ebook  History of Watertown, Wisconsin


The Cholera




In 1854 during a cholera epidemic my mother, brother and a sister were taken by this dreadful disease.  The coffins were homemade out of bass wood lumber and were usually made by members of the family.  In 1860 another sister was killed when her dress was caught in a tumbling rod while threshing.   [Derived from memories of August Moldenhauer]





It was brought over the Atlantic by the steamer Atlanta from Europe, which arrived at New York on the 3rd.  There is little danger that this country will suffer from this Asiatic scourge this season.  But the fact that not only the winds but the vessels may bring it to our shores and that it may rapidly spread into the interior should be a warning to prepare for this terrible and fatal epidemic.  In every city, whatever can be done to avert or mitigate its deadly visitation should be accomplished without delay.  Next summer we may look for its appearance elsewhere.  Already there has been sufficient warning to lead all to prepare for its presence.  We ought not to wait until the evil is upon us, and all its consternations and fear, before measures are adopted to ward off its all-pervading malignity. 


Our city should be cleansed and cleared of everything that has a tendency to draw or increase its violence.  We may now console ourselves with the reflection that for the present we are safe, but it is well to bear in mind that at some future day we may pay dear for our delusive security in the decimation of this community by the sudden arrival and raging of this disease among us.  Now is the time to take preventive steps and put our city in the best condition of defense against this frightful evil.   WD 



A citizen handed us the following communication with the request that it be published.  It certainly calls attention to a very important subject – one that should not be neglected but which could very easily be attended to now to a certain extent.


Our city generally is healthy, but when a whole continent is threatened with the ravages of a deadly pestilence, it is the part of wisdom and safety to do in advance whatever can be done to mitigate its fatal violence.  Let us see to the things that belong to our welfare.


Cholera Generators Around the City


If our city fathers would occasionally run their noses around the butcher shops and alleys they would discover stench pools enough, even in the principal parts of the city, of so foul and offensive a character as to convince them that a remedy ought be applied without delay.  The vilest refuse, offal and filth is daily thrown into the alleys and gutters, there to fester and decay, and even in this cold and frosty weather, one is compelled to close his eyes and hold his nose to avoid the repulsive sight and sickening odors. 


When Coleridge visited the city of Cologne he declared that he counted thirty-nine separate and distinct smells, each one of which was enough to knock a man down.  Watertown can beat that, even in winter.  In warmer weather, these seething cesspools will become terrible cholera generators.  Suppose we should have an open winter and sickly spring, and cholera sweeps over land, would not the dreaded scourge rage with ten-fold fury here on account of the pre-disposing causes now in our midst.  Now is the time to clean out these dirty places.  If there are no public funds applicable to this necessary work the Common Council can at least serve a notice upon every householder who creates these nuisances and compel him to clear [clean] them up before a whole community suffers from his wanton and selfish negligence.   WD 


Cholera in Watertown Wisconsin

by W. F. Jannke III


What a fortunate age in which we live! There are pills to spur hair growth and virility and shots to combat tuberculosis, polio and measles. New discoveries are being made each and every day by scientists and chemists working in spotless labs throughout the globe. Oh there are still epidemics and out-breaks of new illnesses and there are plenty of old illnesses that are still being fought. But should, Heaven forbid, another epidemic arise we have a much better chance of survival than our ancestors did. 


If we turn back the hands of time and look at life here, in Watertown, 150 year ago we are confronted not with the tidy little city that we would expect but with, rather, a raw frontier village. Watertown was a village rapidly being filled with people both English speaking as well as foreign speaking, all of whom were trying to better their lives. To show how crowded things were getting one need only consult the files of the Watertown Chronicle. In 1847 the Chronicle reported that everything in the shape of a house is crowded to overflowing. We know of one slab shantee in which 17 persons are obliged to find elbow room as best they can. The streets were muddy and nearly impassable during certain times of the year. Animals roamed at will through the village leaving unmistakable evidence of their presence behind them. And the two-legged variety of animal was no better. Garbage was thrown into the streets and alley ways. Members of households would throw slops and other waste matter out onto the back yard. Outhouses were improperly dug and their contents often leached into the water supply. In 1849 the local newspaper commented that Watertown was filthy. Stagnant water is found in parts of it, and in others the carcasses of animals. 


