Milwaukee Cholera Epidemic Potters Field St. Mary's Hospital Sisters of Charity

The Plague That Shamed Milwaukee

The Milwaukee Journal - April 10, 1951

by Jeanne Riha

Discovery of Human Bones at School Site Reopens Dark Chapter of Cholera Epidemic That Terrorized City in 1849 and 1850 and Filled Graveyards to Overflowing

A POWER shovel, excavating for an addition to the Maryland Avenue school some weeks ago, turned up human bones and an almost forgotten chapter of Milwaukee history.

Milwaukee public museum scientists and historians who examined the bones and started research into old maps, newspaper files and other historical data, found that the burial spot was once part of the Milwaukee almshouse farm. There, they believe, the dead were hastily buried in the great cholera plague which swept the community in 1849 and 1850. The recently found bones and bone fragments were only 18 inches below the surface, buried haphazardly in ditchlike depressions.

Robert E. Ritzenthaler, acting curator of anthropology at the public museum: Eldon G. Wolff, curator of history, found few records of deaths or burials. But they have confirmed, as fully as possible, that this newly uncovered burial site was a dumping spot for many cholera dead. Milwaukee's population at the time of the epidemic was 20,000.

The cholera epidemic was more severe than any histories or newspapers indicate because the community felt that such epidemics were something to be ashamed of, and that the less said about them the better, Wolff believes.

"Nothing as horrible as this ever struck this section," he said. "It was so bad that people closed their eyes to it. We're just beginning to get the facts of it."

Chicago Cases Warned Milwaukee

A Western Historical society " History of Milwaukee" states that "for two months in 1849 the poorhouse burying ground was pressed to suffocation" with cholera burials. The same history describes the grief of Catholics whose deceased relatives were carried off to the unconsecrated earth of the "poorhouse burying ground."

Common council reports in newspapers of the day tell of constant fund outlays to the "almshouse committee" for having corpses hauled away, coffins built and lime brought in. Some estimates place the total of deaths at 700 or more for the two year period.

The disease was believed to have swept out of Asia, engulfed Europe and trickled into this county with the great immigration wave of 1849. There were outbreaks of cholera in many parts of the United States.

Chicago was hit first in this region. Milwaukee took fright and ordered a cleanup. It drained its pools, removed garbage, opened gutters, covered over anything that appeared to be contaminated ground.

The board of health condemned the practice of residents "filling" their houses with newly arrived immigrants with their baggage "before their clothing has been washed and ventilated." Ship passengers were required to be examined before coming ashore. Patent medicine men got into the act with advertisements of "sure fire" remedies.

In June, 1849, the month before the plague hit here, an advertisement in a Milwaukee newspaper entitled "Cholera Medicine, the Dead Is Alive," referred its "readers to Lewis L. Lee (and to his doctor, William D. Walton) who was once supposed to be dead but by the otticacy of this medicine is alive and now in this city."

Citizens Cautioned Against Cucumbers

Despite all this, a cholera death was reported in July, 1849, and six deaths followed in a few days. Then death became almost commonplace. Daily reports counted 6 to 12 victims but, according to Wolff, "the board of health was not sure that half the cases were reported."

Eventually the city government had to spend money for coffins, lime for covering cesspools and payments for hauling away bodies. It became a public project because "the people couldn't be expected to do it themselves any more," Wolff says.

Newspaper files show that a city ordinance adopted that July ordered doctors caring for Asiatic cholera patients to report them promptly or pay a $50 fine or accept an alternative of 30 days in jail. Milwaukeeans were cautioned against "every kind of dissipation or irregularity in habits and diet, sleep or other causes tending to invite disease."

"The board of health,"said Lynn, "at one time asked the people not to use green cucumbers or cabbage because it was believed that these vegetables led to the disease. They were told to avoid chills," Some residents took to liquor in hopes of immunizing themselves.

"Purify your dwellings-500 pounds of chloride of lime just received by H. Borsworth & Son, wholesale and retail druggists, 194 W. Water st.," read a newspaper advertisement.

Another said: "IF personal cleanliness be one great prevention of cholera, as all admit, and if bathing be a luxury of none deny, then it were well to patronize the baths of Wills & Symes which are now open every week day for gentlemen from 6 in the morning until 9 in the evening.

