Deadly Epidemics In St. Louis History

Edited Illustration from the St. Louis Globe Democrat, 1918. [See unedited Version]


1866 Cholera Epidemic:

1866 Cholera Map of St. Louis (published Post Dispatch 18 Sep 1892)

[Note: This fragile map and associated article were contributed by Terry Harmon of Granite City, Illinois.]

Left (South) Image

Center Image

Right (North) Image

Key for death rate symbology on the map. The numbers next to each symbol represent an old scale for measuring death rate. For instance areas marked black for 693, do not mean 693 persons died on each block under this coding.  It does means that a death rate equivalent to 693 in 1000 people perished. In one block of this category had only 13 people, 9 of which died of cholera. In other words, these should be viewed more like percentages than actual numbers. 

Unfortunately several of the symbols below appear very similar to one another. Careful examination will show some differences. For example, the one for 25 or less has vertical lines. It is very similar to the symbol for 255. But the one for 255 is outlined in a very heavy box. A heavy box also surrounds the symbols for 285; 333-387; 400; and 500. These heavy boxed in areas are of high death rates and are limited to only one or two blocks each.

Also the diagonal lines for 75-100 and 100-125 appear very similar and are almost undistinguishable. The 100-125 lines are slightly more tighter spaced. They probably should be viewed as one large category 75-125 for simplicity. 


Text of Article, "Cholera's Riot. The Plaque's Deadly Work in St. Louis Twenty-Six Years Ago" (Written for the Sunday Post Dispatch, 18 Sep 1892).

The cholera made its appearance in St. Louis during the last week of July, 1866, being brought here by rail from New York City.  Nearly a year before Gov. Fletcher had called the attention of the city authorities to the necessity of preparing for it and Mayor ______ had indorsed _________ and laid the matter before _______ council, but nothing was done either then or when the Mayor again appealed the following spring to the city fathers to take action.  The cholera was not here, and it was argued that any measures of preparation for it would frighten away strangers and injure business.  The city's Board of Health in 1866 consisted of a health officer and a committee from the City Council, but it had very little authority and the outbreak of the cholera in July of that year found the board wholly unprepared to deal with the pestilence.  [Drawing at left, "Sarah and Olive Street Stenchhole"]

Five deaths occurred during the first week of its existence here and then it broke out in a dozen places at once and for three weeks, or until vigorous and systematic measures were taken to fight it, the epidemic grew at an alarming rate.  There were 120 fatal cases the second week, 754 the third, and 991 the fourth.  By this time a committee of citizens had been organized in each ward and the houses of the infected districts visited and the patients furnished with rooms and medicines.  The mortality then began to fall and it continued steadily declining until it ceased altogether for that year. There were only four deaths in November and no more after that until the following June when another epidemic, or a renewel of the old one, threatened the city.  The Board of Health with adequate power had in the meantime been organized with Dr. John T. Hodgen at its head and the scourage was easily handled compared with that of the proceeding year.  It lasted, however, through November as the one of 1866 did and one death occurred as late as December.  The fatalities for the year numbered 684, against 3,527 in 1866. According to some published reports 3,000 deaths occurred from cholera in 1866, but the official figures of the Board of Health, which were confirmed by an independent enumeration made by the City Assessor's office, under Col. R.E. Rombauer, are 3,527.  An examination of Col. Rombauer's report, which was published in tabular form by Robert Moore in 1884, shows that the epidemic was worse in those portions of the city that paid the least attention to sanitary measures.

Fatalities occurred in 600 different blocks, and in fifteen other districts and additions not divided into blocks, or in about one-fourth of the entire city.  The largest number of deaths in one block was 47, the block being the one between Seventeenth and Eighteenth Streets  and Morgan Street and Lucas Avenue.  The death rate here was, however, not so great as in some other sections.  This block had a total population of 879 people, 832 escaping.  The block on the Levee between Morgan Street and Christy avenue had only 167 people and 43 of them succumbed to the cholera, or more than a quarter of the block's entire population, and the adjoining block north lost 21 of its 106 people.  There were 52 other blocks, in each of which the mortality hit 10.  In the block bounded by Chestnut, Market, Second, and Third streets 88 people out of 223 died and the same number died out of 221 on O'Fallon between Fifteenth street and Blair avenue.  The block between Third and Collins streets and Franklin avenue and Carr street, had its population reduced from 504 to 462, a loss of 42 souls. In sixteen other blocks the mortality in each exceeded twenty, though in only one was the death rate as much as one in ten.  [above drawing: "Cavanaugh Foul Smelling Quarry"]

