Henderson County, Kentucky



Downtown well spread disease to many homes

The entire community was surely stricken by the irony.

Here the Rev. Nathan OSGOOD had composed a hymn about the cruel epidemic that was swiftly and relentlessly claiming the lives of Henderson residents - and the song would first be heard at OSGOOD'S own funeral.

Like nearly 100 other local citizens in that autumn of 1832, the rector of St. Paul's Episcopal Church was a victim of the severe bacterial infection called cholera.

Those who were able to attend the services held for him heard the words of despair OSGOOD had written before falling prey to the contagion:

"When through the land the Death Angel is flying,
And loud on the blast float the shrieks of the dying.
When no help comes from man, the sufferer to cherish,
He cries in his anguish, 'Save, Lord, or we perish!'"

The source of the infection that caused massive diarrhea and vomiting was considered one of the town's most vital and popular sites. It was the downtown public well that was located at the intersection of Second and Main Streets.

The well was a gathering point for residents who socialized as they drew water for their household needs.

What they didn't realize until it was too late for many of them was that they weren't only filling buckets with water. They were also carrying home the contagion that generally ran its course in only two to seven days and left survivors weak and shaken.

Those who couldn't rally became progressively sicker until the blood pressure plummeted and the pulse became faint and erratic. Some became comatose.

Local historical Julia CLORE wrote in a 1952 Gleaner-Journal article that during the epidemic which hit not only here but all over the state, "business was suspended, and the panic complete. People were seized with the disease while walking in the street…" Some, she added, "were dead within a few hours."

Incubation period for the lethal infection that killed 370,000 in India between 1898 and 1907 generally is said to be 12 to 28 hours.

Historian E. L. STARLING wrote that many of the community's water sources in that era were "frightful generators of miasma."

Cholera remained a good friend to the Grim Reaper for decades to come. In 1851, according to Maralea ARNETT'S "Annals and Scandals" of Henderson County, the illustrious first wife of Archibald Dixon perished from the infection.

Elizabeth Cabell DIXON was said to be a lineal descendent of Pocahontas and of the same RANDOLPH family that also claimed Thomas JEFFERSON. Her husband, DIXON, was a Henderson native whose various claims to fame included serving as lieutenant governor, U.S. senator and - in that same year, 1851 - narrowly losing the Kentucky gubernatorial race to fellow Henderson resident Lazarus POWELL.

As files at the Henderson County Public Library indicate, the contagion was no respecter of wealth or influence. Among other Kentuckians who died of cholera was the wife of ex-governor Charles SCOTT. Mrs. SCOTT succumbed in Lexington, "where 1,500 were prostrate, and 50 died in one day."

Reprinted with permission
The Progress Edition, The Gleaner, Henderson, KY, Saturday, March 30, 1996
Written by Judy Jenkins, HCH&GS Lifetime Member

Contributed by Netta Mullin, HCH&GS
Copyright 2002 HCH&GS