Palisades Has Suffered Pandemics in the Past: When Cholera Came to Palisades and its Neighbors

Thanks to the 19th century diarist Nicholas Gesner we have a partial picture of the effects of three 19th century cholera epidemics that affected Palisades and Piermont. Nicholas lived in a house that is still standing on Closter Road, and at the time he wrote this entry he was 67 years old.

On July 3, 1832, Nicholas wrote: “Cholera in New York. People moved out this last week, hundreds. Some vessels have Stopped Running. Sorrowful time. I understand the Banks about shutting.” Three days later he wrote, “Many hundred families move from New York for to flee from the Asiatick Cholera. It began at Quebec and Montreal, crossed the Atlantic. It appears that it began there sometime in the first of January last.”

Dr. Michel Nevins, a medical historian, has written about this epidemic.* “From early times there were occasional outbreaks of smallpox, yellow fever and measles in Rockland County, but during the 19th century the most deadly scourge was cholera. America’s first epidemic of cholera began in June 1832 and by the end of that year, 3,515 people were dead in New York City out of a population of 250,000, (equivalent to more than 100,000 victims with today’s population.) Few medical men believed that it was a contagious disease; the presumed cause lay in the atmosphere (miasma), illness brought about by direct exposure to filth and decay. It was an era long before germ theory and the sanitation movement, a time when few bathed or washed, privies and cesspools were ubiquitous and public water supplies contaminated by sewage. Acute dehydration could cut a healthy person down within hours and quarantine methods did no good because cholera wasn’t transmitted from person to person or by animal vectors. Popular belief held that cholera was a disease of poverty and sin and it wasn’t until the 1880s that it was learned the causative organism was spread by drinking polluted water or ingesting fecal matter on unwashed fruits and vegetables or contaminated raw fish. (Oysters from the Hudson were a favorite local delicacy.) The culprit was bad water, not bad air.”

On August 22 Gesner mentions a theological argument he had with Herbert Lawrence, a New York City shipbuilder who was spending time in Palisades with his family to escape the cholera. On Aug. 31 he wrote, “Cholera raged a few Days past in Closter. Several Died. Mrs. Bogert, in digging up her Sons cloths which were buried to wash them—she and a boy took it and both died. Cholera is now spread pretty much over all the United States. A Solemn Judgement by God upon sinful mankind.” The next day, “Robert Sneden poorly…with Bloody flux. Mrs. Chapman has Cholera in point.”

Cholera returned in 1849 and affected Piermont more than Palisades. On September 19, 1849 Nicholas wrote, “Died at Piermont last Night 5 with Cholera and 12 Cases said And at Petersons (near Jerry) a Boarder died little before 12 to Day - a few Days Ago 2 also at Piermont…. Sickly in the place.” The next day he wrote, “The Cholera Rages at Piermont, 3 died last Night.” On the 21st he reported, “It is said that 5 Deaths to Day at Piermont with Cholera.”

Michael Nevins found that “Rockland County history books fail to mention a cholera epidemic and unpublished histories of Piermont refer vaguely to an outbreak that ‘swept through in 1849.” There were 5000 cholera deaths in New York City that year.

An 1854 epidemic in Piermont wasn't as severe as the 1849 one, but still killed many people. An unnamed reporter described a family affected by the disease. “We witnessed scenes that would make the heart of a stoic ache…. On the last Sunday, Timothy Cronan on the hill, was taken and died the next day. The same night his little daughter, about ten years old was taken and also his wife who died on Tuesday. At the time of our visit, the little girl was laying on a heap of old bedding on the floor with no one to care for her or heed her wants. The flies literally fastened to her eyelids…”

Nearly 200 years later, we know much more, but we are still almost powerless against a tiny virus that has the power to suspend normal life and kill millions of people.

  • "Cholera Comes to Piermont," published in "South of the Mountains," the journal of the Historical Society of Rockland County, January-March, 2016.