The disease was (and is) no laughing matter. It was dubbed “The Black Death” for the blackened faces of dehydrated victims, some of whom died within hours. Six massive pandemics were reported up through the early part of the 20th century and the disease still kills over 100,000 people a year. The fact that jokes could be made about such a hideous threat is a testimony to the resilience of the human spirit, or, realistically, the usual denial and gallows humor triggered by trauma.
There was much controversy over cholera’s source and it was this ignorance that caused so much terror. It was believed to be caused by eating watermelons, pineapples, or other fresh fruit; by over-indulgence in alcohol; and from drinking chilled water in the summer. Pork was also implicated. Miasma theory suggested that bad air or stenches were to blame for disease and that bad odors signaled the presence of cholera. Immigrants from Eastern Europe were regarded with the gravest suspicion. Even the great Pasteur had no real answers. In 1892 his advice for staying well was “Keep the abdomen warm, avoid fruit, bad water, and chances of contagion.”
Some doctors suggested boiling everything eaten or drunk: a humorous story from the 1880s told of a man who insisted that his wife boil pancakes and ice and burn her “Hamburg lace” and “Brussels carpets” for fear of invasion by foreign microbes. In 1914 a reporter claimed that the Austrian military was white-washing their coal to avoid contagion from Russian prisoners-of-war. How, exactly, that was supposed to help, remains a mystery. Panic over cholera was as pervasive as that seen in recent Ebola outbreaks. It was said that fear of the disease alone killed many of the victims.
A man who had been sentenced to death at Vienna, was offered a full pardon, if he would consent to pass the night in the bed of a person who had died of cholera. In about four hours he was seized with vomiting, violent cramps, and all the symptoms of cholera. Ultimately, by medical assistance, his life was saved. His astonishment was unbounded when he was informed that the bed was perfectly pure. The Daily Dispatch [Richmond, VA] 13 November 1855: p. 4
Such uncertainty and panic, naturally, led to many dubious preventatives and remedies of all descriptions.
SOME CHOLERA DISINFECTANT.
A Cincinnati local was presented, during the hot weather, with a sample of a “deodorizer and cholera disinfectant,” with a request to notice it. He says he noticed it as soon as he smelt it, and thus relates the sequel:
Didn’t wish to terrify the family by the ostentatious display of cholera precautions of an extraordinary nature, so we took our patent deodorizer home secretly, concealed under our coat.
Terrible commotion in the street-car. The windows were thrown up hastily, handkerchiefs applied furiously to noses, and a general application of camphor gum, of which each one had a supply in his pocket. Profane fellows swore at the Board of Health for not cleaning the streets. One was sure it was in the gutters: another thought it was in the air; a toper, half drunk, said he was satisfied “it was in the (hic) water.”
“I’ll tell you what it’s in,” said a gloomy man, eyeing us suspiciously.
“What?” the passengers shrieked, with one voice:
“It’s in the car!”
With a wide yell, they jumped up at once and tumbled out, leaving us all alone, and monarch of all we deodorized.
Got into the house unperceived, and deposited the disinfectant in the cellar, and then hurried back to the office. There was a good deal of it about our clothes, so much so that one or two men who owed us borrowed money avoided us altogether. Felt emotions in the region of the stomach, that were disagreeably suggestive. Got a little alarmed, and concluded to deodorize the disinfectant, which we did with a glass of brandy. Felt a little better ourself, but began to feel alarmed about the effect of that disinfecting; compound upon the family. Hurried home — found the house shut up, and nobody in. Terrible smell about the house — neighbors all terrified. Asked one of them where my family was, and he said they had gone down to the bone-boiling district, to get out of the smell!
Opened the door, but had to close it again, the smell was so bad. Went around to the back yard, and saw the rats leaving in great precipitation. A neighbor suggested that a candle be lowered down the chimney, to test the foulness of the air before the house was opened. Saloons in the neighborhood doing an immense business in the sale of brandy and whisky. Flannel belts in demand. A country-woman with a load of watermelons mobbed and driven back. Arrival of a police officer, who arrested us for keeping a nuisance on our premises. Explanations made, and we are paroled until the house can be opened. Burnt some pitch on the front doorstep and were then enabled to get to throw up the windows. Whew! neighbors said they preferred cholera.
The disinfectant is nearly abolished now, and family back again, enjoying their usual health, they say they don’t wish to be disinfected any more. Boston [MA] Journal 13 October 1866: p. 2
As an aside, the disease had ravaged Savannah, Georgia in July of the same year, so this wasn’t an “off year” for cholera.
Physicians were one source of cholera humor.
Nibs: Peculiar feature about this epidemic of cholera in Europe, Nobs.
Nobs: What’s that?
Nibs: Why, the more the disease spreads, you see, the more it is contracted. The Medical Brief, Vol. 22, 1894
“How do you like your new French doctor?”