In only forty-nine of the 609 blocks in which fatal cases of cholera occurred was the death rate that high.  The highest death rate reported was 693, that is 693 in 1,000 inhabitants, 9 of the 13 people in the block dying.  This was a very large block on Angelica street between Ninth and Eleventh streets, and the water used was mostly well water.

Very high death rates occurred in two other blocks in North St. Louis, but they were two blocks that had all told only seven people to begin with, and three of these died.  In only one other block was the death rate as much as .333, or one in three, and that death was in a family of three persons on Olive between Nineteenth and Twentieth streets.

The prevailing death rate in the more thickly populated portions of the city was between one in ten and one in five, though in a few sections it got up to one in four.  Twelve of the forty-seven people living between O'Fallon and Ashley and First and Second streets died of the cholera that year.

"Bohemia" and Frenchtown--or Germantown as the latter should be called--fared about as badly as any portion of the city, 153 fatal cases occurring in the district between Park and Russell avenues and Broadway and Thirteenth street, and  312 in the district east of Broadway and between Chouteau avenue and the Arsenal.  Between Broadway and Second Carondelet avenue and Chouteau and Park , comprising a very aristocratic district in 1866, 48 deaths occurred, but nearly all of them were in the southeast corner of the district and attached to Frenchtown.

North of Chouteau avenue to Market Street and east of Broadway to the river there were 275 deaths, 108 of them being between Second and Third streets; and north of Market street to Biddle and east of Broadway there were 951 deaths.

Franklin avenue, Morgan street, Christy avenue, and Wash, Carr, and Biddle streets, all carried a good deal of cholera west from Broadway, as did O'Fallon street and Cass avenue; 1125 deaths occurred in the territory traversed by these streets between Broadway and Jefferson avenue, Cass and Washington avenues being  the north and south boundary lines of the district.  The total number of fatal cases of cholera in the city outside of the hospitals was 3,171, so that over one-third occurred in this portion of the city.  In the other districts mentioned 1,091 deaths occurred, leaving 955 for the balance of the city, and these were pretty evenly distributed over North St. Louis and the Central part of the city between Washington and Chouteau avenues and Broadway and Jefferson avenue, a few cases being reported in the western and northwestern portions of the city.

Of the 600 blocks in which cholera occurred, 83 had more than 400 inhabitants each, but of these 83 only 25 had as many as 10 fatal cases of cholera.  The most densely populated of these twenty-five blocks was the one between Ninth and Tenth and Biddle and O'Fallon streets, but only a few persons died here out of a population of 830. The adjoining block north comes next in density of population  and here there were 21 deaths in ___ people.  The two blocks between seventh and Ninth and O'Fallon and Biddle lost  together 37 out of their 1,556 inhabitants; and one bounded by Eighth and Ninth and Biddle and Carr lost 10 out of 747.  Cholera occurred in eight others as thickly _____ as the one just referred to, but the death rate in them was even lighter than in the others, not one of them having as many as 10 deaths.

The epidemic did not amount to much after September, only 51 deaths occurring in October and only 4 in November.  August was the worst month 2,388 fatal cases of cholera occurring in that month.  In September the number was 1,082.

"Dock Street Quagmire"

Opinions of Physcians:

Dr. O'Reilly's Views Criticized by a Comparison of His Statements.

In reply to the article on cholera by Dr. Thomas O'Reilly published in Thursday's Post Dispatch the following criticism has been received from a St. Louis physician.

St. Louis Sept. 16, 1892

To the Editor of the Post-Dispatch:

I beg to contrast two extracts from the communication of Dr. Thomas O'Reilly on cholera in yesterday's Post Dispatch, the first one being taken from near the beginning, the other from his concinding paragraph.

