Cholera Curiosities

Cholera Curiosities The corpse of a cholera victim 1832

Cholera Curiosities The corpse of a cholera victim 1832

Cholera Curiosities

The 19th-century summer, bringing with it those twin temptations, iced water and unripe fruit, was traditionally the season of cholera. I’ve written about the ravages of the disease in Paris, as well as the macabre jokes used to cope with the terrors of the Black Plague, as it was sometimes called, because victims’ faces quickly darkened with dehydration. In my post on cholera jokes, I noted that there were curious Fortean phenomena associated with the pandemics, and promised a future post. Today that plague has come upon you.

Having been fortunate enough to not have experienced a cholera epidemic, I do not know if these stories of unusual animal behavior, superstitious beliefs, and plague omens are simply the result of fear or whether they represent genuinely anomalous phenomena.

The disease was not well-understood; some thought “miasmas” and bad odors were the cause, positing clouds of poison drifting across the land.  But which came first, mysterious mists or miasmal theory?

Omens of Cholera in Cleveland.

Chicago, April. 19. The Cleveland Dispatch says: Many residents are much alarmed over the appearance for several months past of a thick, bluish fog which appears to issue from the earth. Its presence is regarded by persons conversant with its previous appearance here as ominous of approaching cholera. It is a singular fact, cited by those who went through the cholera plagues of 1866, and earlier years, that this same fog has always preceded an outbreak of the dreaded scourge, and it has not been seen here until this week since the last cholera epidemic. Scientists here whose attention is called to the fact, believe that conditions favourable to the creation of this fog are favourable to the spread of cholera. Vicksburg [MS] Evening Post 19 April 1886: p. 1

The Plain Dealer ridiculed these claims:

The Cleveland Blue Fog.

Sundry citizens of Cleveland, O., are agitated over the appearance of a blue fog alleged to emanate from the earth and regarded as ominous of an approaching epidemic of cholera. Fogs, blue or otherwise, do not issue from the earth, unless nature has inaugurated new methods in Cleveland. Nor would a fog from anywhere—earth, sky or water—be any more indicative of the approach of cholera than it would of the prospect of war or of famine. Only very green people will be frightened by the alleged blue fog. Plain Dealer [Cleveland OH] 24 April 1886: p. 4

And added:

A good many citizens would like to know who the Cleveland blue-fog-cholera Munchausen is. It was the romance of the season. Plain Dealer [Cleveland OH] 25 April 1886: p. 4

To be fair, the Cleveland newspapers were overflowing with tallies of European cholera fatalities, as well as advertisements for guaranteed preventatives/cures for the disease. The Fifth Pandemic began in 1881 and it was pretty much a given that cholera would hit at some time during any given summer in the 1880s and 1890s. In addition, although the local Health Officer issued a proclamation in May 1886 that all citizens must clean up their trash, the Cleveland municipal authorities did not allocate funds for refuse collection and left it to each householder to pay for garbage disposal. This did not go over well. Perhaps the blue-fog Munchausen wished to call attention to this hazard.

White and yellow mists were also seen just before cholera hit.

Lieut.-Colonel Ross states that during the burial of the first victim of cholera at Kurrachee in 1846 (a soldier who was attacked early in the morning of June 14, who died within three hours, and who was buried in the afternoon of the same day), “a sort of white mist was seen to rise out of the sea and to pass over the burial-ground while the burial-service was going on, and that two soldiers attending the service fell down suddenly—attacked with the worst form of cholera. From that moment,” he says, “the disease declared itself with extraordinary violence, and destroyed upwards of forty men the following night.” The colonel was strongly impressed by the remarkable character of this mist, which, indeed, he spoke of as a “shroud.” On the day preceding the night when cholera broke out at Cairo in 1883, there was noticed in the atmosphere a haze “of a yellowish colour, suggesting the Arabic name for cholera, the translation of which means ‘yellow air.'” It seems as if some men know, as well as birds do, when cholera threatens; for at Ramleh (Egypt), August 3, 1883, when the temperature was high, and the moisture in the air approached saturation point, “Men who had served in India remarked that there was cholera in the air, and at 10.30 A.m. the first case was reported.”  Cholera Curable: A Demonstration of the Causes, Non-contagiousness, and Successful Treatment of the Disease, John Chapman, M.D. 1885: p. 33

Mysterious lights as well as magnetic and electrical anomalies also accompanied the cholera. This particular author, with his vivid descriptions of lurid clouds of pestilence and physics-defying magnets had a theory [read: bee in his bonnet] that “ozone” was the preventative and cure for cholera.

