The population of New York City was 515,547 at the beginning of 1849. When a cholera epidemic broke out that spring, about 100,000 people fled the city. Of those who remained, 5,071 succumbed to the disease. The July 8 issue of The Christian Intelligencer reported that 358 New Yorkers died of cholera in the week of June 30 through July 7. Also on July 7, Edgar Allan Poe wrote his mother-in-law, “I have been so ill — have had the cholera, or spasms quiet as bad, and can now hardly hold the pen…The very instant you get this, come to me. The joy of seeing you will almost compensate for our sorrows. We can but die together. It is no use to reason with me now; I must die…For your sake it would be sweet to live, but we must die together.” Poe wrote “New York” at the top of the page, but he probably wrote it in nearby Philadelphia, which was also suffering from a cholera epidemic. Twelve days later, he wrote his friend E.H.N. Patterson that he had “barely escaped with my life” from the cholera epidemic.
On August 7, Poe wrote Patterson that he had “suffered worse than death — not so much from the Cholera as from its long-continued consequences in debility and congestion of the brain — the latter, possibly, attributable to the calomel taken.” Calomel was a medicine derived from toxic mercury. One of many potentially dangerous “remedies” doctors of the time often prescribed to those suffering from a variety of maladies.
At a time before the acceptance of germ theory, doctors had little understanding of the causes of diseases and virtually no comprehension of how to cure them. Various quack remedies for cholera included prescribing opium, mercury pills, and oil of turpentine. If these failed to produce results, the doctor might perform tobacco smoke enemas or administer beeswax plugs to stop the diarrhea associated with the disease. The following article from the New York lists a few other proposed “cures.”
Unknown to North America before 1832, cholera tore a path of destruction across the continent that year as part of a worldwide pandemic that had begun in India and swept westward through Europe before crossing the Atlantic. In an April 9, 1832 letter, the German poet Henirich Heine described the arrival of cholera in Paris.
On March 29th, the night of mi-careme, a masked ball was in progress, the chabut in full swing. Suddenly, the gayest of the harlequins collapsed, cold in the limbs, and, underneath his mask, “violet-blue” in the face. Laughter died out, dancing ceased, and in a short while carriage-loads of people were hurried from the redoute to the Hotel Dieu to die, and to prevent a panic among the patients, were thrust into rude graves in their dominoes. Soon the public halls were filled with dead bodies, sewed in sacks for want of coffins. Long lines of hearses stood en queue outside Pere Lachaise. Everybody wore flannel bandages. The rich gathered up their belongings and fled the town. Over 120,000 passports were issued at the Hotel de Ville.
Out of a population of 650,000 Paris lost 20,000 of its citizens to cholera during the 1832 epidemic. In London, another 6,536 died. Cholera claimed 100,000 in France; 55,000 in the United Kingdom; 130,000 in Egypt; 100,000 in Hungary; and even more elsewhere during that pandemic. In New York City, which had a population of about 250,000 at the time, 3,000 people died, and an estimated 100,000 fled the city.
Poe was in Baltimore in 1832 and would have seen the panic brought about by the arrival of the disease. He also lost one of his closest friends Ebenezer Burling, who succumbed to cholera in Richmond. The best doctors of the time were unable to arrest the progress of the disease. It would be years before they would realize it was carried in the water. Unsuspecting victims contracted the germs from drinking water. Once they displayed symptoms, sufferers could expect about a fifty percent mortality rate.
Without a proper understanding of the causes of cholera, residents could do little to prepare for it. Writing twenty years later, Dr. George B. Wood seemed dumbfounded about how to stop it when he wrote, “No barriers are sufficient to obstruct its progress. It crosses mountains, deserts, and oceans. Opposing winds do not check it. All classes of persons, male and female, young and old, the robust and the feeble, are exposed to its assault; and even those whom it has once visited are not always subsequently exempt.”
Former New York mayor Phillip Horne was among many who thought they knew the real cause of the disease—the Irish. These immigrants, “filthy, intemperate, unused to the comforts of life and regardless of its proprieties…flock to the populous towns of the great West, with disease contracted on shipboard, and increased by bad habits on shore,” he wrote in his diary.
By the end of the 1849 epidemic, cholera had claimed 150,000 American lives. While this disease struck terror wherever it visited, cholera was not unique among the deadly pandemics that threatened Poe’s world. Yellow fever epidemics broke out multiple times in the early nineteenth century, forcing Poe’s mother to flee from an outbreak in New York and overtaking his grandmother in Charleston. His cousin George William Poe succumbed to yellow fever in Baltimore. Virginia experienced thirteen yellow fever epidemics in the 1800s. The worst of these took place in Norfolk in 1855, six years after Poe’s death. Of the city’s population of 16,000, about 6,000 fled the area, and 2,000 died.
Tuberculosis also claimed thousands of lives each year. Among those he knew, Poe’s mother, foster mother, brother, wife, and literary executor died from the extremely widespread and very contagious killer. He likely carried a latent form of the disease.
His first published short story “Metzengerstein” reflects the age’s tendency to romanticize the wasting disease, then called “consumption.” In the tale, the narrator says, “The beautiful Lady Mary! — how could she die? — and of consumption! But it is a path I have prayed to follow. I would wish all I love to perish of that gentle disease. How glorious! to depart in the hey-day of the young blood — the heart of all passion — the imagination all fire — amid the remembrances of happier days — in the fall of the year, and so be buried up forever in the gorgeous, autumnal leaves.”
Fifteen years later, Poe would watch his wife waste away from tuberculosis over the course of five agonizing years.
In the face of all these real-life terrors, Poe turned to his writing. The cholera pandemic of 1832 inspired his short stories “King Pest” and “The Masque of the Red Death” and provided a setting for his tale “The Sphinx.” The beautiful young women who succumb to wasting deaths in so many of his stories might be suffering from the same consumption that had claimed many of his loved ones.
Poe’s brother William Henry Leonard Poe, also wrote about yellow fever, setting his story “The Pirate” during an outbreak. Virginia Poe, Edgar’s wife, also wrote, in her only surviving poem, about the consumption that ravaged her lungs and how she wanted to move to a cottage in the country to “heal my weakened lungs.”
It was not until well after Poe’s death that doctors were finally able to effectively combat these illnesses. With greater understanding of the causes and cures of these diseases, the public gradually became less prone to live in fear of the next plague or to panic at the first sight of disease. That is why it is sometimes difficult to understand just how terrifying a story like “The Masque of the Red Death” might have been to the author’s contemporaries or to comprehend how deeply offensive Robert Louis Stevenson found Poe’s plague comedy “King Pest,” written just three years after the 1832 cholera pandemic. (Stevenson went so far as to write that the author of that story had “ceased to be a human being.”) This is why from June 23 through August 21, the Poe Museum will host the special exhibit Pandemics and Poe exploring the ways deadly diseases like yellow fever, cholera, and tuberculosis touched Edgar Allan Poe’s life and inspired some of his greatest work. The exhibit features rare first printings and original documents, including a Poe family bible, that trace the impact of disease and death on Poe’s world.