New Orleans is a bowl of tepid soup gone bad in the tropical sun, left to the flies and mosquitoes. It is the perfect place for disease to take hold and numerous epidemics had their way with the population throughout the years of its existence. Plague season arrived each year in the spring and ran through late October when the first frost brought the hope of relief. New Orleans was known as the “damp grave” and the “Necropolis of the South.” It is little wonder these monikers stuck as the city stewed in a foulness of standing water, unpaved streets of sticky mud, roving farm animals, and the smelly contents of chamber pots. The Jasmine bloomed with all its might but it was no match for the stench. Death stalked the streets like something hungry.
In the 1800s. Cholera came to the city though it would not be known by that name until 1883, when Robert Koch identified it in Egypt. Cholera, the name means flow of bile and aptly so for the endless stream of watery diarrhea it caused its victims until they died of dehydration and exhaustion. It was not a pretty death, no Hollywood close up on the face of an angelic woman heaving her breasts in the final sigh of goodbye while a brokenhearted lover looked on through tears. It was a squalid death. A death usually suffered alone as people feared the contagion of the disease.
Cholera is caused by a bacteria called Vibrio Cholerae and runs rampant where poor sanitation occurs such as what New Orleans suffered with for much of its history. Spring flooding could pour at least two feet of muddy water and debris into the city and that swirled together with the feces of animals and humans alike. The wealthy had access to open air cisterns that collected rainwater and thus did not succumb to the ravages of the disease to the extent of the poor, whose main source of hydration was the contaminated Mississippi river. Cholera was treated with bleeding, purging, opium, and alcohol consumption. Women and children imbibed strong drink to ward off death but all of these things simply hastened the demise.
One of the worst outbreaks of the disease occurred in 1832 and claimed approximately 4,340 lives. New Orleans has a devilmaycare attitude; a one Martini lunch turns into a six Martini afternoon of music and revelry without that Protestant guilt. It is carpe diem, take the shot, do the line, peel the clothes off a stranger in the hot August heat and french kiss the moment because here in a city of disappearing ground, where hurricanes stalk the horizon; you just never know when you will get another chance. Let us raise a glass to this broken down city of potholes, sinkholes, crime, and corruption because for all her faults New Orleans has got that joie de vivre down ya heard!
Crescent City Historic Tours