Still another ad urged "Dr Cartwright's medicinal remedy which had resulted in "only about 3? fatalities among the cholera stricken users of Natchez.

Wagons that carried the dead to the almshouse cemetery rolled down the road which was to become prospect av., one of the city's most respectable thoroughfares. Wolff doubted that many funerals were held.

"The idea was to get that corpse out and get it out as quickly as possible," he said.

The epidemic of 1849 was at its height in August. In his "Medical History of Milwaukee," published in 1915, Dr. Louis Frederick Frank wrote:

Six in seven deaths occurred daily. Peter Van Vechten, the oldest of our living pioneers, stopping at a house on Lisbon av. to water his horse, saw within its narrow walls seven dead bodies.

The hospital under the care of the Sisters of Charity, on the southeast corner of Jackson and Oneida (now N. Jackson and E. Wells sts.) became overfilled....Rough carts sometimes contained four or five bodies rumbled through the streets on their sad mission.

The reported casualties for that year were recorded faithfully in the press. There were frequent bursts of hope each time the death list was shortened, that the epidemic was over. Usually the next day's report dispelled that hope.

The figures would have made a jagged, discouraging chart.

Report for July 19, 1849-One case in 24 hours, patient convalescent;

July 20, 9 cases in 24 hours, 4 deaths;

July 23, the city's general health "never better" despite occasional" cases;

July 24 12 cases and 5 deaths;

July 28 5 new cases but no deaths;

Aug. 6 10 cases in 48 hours 8 deaths;

Aug 9 "Cholera has disappeared from our city as an epidemic" "an isolated case or two";

Aug 13 12 cases in 48 hours and 6 deaths.

Paralleling these were the dismal reports of other cities.

Buffalo, N.Y., told of 75 cases and 24 deaths in a day; Albany, N.Y. 24 cases and 9 deaths in a day; Sandusky, Ohio, 10 deaths from morning through 2 p.m. in a single day; Baltimore, Md., 27 cases, 11 deaths. New York city reported 1000 deaths in a week and Philadelphia cited 465 cases in a week, 171 of them fatal.

An editorial reprinted in Milwaukee from the Cleveland Plain Dealer pointed to the "mystery" of Pittsburgh, then apparently spared by the scourge.

Some attribute this to the vast quantity of coal burned in that region. In the vain hope to arrest this plague, the Cincinnatians have been burning coal in their streets for several days but without effect.

No newspaper appeared in Milwaukee Aug. 4, 1849. This was because Aug. 3 had been proclaimed by President Zachary Taylor as a national day of fasting, prayer and "humiliation."

Schools were closed, and Mayor D.A.J. Upham urged residents to observe the day by "abstaining from all unnecessary business, by assembling in their different places of public worship and uniting in petitions to the Supreme Ruler of the universe to stay the pestilence (cholera) which is spreading to a greater or less extent through our city and nation.

Shortly after this national observance, the epidemic abated. The quarantine hospital was closed, and life began returning to normal.

But suddenly cholera struck again, with increased vigor There were 25 deaths in a day.


The end of August brought relief, and the board of health reported at that time that out of 209 cases 104 had proved fatal. But the worst was still ahead. The pestilence reappeared the next summer, more widespread and intense. In his medical history, Dr. Frank told the story thus.

The first case broke out in the beginning of July, on Broadway.

For three months, similar scenes as the year previous were enacted-men, women and children falling and dying in the streets, patients deserted by family and friends, corpses piled into rough wagons and buried in ditches in pauper ground. Spectators of these sights one day would fall victim the next.

Through all this blackness of death, two heroic physicians passed calmly along, Dr. E.B. Wolcott and Dr. C.H. Norton, with potions for the suffering, and at their sides noble Sisters of Mercy and Charity.

The board of health took cognizance of fully 300 deaths that season, and it seems to be true that nearly as many more escaped the record, the bodies being buried secretly.

During the more intensive part of the 1850 siege, 18 bodies awaited burial at the Catholic cemetery. That August and September the plague reportedly was so severe it was hard to give prompt burials. What Wolff called a "red herring" of charges and counter charges between Milwaukee and Chicago on misrepresentation of cholera incidence was dragged before newspaper readers.