Again, it has been observed that, during times of Cholera, there are a greater number than usual of those bright zones of light, falling stars, and phosphorescent appearances of various kinds, which have ever been considered to be connected with a disturbed condition of electric action. Not only is it usual, however, to observe these phenomena in the sky over affected districts, but, what is still more remarkable, the very first appearance of these strange sights in the sky, over a district, has been known to be simultaneous with the sudden invasion of Cholera there. Thus, a few years ago, the officers of one of our Indian regiments, stationed in the south-east of India, were called out, a little before nightfall, to witness a very extraordinary phenomenon in the atmosphere. This consisted of an immense number of small, bright, lurid, phosphorescent-looking clouds, which had just made their appearance above the horizon, and came floating along, with great rapidity, until they stood directly above where that regiment was encamped, and even enveloped the whole station in their ominous folds. The officers stood for a long time admiring such a strange and beautiful phenomenon, and various were the conjectures what might be its cause. Alas! these clouds were but the portentous omens of a coming storm. Even before midnight, whispers began to float about, that several cases of Cholera had occurred in camp. And what was the surprise of all, next morning, to learn that, during the course of that single night, an immense number of the poor soldiers had been stricken down; in the course of the next day, all the hospitals were filled, and, of these poor soldiers, several hundreds actually died! Again, when the Cholera influence is very intense, electric telegraphs have sometimes refused to work for several hours at a time, and even powerful magnets been shorn of their strength. Thus, in the month of November 1848, at the very time when Cholera was at its highest death-point in Edinburgh, the electric telegraph between Edinburgh and Glasgow thus struck work for several hours together, the needles all the time being powerfully deflected—without any apparent cause, except probably a mysterious arch of fire, [Northern lights?] which also, during several hours on that same evening, cast down its lurid glance on that devoted city. And, more remarkable still, a few years before that, in a district in the south of Russia, where the Cholera was prevailing to a most intense degree, a powerful magnet, capable of sustaining the weight of several pounds, became so shorn of its strength, that, when the Cholera influence was in the height of its power, it could only lift up one-sixth part of its ordinary weight! Unfortunately, this phenomenon was not observed until the disease was at its highest death-point; and, therefore, we do not know whether the magnet gradually lost its sustaining strength, just as the Cholera influence advanced; but, of one thing we are informed (and we have no reason to doubt the authenticity of the reports), that the magnet very slowly and gradually regained its ordinary strength, and, in so doing, kept pace with the gradual declining of the disease! Asiatic cholera: an inquiry into its nature, and how to deal with it, Volume 6, Robert Pairman: pp. 39-41 

Across the Atlantic, cholera lights were also seen:


A Mysterious Light in the Pike County Hills That is Considered as a Warning.

Port Jervis Dispatch to the New York Sun.

A curious phenomenon was witnessed by the residents of Mongaup, Sullivan county, a small village in the Delaware valley, five miles west of this place on the night of the recent great snow storm. On the Pennsylvania side of the river, the Pike county hills rise steep and rocky to several hundred feet high. While the storm was at its height a bright light suddenly flashed up among the high rocks opposite Mongaup, near the summit of the range. There was no blaze, but the snow-covered rocks glowed like red hot iron for distance of several feet around. The light resembled a huge bed of live coals, and cast a weird reflection non the snow, throwing the trunks and lower branches of the bare trees into strong relief. The light gleamed through the storm for several minutes, and then gradually grew dim and disappeared.

