Victorian Approaches to Dealing with Cholera

Cholera bacteria, Vibrio cholerae, infects the small intestine, producing excruciating and sometimes deadly symptoms in the victim. Cholera is transmitted when a person drinks water or consumes food that has been infected by the feces of a human host. The disease causes severe diarrhea, which dehydrates the body quickly leading to death. The onset is sudden and has been called the blue death due to the bluish color of person’s skin caused by dehydration. The person quickly goes from healthy to taking on a certain mask of death.

Cholera epidemics raged throughout the world throughout the 19th century. It was spread on seafaring vessels and passed from population to population. Millions perished from the disease on a global basis. No continent or country was immune from the disease. Victorians recognized the need for quarantine to prevent the spread of the disease. They required ships to fly a yellow quarantine flag if any of the crew or passengers suffered from cholera. Persons aboard a quarantined ship were not allowed on shore for at least one month or more. This practice still exists, only the quarantine flag is yellow and black.

Political and Social Responses to Cholera

Cholera changed every culture in the world, but perhaps none were changed as much as the society and mindset of Great Britain. Cholera came at a time of political and social change in British society. At that point in time, Great Britain was comprises of extreme class contrast and conflict. Among the poor classes, the disease was poorly understood. Those in the medical profession found it acceptable to conduct experiments on disease response to various treatment methods (Gilbert). Cholera added stress to an already tense situation.

The disease spread first throughout the Indian subcontinent. Doctors had never seen such as disease and tried all of the other methods that worked for other diseases, including bleeding, burning the skin, opiates and a plethora of herbal remedies. None worked and people began dying by the thousands. Caregivers did not know that contact with bodily fluids could cause them to be infected too. The disease was attributed to many things such as bad weather, bad smells, electromagnetism and divine intervention or punishment.

Cholera quickly wiped out entire segments of the population and entire families at one time. Cholera became a hot political topic as the country became strained on many levels. Almost everyone had an opinion and a theory about the disease. People who contracted the disease were quickly removed to special cholera hospitals where most died. This began to fuel suspicions of foul play by the wealthy class. Families began to hide sick family members (Gilbert). Soon unrest took hold of much of the society. Public policy focused on quarantine and on the clean up of properties that produced bad smells.

Poverty was thought to be a moral issue and disease was thought to be borne of the filth that poverty bred (Gilbert). This caused a psychological reaction that promoted discrimination and blame on the poor. Cholera epidemics among poor communities were seen as a form of divine justice for immoral behavior. Handbills and penny sheets promoted these ideals among the educated and those who could read. The poor became targets for aggression that stemmed from fear. Days of prayer were promoted to eradicate the disease (Gilbert). Meanwhile, physicians promoted better sanitation as imperative in stopping the impact of the disease (Gilbert).

Cholera: The Fear Factor

Cholera with its rapid onset and no apparent way to know when or where it would strike created fear and panic among society. Many fears sprang from the Cholera epidemics. For instance, the graveyard shift was developed in response to cholera victims who appeared to be dead being buried alive. Coffins were fitted with a warning mechanism and someone had to stay up all night to make certain that a coffin did not have to be dug out quickly because the person was still alive. Stories such as A Cask of Amontillado and The Fall of the House of Usher featured this fear and showed its prominence. One has to admit that the thought of being buried alive is traumatic and counts as a significant stressor. When a person saw the first signs of cholera in themselves, they had many things to cope with. They had the horrific symptoms and rapid onset. They wondered if they would be alive in the next 48 hours and had to cope with end of life issues. In addition, they had to cope with the fear of being buried alive and dying a death of slow suffocation.

Victorian society had to come to terms with continual loss and with one’s own potential untimely mortality. The influence of fear could be seen in Victorian society. It was during this time that literature and cartoons featured themes of death, disease, and the suffering that accompanied it. Documentable cases of being buried alive were common. In many cases, it is reported that the victim, although they survived, were so traumatized that they never recovered (Venning). These victims would often develop maladaptive coping mechanisms, suffer from symptoms that would now be classified as PTSD, and were often doomed to spend the rest of their days in a sanitarium. Catatonic states were often reported among victims (Venning).

Death was a constant presence in urban areas. When the cholera victim fell into a coma, this was when the accidental burial could happen. Tales of vampires arose from this fear and the practices surrounding it. People would write into their wills that if they should die they should have someone sit on their throat or drive a stake through their heart. It was common to find coffin lids ajar, but the person inside dead, having tried to escape. These tales became fuel for vampire stories and other horrific tales of the paranormal. Bodies of people who died trying to escape were contorted and had an expression of terror. The fear of being buried alive was stronger than the fear of death itself.

Death was an ever present specter in the Victorian Era. Many superstitions and formal social customs developed around death. Grief counselors know that ritual brings a feeling of comfort to those that are mourning. The rituals surround the bereaved dictated the clothes they wore, how they should act, and how long they should mourn. When someone died, the entire house took up mourning (Rothman). Mirrors were covered with cloths and the clocks stopped. Children were not sheltered from death or the rites. Funerals were a publish affair and the funeral procession was a public event (Rothman). People often carried lockets of hair or watches as mementos of the person. They would take photos of the deceased in a natural setting (Rothman). All of these customs were apparent attempts to comfort the living and those that were left behind. Cholera changed all of this, as bodies were buried as quickly as possible to stop the spread of the disease. This undoubtedly caused sustained grief trauma among the living as they tried to maintain some semblance of order amidst chaos.

Queen Victorian was the origin of the more elaborate funerary customs. She is said to have begun the custom of wearing black. She is said to have locked herself in seclusion and plunged into deep mourning at the death of her husband (Levin). Queen Victoria mourned Albert for there next 40 years and was still mourning him upon her own death. This is one of the most profound cases of unresolved grief in history. Queen Victoria displayed a pathological reaction to Albert’s death, it became an obsession that went beyond all rationality. However, her obsession caught on and many of the elaborate death rituals of the Victorian Era were born.

Cholera and Pathology in the Victorian Era

The Cholera epidemic did not take as many victims as other epidemics such as Typhus (Rothman). However, its seemingly random and violent attacks on its victims had a more profound effect on society than other more widespread diseases. Cholera was a key trauma-inducing event and had an impact on individuals, on politics, and on class struggles. The Victorians had developed elaborate rituals to help them cope with the loss and grief. As one can see from the lifelong unresolved grief of Queen Victoria, sometimes it did not work.

The fear of being buried alive caused many to take drastic actions to make certain that this did not occur. There are many documented cases of being buried alive during the cholera epidemic. This was not an irrational or unrealistic fear. It happened evoking an even greater fear than the fear of death itself. The Victorians faced death head on, featuring it in personified form in cartoons and satire. Cholera and its horrific effects on the body became a source of fear and trauma. Victorians tried to cope with death and resolve their grief, but many cases exist where modern clinicians would find significant trauma induced reactions that often went unresolved for the rest of their lives.