There was no Board of Health. The only doctors here at that time were Doctors J. R. Goodenough, Cokely, Breckenridge, Hamilton and James Cody. They were general practitioners who tried their best to combat the common ailments of the time. Most people had a certain mistrust of doctors, however, and preferred to try to dose themselves with patent medicines bought from druggists like Dr. Edward Johnson, or Joseph Schubert or William C. Fountain. Death occurred more often than cures, even if the patient went to a doctor. With time would come more advanced understanding of diseases and their treatments. But that wouldn’t be until the future. In 1849 the doctors were totally unprepared to deal with an outbreak of a then incurable disease which would rival the great influenza epidemic of 1918: Cholera. 


Cholera first reared its ugly head in Watertown in 1849 and it would return with varying degrees each year until 1854 when, for some inexplicable reason, it would vanish. Cholera was spread through the consumption of infected food or water. It thrived in dense populations and left in its wake a high death rate. Given the uncleanliness of the village at the time the atmosphere was ripe for the spread of contagion. Cholera usually struck in the months of July and August and cases would occur up till the middle of September. One resident recalled that during the summer months at that time the weather was perfect for breeding the germs. Each day was boiling hot and each night there were thunderstorms and much rain which left puddles of stagnant water in the muddy streets. 


Newspapers of the time reported that cholera was attacking cities along the eastern sea coast and rapidly making its way westward. Milwaukee was hit first and the Chronicle reported with some fear that it may strike Watertown and people should look towards cleaning their properties. Something must be done, and done soon, if you would escape the scourge, the Chronicle reported in 1849. The utmost cleanliness should be observed about your premises, and unslacked lime used in liberal quantities. 


But despite the warnings people began dropping like flies. The symptoms of cholera and the swiftness with which it crept upon a person were the worst aspects. The symptoms of cholera ran thusly: the affected person would at first experience a faint fluttering sensation in the heart, followed by dizziness, headaches, cramps in the legs, indigestion, and a sense of creeping closeness over the surface of the body accompanied by occasional hot flashes of fever. As the disease progressed colic-like pains would wander through the body. Vomiting became severe and a loss of bowel control would also occur. In addition, the inside of the mouth took on a darker hue than normal and an insatiable thirst would ensue. Towards the end the symptoms would worsen and then, just before death, everything eases and sweet oblivion would come with but little additional suffering. The sad fact about cholera is that if a person managed to survive the first few days of an attack a full recovery could be expected. But the cures often killed swifter than the actual disease. 


One such treatment called for the infected person to be dosed every half an hour with a mixture of gum opium, gum camphor and carbonate of soda. Another treatment to aid in combating the cold, clammy feeling involved bathing the person with a mixture of brandy and cayenne pepper. Quack cures began to surface at this time. One doctor in Watertown, an African-American named Butler. claimed he could cure cholera, but unfortunately he died of it. In an ironic twist his head was turned over to medical students for dissection purposes afterwards, so he did serve a purpose. 


The Watertown Chronicle in 1849 also advised that great care should also be advised in your diet, as little cold water as possible used, and excesses of fatigue studiously guarded against. Since the cause of the disease was not generally known at this time it was felt that people should be cautious in their daily activities. An 1850 article went on to state that people should drink no alcohol, and but little cold water; be moderate in your diet, confining yourselves principally to vegetable food... People were not only advised to discard the use and consumption of green corn, cucumbers, melons and unripe potatoes, but they were also advised to avoid as much as possible the night air and to be careful of even living in houses with rotting vegetables in their root cellars. It was felt that cholera was often passed through the air, where it hung like a spectral miasma. An 1849 Chronicle article also added that in relation to preventatives, the best are a quiet, cheerful state of mind. . . .