“Well, I told him I had cholera, because I didn’t know how to say dyspepsia in French, and I’m afraid he has not given me the right remedies.” Wit and Humor of the Physician, Henry Frederic Reddall, 1906
When cholera broke out, there was often difficulty in finding gravediggers; sometimes four or five men would be needed to be successively hired before a grave could be finished. One Ohio gravedigger seems to have kept his nerve and his sense of humor:
When the body of Hillary Neil, who was the first citizen of Xenia [OH] to die with the cholera, was taken to the cemetery, Mr. Cline, not having received notice in sufficient time, did not have the grave ready to receive it. One of the men who accompanied the corpse grew impatient at the delay, and stepping up to Mr. Cline said: “Can’t you keep a few graves dug ahead, and not wait till a man dies, and you get an order before you begin the work, and thus keep us waiting?” “Certainly,” replied Mr. Cline, “if you will take the measure of the people before they die; and if you think that a good idea, I will just take your measure right here, and when they haul you out, will put you in without delay.” This put a quietus upon his enthusiasm, and he did not leave his measure. History of Greene County: Together with Historic Notes on the Northwest, R. S. Dills, 1881
The Hartford Courant told this story in 1869:
“Cholera fenced in. — You have noticed the flaming handbills setting forth the virtues of a cholera remedy, that are posted by the hundreds on the board fence enclosing the ground on Main Street, where Roberts’ opera house is being erected. Well, there was a timid countryman, the other day, who had so far recovered from the ‘cholera scare’ as to venture into the city with a horse and wagon load of vegetables; and thereby hangs a tale. He drove moderately along the street, when he suddenly spied the word ‘Cholera,’ in big letters on the new fence, and he staid to see no more. Laying the lash on to his quadruped, he went past the handbills like a streak of lightning, went—’nor stood on the order of his going’ — up past the tunnel, planting the vegetables along the entire route, — for the tail-board had loosened, — hardly taking breath, or allowing his beast to breathe, till he reached home at W___.
“Safely there, he rushed wildly into the midst of his household, exclaiming,
“‘O, wife, wife, they have got the cholera in Hartford, and have fenced it in.'” The Funny Side of Physic, Addison Darre Crabtre, M.D., 1880
You cannot have everything, as the man said when he was down with small-pox and cholera, and the yellow fever came into the neighbourhood. (1881)
A physician wrote Sir Henry Halford:
Dear Sir, I was the first to discover Asiatic cholera and communicate it to the public. (1906 joke book)
During the prevalence of the cholera in Ireland, a soldier, hurrying into the mess-room, told his commanding officer that his brother had been carried off two days before by a fatal malady, expressing his apprehensions that the whole regiment would be exposed to a similar danger in the course of the following week.
“Good heavens!” ejaculated the officer, “what then did he die of?”
“Why, your honor, he died of a Tuesday.” Gems of Irish Wit and Humor, 1906
A little girl being sent to the store to purchase some dyestuff, and forgetting the name of the article, said to the clerk, “John, what do folks dye with?” “Die with? Why, cholera, sometimes,” replied John. “Well, I believe that’s the name; I want three cents’ worth.” The Revolution 29 December 1870
Cholera and Watermelon
During the camping of the First Regiment at Santa Rosa, the pickets found considerable difficulty in preventing the men absenting themselves without leave, a circumstance for which the mint juleps of the town bar-rooms and the large contingent of pretty Santa Rosa girls—small blame to them—were chiefly accountable. One particularly sultry evening, while the sentinels were pacing their beats with their tongues fairly hanging out of their mouths with heat, and wondering whether the pirates in the mess tent would drink every last drop of beer before the “relief” came, one of the guards observed a private approaching, who was staggering along under the combined load of much conviviality and an enormous watermelon under each arm.
“Who goes there?”
“Er—hic—er fren,” responded the truant.
“Advance, friend, and give the countersign.”
“Hain’t got no—hic—countersign,” amiably replied private; “but I’ll ‘er—hic—give yer er—hic—warmellin.”
Pretty soon the officer of the day came round, and said to the sentinel, who was absorbed in munching a huge piece of watermelon stuck on the end of his bayonet.
“Did Perkins pass you just now?” “Yes, sir.” “Did he give the countersign?” inquired the lieutenant, taking a bite himself, as the man presented arms.
“Well, no, sir,” said the sentinel, confidentially; “the password was ‘Cholera,’ but he said ‘Watermelon,’ so I passed him and put the other half in your tent.”
“Did, eh?” mused the officer. “Hum! Watermelon, eh? Well, I guess that was near enough!” San Francisco Post.
Salt Lake [UT] Tribune 16 October 1884: p. 3
Other tasteless cholera jokes? No lemons, please. Chriswoodyard8 AT gmail.com
Undine, from Strange Company, who knows her forteana AND her bad poetry, writes in with this absolutely brilliant cholera poem:
[New York Star.]
Who started the cholera?
I, said the Melon,
I am the felon.
From warmth of a torrider
Country than Florida
I carried the cholera;
We sailed to Marseilles
With favoring gales,
And from there we went on
To visit Toulon.
Where next do we go?
Just wait; time will show,
But it will not be long
Ere the Germans will find
That cholera loves
A trip on the rind.
Daily Illinois State Journal [Springfield, IL] 27 August 1884: p. 2
Chris Woodyard is the author of The Victorian Book of the Dead, The Ghost Wore Black, The Headless Horror, The Face in the Window, and the 7-volume Haunted Ohio series. She is also the chronicler of the adventures of that amiable murderess Mrs Daffodil in A Spot of Bother: Four Macabre Tales. The books are available in paperback and for Kindle. Indexes and fact sheets for all of these books may be found by searching hauntedohiobooks.com. Join her on FB at Haunted Ohio by Chris Woodyard or The Victorian Book of the Dead; also on Twitter @hauntedohiobook. And visit her newest blog, The Victorian Book of the Dead.