This siege eventually tapered off. There was no accurate count of total deaths. The pestilence reappeared to a lesser degree in 1852 and 1853 and flared sharply in 1853. Then other events monopolized the Milwaukee scene.


Cholera Scorge of '48 Brought Sisters of Mercy and Milwaukee's First Hospital

Source: The Milwaukee Sentinel Mar 5, 1932

Story of Their Heroic Work Which Eventually Resulted in Building of St. Mary's

Under the roof of a hospital new life comes into being, old life is terminated, the hopes of thousands are realized or destroyed. Perhaps in no other single building is the range of human emotions so vividly on display. This is the first of a series of articles centering about St. Mary's hospital, the first institution of its kind in Milwaukee.

By Gunnar Mickelsen

Milwaukee's first doctor was a blacksmith. Its first hospital was a pest house. "Dr Thompson swung his sledge and mixed his sassafras roots in the days when Solomon Juneau was the big white father of a haphazard settlement scattered over the hummocks of a series of swamp and frog ponds.

The city's original "doctor of physics" presided not only over a forge and a medicine chest but the principal tavern in the village as well. Women were few, and most of the camp's eating was done at Thompson's inn. He prescribed concoctions, tapped blood or ordered the coffin, according to the nature of the individual emergency.

He has been dealt with rather unkindly by civic historians, and has become for some of them a black bearded ogre who used his knowledge of herbs and questionable therapeutics as a club over the inhabitants souls and purses.


In fairness to him it should be said that his fondness for calomel and his belief in it as a cure-all was shared to a degree by many of his successors, supposedly much superior gentlemen. But no doubt he did sin against the science when he prescribed a teaspoon of the stuff to a border suffering from a bilotts attack.

A newly arrived physician, who happened to be sleeping on the tavern floor near the patient, somewhat revised Thompson's prescription. The story got around and the blacksmith soon after left for territories still uncontaminated by advanced medical knowledge.

That the town's first step toward a hospital should be a pest house is not extraordinary. In the evolution of hospitals such origins are the rule. The place of an ill person was taken as a matter of course to be in his home, under the care of his family. Only in those diseases where it was observed that persons coming near the patient acquired his ailment were the victims taken to an isolated building.

Hospitals as places for the curing of illness are distinctly modern phenomena. Persons over 50 wll remember that a hospital was the place where one was sent, not to get well, but to die. That unfortunate stigma clung to hospitals until recent years.


It was for the purpose of providing an isolated dying place for victims of smallpox that the common council in 1843 rented a log building on Oakland avenue. Dr. J.K. Bartlett and his partner, Dr. W.L. Bean, were put in charge of the pest house.

When the epidemic broke out with increased virulence in 1846, the log house was reopened. A steady procession of men and women with blotched faces passed through the front door by day, and their dark bodies left with almost equal regularity through the back door at night.

The council finding its pest house inadequate to deal with teh situation, made vaccination compulsory. Twelve doctors went from house to house vaccinating everyone one in town.

At the height of the epidemic in the spring of 1848, there arrived in town five women clad in black robes, but wearing for headdress a hood ornamented with large white cornets, wing like in appearances.


They were Sisters of Charity from Emmitsburg, Md., and they had come at the invitation of Bishop John Martin Henni. In a two story framed building on the corner of Jackson and Oneida streets, built [part unreadable]St. John's inf [unreadable]

An epidemic led to the coming of the Sisters. A plague led to the founding of St. Mary's hospital. It was in gratitude of their heroic work among the sufferers of the cholera scorges of 1849, '50 and '54 that the city granted them a three acre tract of land near the potters' field at North Point.

When the plague, sweeping slowly but with a terrifying inevitablness out of India westward over the world, reached Milwaukee it struck with sudden dramatic effect. A man walking down Wisconsin avenue pitched abruptly forward and lay face downward on the sidewalk. He was dead, and in a few weeks hundreds followed him.