As it would be difficult and hazardous for any person to reach the spot where the light was seen, even in the daytime and in summer. It is not thought that any one could have possibly clambered to the spot at night, up the steep ledge, covered two feet deep with frozen snow, and through a blinding snow storm. The mysterious light, is therefore, not charged to any human agency, and the superstitious look upon its strange appearance as some kind of an omen. An old inhabitant says that in 1836 when cholera raged through this country, similar lights appeared on the mountains in the winter and spring. He says it is another warning that cholera is on its way. Democrat and Chronicle [Rochester, NY] 21 February 1885: p. 4 

Birds proved to be winged biomarkers of the disease. Of course, avian cholera was known to infect domestic fowls. The logical assumption is that it killed off wild birds—hence their mysterious “disappearances.”

Rooks were the birds whose conduct in connection with the cholera was observed in Ireland in 1832. According to the contemporary Dublin Morning Register, immediately the cholera came all the birds vanished from the rookery in the Marquis of Sligo’s demesne, one of the largest in Ireland. For three weeks, during which the disease raged violently, these noisy tenants of the trees completely deserted their lofty habitations. In the meantime the revenue police found immense numbers of them lying dead upon the shore near Erris, about ten miles distant. Upon the decline of the malady, within the last few days, several of the old birds have again appeared in the neighborhood of the rookery, but some of them seemed unable, through exhaustion, to reach their nests.” Tombstone [AZ] Epitaph 7 February 1915: p. 6

A correspondent of the Indian Forester wrote:

Crows and Cholera.

A friend of mine told me that crows could by instinct find out if the atmosphere over a particular region was unhealthy, and if so that they would migrate to a healthier atmosphere. My house is surrounded by a number of trees, where these birds are housed in hundreds. It so happened early in April last they commenced thinning out, till they had disappeared to the last crow. Quite simultaneously with their migration, cholera broke out, and now that cholera is fast disappearing the crows are again mustering in their former strength.” The Theosophist December 1900: p. 189

Reporting on the cholera in Van Wert County, Ohio, Dr. Pearce says:

“We will call attention to one of the most remarkable, as also the most unaccountable phenomenon connected with the history of cholera, viz., the migration or disappearance of the entire feathered tribe, together with the house-flies. By the 25th of the month not a bird or house-fly could be seen or heard anywhere, and they remained in blissful seclusion until about August 7, when our ears were again solaced by the merry song and musical chirp of the birds. But, alas for Willshire, out of a population of about seventy-five souls, forty had migrated to that ‘bourne from whence no traveller returns.'” Historical Collections of Ohio, Henry Howe , 1905: p. 726-7

With a disease so poorly understood, even by doctors, omens, portents—and mystic cures filled the void. Borax, bitters, and bile salts were all well-advertised anti-cholera specifics. “The very best French brandy” was also recommended. Folk medicine contributed a few less-well known and perhaps less palatable remedies.


Cholera has usually found a useful ally in superstition. In the old days the disease was believed to lie bottled up in volcanoes and to be released by eruptions. The most effectual way to avoid it was to sleep in bed with your head due south. In Russian during the terrible epidemics six years ago the peasants would not trust the doctors, whom they actually accused of causing the disease but drank a fearful mixture of tar, resin and petroleum as preventatives, and fired guns from the doors and windows to scare the cholera away. Tombstone [AZ] Epitaph 7 February 1915: p. 6

Cholera Curiosities

Cholera Curiosities A cholera patient experimenting with remedies. Robert Cruickshank 1832
Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images
Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons Attribution only licence CC BY 4.0


It is estimated that 57,000 deaths from cholera occurred in Russia during 1910. The coalmine owners have subscribed £60,000 to the anti-cholera campaign.

Eighteen miners at an Ekalerinoslaff funeral feast drank a decoction of manure as an anti-cholera charm. Fifteen succumbed. Mataura Ensign 11 August 1910: p. 6

Cholera can be avoided by wearing over the pit of the stomach a small bag filled with black pepper, cloves, allspice, camphor. It must be prepared in full moon.