"It has been found to depend on some general atmospheric change, which increases the receptivity of the population to that peculiar epidemic and as we cannot control the atmosphere we cannot curtail the spread of the disease; therefore more practical good will come to us by adopting those sanitary measures which have been found so effectual in lessening the susceptibility to catch the disease."

The other reads as follows:

"I fully agree with the practical definition of cholera given in the British Medical Journal of Sept. 3, 1892, which says: 'Asiatic cholera is a filth discease which is carried by dirty people to dirty places.'  I would go further and say that it is woued(?) and wont by dissipation and debauchery."

Of course this open conflict in his own views would weaken the force of Dr. O'Reilly's opinion and leave the public and the medical profession totally at sea as to what he believes concerning the cholera.  Let us hope, however, that the last paragraph embodies his sanitary gospel and act accordingly.--Confusion.

Attention! Scavenger.   Sept. 16.

To the Editor of the Post-Dispatch:

Please call attention of scavenger in alley between Twenty-seventh and Twenty-eighth streets, Pine and Olive streets; garbage has remained in or near some of the yards for several days.  --A Resident

Need Inspection.  St. Louis, Sept. 16

To the Editor of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch:

Please ask the Board of Health to inspect the closets and hydrants of certain houses in the vicinity of ______ Grand for the benefit of the health of the neighbors. --Subscriber

Reported Four Times, Sept. 16

To the Editor of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch:

To regard the city as being thoroughly cleaned is a grand mistake. There is a cellar near 400 south Ninth street that has been reported four different times. The place has been in bad condition for the last six months.  Call and see for yourself and then you will be convinced.  I have reported it four times at the Sanitary office. --Subscriber.

Not Yet Attended To.  Sept. 16

To the Editor of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch:

Kindly inform the Health Department that the place on Utah street and Indiana Avenue has received no attention so far. -- A Reader

Rottenness In Benton. Benton Station, Mo.

To the Editor of the St. Louis Post Dispatch:

Please call the attention of the Board of Health to our part of the city, as no garbage is gathered here.  In a back yard near 6800 Belwon avenue, is a slop pile, which has been accumulating all summer, consequently things smell quite rotten in the neighborhood.  It is a regular disease breeding corner and ought to be removed.  Also a stagnant pond in the alley of the same blocs. --An Interested Reader.

Quite A Healthy Smell!  Sept 16.

To the Editor of the St. Louis Post Dispatch:

Will you please notify the Health Department that the garbage cart has not been in our alley since last Monday, and you can imagine the delightful odor that arises from the buckets and other vessels in which we throw our garbage.  The geese, turkeys and chickens turn over the buckets and scatter peelings, ect., through the alley.  The manure piles need attention.  By attending to this  you will oblige the residents of Russell avenue, between California and Ohio avenues. P.S.- Dead chickens and rotten eggs are thrown on vacant lot by commission merchants.


Have Been Neglected.

Nuisances About Which Nothing Has Been

The Post-Dispatch requested all citizens who had made complaints to the Health Department through these columns to send in a supplementary statement, showing what, if any, measures had been taken by the Sanitary Officers to abate the nuisances complained of.  In reply to this request the following have been received:

Still Invites Bacilli   (St. Louis, Mo. Sept 17, 1892)

To the Editor of the St. Louis Post Dispatch:

Some three weeks ago I reported the alley between Bacon, Coleman, North Market and Magazine streets, also the cholera laden pest hole on Magazine street corner of Garrison avenue.  Not a pound of filth has been removed: on the contrary more has been added to it. Especially so in the case of Magazine street and Garrison avenue.  Daily from five to twenty loads of filth of every description are dumped into it.  Yesterday at noon time while there on my way home (via Northern Central Railway) a party was dumping a load.  Part of it consisted of a large mattress or bed, looking to be in good condition. On my return in about half an hour the mattress or bed had been set on fire and was still burning.  I imagined someone with a contagious disease had died and they took this means to get rid of it.  This took place while a policeman stood calmly by and witnessed it all. --A Subscriber


It Was Not Cholera

When Ignatz Schaefer was found at 406 Clark avenue yesterday suffering with pains in the bowels and dysentery he was taken to the Dispensary and from there, after an examination, was sent to the City Hospital under the suspicion that his attack might be cholera. Dr. Marks and his attendants examined Schaefer's discharges closely and finding no trace of the comma bacilli, came to the conclusion that he was only sick with acute dysentery and put him in the ward set apart for such complaints.


