A Straight Dope Classic from Cecil's Storehouse of Human Knowledge

Did 90,000 people die of typhoid fever and cholera in Chicago in 1885?

November 12, 2004

Dear Cecil:

Did 90,000 people in Chicago die of typhoid fever and cholera in 1885? I'm asking because the Chicago Tribune Magazine, which made this claim recently, later published a letter from a reader challenging the story. The Tribune's reply was remarkably lame, even by their low standards: "If it's an urban legend, it's an amazingly pervasive one." Cecil, I know you can do better than that. What's camelot.spb.ru on the typhoid and cholera outbreak of 1885?

Cecil replies:

I'm not answering this question because you enclosed a double sawbuck, Mark, although it was a thoughtful touch. I'm answering because of Barry Popik.

You remember Barry: New York City parking-ticket judge by day, relentless word bloodhound by — well, pretty much all the rest of the time. Barry made his bones in etymological circles by establishing that New York's nickname "the Big Apple" had been popularized by horse-racing writer John J. Fitz Gerald, who first heard it in New Orleans on — how's this for precision? — January 13 or 14, 1920.

Having badgered Big Apple officialdom into putting up a plaque to commemorate his find, Barry next turned to Chicago's nickname "the Windy City." Common but erroneous belief had it that the sobriquet was coined circa 1890 by New York newspaper editor Charles Dana to lampoon Chicago's logorrheic boosters. Barry established that, on the contrary, the term was already being used in 1885 with reference to the city's lake breezes, and he's since found instances dating from as early as 1876. Ignorance dies hard in Chicago, however. Despite Barry's tireless efforts, the discredited Charles Dana story is still being flogged by leading local institutions, including the Chicago Historical Society, the Chicago Public Library, and the Chicago Tribune. Just a few weeks ago I got yet another note from Barry lamenting that nobody pays any attention to him, he gets no respect, etc.

OK, the guy can be a little dramatic. You still have to admire his tenacity. I do my bit to eradicate ignorance too, but journalism being the flighty business it is, I take my best shot and move on. Barry, in contrast, hammers away till the bastards cave, no matter how long it takes. Since he's got the Windy City thing covered, I figure the least I can do is open a second front.

Which brings us to cholera. In between helpings of the Dana fable, Chicagoans have repeatedly been told that 90,000 (or some other large number) of their predecessors perished from cholera, typhoid, and other waterborne diseases in 1885 when sewage discharged into Lake Michigan fouled the city's water supply. The most recent recounting of this tale (or anyway the most recent I've seen) appeared in the Chicago Tribune Magazine on March 21, 2004. Five minutes of research will suffice to demonstrate that the story is absurd. Chicago's population in 1885 was roughly 700,000. The loss of 90,000 to cholera would have meant a mortality rate of over 12 percent, or about one person in eight, an epidemiological catastrophe with few parallels in modern times. (For comparison, during the global influenza pandemic of 1918-'19, which some consider the most devastating disease outbreak in history, Philadelphia, the hardest-hit U.S. city, lost nearly 13,000 people, or less than 1 percent of its population.)

For the facts we turn to The Chicago River: A Natural and Unnatural History by Libby Hill (2000). Hill informs us that sanitary facilities in Chicago were wholly inadequate in 1885: sewers emptied into the Chicago River; after heavy rains, runoff caused sewage to flow far out into the lake, the city's source of fresh water. A torrential storm on August 2 of that year dropped five and a half inches of rain on the city in 19 hours, which under other circumstances might have meant disaster. To the relief of all, however, nothing happened, possibly because winds were out of the northeast, which may have kept effluent from reaching the water intake two miles offshore. No cholera deaths were reported (the disease was unknown in Chicago after the 1860s), and the typhoid rate for the year was only slightly above average. Typhoid deaths during the 1880s never exceeded 1,000, peaking in 1891 at 1,700. (Alarmed by the 1885 close call, the city undertook the massive canal project that permanently reversed the flow of the river and ended the typhoid threat.)

You can't blame the Tribune for repeating a local legend — Hill tells me she's still trying to figure out where the story originated. What's surprising is that even though her impressively researched book was cited in the letter to the editor you saw and is available from the public library, the Trib refused to face the facts. You see why Barry Popik makes all those funny noises and spits. Patience, muchacho. The truth will triumph yet.

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