A few years ago during the cholera scare in India, a woman, dressed in fantastic style, was led by two men up to an infected house, with the usual following of tom-toms and musicians. A fire with much smoke was made outside, and the woman, who represented the cholera-spirit, was completely fumigated, amid much ceremony, prayers and great din. Nothing whatever was done to house of patient; in two days, however, the cholera had ceased. Encyclopaedia of Superstitions, Folklore , and the Occult Sciences, Cora Linn Daniels, et al, 1903: p. 351

Cholera Curiosities

Cholera Curiosities. Medals worn to protect against cholera L0059042 Top to bottom: A678713, Brass medallion involving the protec
Credit: Science Museum, London. Wellcome Images
Top to bottom: A678713, Brass medallion involving the protection of St. Roch against cholera, France, 1820-1880. A677845, Gilt medal of St. Hubert and St. Roch, loop for suspension as holy pendant, possibly French, 1830-1900. A677945, Gilt medal of St. Hubert and St. Roch, loop for suspension as holy pendant, possibly French, 1830-1900. Grey background.
Published: –
Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons Attribution only licence CC BY 4.0

Religious fervor suggested cures. Note the repetition of the notion that protecting the abdomen or stomach would help:

The Chiesa Cattolica, a clerical paper published at Naples, gives, as a cheap and infallible remedy for cholera, the following absurd prescription: “Apply,” it says, “to the abdomen a picture of St. Joachim, the glorious father of the Holy Virgin. This remedy is unfailing. The malady rarely attacks a person so protected; if it does it is immediately cured. God sends us the cholera to punish us for our sins, but St. Joachim drives it away.” The Christian’s Monthly News 1 November 1866: p. 40

Sometimes things did not go quite to plan:

In Puig, Valencia, is an image of a virgin before which a lamp is always kept burning. It having been stated that a miracle had been performed before the image, somebody gave out that the oil used in the lamp was an infallible remedy against the cholera. So great was the demand for this oil that various shops were opened for its sale, one being in the Salle de Sagunto, in the capital. The business seemed to promise handsome results, when an unfortunate circumstance upset its priestly promoters, for the sacristan in charge of the image, and who sold the oil, was attacked by cholera and died. Light & Truth, 1883, p. 208

One of the least repugnant cures involved—living sheep.


Singular Superstition Respecting the Absorption of Disease.

Turin, Aug. 28. The Italian peasants in the cholera district repel the doctors, and prefer to trust in charms and superstitious observances.

At Buses a girl was found dying in a filthy room in which two sheep were feeding from a nasty trough.

The sheep were allowed to be there because of a superstitious belief that their wool would absorb the disease.  Daily Evening Bulletin 28 August 1884: p. 4

Cholera Curiosities The Cholera Drink of Dr Bleeker

Cholera Curiosities The Cholera Drink of Dr Bleeker

One sure-fire cure might even have been pleasant, until the morning after:


As if a Frenchmen had not sufficient excuses for drinking absinthe already, a French priest fresh from Cochin China has supplied them with another. Absinthe, it is now proclaimed, is an infallible remedy for cholera. A small dose of absinthe, taken in a glass of claret, will restore circulation and warmth. With some patients the cure is as rapid as the attack, with others it is only accomplished after twenty-four hours. In a small parish in Cochin China, M. Janin, the priest in question, cured seventy-three cholera patients out of the seventy-six attacked by the disease; six French soldiers in the fortress of Soctrang were cured by the same means, while only one died, and he was dying before M. Janin came. Should one dose of absinthe prove insufficient, M. Janin recommends the patient to continue taking it he says of himself that when attacked by cholera he drank one-third litre of absinthe in about ten minutes, after which he slept and awoke cured. It is a curious fact that after taking five or six doses of claret mixed with absinthe, the patients are rarely intoxicated. If, however, they fall asleep in a state of intoxication they are saved. In case of an insufficient quantity being taken death is sure to ensue. In the long run, however, it is safe to say that absinthe will kill many more Frenchmen than cholera. Grey River Argus, 29 September 1884: p. 4

Desperate times; desperate measures….

Epidemics inevitably bred conspiracy theories about poison. 

The Cholera Superstitions in Italy.

