Early in the spring of 1832 the news went abroad over the country that Asiatic cholera, then but little known in this country, had appeared in Montreal. A vague alarm was left, which was increased among the timid and superstitious by the announcement in June of the expected appearance of Halley’s great comet. Men looked forward with absolute dread to the expected appearance of its baleful light, connecting it, as it has always been, with approaching disaster. In June the Governor of the State issued his proclamation, setting apart the approaching Independence Day for religious observance, not only in thanking God for the political liberty we enjoy, but to offer prayers for its continuance and also that He would graciously arrest or mitigate the threatened dreadful visitation. Clergymen were requested to read the proclamation from their pulpits. Towards the last of the month Henry Clay offered a resolution in the Senate of the United States, asking the President to appoint a day to be observed as a day of general humiliation and prayer to Almighty God that he might, in His mercy, “avert from our country the Asiatic scourge which is now traversing and devastating other countries. And should it be among the dispensations of His Providence to inflict this scourge upon our land, may it please Him, in His mercy, so to ameliorate the infliction as to render its effects less disastrous among us.” July 4th that year was the quietest up to that time in the history of the county. The desire to drink toasts was not entirely suppressed, but in Hagerstown there was less toast drinking and less hilarity than ever before. All business was suspended and a large concourse of people, including five hundred children of the Beneficial Society and the Sunday Schools, gathered on Potomac Street before the Market House, and marched in procession to the Lutheran Church to engage in religious exercises.
Before this, William D. Bell, the moderator of the town, gave public notice that the cholera must shortly be expected to appear in the town, and that under Providence, cleanliness is the best protection. He therefore exhorted all citizens to cleanse streets, alleys, gutters, cellars and vacant lots. Ward committees were appointed to inspect the town thoroughly, and they soon reported that the town was clean. It was probably due to this intelligent action of the moderator that Hagerstown escaped so lightly, compared with other towns similarly situated.
Meanwhile the epidemic was approaching nearer and nearer. In July it was raging in the great city of New York. Deaths were occurring at the rate of from seventy-five to a hundred and fifty a day. It was estimated that not less than a hundred thousand people had left the city and fled for safety. Thirty thousand of these had departed in a single day. The malady came on with fearful suddenness and often an equally sudden termination. The patient would feel an uneasiness of the bowels, with great heat and intense thirst, then would follow a feeling a heaviness and weakness, an almost total suspension of the pulse, with a low, weak and very plaintive voice; then the “rice water” discharge would take place, violent vomiting, oppression of the stomach and an impeded respiration. The circulation of the blood became exceedingly sluggish, the forehead, tongue and extremities became very cold. Cramps occurred in the legs, toes and hands, the face of the patient became livid and cadaverous, and the body presented a mottled appearance.
These symptoms were quickly succeeded by the final state which was a complete collapse of the whole system, which greatly resembled the appearance of death, which quickly succeeded. The patient sometimes died in a tranquil stupor and sometimes in violent spasms and in great distress. The different stages of the disease sometimes followed each other with such rapidity that death occurred in a few hours after the appearance of the first symptoms. In New York it was reported that whole families had been wiped out within an incredibly short space of time. The most popular treatment at first was hot applications, mustard plasters, calomel and opium. With such accounts of the progress of the disease, it is not surprising that the people were terror-stricken, but from the first there appeared to be but little fear of contagion. Early in July Dr. Howard Kennedy and Dr. Joseph Martin went on to New York to observe the disease and its treatment in order to prepare themselves to contend with it.
The first case in Baltimore occurred on Sunday, August 5th, and before the next Sunday fifty persons had taken the disease, and twenty two had died. One of the first to die in that city was a robust negro man, who, for a wager, drank a quart of buttermilk and ate a watermelon. His death occurred a few hours after the wager was won.
About the first day of September intelligence reached Hagerstown that cholera had appeared within the limits of Washington County. Large numbers of Irish laborers were employed upon the line of the new canal opposite Harper’s Ferry, and there is where the disease first appeared. The news that first came was distorted and exaggerated by the terror of those who brought it. It was said that five or six dead bodies were lying in a single shanty at one time. The workmen were panic-stricken and left their work and spread all over the country, carrying terror and excitement with them. One of these flying men was stricken down and died four miles west of town on the last day of August. During the first week in September four dead bodies were brought from the line of the canal to Hagerstown for interment. They were Roman Catholics, and the graveyard in Hagerstown was the only burying ground in the county. But the citizens protested against bringing the dead to Hagerstown. The town authorities forbade its continuance, and the Rev. Father Ryan, the priest in charge of St. Mary’s Church, in cooperation with Mr. Cruger, the chief engineer of the canal, took steps to procure a burying ground near the canal. Mr. Cruger also promised to establish hospitals.
