Skip to content

Diary of the Cholera Horror in Liverpool

  • Savannah McLeod-Petit

It was the year of 1832, May 17th to be exact, when the distemper had begun in Liverpool.[1] The city flooded with concern. People had been going missing, and many had speculations on the matter, intuitively that it smelled like rat. The city was known to be impoverished, unsanitary, and overpopulated.[2] Consequently, this state left our people vulnerable to demise. Unfortunately, the impoverished lived in the cellars which allowed animalcules and illness to mutate, especially in the city that allows inadequate clean water supply and the disposal of sewage, this made the poverty-struck more susceptible to disease. These living conditions also allowed the opportunity for the poverty-stricken to be kidnapped, be that what it would. For this caused the city to begin an uproar, due to the speculation that cholera patients were being taken to hospitals and murdered. Rioters then vandalized hospitals. It was believed that doctors were using cholera as a way to gain corpses to dissect.

Although I considered the frightful conspiracies to be a reality, I allowed myself the ignorance, the belief that even if it were true, it wouldn’t happen to me. The riots had become increasingly more startling as the paper indicated that:

Stones and brickbats were thrown at the premises, several windows were broken, even in the room where the woman, now in a dying state, was lying, and the medical gentleman who was attending her was obliged to seek safety in flight. Several individuals were pursued and attacked by the mob and some hurt. The park constables were apparently panic struck, and incapable of acting…

Quoted in Geoffrey Gill, Sean Burrell, and Jody Brown. “Fear and Frustration—the Liverpool Cholera Riots of 1832″, The Lancet (British edition) [3]
Poster from 1832: Notice. Preventives of Cholera!
FIGURE 1. Printed notice distributed by New York City Board of Health, 1832.

I wondered about the families in distress, losing their loved ones, and those fallen ill themselves. The city was angry, yet why wasn’t I? I felt as though I desensitized myself in efforts to not fall scared of the unknown. It was only a matter of time that my grandma’am, who I lived with, had fallen ill with cholera, and I too was a carrier of the malicious disease soon after… Her passing was quick, within the day, whereas my symptoms felt like they were never ending. Did she suffer the same?

I was admitted to hospital July 31st, at thirty-five minutes past midnight. According to the doctors, I had been ill for twelve hours. I had been seizing, vomiting and purging.[4] I am dying. Or what feels like the prelude to death. I don’t know what I am more afraid of; death itself, or the potential horror of ending up in a barrel, my corpse pickled in a brine, sold and shipped away to a medical facility in Edinburgh where my body would be picked and prodded, and no one would see me again or lay me to rest.

I hear the doctors in panic say that I am now experiencing: “pulse feeble and faintly perceptible in brachial artery; great thirst; upper extremity covered with cold, clammy perspiration.”  And that they: “ordered three drachms of castor oil, two drachms of syrup of lemon, and fifteen minims of chloric ether every hour; hot solutions of muriate of soda and chlorate of potash to be thrown into rectum every hour[5].” I pray that I will improve. The ever-daunting disease that bestows death, dehydration, collapse, and diarrhea, upon its victims, will it ever end?

FIGURE 2. Borough of Liverpool: Mortality Map of Cholera 1866

From inside the walls of the hospital I can hear the chanting outside of the hospital, “Bring out the Burkers!”, referring to, about four years ago, when two men were caught for the morbid and wicked murders, and the selling of corpses. Is this what this is? I am being taken care of to the best of their abilities, I am convinced this is all a hoax.  

FIGURE 3. ‘A Court for King Cholera’, Cartoon from Punch magazine, (London, September 25, 1852). A scene recognizing the unlivable and overcrowded conditions in London slums, during the Cholera outbreak.

Miraculously, my prayers have been answered, I have regained some strength. I have new doctors and nurses, as there was just a shift change. Nights here give a somber feeling, the hospital felt quiet and created a stiffness throughout my body. Staff seemed peevish and cold, unlike the nurturing nature of the nurses and doctors who had treated me prior. I can hear the nurse whisper that they will be moving me. Perhaps due to my slow recovery, I am being transferred to another location in the hospital. Is this good news?

I open my eyes, after what felt like a sudden sleep, to darkness and a rancid smell. I immediately feel nausea, but I cannot move. The sense of fear drops to my stomach. I am in the cellar.

[1] Burrell, Sean, and Geoffrey Gill. “The Liverpool Cholera Epidemic of 1832 and Anatomical Dissection—Medical Mistrust and Civil Unrest,” Journal of the history of medicine and allied sciences 60, no. 4 (2005): 478–498.

[2] Burrell and Gill, “The Liverpool Cholera Epidemic,”480.

[3] Quoted in Geoffrey Gill, Sean Burrell, and Jody Brown. “Fear and Frustration—the Liverpool Cholera Riots of 1832,” The Lancet (British edition) 358, no. 9277 (2001): 233.

[4] J. Wilson M’Cloy, “Notes on the Treatment of 123 Cases of Cholera in the Liverpool Parish Infirmary, July and August, 1866,” The Lancet (British edition) 88, no. 2242 (1866): 178–180.

[5] M’Cloy, “Notes on the Treatment of 123 Cases of Cholera in the Liverpool Parish,”179.