We have already given some account of the superstitions concerning the cholera which are prevalent in Italy. The following is the latest story, as told in a letter from Florence:

“Having noticed several cases of poison dread and its consequences in the Calabrian provinces, a deplorable instance must be cited which gives us the measure of the evil as it exists in the northern provinces of Italy. A profound mystery hung around a case of suspected cholera. The syndic having heard of it, in order to verify the character of the disease, entered the house of the patient. The disease proved to be cholera, although suspicions of poison, were, as usually, advanced. Now, as people dying of infectious complaints are not allowed to be exposed in the open churches before burial, according to the usual catholic custom, orders were given for the interment of the body according to the present sanitary laws. Hereupon the populace murmured, and a riot arose at sight of a chemist who, with his child in his arms, was casually crossing the street. One man began saying, ‘There he goes, the man who throws poisoned powder into people’s eyes and gives them cholera.’ Soon the fiercer cry was head of ‘Kill the chemist who spreads the cholera; down with the poisoner.’ The poor man against whom all this clamor was raised had to run for his life, and entered his house just in time to save himself from the hands of the mob. The syndic, who soon after appeared on the spot, had no power to quell the riot, being himself an object of suspicion for affirming that the death of the sick man was attributable to natural causes. The chemist’s life was, however, fortunately saved through timely aid arriving from Milan, whence a troop of carabinieri was sent. Many arrests were made.” Evening Post [New York NY] 10 September 1867: p. 1



Press telegraph—Copyright ROME, September 1. The authorities have hitherto suppressed the facts of cholera ravages and of the riot at Verbicaro….

The superstitious peasantry are threatening the sanitary officials with death, believing that the Government is poisoning the water for the decimation of the poor. Bush Advocate 2 September 1911: p. 5

In one particularly egregious example of a legend generated by the disease, in 1832, as the cholera reached Ireland, it was reported that New Ross, County Wexford, which had suffered large numbers of deaths, had been incinerated by a falling star.

Smells and miasmas were believed to cause the disease. It is difficult to judge whether the following events from 1849 Indiana really were truly strange or merely seemed so in dire circumstances.  Anything out of the ordinary was often given a supernatural spin.

“The rise of the cholera near Lynn (1849) was very strange and striking. A [black] cloud rose in the morning from the east, with some lightning and thunder. The lightning struck the ground at the cross roads near Isaac Palmer’s east of Lynn, and there came a terrible smell. [The sky was filled with smoke, and a fearful sickening smell, as of burning Sulphur filled the air, which lasted some time. A little while afterwards, that same morning, John Lister and two sons (one a lad) passed those corners. They were all taken sick that evening, John died next morning, and his oldest son during the day. The lad lingered a month, but recovered. William Hodgin passed next, and then Henry Benson and three others; they were all taken sick and died the next day or very shortly.] The cholera began the same day, and ran along those roads west and south. Twenty-seven died in all. Dr. Cook came down from Winchester, saying that he could cure it easily enough. He went into the field and picked and ate blackberries, and in two or three hours he was dead himself!…[The cholera] lasted two or three weeks. There seemed to be an uncommonly sharp smell after dark.] History of Randolph County, Indiana, E. Tucker, 1882: p. 78 and 87

Observers of the cholera always seem to mention the peculiar behavior of animals and birds. Today, of course, we would assume that mammalian or avian forms of the cholera (chicken and hog choleras were well known) were responsible. Often mentioned in the same breath were the unusual darkening or damage to metals exposed to the elements.

The author before us thinks that substances painted with white lead, and exposed to the air, suddenly assuming a dark color (the ozonometer will indicate impurity); and winds from unusual quarters, and unusual and long protracted calms, indicate the approach of a pestilential disease. The south winds have blown upon the city of Philadelphia ever since 1793, more constantly than in former years. Malignant and mortal epidemics are often preceded by uncommon sickness and mortality among certain birds and beasts. They have both appeared, chiefly among wild pigeons and cats, in the United States. The mortality among cats, previous to the appearance of epidemics, has been taken notice of in other countries. [735 cats died in the Indian town of Ahmednagar in less than a month in July 1881.] Dr. Willan says it occurred in the city of London, between the 20th of March and the 20th of April, in the year 1797, before a sickly season, and Dr. Beniecia says it preceded a mortal epidemic in Paris.

