Covid-19 has turned our lives upsides down. From our workplaces to our playgrounds and politics to the stock market, each day seems to take us further into a state of unsettling unknowns. Events are suspended, postponed and then canceled. Recommendations and forecasts change daily, causing our uncertainties and our unease to multiply. And we have no idea when this state of affairs will end. At a personal level, we have no choice but to learn how to dwell in uncertainty; at a communal level, we must be vigilant about the radical changes such events cause and also open to their opportunities. Remembering the history of cholera — and reading contemporary writings from during its outbreaks — can teach us on these counts.
Cholera was a wholly new disease for Americans in the 1830s. It had appeared in North America for the first time on June 6, 1832, after arriving from Ireland on a boat called The Carrick and quickly moved through Quebec and Montreal down the East Coast. The consequences were devastating. An otherwise healthy individual might have stomach pains in the morning, suffer vomiting and diarrhea shortly after, and die, sometimes within hours. The diptych was a popular form of visually representing the experience of cholera’s quick work: On one side was a person in the bloom of health, and on the other, the same figure, sick with a blue tint and pinched face. Cholera was significantly more deadly than covid-19 and killed much more quickly; it had a 50 percent mortality rate and killed millions worldwide.
Writings from the 19th-century cholera pandemics can help connect us to the terrifying, rapidly changing experiences of pandemics past. For example, facing the deep uncertainty of the 1849 Cincinnati outbreak, Harriet Beecher Stowe tried staying strong. Worried her husband might get sick on the journey from Brattleboro, Vt., she told him not to come home, explaining in a letter dated June 29 that even though cholera had taken 116 lives in the city that day and “the air was of that peculiarly oppressive, deathly kind that seemed to lie like lead on the brain and soul … none of us are sick and it is very uncertain whether we shall be.” But on July 26 she had to write that their “dear little” Charley was dead. “I write as though there were no sorrow like my sorrow, yet there has been in this city,” she reflected, “scarce a house without its dead. This heartbreak, this anguish, has been everywhere, and when it will end God alone knows.”
The popular gothic stories of the period captured the experience of cholera well — and some medical literature even adopted gothic language in its discussion of the disease. People and spaces that seemed natural, predictable, familiar one day could be inexplicably and uncannily rendered unnatural, unpredictable and foreign the next. In some cases, the onset of the disease occurred without warning, and, as Stowe’s account suggests, it could bring a city suddenly to its knees. Furthermore, the extreme symptoms could transform the appearance of loved ones shockingly quickly and horrifically.