St. Louis Water Pure.

Prof. C.C. Brown and Prof. J. H. Stoller representing the New York State Board of Health, left the city last night, after making a thorough investigation of St. Louis water, which they were sent out here to do. Prof. Brown is the engineering instructor at Union College, at Schenectady, N.Y. and Prof. Stoller occupies the chair of biology in the same college.  They took two weeks for the task and made a complete examination of how a large city is supplied with water from a running stream and to what extent bacteria exists in the water in the river, the water partially settled and the water as delivered in the pipes to the people.  They found a larger number of bacteria in the water taken from the river than that taken from the hydrants after it was settled, and found but very few sewage germs carried from the cities above St. Louis.  At the conclusion of their labors here the professors stated that St. Louis water was far purer than the New York water, though that had no sediment in it.



Citizens are requested to add____ complaints in relation to the non-remedies ___ to my office, No. 15 South Tenth street.

By the provisions of the ordinance and contract for the removal of garbage, garbage must be removed from that portion of the city west of Lefllingwell avenue three times per week, and I am endeavoring to carry out the provisions of the contract to the letter. I request that any neglect on the part of my employees be at once reported at my office.

I would call the attention of citizens to the provisions of the law prohibiting the mixing of dirt, ashes, tin cans, ect. with garbage.  I am not required by the terms of the contract to remove garbage that is mixed with foreign substances.

The ordinance in relation to garbage also provides that the garbage shall be placed by the occupants of dwellings in the alleys near the building line thereof, or, if there are no such alleys, then on the sidewalk near the street line, in water-tight vessels, not too large for convenient handling.  The ordinance also provides that garbage shall be removed when placed immediately inside of doors or gates not locked or otherwise fastened, which open upon alleys or streets.  Garbage placed as provided for by ordinance will be removed, but not otherwise.

In forwarding complaints please give the number of the house and the date when the garbage was last removed.

Edward Butler,

Contractor for the Removal of Garbage, Office, No. 15 South Tenth street.

More About Cholera Epidemics:

1918-1919 World Wide Influenza Pandemic 

"...Spanish influenza is now present and probably will become epidemic in the City of St. Louis. In view of this proclamation, and under the authority vested in me by the City Charter of the City of St. Louis, after such proclamation in order to prevent all unnecessary public gatherings through the medium by which this disease is disseminated, I hereby order that all theaters, moving picture shows, schools, pool and billiard halls, Sunday schools, cabarets, lodges, societies, public funerals, open air meetings, dance halls and conventions to be at once closed and discontinued until further notice." --Mayor Henry Keil (October 7, 1918)

The influenza pandemic that claimed over 22 million lives (conservative estimate) finally struck St. Louis. The drastic actions of Mayor Keil was sensible considering by October 7th, 167,000 cases had broken out, with 4,910 deaths, across the eastern United States. Mayor Keil's actions perhaps spared St. Louis of the worst outbreaks. For instance for the October 10-November 2 time frame the following deaths were reported: New York, 16,705; Philadelphia, 12,162; Chicago, 7,405; Boston, 3,694; Baltimore, 3,507, with St. Louis experiencing 784. Although St. Louis did not receive its greatest number of deaths during this time frame (reached its hiatus in December with approx. 1400 deaths), its total deaths from the epidemic came no where near the numbers of other large cities (for example: New York, 32,000 deaths Washington DC 31,000 deaths and Philadelphia had 15,700 fatal cases)

Obituary index for 1918 and 1919 is available at the St. Louis Public Library website.

More on the 1918 Influenza Epidemic:


Sources Other Than Above St. Louis Post Dispatch:

Lion of the Valley, St. Louis, Missouri, 1764-1980, 3rd Edition, by James Neal Primm, Missouri Historical Society Press, St. Louis, Mo.; 1998.

The 1918 Influenza Epidemic: Its Effect on the City of St. Louis, Missouri, by Marilynn N. Vessel. A master's thesis in the Dept. of History, Southern Illinois University, Edwardsville, Illinois; 1977.

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