The common house-fly had nearly disappeared from our cities, mosquitoes have been multiplied, and several new insects have appeared just before the prevalence of some of our late malignant epidemics. A Treatise on epidemic cholera, Horatio Gates Jameson, 1855: p. 172

While I understand why mosquitoes might multiply without birds, I’m mystified by the repeated instances of disappearing house-flies.

 Within a week after the outbreak of the pestilence at Constantinople, in July last, the birds of all kinds, from the sparrow and swallow to the sea-gull and kite, absolutely disappeared from the capital, and by their return, early in September, announced with reanimating certainty the restored salubrity of the atmosphere. It was also said that the gilding on the caciques in the Golden Horn and the Bosporus was tarnished, especially in those localities where the Cholera had raged most severely. Epidemic Cholera; Its Mission and Mystery, Haunts and Havocs, Pathology and Treatment, John Macpherson 1866: p. 56 

This next account also contains another motif frequently mentioned in accounts of the cholera, that fish and meat rotted exceptionally quickly.

An especially remarkable and very interesting proof of the existence of a cosmical influence, rendering the atmosphere of those localities where cholera is epidemic unhealthy, is afforded by the fact that birds leave such places. The occasions have been so numerous and in so many different countries, that it is impossible to regard the coincidence as merely accidental. In 1846, on the occasion of the appallingly sudden outbreak of cholera at Kurraehee, the birds (chiefly crows and vultures, which, hovering about the town, act as scavengers) left the place. Even the common house-flies (one of the plagues of Scinde) disappeared from the houses and tents at the same time. As the epidemic declined the birds and flies gradually reappeared….F P. Hinckes Bird, Medical Officer of Health at Lytham, states that a physician, referring to the presence, about thirty years ago, of epidemic cholera in “a favourite sea side resort,” observed that the atmosphere appeared to be poisoned, for both the fishmonger and butcher told him that the fish and meat would not keep beyond a few hours; and, remarked one of them, casually, ” Have you noticed that all the birds have left?” The physician added, “True enough, not one was to be seen or heard in the place, and the first sign of an improvement in the sad state of things was a return of the feathered songsters.” Cholera Curable: A Demonstration of the Causes, Non-Contagiousness, and Successful Treatment of the Disease, John Chapman, M.D. 1885: p. 32

Some ingenious doctors decided to test this theory:

A Curious Experiment. A late foreign paper contains the following: “The doctors specially devoted to the care of cholera patients at Alexandria, have tried a curious experiment, the object of which is to ascertain whether that disease is caused by a peculiar state of the outward air, as has been supposed. They sent up two balloons, one from a village as yet untainted by the epidemic, and the other from Alexandria. A quarter of fresh beef was suspended to each balloon, which was allowed to float for a certain time in the air. On making these balloons descend, the meat which had floated over Alexandria was completely putrefied, whereas that which had been suspended over the healthy village was perfectly fresh. The quarters of beef had been cut off the same animal. Cape Ann Advertiser [Gloucester, MA] 1 September 1865: p. 2

Blood prodigies were reported:

Another memoir about the same time [the end of 1848] relates the singular phenomenon of a vivid vermilion matter, which, on October 20th, 1848, suddenly showed itself on the bread and other farinaceous substances in different parts of Berlin; and which was found, on examination, both there and in England, to consist of two fungi and one animal organism—the latter called by Ehrenberg the menas prodigiosa. It is a curious, though presumably casual co-incidence, that precisely the same phenomenon occurred in Philadelphia when the cholera was raging there in 1832. We have it in the relation of Quintus Curtius that, during the siege of Tyre by Alexander, the bread in the city was found suddenly stained with blood ; a miracle then—now explained in a manner scarcely less miraculous, but in accordance with the natural laws that pervade and govern the world. The Quarterly Review [London], 1850: p. 17

