A slim ledger in the library of the Historical Society records a time when the people of the Quincy came together- businesses, citizens and government united to protect our city against a deadly and terrifying situation.
In the early 1890’s most cities had problems keeping up with the demand for services. Services such as sewers, clean drinking water, street maintenance and refuse removal lagged far behind what was needed. This wasfor the most part accepted as normal. It was a time when personal hygiene also followed standards quite different from today. “You can almost gamble that out of ten men that pass you in the street not more than two on an average make a business of bathing the body once a week,” said the Quincy Daily Herald in 1893.
The previous summer Quincy and the world had watched in horror as the Asiatic Cholera began marching across Europe, leaving thousands dead in its wake. There was no known cure and much debate about the way the disease spread, but authorities agreed that it was fostered by unsanitary conditions and carried by travelers.
Many European visitors were expected as America was set to host the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago where huge amounts of money had been invested, and hopes were high for visitors and profits. Debate about preventative measures raged as fear spread. Illinois would be especially affected.
Travelers arriving in Boston from Russian ports were striped, bathed in a solution of water and carbolic acid and their effects were fumigated. Canada was in terror of infected passengers from Germany due to the Hamburg-American steamships that arrived weekly. The State of Illinois implemented its quarantine order from the Board of Health and appointed inspectors for all trains and ships.
By September 1, 1892, Cholera arrived in New York aboard the steamship Moravia from Hamburg. Twenty-two people died during the ten day Atlantic crossing, and two were recovering. The ship was forced to fly the yellow plague flag and sent to quarantine.Of the twenty-two deaths, all were passengers in the crowded steerage class and twenty were children. The dead were buried at sea.There was talk of stopping all immigration during the crises.
In Quincy, Health Officer Hazelwood called for an advisory panel of doctors, and a city wide cleanup. Specific problems cited included one within a hundred and twenty-five feet of Washington Park which contained, “ash heaps, restaurant slops, old tin cans, standing water, old shoes , old rags, old straw and no one knows what else.” The alleys and many of the streets in town were full of refuse.
Over the fall and winter the members of the city considered, and by late winter had determined a course of action. The Quincy Daily Whig from February 29, 1893 says, “Quincy will be cleaned up in the spring as it has never been cleaned before, if money, energy and law can do the work. The city authorities have the moral support of the citizens in their war on filth and what is a great deal more to the purpose will have their financial assistance. The city has plenty of law to enforce the removal of filth and the abatement of nuisances, but is handicapped by the lack of funds with which to carry on the war. Its weakness in this respect will be strengthened by the business men and manufacturers and as soon as the frost is out of the ground a crusade for cleanliness will be commenced, which will be continued till there is not a spot in the city to welcome cholera.”
In February of 1893, Mr. S. H Emery and the Young Men’s Business Association called a meeting, supported by six manufacturers: The American Straw Board Co.,Taylor Bros.,Comstock-Castle Co., Gardner Governor works, Channon, Emery & Co. and the Smith-Hill Co. Each of these firms pledged a substantial donation to a fund to pay for health officers called Sanitary Police. The city would be divided into twelve districts, and each officer could write citations for hazards, which the home owner would need to clean up themselves. It was made clear that the money raised would be used to hire inspectors and compel owners by law to complete the cleanup. The fund was not for actual cleanup work. Contributions in money and kind poured in. Some businesses gave the use of wagons and men; Stern & Sons contributed two thousand gallons of disinfectant.
There were problems and controversy. There were only two vault (outhouse) cleaners in the city, who charged $30-$50 per cleaning. Compare this to Quincy’s four thousand outhouses, many of them too close to home cisterns that supplied drinking water, and the scope of the problem becomes clear. For years there had been no funding to enforce the city ordinances. This meant that illegal dumping, outhousesthat connected to the sewer by running though the gutters, storm drains that were plugged, etc. made perfect breeding grounds for disease. “The reports of filth of all descriptions, the harbinger of disease emanating from all parts of the city was something astounding,” reads the note in the account ledger of the Sanitary Police.
The Sanitary Police set to work and by the end of April had inspected 5, 842 sites and issued 2,684 notices to abate a nuisance. 1,518 loads of “filth” were deposited at the city dump during April. This was followed by two thousand additional loads by the end of May.
The clean-up effort worked. The city avoided a cholera epidemic that could have decimated the city and destroyed prosperity for a decade. Twenty years later in 1915, a city wide clean-up, due to another cholera scare, took only three days rather than the three months spent in 1893. It is a good reminder that our city can and always has pulled together in times of crisis.
Financial Record Quincy Sanitary Committee 1893-1895 – Historical Society of Quincy and Adams County
A Misapprehension, The Quincy Daily Journal, March 4, 1893
An Eye-Opener for Those Sanitary Inspectors, The Quincy Daily Journal, March 21, 1893
A Special Meeting, The Quincy Daily Journal, September 3, l892
Board of Health, The Quincy Daily Whig, May30, 1893
Cholera is Coming, The Quincy Daily Herald, May 17, 1893
Cholera is Feared, The Quincy Daily Herald, February 18, 1893
Clean Up Campaign Just Closed Recalls Another, The Quincy Whig, May 9, 1915
Leading a Crusade, The Quincy Daily Herald, February28, 1893
Make War on Filth, The Quincy Daily Whig, February 28, 1893
Spread of the Cholera, The Quincy Daily Whig, July10, 1892
The Board of Health, The Quincy Daily Whig, April 25, 1893
The Chicago Fail, The Quincy Daily Whig, January 20, 1893
The Cholera, The Quincy Daily Journal, August 25, 1892
The Cholera, The Quincy Daily Journal, Sept. 1, 1892
The Situation, The Quincy Daily Journal, September 7, 1892