At their infirmary the soft spoken Sisters of Charity began to care for those who came to them. In a few days the house was filled with cholera patients. Their cries and prayers echoed through the frame building, and persons passing on the street crossed over to the other side. But the white wings of the Sisters brushed day and night from bed to bed; their voices, restrained, compassionate, brought final moments of composure to those who wanted to live; their hands, seemingly without fatigue, continued through the dark months to perform the nursing services from which other women shrank in terror.

HORROR SHIP BUT 60 of 300 Passengers Survived

Death was a familiar figure in Milwaukee those years. He struck down so savagely that the grave diggers could not keep pace with him. Carts bearing sometimes four or five bodies arrived every few hours at the cemeteries. One of those was the potter's field near which St. Mary's hospital was later built.

Peter van Vechten remembered, until his death a few years ago, how he stopped his horse at a house on Lisbon avenue to get a drink of water. He looked in the window and saw seven bodies black and rigid lying on the floor.

In the same year (1849) the Milwaukee City Medical association without a dissenting vote, passed the following resolution. "Resolved, that no fact in medicine in the opinion of the association is more clearly determined than that the Asiatic cholera is not contagious, and that any action of the authorities based on such an assumption and subjecting the sick to any inconvenience is unwarrantable and inhuman."

After all, the swarthy Mr. Thompson had not yet been greatly surpassed in medical sagacity by his successors.

That "non-contagious" disease returned in 1850, more deadly that before. In all poarts of the settlement there were houses containing corpses that had been deserted by still living members of the family.

Squads of hardened men, under the stimulus of high pay and powerful liquor, worked at the business of getting the victims under ground. There were graves that looked more like ditches; funerals that resembled the disposal of refuse.

Nearly 1,000 persons died within a few weeks.

Down in the harbor lay a ship with 300 Norwegian Immigrants aboard. Several of them were suffering from the plague. No one was permitted to land. The dead were rowed to shore and buried by the crew on the beach. The ship was a floating hell of pestilence, death and sorrow.

Families that had left their mountain homes in Norway to share in the spoils of those fabulous American frontiers huddled together on that boat within sight of the golden land and watched a horrible death come inexorably to one after another of these they loved best. Into their midst came several of the white winged Sisters, bringing that sense of calm and hope that seems to be an integral part of their being.

Once they had boarded the vessel there was no leaving it until the plague had ended. When at last they could go ashore again, there were left of those 300 men, women and children, only 60 white faced, persons with a look of pain and wonder in their eyes.

But the plague came at last to an end. The Sisters retired to their infirmary for rest. After many months slowly at first, a smile began again to come over the city's face.

Three years later a man again fell dead on the street. The plague broke out in the jail, crowded with the derelicts that always infest a frontier. But this time it met more vigorous resistance and there were comparatively few deaths. It was cholera's last serious visit to the city.


Several years later "the authorities" suddenly had a stroke of conscience. In quick order a resolution was introduced in the council and passed. The Sisters of Charity began plans for their new hospital. Assigning Solomon Juneau as treasurer, they [undreadable] subscriptions from the citizens. In this way $7,000 was raised. The building, costing $20,000 was completed in May, 1858.

Friends of St. Mary's hospital are proud that with the exception of the starting fund, the institution has never called upon the public for help. The legislature in [unreadable] made three appropriates [unreadable] $7,000. That enabled the Sisters to get out of debt. Since then they have conducted the affairs with the independence of a business concern.

Originally five Sisters moved to St. Mary's hospital. Today there are 19. Those quite, unhurried women who never raise their voice have, unaided by any man, built up an institution that in numbers of employes, value of its "products" and working capital equivalent to at least a $1,000,000 concern.

They belong to the order founded in P[unreadable] 300 years ago by Vincent de Paul, a poor parish priest. With the aid of Louse de Manillac he organized a group of wealthy women who were anxious to devote their lives to some unselfish work. Under the teaching of Vincent and Louise they were trained to perform social service among the poor and care for the ill.

The order continued to grow after the death of the founders. Vincent was in time canonized, and the Sisters of Charity became known as the Daughters of St. Vincent de Paul. Today the order extends to all parts of the world and numbers 40,000 Sisters, 1,800 of whom are in the United States.