In 1910 the blood of St. Januarius liquified at his church in Naples, indicating to the populace that the cholera peril was over. Harrisburg [PA] Telegraph 20 September 1910: p. 2

And every imaginable misfortune was said to arise from cholera:

Domestic animals, such as cows, horses, cats, dogs, birds in cages, in short, part of all under confinement within doors, have sometimes been observed to sicken or die during the rage of an epidemic; women with child miscarried; iron, steel, and other polished metals corroded; leather become mouldy; clothes mothed and spoiled; beef, &c. putrefied; cheese mited; butter turned rancid; milk soured; the sky had a blood-red cast; the horizon an iron-bound appearance; the sun set every night in an unusual way; the very earth cracked or yawned, as if for its prey; the grass was alive with grasshoppers; the air was darkened with clouds of flies, and other insects; frogs croaked in the ponds, and sparrows, robins, and other small birds disappeared from the place. Such is a specimen of the frightful catalogue in the chapter of accidents, more or less of which have been noted down particularly by the older writers on epidemics. [The author goes on to explain away all of the above by natural means, a bit smugly, one thinks.] Dissertations on malaria, contagion, and cholera, William Aiton (M.D.) 1832: p. 47

A minor Fortean theme of the Victorian/Edwardian period was the appearance of those mysterious entities known as The Woman in Black. Veiled and dressed in black, they flitted about in the dark and  were thought to be harbingers of disease. Even royalty was not safe.


In 1850 a still more extraordinary thing occurred a few days before the death of Queen Theresa of Bavaria. King Louis and Queen Theresa were passing the Summer in the Castle of Aschaffenburg, where their son-in-law, the Grand Duke Louis III of Hesse-Darmstadt, came to see them. In the evening when all of the court were at tea several persons present saw a woman in deep mourning silently glide through the room. She stopped a moment behind the chair of the Queen and fixed her eyes upon Her Majesty. Then she disappeared through the door of the antechamber.

The Grand Duke arose hastily and rushed after the mysterious visitor. He was angry with the officer on guard for permitting a stranger to come in unannounced. The latter declared, however, that he did not see a single soul in the antechamber or in the royal parlor. The Duke came back and resumed his seat. His pale face excited the curiosity of the assembly and at last he was obliged to tell what had happened. Queen Theresa when she heard the description of the visitor arose with a cry. “It is for me that she has come.” Shortly afterward the Queen returned to Munich and died there of the cholera. Indianapolis [IN] Recorder 30 September 1905: p. 2

In 1892, a Woman in Black appeared in the area of Carbondale, Pennsylvania. The full story appears in The Ghost Wore Black: Ghastly Tales from the Past, but here is what the locals feared, a return of the “black fever” of 1864, which killed 400 out of a population of 6,000 at Carbondale:

Twenty-eight years ago this winter, the same woman in black, or one with the same habits, appeared three times, just as this one has done, and the memorable plague of black fever, which carried away scores of men, women and children in Carbondale and vicinity, followed her appearance.   Superstitious people hereabouts are greatly disturbed over the reappearance of this black ghost. Bismarck [ND] Daily Tribune 12 February 1892: p. 1

If I wanted to be even more Relentlessly Informative, I could mention the nasty habit cholera corpses had of sitting up, moving their limbs, or opening their eyes after the rigor wore off. Or the many people accidentally buried alive because some cholera victims fell into a coma as deep as death. And I haven’t even begun to track down the ghosts of black plague fatalities, although there is a cholera graveyard in Sandusky, Ohio, said to be haunted by those buried alive.

Cholera was a true horror, a quick and awful death that could not be outrun and for which there was no apparent cure. Did the terror induced by the black death distort perception so that ordinary occurences: food spoilage, tarnished metal, and miscarriage became imbued with some paranormal significance or were there genuinely mysterious events that deserved to be recognized as anomalous? And do such things still occur today whenever cholera appears?

Send thoughts to the (blue) fogged chriswoodyard8 AT

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 Join her on FB at Haunted Ohio by Chris Woodyard or The Victorian Book of the Dead. And visit her new blog at The Victorian Book of the Dead.

