Museum. He received his MA in Public History from Northern Kentucky University. We want to learn more about the history of your business, church, school, or organization in our region (Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky). If you would like to share your rich history with others, please contact the editor of “Our Rich History,” Paul A. Tenkotte, at tenkottep@nku.edu. Paul A. Tenkotte, PhD is Professor of History at NKU and the author of many books and articles.

Newspapers contained accounts of those who fell ill and died the same day, as seen here. Source: Western Christian Advocate (Cincinnati), May 30, 1849, p. 2.

Unrestrained by governmental control in the 1800s, patent medicines such as Dr. Strickland’s Anti-Cholera Mixture” made wild claims and contained highly dangerous ingredients, including opium. “Source: Cincinnati Daily Gazette, August 14, 1866, p. 2.

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