Cholera’s here…

Henrietta Völks1 is not a relative of mine, although if the fates hadn’t been so cruel she might’ve been. She was my gg grandfather’s first wife whose life was cut quickly short by cholera.

Now fill your glasses to the brim,
And drink with steady eyes,
Here’s to those already dead
And here’s to the next who dies!2

When the ship Eleanore docked at the port of New York on June 23rd of 1852, on board was the married couple Friedrich Wilhelm Jahn and his wife of several years Henrietta. There were no children with them on the passenger list, and we do not know if they ever had any together.

F.W. and Henrietta’s final intended destination was Wisconsin. It is unknown exactly how they eventually made their way there, although, it was probably by steamboat across lake Michigan which was quite a popular route at the time. They most likely arrived in Milwaukee sometime in late July, early August and stayed either with relatives, friends or at one of the many boarding houses that took in the large numbers of recent immigrants.

Milwaukee was becoming quite the large metropolis at this time in Wisconsin’s history. Immigrants were flocking in by the thousands weekly from England, Germany, Ireland. This huge influx of people along with the crowded conditions of the city, poor sanitation and bad water, helped to spread the disease that was part of the worldwide cholera epidemic of 1849, which continued in several outbreaks until 1854.

Image of cholera victims.

The 1849 Cholera epidemic is believed to have arrived in the United States from the German ships arriving in New York and New Orleans, and by the next spring it began its steady spread through out the interior of the country.

The scariest part about cholera for folks at this time was: not understanding how it spread, and the swiftness with which it struck. You could be talking to a friend one day and they would appear to be in the best of health, and the next day you find out they are dead. One of the symptoms of the fear people experienced, was that they fled like rampaging cattle from the disease, in effect making sure of its spread to unaffected areas. If you were a victim of the disease you can be sure that many a family member or friend would abandon you in a heartbeat and leave you to your fate, in the hopes that they won’t catch the disease.

Doctors still didn’t really know what caused it, or how it spread. Newspapers and rumors were quick to use the immigrants as scapegoats. While part of the blame could be placed on these folks who brought it over from Europe, general lack of knowledge about its cause helped it along.

The epidemic re-emerged several times until about 1854. The 1852 epidemic while not nearly as virulent still managed to kill Henrietta. According to family stories, by September (only a few months after she arrived at her new home) she was dead.

At death, the cholera victim was wrapped in a white garment and then put in a wood box, after which the group of men hired to take care of the dead were called upon. They would haul the body off to the sand trenches where all the other bodies were buried. In some cases when a whole family had died, the neighbors would just torch the house with the bodies in it. It is believed that some folks were so desperate to dispose of the victims that there were cases of people being buried while not quite dead.

There is no known headstone or burial place for Henrietta, maybe she is one of the many unnamed victims buried in a potters field in Milwaukee.

So this year, I give thanks for the advances we have made in modern medicine, science, and our understanding of the world around us. I will also raise a glass in honor of Henrietta, whose life was cut brutally and abruptly short.

1 Henrietta’s last name has been seen spelled many different ways including, Voaks, Voeks, Voöks.

2 For further information on this subject I highly recommend this article “Disease and Sickness on the Wisconsin Frontier: Cholera”, by Peter T. Harstad; Wisconsin Magazine of History, Spring 1960, (pages 203-217).

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