Letters from John Pintard

July 3rd, 2008

John Pintard (1759-1844) 

Samuel Waldo (1783-1861) and William Jewett (1795-1873). John Pintard, 1832. Oil on wood panel. The Louis Durr Fund, 1928.1. 

Unlike most upper-class New Yorkers who had left the city by the height of the 1832 cholera epidemic, John Pintard (1759-1844) remained and reported that summer’s events in letters to his daughter in New Orleans. Pintard belonged to that first generation of post-Revolutionary municipal leaders who considered civic duty on par with material progress; he was a leader in many charitable and educational organizations, and in 1804 founded the New-York Historical Society. But, also typical for his class, he held the notion that those who contracted cholera had brought the wrath of God upon themselves by leading lives that lacked moral restraint. On July 13th he wrote:

At present it is almost exclusively confined to the lower classes of intemperate[,] dissolute & filthy people huddled together like swine in their polluted habitations. A visitation [of cholera] like the present may work beneficially to promote Temperance, proving a blessing instead of a curse.

And on July 19th:

We have a very heavy report this day, whi[ch,] however[,] does not in my opinion increase the cause for alarm. Those sickened must be cured or die off, & being chiefly of the very scum of the city, the quicker [their] dispatch the sooner the malady will cease.

Pintard wrote his daughter that the book he held in the portrait was the then immensely popular The Holy Bible Containing the Old and New Testaments; with Original Notes, and Pracitcal Observations, by the Rev. Thomas Scott, open to Psalm 90 (Lord, thou hast been our dwelling place in all generations), “my favorite com[mentar]y & psalm, both well adapted to my taste and years.” Scott’s commentary read, in part:

The sentiments indeed of the psalm are never unsuitable to our situation in the world: but they would be particularly adapted to the case of a pious man, in a time of pestilence, when thousands were swept away on every side of him.

Pintard’s complete cholera-related correspondence may be found in volume 4 (covering 1832-1833) of Letters from John Pintard to his Daughter Eliza Noel Pintard Davidson, 1816-1833 (New York: Printed for the New-York Historical Society, 1941). The book is available for perusal in the N-YHS library.

Faces of Cholera: “M.M.”

June 24th, 2008

Two images from Horatio Bartley, Illustrations of Cholera Asphyxia in its Different Stages, Selected From Cases Treated at the Cholera Hospital, Rivington Street (New York: S.H. Jackson, 1832). No case studies accompany these images, which seem to show the same woman.



Faces of Cholera: “J.B.” or “T.B.”

June 12th, 2008

Image and case study from Horatio Bartley, Illustrations of Cholera Asphyxia in its Different Stages, Selected From Cases Treated at the Cholera Hospital, Rivington Street (New York: S.H. Jackson, 1832).  The initials on the image and case study differ slightly, but this is probably a typographical error.


“T.B. aged 40, born in England; temperate drinker. This man walked into the Hospital on the 25th of August, 10 o’clock P.M. and requested lodgings for the night, as he felt bad. In half an hour he was observed to rub his bowels and shortly after was attacked with cholera symptoms; cramps came on, and his extremities became cold; countenance and eyes sunken, pulse scarcely perceptible. Frictions with hot vinegar and cayenne pepper to the extremities and abdomen; and Sinapisms to the Epigastro. 11 o’clock, seems better and perspiring. 26th 1 o’clock, every symptom of colapse [sic] fully developed: pulse gone. Every thing was done that was necessary; and he died on 26th 10 o’clock P.M. after an illness of 12 hours.”

Cholera Today

May 28th, 2008

During the course of this exhibition, poverty, natural disasters and war have all continued  to create breeding grounds for cholera in Africa, the Middle East and Southeast Asia.  On May 2 Cyclone Nargis hit Myanmar creating the most recent outbreak.