The following week several deaths in Boonsboro and Sharpsburg and in the lower part of the county took place, and one laboring man from the canal died in Hagerstown. Among those who died in Sharpsburg was Mr. John J. Russell. The public health of Hagerstown was reported exceptionally good. The Board of Health, consisting of Frederick Dorsey as president, John Reynolds, Jos. Martin and V. W. Randall, assured the people that cholera was not contagious, and it was not probable great ravages would be committed. That if taken in time, not more than one case in a hundred would die. People were warned against imprudently eating fruit, certain vegetables and against dosing themselves with quack medicines and nostrums. In Williamsport there were two cases, one of which terminated fatally, and along the canal near that town twelve cases and six deaths reported. Up to September 26th, three citizens of Hagerstown and two strangers had died in the town. The Board of Health was very active and the ladies of the sick society offered their services for the public good.
The disease steadily increased. From Friday the 12th of October, to Thursday the 18th, there were seventeen deaths in Hagerstown and a number in other parts of the county. Among those who died in Hagerstown were John Miller, an old and prominent merchant, John McIlhenny, William Moffett, and Thomas Kennedy. The latter was one of the most distinguished citizens of the county. He had filled many positions of honor and trust and had served many years in the General Assembly as Delegate and Senator. As a member of the Legislature his career had been signalized by his successful efforts to remove the political disabilities of the Jews. At the time of his death he was fifty-six years of age, a member elect of the Legislature, having been elected to fill a vacancy, and the editor of the Mail. His son Dr. Howard Kennedy remained to fill his place and the family of this latter gentleman is still living in Hagerstown— respected and beloved. The next week a number of negroes died in the town and county. Van S. Brashear and Peter Newcomer died on the Manor and Vachtel W. Randall, secretary of the Board of Health and a promising member of the Bar, died in Hagerstown. The last week of October, Parker Blood the bookseller died after an illness of two weeks with cholera. Peter Rentch and several servants and canal laborers also died. Michael Wilson, of Westmoreland county, Pa., in passing through the town on the Western stage was taken with the disease and died at the Globe Tavern. In addition to these there were nine deaths in the poor house. Early in November, as the cold weather approached, the last vestiges of the cholera disappeared and people resumed their usual habits.
As soon as cases began to multiply, a hospital had been built upon the hill near the present site of the Roman Catholic graveyard. Patients were conveyed to it and carefully nursed under the direct supervision of the moderator himself who went in and out among the sick and dying without fear and without tiring. Among the patients in the hospital was a well-known character, a public jester for the town, harmless and popular and immoderate in the use of whiskey– Jack Wolgamott. Jack had reached the stage of collapse which usually preceded death by a very few hours and as Mr. Bell left the hospital for the night he took leave of Jack, expecting and telling him that he had but a short time to live. The nurse told him that Wolgamott was begging for a pint of whiskey so Mr. Bell ordered it for him, saying that he had as well be gratified, as he would die anyhow. So the whiskey was brought, and when Mr. Bell returned in the morning he found Jack, instead of being a corpse, the most cheerful person about the place and nearly recovered from the disease. Among the last cases which occurred was that of Mr. Bell himself, but it was a mild case and he soon recovered. The following year, great fears were entertained of the reappearance of cholera. The town was again thoroughly cleaned— committees of the leading citizens giving it their personal attention. In July it broke out among the laborers of the canal and ten died near Williamsport in one day. The bodies of most of these were brought to Hagerstown for interment. Many more died the following week and one of the came to Hagerstown and died there.
The alarm of cholera this year like the previous year was heightened by a celestial phenomenon— the falling stars on the night of November 13th. It was a repetition of the shower of November 12th, 1799. Passengers on the top of stages on the turnpike witnessed the magnificent spectacle. It appeared as if every star in the heavens was falling from its place and leaving a long trail of light behind. It continued from about four o’clock until day. People were filled with a strange fear. The stars appeared to shoot generally from a point southeast of the zenith and showering in all directions. Some of them were brilliant enough to illuminate the whole heavens, and their tracks, it was fancifully said, hung like swords of fire over the earth. Ten or fifteen of these aerial weapons would be flashing upon the terrified people at once. The atmosphere was remarkably clear at the time. Mr Matthew S. Barber was then engaged in Hager’s Mill and that morning he had aroused a young man and dragged him from his bed to accompany him to do some work. As they went the shower of stars began and Mr. Barber’s companion thought it was the way the stars usually set, and that he had never seen it before, proving to him that he had been aroused too early.
