Tag Archives: cholera

“A Great House of Mourning”

Cholera devastated “My Old Kentucky Home” in 1833

We’ve blogged in the past about Kentuckians’ varied reactions to epidemics of disease.  In 1833, cholera’s assault on Federal Hill in Bardstown left permanent scars on the surviving members of the Rowan family. During an outbreak in Bowling Green in 1850, by contrast, a young man affected amusement as he witnessed some rather chaotic attempts at social distancing.  Somewhere in the emotional middle was a Scott County native taking public health training in Philadelphia during the influenza epidemic of 1918; struggling with illness himself, he nevertheless viewed the deluge of cases at the city’s hospital as interesting subjects for clinical study – if they didn’t die first. 

At home in Arkansas in 1835, Jane Washington Walker must have been dumbstruck when she read her mother’s letter.  “The cholera has been among us,” wrote Rebecca Smith Washington from Russellville, Kentucky, as the scourge turned her town into “a Great House of Mourning.”

In language reminiscent of those reporting from today’s virus “hot spots,” Rebecca proceeded to recount in grim detail what the disease had wrought.  “It broke out last Friday night three weeks ago with great violence, in twenty four hours there was nine widows left to mourn the sudden death of their husbands.”  What followed was a parade of names—all known to Jane—and all dead: husbands, wives, children, neighbors, acquaintances, enslaved people.  The disease initially “raged more violently among the Negroes than the White people,” her mother reported, and those who had somewhere to escape to had quickly left town.  Rebecca closed her school.  Stores “shut up, their owners either dead or fled to the country.”  Those who remained were fearful of contact with others.  Though she “felt like I was signing the death warrant of a great part of my family,” Rebecca nevertheless agreed to shelter the family of a man helping to nurse the sick.  She praised the other first responders of the day, even though they could do little to alleviate the suffering.  “The young men performed every office male and female,” she observed, from tending the victims to making coffins out of boxes and planks, digging graves and burying the dead. 

The epidemic was subsiding, but Rebecca’s lingering shock was still evident.  As she watched merchants begin to reopen their stores, and townspeople return to their deserted (and in some cases, burglarized) homes, her thoughts were of her loved ones.  She had long contemplated pulling up stakes and moving to Arkansas; now that “life has become so uncertain,” her desire to do so was overwhelming.  “I shall never enjoy life again,” she wrote Jane, “until I join you.”

Click on the links to access finding aids for these collections, part of the Manuscripts & Folklife Archives of WKU’s Department of Library Special Collections.  For more collections, search TopSCHOLAR and KenCat.

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“The Elephant Was the Great Show”

The circus comes to Bowling Green, 1921 (Kentucky Library)

The circus comes to Bowling Green, 1921 (Kentucky Library)

The recent news that Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus will shut down “The Greatest Show on Earth” in May 2017 brings to mind Bowling Green’s long history of circuses, some of which is documented in the Manuscripts & Folklife Archives collections of WKU’s Department of Library Special Collections.

Research into the city license records by a former librarian reveals that by 1875, some 36 circuses had come through Bowling Green, often several times a year.  The P. T. Barnum circus paid for its first license in 1853, with an additional fee for “one side show.”  The very first circus, however, appears to have been in 1839, when the “Raymond & Waxing” troupe came to town.  A witness to the extravaganza was Henry Fox, who marveled at the many kinds of animals, including camels and lions.  But “the elephant was the great show,” he remembered, the biggest creature he had ever seen: “He had tusks that come out and crossed and he could throw his snout up and drop it down.”

In an age when entertainment on such a scale was rare, the arrival of the circus in Bowling Green caused tremendous excitement.  One April day in 1879, 15-year-old Josephine Calvert went to school as usual, where her older sister Lida happened to be the teacher.  Lida, however, had to give up and dismiss the class when only three students showed up.  The reason?  “There is a circus in town,” Josie wrote in her diary, “and all are perfectly crazy.”

True to their reputations, circus folk and their animals could generate some strange legends.  Born in 1852, Elizabeth Gaines recalled her mother’s description of a cholera epidemic in Bowling Green “said to have been caused from the death of a very large snake,” that had expired while the circus was in town.  “They buried the snake,” Elizabeth was told, but some of the people connected with the circus also fell victim to the disease.