For three centuries the admonition of St. Vincent has been kept by the succeeding generations of his "daughters." It reads: " You shall have no other convents but the houses of the poor; no other cloisters but the streets of towns, and the wards of hospitals; no other enclosures but obedience, no other veil than a holy modesty."


The order is governed by a highly developed form of "intelligent autocracy." Final authority rests with the superiorness at the "mother house" in Paris. The headquarters for American Authority are at Normandy near St. Louis. IN nearly every city of importance the Sisters maintain a hospital. One of the latest to be added to their list is the $3,000,000 St. Vincent's hospital in Los Angeles. In all they direct 300 hospitals. The only leper colony in the United States, at Carville, La., was founded by them and is today under their supervision.

All of these hospitals and all of the orphanages and insane asylums maintained by the order, exist for the sake of the poor. There is a popular fallacy to the effect that St. Mary's hospital and others belonging to the Sisters of Charity are money making concerns. It is a fundamental rule of the order that a certain percentage of the cases handled at the hospital must be charity. The Sisters accept the cases of those who can afford to pay only because it enables them to continue their charity work. All excess funds are sent to the central house at Normandy and from there dispensed to other needy branches or for the construction of new hospitals, nursing schools, and social centers.

No one is urged or solicited to become a member of the order, but candidates are welcome. When a girl has been accepted, she is sent for at least three months as a postulate to a preliminary school. After that she goes to the novitiate or seminary for one year, and finally she is tested for three years in social service work. Those of the Sisters who enter hospitals are all graduate nurses.)

If at the end of that time she has proven herself worthy of becoming a member of the order, she takes simple vows of poverty, charity, obedience and service to the poor. The vows, unlike those of most Catholic orders, are binding only for one year.

They are renewed annually by those who wish to remain in the order.

Since the founding of St. Mary's hospital here seven Sisters Superior have been in charge. As a rule, they are permitted to remain for a period of only six years at any one post. But Sister Dolores, who preceded sister Magdalene, the present Superior, was in charge of the hospital for 28 years. It is largely to her untiring work, intelligence and direction that it owes its present position as one of the finest hospitals in the state.


The oldest Sister at St. Mary's in point of service and in years is Sister Gertrude. She will be 77 this year and soon celebrates her sixtieth anniversary as a member of the sisterhood.

Some years ago she broke her hip in a fall and has since then been forced to use a wheelchair. She came to the hospital in 1877 and remembers every incident of any consequence that has happened there. When she talks a smile plays about her lips, and she laughs softly when she suddenly remembers something that particularly amuses her.

When she came to the hospital she was ill, and a small pox epidemic was in process. When she got the disease, she was transferred to the isolation ward in the laundry house. The institution cattle were in one end of the building; the sick rooms in the other. A partition separated them, and the patients could hear the cattle moving about.

In the basement were the laundry rooms, where the linen and clothing from the hospital were brought for washing. The soapy vapors and smells of soiled clothes filled the rooms of the sick.

The undertaker came only at night to remove corpses of those who had died during the day. IT seemed that when he came it was always raining. The building had a tin roof, and the drumming of rain furnished an insane background for the noises made by the undertaker as he wrestled with his coffins.

In the darkness the sick crossed themselves, drew dry hands over their fevered eyes and wondered, in terror or impatience according to their natures, when the rain dirge would be for them. Luckily the death rate was not as serious as they imagined, and most of them lived to those of those weird nights.


In the '70s there was not a single building or sign of human occupation on the land between St. Mary's and Whitefish Bay. From the hospital north almost to the present lighthouse in Lake park there was a fence. Within it the Sister's six milk cows grazed.

A smaller fence enclosed the big garden where the Sisters raised all vegetables used in the hospital, with the exception of potatoes. Almost up until the time the new hospital was built, they put up every can of fruit, berries and preserves used in the kitchen. And there was a day, still remembered by a few of them when they made each summer a delicious wine and sometimes a little strawberry brandy-for the medicine cabinet.

Most of the trees that grown on the hospital grounds, and many of those bordering neighboring streets were planted by Sisters Gertrude and Monica.