The Associated Press: Conditions ripe for disease in Myanmar delta 

World Health Organization:  Cholera 

MSF-USA: Cholera Information Page 

Google News: News stories about cholera 

Topix: News stories about cholera 

New York Times Topics: News & features on cholera

Pieces of Silver

May 20th, 2008

Presentation Pitcher, 1833 

Jared L. Moore (American, active 1825-1852),  Presentation Pitcher, 1833, Silver, New-York Historical Society, Gift of Reverend Lanford Baldwin, 1977.11

This pitcher is inscribed: 

“From the Citizens of the Thirteenth Ward, to ALDERMAN JAMES PALMER; as a Memorial of his Philanthropy, Humanity and Assiduity, during the prevalence of the Epidemick Cholera in the year 1832 New York, June 1833.”

Rivington Street, site of one of the temporary Cholera hospitals set up by the Board of Health in 1832, runs through the Thirteenth Ward.  Whether Alderman Palmer broke the mold of his largely ineffective colleagues on the Board is unclear, but this pitcher is probably similar to the “suitably inscribed” silver presented by the Board to each of the ten physicians who voluntarily ministered to the cholera victims of the Second Ward.  The irony of using a vessel to hold liquids for such a commemoration would not become apparent for another two decades.

In 1854, when London was hit by a severe outbreak of cholera, theories of its cause abounded as they had during prior outbreaks.  Prominent physician Dr. John Snow (1813-1858) argued that the disease was not spread by airborne miasmas, but rather was caused by poisons from the excretions of victims contaminating the water supply. Snow tested his idea by plotting reported cases of cholera on a map of London’s Soho district. He discovered that most victims drew their water at the same source – a public pump on Broad (now Broadwick) Street.  His study convinced the local parish council to disable the pump by removing its handle.  It was later shown that the outbreak began when water used to wash an infected baby’s diapers was thrown into an old, leaking cesspit adjacent to the well.   Snow’s study, a seminal event in the history of public health, led to the general acceptance of germ theory and the foundation of scientific epidemiology.

Faces of Cholera: “J.V.”

May 9th, 2008

Image and case study from Horatio Bartley, Illustrations of Cholera Asphyxia in its Different Stages, Selected From Cases Treated at the Cholera Hospital, Rivington Street (New York: S.H. Jackson, 1832).  


“J.V. aged thirty-two, born in England, blacksmith; purging came on yesterday, and spasms and vomiting this morning; countenance sunken; surface cold; pulse scarcely perceptible; tongue cold and covered with yellow fur; spasms in the legs; admitted 27th July, at half-past ten o’clock, A.M. in state of colapse [sic]. Was ordered camphorated mercur. frictions; sinapisms to the abdomen. Was under medical treatment until 27th, and died at half past eight o’clock P.M. after an illness of ten hours.”

A Whole Family Swept Off

April 30th, 2008

New York’s 1832 cholera epidemic centered on the built-up tip of southern Manhattan Island, but the 1849 outbreak reached even outlying areas. In the rural town of Gravesend, Long Island (today a neighborhood in southern Brooklyn), one farmer and his entire family—his mother, wife, and children—died in the span of six days. Ferdinand Van Sicklen’s wife, Eleanor/Ellen (Stoothoff) Van Sicklen died on August 18, 1849. His son, Cornelius, died the same day. His mother, Maria (Johnson) Van Sicklen, died on the 21st. Ferdinand died on the 23rd, followed by his married daughter, Eleanor/Ellen Maria (Van Sicklen) Stillwell. (All lie buried in the landmarked Van Sicklen Family Cemetery on Gravesend Neck Road in Brooklyn.) While the accompanying account from the Brooklyn Daily Eagle of Saturday, August 25, 1849 misspells the family’s surname and takes much poetic license (Ferdinand in fact died of cholera and not from despair), it illustrates vividly the frightening speed at which the disease claimed victims.