Click on the links to access finding aids for these collections.  For more, search TopSCHOLAR and KenCat.

"Step right on in" (Fannie Morton Bryan Collection)

“Step right on in” (Fannie Morton Bryan Collection)

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Absquatulate!

Muster notice to Andrew Kellis, 1847 (SC 98)

Muster notice to Andrew Kellis, 1847 (SC 98)

In 1849, 26-year-old David Barclay Campbell and some other young Warren County, Kentucky men were out west trying to strike it rich in the gold fields of California.  David’s family and friends wrote from Bowling Green to update him on all the local gossip, but one of his pals (the torn letter has obliterated his name) was particularly chatty and irreverent.  He even found something to snicker about when recounting the city’s cholera outbreak of 1850, which “swept away several of our inhabitants to that last resting place in which there is no return.”

Writing jauntily of efforts to avoid the scourge, he declared that “Never in my life did I witness such confusion [as] a great many of our citizens vamosed or absquatulated to parts unknown.”  Unfortunately, the contagion occurred at the same time as a scheduled drill of the county militia, and David’s correspondent mirthfully described the outcome: “[A]s the military gentlemen armed and equipped as the law directs, would come riding in squads & sections and approach the main plaza or square of the city & hear of cholera, they would wheel to the right about face in double quick time, and homewards antelope without waiting [for] orders.”  And so, he concluded, “the glittering steels and toploftical plumages” of the citizen-soldiers “remained unsheathed,” and gone were the “conspicuous field officers parading up and down the streets on their high headed war nags.”  But no matter.  The gloomy summer plague soon passed, business and social life revived, and our correspondent resumed his youthful pursuits.

Letters to David Campbell during his sojourn in California are part of the Garvin Collection in the Manuscripts & Folklife Archives section of WKU’s Department of Library Special Collections.  Click here to access a finding aid.  For more collections, search TopSCHOLAR and KenCat.

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A Family’s Sorrow

Federal Hill, Bardstown, Kentucky

Federal Hill, Bardstown, Kentucky

When John Rowan (1773-1843) married Ann Lytle (1774-1849), Ann’s father, Revolutionary War veteran William Lytle, made a gift to the couple of a 1,300-acre tract near Bardstown, Kentucky.  The Rowan estate at Federal Hill (as it became known) is now famous for inspiring Stephen Foster’s ballad, “My Old Kentucky Home.”

Foster’s song conjures up a bucolic setting enlivened by the Rowans’ nine children, but late in July, 1833 a dark shadow passed over Federal Hill.  Since the previous year, cholera had been stalking the residents of Kentucky, and when it finally reached Bardstown it tore through the Rowan family like a scythe.  Within a matter of days, John Rowan lost a daughter, Mary Jane, her husband William and their daughter, also named Mary Jane; a son, William Lytle Rowan and his wife, Eliza Boyce Rowan; another son, Atkinson Hill Rowan, just back from a diplomatic post in Spain; a sister, Elizabeth Rowan Kelly, and her husband William, who happened to be visiting; and 26 enslaved plantation workers.  Sixteen years later, the disease also claimed Rowan’s widow, Ann.

The Rowans distinguished themselves in law, politics and business, but their correspondence sometimes hinted at the trauma the family had suffered.  Orphaned children and the estates of suddenly departed relatives required attention from the survivors.  In particular, the losses seemed to haunt John Rowan’s daughter, Anne Rowan Buchanan.  “I am very feeble,” she wrote her sister Alice from Covington.  “I am so much affraid of cholera that my apetite has failed me.”  In the summer of 1848, Ann’s husband, Dr. Joseph Rodes Buchanan, became alarmed at the lack of letters from Alice’s family and feared the worst.  “What can it mean — can it be that there is sickness among you which you wish to conceal from us?” he wrote.  “Mrs. B. naturally dreads that such may be the case. . . . Let me beg of you to write immediately and say if you are all well or what is the matter.”  Perhaps the tragedy in his wife’s family contributed to Dr. Buchanan’s belief in spiritualism, mesmerism and communicating with the dead, described in letters written while pursuing his medical career in New York.

A finding aid for the Rowan Family Papers, available in the Manuscripts & Folklife Archives section of WKU’s Special Collections Library, can be downloaded by clicking here.  For several other collections relating to the Rowan family and Federal Hill, search TopSCHOLAR and KenCat.

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