A few rods north of the hospital a deep gully cut through the bluff and opened upon the beach. That ravine became a receptacle for the institutions refuse. In those days nothing was known about disinfectants, and almost nothing about sterilization.

Bedding and clothing worn by patients suffering from contagious diseases were burned there. Kitchen garbage was thrown into its depths.

Each evening after the regular 8 o'clock prayer meeting the Sisters would walk all around the grounds to make certain that there were no destitute persons lingering there waiting for help. In this naive belief they had confirmation on but a single occasion.

For more than 100 years the government provided medical attention and hospitalization, free of charge, tall men in the merchant marine. St. Mary's hospital has had a contract almost since its founding, establishing it as the marine hospital for Milwaukee. Thousands of sailors have been cared for by the Sisters.


Dr. Allen was the first marine surgeon. He used to bring the ailing sailors to the hospital in his buggy. Then he would turn them over to Sister Stanislaus, who was in charge of the marine ward. Under the first government contract the hospital got only 50 cents per day for the care of each sailor.

Sister Stanislaus called them "my boys" and looked after them with the patience and doting of a fussy grandmother. Not infrequently one of her boys would be suffering from nothing more complicated than chronic drunkenness. When she found the bottle on emptying their clothes, her anger was fierce and the sodden gentleman shrank before her soft tirade. Her final gesture of disgust was to fling the bottle out of the window.

But Sister Stanislaus had been looking after wayward sailors long enough to know that there can be times when a body accustomed to its daily dose of alcohol must not be suddenly and entirely deprived of it. For safety's sake, she invariably tossed the bottle where it "would land soft," as she afterward confessed to her fellow sisters.

"And then when the time came that the poor fellow really needed a drink, I'd have it for him." Little did those sinners realize that it was their own liquor the wise sister had retrieved and now judiciously poured for them by the teaspoon.

For many years after her death, men from the boats continued to ask for Sister Stanislaus when they were brought to the hospital.

If the Sisters were kind to the sailors, they in turn were invariably appreciative. Before the hospital had such luxuries as porters and laundrymen, the sailors who were able often pitched in and helped scrub floors, did the washing, carried supplies and even took a hand at nursing when the need was urgent.


The Sisters could use a little assistance. They rose every morning of the year at 4 a.m. and went to bed with equal regularity at 9 p.m. But during the night, since there were no nurses, they were subject to call at any time. After the first morning round of the patients was over, they went to mass. The customary hour was 5 a.m. but to allow the priest to drive out from St. John's cathedral the mass was regularly said at 6 a.m.

In the evening there is prayer service, and other periods of the day are designated for prayer and meditation. The religious routine remains unchanged, but the active duties of the Sisters are vastly different.

Up until 1900 they were there own nurses, cooks, laundresses, chairwomen, gardeners, and in the earliest days they frequently milked the cows. A single handy man and the occasional help from the sailors furnished them with their only assistance. Today there are more than 100 persons to do the work not directly associated with caring for patients. There are 118 student nurses. And the Sisters serve only in supervisory capacity.

Long ago there was a death house separated from the main building. In the day time the windows were left open and it was Sister Gertrude's job to close them at night. She was then only a girl. One night she forgot about the windows until it had grown dark.

"You must go out there now for the windows must be closed." the Sister Superior told her sternly. Gertrude started out. IN front of her she could see the tombstones in potter's field.

The moon was coming out of the lake. But the death house looked foreboding in the shadows. At the rustle of every leaf, the girl's heart stood still.


In the death house there were two bodies. Sister Gertrude could see the white sheets and the unmistakable outlines in the moonlight, and she shivered with terror. But she crossed herself many times. "In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost." she repeated over and over. And finally she was safely back in the hospital.

"And you may be sure I never forgot to close those windows after that," she will say. "What I didn't know until long afterward was that Sister had followed close behind me to be sure that nothing happened to me."

She remembers how in the cool summer evenings, after the work of the long hours, they found it refreshing to go down to the shore after supper. "There were lovely colored rocks down there," she will tell you. "And sometimes we would stand on the little pier and wave to the people on the pleasure boat going up to Whitefish Bay. It was so quiet over the lake, you could hear them laughing and talking."

(To be continued. ) I was not able to find the subsequent articles.