Mr. John A. Freaner was at that time mail carrier between Hagerstown and Hauver’s. When the meteoric shower occurred he was on the top of the mountain, and the horse he was riding, a famous little animal, became so frightened as to be unmanageable.
Many canal laborers died a violent death during the winter of 1834, after the final disappearance of the cholera. Nearly all who were engaged on the canal excavations were Irishmen, but from different parts of Ireland. Some of them were from Cork and were called Corkonians, and the others were known as Fardowners or Lonfords. Between these there was a continual and bitter strife.
On Monday, January 20, 1834, news was received in Hagerstown of a disturbance among the canal workmen, and it was supposed that it was occasioned by non-payment of wages or a discharge of men. Two companies of the Hagerstown Volunteers marched over to Williamsport and there learned that the scene of action was several miles down the river, and it was reported that hostilities had ceased and that although many were wounded, no lives were lost. The next day the militia returned to Hagerstown bringing thirty-four prisoners were committed to jail. The cause of the battle among the Irish had been that one of the Corkonians had beaten a Fardowner named John Irons so brutally that he shortly died of his wounds. After the battle occasioned by this incident there was general demoralization among the workmen and but little work was done. The following Thursday a party of Corkonians committed excesses above Williamsport. A party from above attempted to come into Williamsport but were met on the aqueduct by those in the town and driven back. The citizens of Williamsport took arms and put themselves in military order for the protection of the town. The next day a party of three hundred Fardowners headed by intrepid leaders approached Williamsport from below. They were armed with guns, clubs and helves. It was their intention, they said, to march to the upper dam and display their strength but to do no violence unless attacked. Shortly after passing up over the aqueduct their numbers were swelled to six or seven hundred. In a field at the upper dam, they met three hundred Corkonians drawn up in a line of battle upon the crest of a hill and in possession of a considerable number of guns. They made the attack upon the larger party and several volleys were exchanged and a number killed. The Corkonians then fell back before the superior force of the enemy and dispersed. But the victors had tasted blood and were not content with their victory. A merciless pursuit took place and the fugitives were overtaken in the woods and many were put to death. Five were found in one place with bullets through their heads and wounded were scattered in every direction. At 10 o’clock at night the victorious party returned through Williamsport and marched quietly to their quarters below the town. The next day the Sheriff of the county, Col. William H. Fitzhugh, arrived upon the scene in command of the two Hagerstown Companies of Volunteers and one of the leading rioters was arrested. Capt. Jacob Wolf, Capt. Isaac H. Allen, a school teacher, immediately organized companies of militia for duty. The latter Company was named the Williamsport Riflemen. W. McK. Keppler, S. S. Cunningham, and William Towson were lieutenants. The Clearspring Riflemen under Capt. Isaac Nesbitt were also on duty. But these forces were deemed insufficient for the emergency. An express was sent to Washington to ask for troops and deputations to the upper and lower dams to bring the leaders of the two factions together and effect a reconciliation. About sunset on Monday these deputations returned, each bringing deputies who had been appointed by their respective factions, with power to effect a settlement. They accordingly got together at Mr. Lyles’ tavern along with the magistrates and a number of gentlemen of the town, presided over by Gen. Otho Williams. Gen. Williams, William D. Bell, Col. Dall, and others, prepared a regular treaty of peace which the Irishmen signed and they were then admonished that if either side violated the agreement the citizens and the military would unite with the other faction and drive the offenders from the county. During Monday Gen. Williams brevetted Capt. Hollingsworth, Capt. Hollman, and Capt. Allen. Capt. Hollingsworth organized a troop of horses and each of the other captains enrolled a company of infantry, and the whole force was put under the command of Col. Dall. The next morning Gen. Williams received intelligence by an express messenger that a party of one hundred armed Corkonians had passed Harper’s Ferry, and were on their way up to reinforce their friends at Middlekauff’s dam. Col. Dall dispatched Captain Hollingsworth to meet this force at Holman’s dam. There they were made acquainted with the settlement which had been agreed upon, whereupon they surrendered their arms and returned to their work down the river. The forty prisoners in the Hagerstown jail were then released upon their own recognizances.
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