Padre Félix Varela, Social Reformer

April 25th, 2008

Portrait of Father Félix Varela (1788–1853), Frontispiece from José Ignacio Rodriguez, Vida del Presbitero Don Félix Varela (Nueva York: Impresta de “O Novo Mundo,” 1878)

While many Protestant clergymen fled to safety during New York’s 1832 cholera epidemic, their Catholic colleagues remained and actively ministered to the sick and dying. Preeminent among these clerics was Father Félix Varela (1788-1853), who was said to have “lived in the hospitals.” The risks of such work were extreme – in the Greenwich Street hospital fourteen of the sixteen nurses died.  This heroism eased, if only temporarily, the blatant anti-Catholicism of many in the Protestant majority.

Félix Varela (declared venerable by Pope John Paul II in 2003) was born in Havana and early on chose a religious, albeit intellectual, life during a period when the city’s liberal bishop promulgated many health and educational reforms. Father Varela taught and published widely on philosophy, the sciences and law at the San Carlos and San Ambrosio Seminary, before being appointed a Cuban representative to the Cortes, the Spanish legislature. After promulgating many liberal causes, including Cuban independence and the abolition of slavery, he was declared guilty of treason and driven into exile in New York. There, in a period of ethnic divisiveness the local, predominantly Irish, Catholics treated Varela as a saint because of his intense devotion to the poor. Varela worked hard to build bridges not only between the many nationalities represented in New York’s Catholic community, but also with his Protestant colleagues in the ministry. His multi-cultural legacy lives on in the primarily Chinese congregation of the Church of the Transfiguration, founded by him in 1836. In 1997 the US Postal Service issued a stamp in his honor entitled “Padre Félix Varela, Social Reformer.”

Faces of Cholera: “M.W.” or “N.W.”

April 22nd, 2008

Image and case study from Horatio Bartley, Illustrations of Cholera Asphyxia in its Different Stages, Selected From Cases Treated at the Cholera Hospital, Rivington Street (New York: S.H. Jackson, 1832). The initials on the image and case study differ slightly, but this is probably a typographical error.


“N.W. Born in New-York, live in Goeric [Goerck] street; intemperate. Admitted at 12 o’clock, August 2d. was attacked with diarrhea and vomiting on the 31st July, had cramps last evening, secretion of urin scanty, surface of body warm, great pain in the head; tongue slightly furred. Was cupped on the temples and put under medical treatment. 5 O’clock P.M. has vomited up to this time every few minutes. Tinct. Camph. and Black Drops, were given to allay the vomiting. One o’clock P.M. has vomited only once since, no passage from the bowels, since admission. Seven o’clock P.M. an injection was given, and one scruple of calomel. August 5th, 2 o’clock P.M. was sent to the Convalescent Hospital, cured.”

Keeping Count

April 18th, 2008

By July and August 1832, the height of New York’s first cholera epidemic, those untouched by the disease had little to do but watch, wait, and follow its progress. The City’s Board of Health, comprised of the mayor and aldermen, appointed a three-member commission to address the growing crisis. Although powerless against the raging epidemic, this minuscule force proved remarkably efficient at gathering statistics, and issued daily reports announcing the numbers of new cases and deaths since the previous morning, with the addresses where they occurred. The tallies, posted in public places, were eagerly anticipated. As James Riker, Jr. recalled in a memoir of this time, “We scarcely ventured farther than the apothecary’s opposite to obtain drugs, or examine the daily report of deaths by cholera, new cases [of] which Dr. White kept upon [a] playcard [sic] at his door for the accommodation of the neighbors. We watched this bulletin with a good deal of interest.”

One senses the mounting panic generated by these published statistics in a letter written by the printer William S. Bayley, who charted the approaching disease for worried relatives then safely on Long Island (23 July 1832):

On Sunday (yesterday) the Park [City Hall Park] was black with persons anxiously waiting for the day’s report…. It [cholera] has been at No. 5 Walker Street, yesterday No. 9, and there was a case in our block in Church Street. The report to day shows five cases in Walker Street on the other or farther side of the Bowery. In a word, the disease is so completely spread that we were counting yesterday and could not recollect a street in which it had not been with the single exception of Park Place.

The broadside below is the one Bayley read on Sunday 22 July 1832.  Click here to see the portion showing the address 9 Walker Street.