To avoid the cholera, people took to escaping the infected cities, fleeing into the country. The Chronicle reprimanded its readers in 1851 for this action by saying, nothing is to be gained by ingloriously fleeing the place; but every man should consider himself a nurse, and step forward to the relief of the suffering with cheerfulness and alacrity. 


Cholera was no respecter of class. In 1850 the local paper remarked with some astonishment that the disease made its appearance on one of the highest points of ground on the east side of the river, and one heretofore considered as the most healthy portion of the town...the victims have been among the first class of our citizens--those who have been regular in their habits and abstemious in their diet... In 1849, the first year of the scourge, 54 cases were reported here, 19 of which resulted in death. One old resident recalled that on Main Street at this time, everyday from August through the middle of September one would meet 6 to 8 funerals. 


People were getting frantic. Whole families were dying within a short span of days. What could be causing this outbreak? Well the Chronicle unwittingly hit the nail on the head when it reported in 1850 that all the fatal cases, thus far, have occurred within about 20 rods of the house where the disease first appeared, and most of them within half the distance! It was obviously the polluted water. The paper repeatedly called on the townspeople to clean up their properties. Cellars and yards should be cleansed, the obstructions to drains removed and lime profusely scattered in streets, yards and vaults... railed Jonathan Hadley, editor of the Watertown Chronicle in 1850. 


One of the biggest outrages was the running at large of swine on the public streets. People complained constantly, but it wasn’t until 1853 that an ordinance outlawing such a practice was enacted. But by then the effects of cholera, still nasty to be sure, has been somewhat alleviated. In fact, since 1851 the strain of cholera here began to have a lessening impact. But there was still a crying need for a Board of Health in Watertown. The 1849 village charter specified the establishment of such a body but one would not be created until well after the cholera days. But despite this things began to get better. 


By 1853 the clean up had begun. The Chronicle at this time reported that our streets are beginning to assume a somewhat neater appearance. . . With the removal of animal wastes and improvements in sewerage disposal, even as practiced by individual citizens to varying degrees of success, the health of the city improved immeasurably. So much so in fact, that on May 18, 1853 The Watertown Chronicle was able to boast that Owing to the healthfulness of our city, the two hearses formerly owned here have been sent to localities where they are likely to find more employment. . . . 


In 1854, to the amazement of many, cholera made its final appearance here. Its final visitation prompted the editor of the Chronicle to write one last editorial decrying the need for better sanitation: Our authorities have too long neglected the purification of our city...The city council have the power to take all steps necessary...It is their duty to do so...We do not know but our city fathers may withhold all efforts for the restoration of the public health until frightened into activity by the ghosts of members of their own households...our people expect--nay, they demand--that at this crisis they ACT, and act with vigor...A board of health should be established and a thorough system of purification entered upon at one...Mayor [Theodore] Prentiss!...see to it that before the going down of next Saturday’s sun, the more grievous of the nuisances. . . be abated. . . .


Though cholera did make a brief reappearance in the early 1870s, in a much milder form, the disease, for all intents and purposes, left Watertown for good after 1854. One positive thing that came out of this epidemic was the formation of health departments, city sanitation, the founding of hospitals and orphanages throughout the nation. In Watertown it wouldn’t be until well after the turn of the century that a hospital would be founded and a health department would be implemented but the city did begin to keep its streets and public nuisances in better order. It wouldn’t be until the turn of the century that muddy or dirt streets would be replaced with paved ones and it would be even later than that before the last horse-drawn vehicles would be observed on our streets. But as a result of this epidemic the citizens here stopped, at least for a little while, taking things like public health for granted. Especially those who lost loved ones in the great cholera epidemic in Watertown.




Table of Contents 

History of Watertown, Wisconsin