Undine, of Strange Company writes in with a spot-on parallel:

Re: your post on Cholera Curiosities: I was fascinated how similar those stories were to reports people made during the time of the (original) Black Death–ominous fogs, mysterious lights, strange animal behavior, and, of course, all manner of quack cures and superstitions aimed at driving off the disease. Some of your stories could come right out of the old chronicles. There were even reported sightings of strange humanoid-like figures (“Women in Black” prototypes!) At the time, of course, they were regarded as devils, come to spread the plague. Anyway, great job finding all these newspaper items! I had no idea cholera had its own fortean side.
Thanks, Undine!
And thanks to Floodmouse, who writes with a fascinating collection of observations:
I actually think that most of the “Fortean” manifestations have a plausible explanation.  Since cholera is a bacteria-caused disease, and since bacteria are also known to cause strange odors, unusual patterns of putrefaction, animal mortality, and strange animal behavior, it is not surprising to me that such things would occur during a cholera pandemic.  Unusual weather patterns may certainly be related to an outbreak of cholera-type disease, since stagnant water in ditches contaminated by bacteria must be one of the main vectors for the disease, and obviously, unusual storms and wind conditions can affect how much water there is standing around in the landscape.  The story about people in France being cured after they fell asleep intoxicated is interesting, because one thing diseases can do is to disrupt the immune system by not letting you get a full night’s sleep; a lot of healing takes place during the sleep cycle, and if you have severe diarrhea or a persistent cough, you are not getting a full night’s sleep and your immune system is hampered.  I have personally found that just taking a dose of NyQuil has cured coughs or digestive problems, just by letting me get some sleep.  (I’m not sure there is special healing magic in absinthe, although it’s a nice thought.)  Then the observation that drinking alcohol without getting intoxicated leads inevitably to death, which also makes sense, since alcohol dehydrates the body (already dehydrated by diarrhea) and would exacerbate the symptoms.  The brass prayer medals don’t seem likely to help, except as serving as a focus for prayer or for a simple placebo effect; and both prayer and the placebo effect have shown to have a positive statistical correlation with getting better, as compared to doing nothing at all; this is explained by the mind-body connection as expressed through breathing patterns, heart rate, etc. (you can certainly make yourself sicker by becoming anxious, so it follows that you can make yourself better by staying calm, and Mary Poppins-ishly, thinking happy thoughts).  I was especially interested in the observation of the bread turning red during cholera epidemics due to a combination of fungi and bacteria present on the bread.  This reminded me of an article I recently read online on (“How a Guy from a Montana Trailer Park Overturned 150 Years of Biology”), which I think is something Undine linked to on her “Strange Company” blog.  The article was about how scientists assumed the mystery of lichens was solved after they found a certain fungus living symbiotically with a bacterium; but it turns out that in order to make a lichen, you actually have to have TWO separate fungi (one of which had not been previously identified) in addition to the bacterium.  This makes me wonder if there are other microorganisms that bloom in conjunction with cholera, and maybe it is the combination of two organisms that create the pandemic condition, or make the diseases more likely to kill an individual (the symptoms of cholera exposure range from mild and virtually invisible, to fatal within two hours; has anyone satisfactorily explained why the same bacterium has such a wide range of outcomes in different individuals?  Are other microorganisms involved?) I’m not surprised by the peasants who tried swallowing petroleum products in the hope that it would kill whatever was eating out their guts; I’m not sure it would do any good (doubt it), but on the other hand, veterinary science for heartworm in the 1970s involved giving your dog increasingly large doses of arsenic until either the heartworm died, or the dog did.  In short, I think there is a reprehensible tendency for people now to assume that our ancestors were foolish and incapable of perceiving patterns, and to assume that any patterns they described were purely imaginary or delusional.  Just because you don’t understand a pattern that you are seeing, or if you give it a wrong explanation (religious, superstitious, whatever), that doesn’t mean that a pattern doesn’t exist.  It’s just a matter of testing things scientifically, and looking for the cause & effect relationship.  Thanks for another excellent post!
0.00 avg. rating (0% score) - 0 votes