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Ranck's Description of the Lexington, Kentucky 1833 Cholera Epidemic

Cholera--Its Terrible Effects--Incidents--The Lexington Orphan Asylum--First Managers

The terrible ravages of the cholera in 1833 will ever keep that fatal year memorable in the annuals of Lexington. The devoted city had confidently expected to escape the scourge on account of its elevated position and freedom from large collections of water, but an inscrutable Providence ruled it otherwise. About the 1st of June the cholera made its appearance, and in less than ten days fifteen hundred persons were prostrated and dying at the rate of fifty a day.* An indescribable panic seized the citizens, half of whom fled from the city, and those who remained were almost paralyzed with fear. Intercourse between the town and country was suspended for six weeks; farmers had to abandon their grain to the stock for want of laborers; the market-houses in the city were empty and desolate, and famine would have been added to pestilence but for the great activity of the authorities.

The streets were silent and deserted by everything but horses and dead-carts, and to complete the desperate condition of things three physicians died, three more were absent, and of the rest scarcely one escaped an attack of the disease (Observer and Reporter). The clergy, active as they were, could not meet one-third of the demands made upon them. Business houses were closed, factories stopped, and men passed their most intimate friends in silence and afar off, staring like lunatics, for fear the contagion was upon them. The dead could not be buried fast enough, nor could coffins be had to meet half the demand. Many of the victims were consigned to trunks and boxes, or wrapped in the bedclothes upon which they had just expired, placed in carts, and hurried off for burial without a prayer being said and no attendant but the driver. The grave-yards were choked. Coffined and uncoffined dead were laid at the gates in confused heaps to wait their turn to be deposited in the long, shallow trenches, which were hastily dug for the necessities of the occasion. Out of one family of nineteen persons, seventeen died.

The hitherto festival day, the Fourth of July, came and found the fearful pestilence abating, and was observed in the churches with mingles tears, thanksgiving, prayers, and supplications. The fell destroyer had swept over five hundred persons out of existence,** and the whole city was in mourning. The terrors and sufferings in Lexington during the fearful cholera season of "'33" no pen can describe.

The Lexington Orphan Asylum originated from the calamities occasioned by the cholera, which left children destitute and unprotected. A public meeting was held at the court-house on Wednesday, July 17, 1883 (Observer and Reporter), to raise funds to establish an asylum for these children. It was largely attended, and $4,400 were collected for the purpose. A house and lot, formerly the property of Dr. James Fishback, and located on Third Street, between Broadway and Jefferson, where the asylum has ever since remained, was purchased, and on Wednesday, August 14th, the institution was organized with the following managers, viz: Mrs. Wickliffe, Mrs. Sayre, Mrs. Tilford, Mrs. Gratz, Mrs. Erwin, Mrs. Bruen, Mrs. W. Richardson, Mrs. Putnam, Mrs. Chipley, Mrs. J. Norton, Mrs. Graves, Mrs. Dewees, Mrs. Ward, Mrs. L. Stephens, Mrs. J.W. Hunt, Mrs. Peers, Mrs. Leavy, Mrs. Macalester, Mrs. Ross, Mrs. Geohegan, Mrs. Edmiston, Miss Barry, Miss M. Merrill, and Mrs. Short. The managers furnished the house, procured a matron and an assistant, and gathered and sheltered all the destitute orphans in the city who had been deprived of both parents.

The institution has no permanent fund, and is supported by subscriptions and donations from any who are disposed to aid in the support of orphans,

The citizens of Lexington have never allowed it to languish for want of support, but the most liberal and substantial aid it had received since its establishment, was in 1866, when, by means of public liberality, its buildings were greatly enlarged and improved.

Source: History of Lexington Kentucky: Its Early Annals and Recent Progress, George W. Ranck, Cincinnati, Robert Clarke & Co., 1872, pages 325-327.

*Davidson's History
**City Records

Transcribed by pb, September 1999