BY GREG OLSON
Three victims of the 1833 cholera outbreak in Jacksonville — Frances Ellis and her two children, John and Frances — are buried beneath this marble headstone in Diamond Grove Cemetery. Frances Ellis was the wife of the Rev. John Ellis, a Presbyterian minister and one of the founders of Illinois College.
The summer of 1833 was a terrible time for the young and growing town of Jacksonville.
For more than eight weeks that summer, the disease cholera killed, sickened or drove away most of the community’s estimated 1,300 residents.
Cholera is acquired by ingesting some type of food or drink, usually water, contaminated with feces from a cholera patient or carrier that contains the micro-organism Vibrio cholera. The disease causes vomiting, headaches, intestinal cramping and severe diarrhea.
Most of the devastating effects cholera had on Jacksonville were recorded by James G. Edwards, owner, editor and publisher of the Illinois Patriot, a weekly Jacksonville newspaper.
Edwards published a report on Aug. 10, 1833, saying that, according to local physicians’ estimates, between 200 and 300 Jacksonville residents had contracted cholera out of a total population of 1,300. However, Edwards wrote that only 34 people had died at that point. Nevertheless, the threat of getting cholera had caused as many as 700 Jacksonville residents to leave town. Most records show that Jacksonville’s final death toll from cholera was 55.
A good description of Jacksonville at the time was written by Illinois College Professor Truman Post.
Village residents were “crowded into these cabins, where each apartment, often quite narrow, had frequently to suffice for the accommodation of an entire separate household,” Post wrote.
He continued in his writing, “This crowded condition of the settlement was due to the fact that it was an extreme outpost towards the wilderness of the northwest, and many came here with no idea of permanent stay, but as a place for outlook for a future home still further on in the wilds.”
Post recalled the cholera crisis in his memoirs.
He wrote, “Reports came up from the village to our college commons each morning of new cases and startling deaths. Sometimes whole families, as in the case of Rev. Mr. Ellis, were swept off in twenty-four hours.
“The distress of the town was extreme. Society was not then knit together by acquaintance and mutual kindness. The people … had not coalescence enough for mutual helpfulness. The wild, vague terror of a disease, regarded as contagious and killing with fearful rapidity, kept men aloof from each other.
“Families were isolated in mutual quarantine, and doors and windows were seen by one passing along the streets, thronged with pale and fearful faces, sometimes with the sick, who had no one to minister a cup of cold water.”
The number of deaths in Jacksonville and bad publicity generated by the outbreak gave the town a reputation for being “sickly,” and historian Don Doyle has suggested that the crisis may have contributed to Jacksonville not being named the state capital a few years later. Additionally, former IC (Illinois College) History Professor James Davis said that, based on his research, he believes Jacksonville suffered more from the cholera epidemic in 1833 than Springfield, for example, because Jacksonville was more of a crossroads community at the time. He explained that, in 1833, more settlers passed through Jacksonville than Springfield, possibly exposing the town’s inhabitants to more carriers of cholera.
Jacksonville’s cholera epidemic of 1833 lasted but a couple of months, but its horrible consequences were never forgotten by those who lived through it.