An epidemic in Birmingham, Alabama almost wiped out the city

Troubles came to Birmingham shortly after it was founded. An epidemic occurred in the beginning days of Birmingham that threatened its very existence as people fled the city by droves.


In June 1873 a cholera epidemic occurred and people fled the infant city. Before it ended, the epidemic resulted in 128 deaths and the sudden exodus plus a national economic depression threatened to bankrupt the city at its beginnings.

Early Days of Birmingham, looking down 7th Ave. from the corner of 19th Street

(Photo below created O. V. Hunt -William H. Brantley from Samford University Library)

Early_Days_of_Birmingham (1) Samford University

Dr. Parker’s diagnosis was denied

Dr. W. T. Parker reported the first death of cholera on June 2, 1873, but his diagnosis was denied for many weeks.i This denial allowed the sickness to spread rapidly. The man was identified only as Mr. Y and had only recently moved to Birmingham from Huntsville. The city of Huntsville was suffering through a cholera epidemic at the time. When Mr. Y’s belongings arrived in Birmingham six weeks after his arrival, he fell ill three days later and died within a short time. His illness was not immediately diagnosed so his bed linens and other belongings were not disposed of properly.cholera_395_1

More cases rapidly develop

On June 17, his two sisters came down with the disease and died shortly afterward, but still the disease was not correctly diagnosed and their belongings were not disposed adequately. Since the two sisters lived on a hill above the primarily African American neighborhood called ‘Baconsides’, it is believed that the some how the disposal of the sisters linens and body fluids entered the water supply for the ‘Baconsides’ community and the disease spread from there.

By July 1, cholera was finally the accepted diagnosis of their deaths, but at the time, doctors thought the disease was airborne so pots of tar were burned on street corners to disinfect the air. Streets were cleaned, cesspools drained and proper handling and disinfecting of the belongings of the sick began.

First Brick home built in Birmingham, Alabama

(by Col. A. C. Oxford -William H. Brantley from Samford University Library)First_Brick_Home_in_Birmingham_Alabama by Colonel A. C. Oxford

Many citizens stayed to help

“Defeatism met its match in Frank P. O’Brien, Brother W. L. Kennedy, Father McDonough, John T. Terry, George Allan, Brother T. H. Davenport and Drs. James B. Luckie, M. H. Jordan, J. W. Sears and W. P. Taylor. Lawyers, doctors, ministers, even ‘fallen women’ such as Louise Wooster nursed the sick, buried the dead and comforted the bereaved. Their unselfish actions proclaimed their faith in the destiny of this city.”

John Henley First Mayor of Birmingham

(Photo below created O. V. Hunt -William H. Brantley from Samford University Library)John_Henley First Mayor of Birmingham Samford University

The president of the Elyton Land Company, Colonel Powell was also mayor of the city, remained at his post of duty and participated in the most active manner, by nursing the sick and maintaining order. He took available relief measure to eliminate the disease from the city.

Colonel Powell

James_Powell_portrait

Property values declined

The rapid exodus of its citizens was a devastating economic blow to the city of Birmingham and property values declined. Additionally, a national economic depression called Black Friday took place in September, 1873 which further aggravated the city’s difficulties. “Originating in New York among the speculative stocks of Wall street, at once involved every innocent commercial business throughout the Union. In Alabama the people were almost wholly dependent for the means of paying their debts and providing means for life upon the sales of their cotton crop, then being harvested. For weeks no sales could be made. The banks were practically closed. Even the depositors could only procure a small pro rata of their cash by paying discount on their own drafts.”ii

Birmingham in 1873 from top of Court-house showing

(Photo below created O. V. Hunt -William H. Brantley from Samford University Library)

  1. Chimney of old sail
  2. First Baptist Church 6th Ave. and 22nd St.
  3. First Methodist Church 6th Ave. 21st St.
  4. First Birmingham Water Works 13th Avenue and 22nd St.
  5. T. L. Hudgins Residence 6th Ave. and 21st St.
  6. Col. Terry’s Residence, where Phillips High was later builtBirmingham 1873 from top of Courthouse by photographer O. V. Hunt (from Samford University Library)

Birmingham Water Works Board established

The city leaders took action by improving the water and sanitary systems. The Birmingham Water Works Board was established and Birmingham recovered. The citizens of Birmingham presented Mayor Powell with a beautiful pocket knife of many blades that was manufactured in England to their order at a cost of $130 for his work during the crisis. In 1874, Mayor Powell retired from Birmingham to his cotton plantation on the Yazoo.

SOURCES

  1. Peoples, Jared Encyclopedia of Alabama
  2. Birmingham Iron Age newspaper February 12, 1874 – Letter to editor by Dr. W. T. Parker
  3. Jefferson County and Birmingham, Alabama historical and biographical. Published 1887 by Teeple & Smith in Birmingham, Alabama

iBirmingham Iron Age newspaper February 12, 1874 – Letter to editor by Dr. W. T. Parker

iiJefferson County and Birmingham, Alabama historical and biographical. Published 1887 by Teeple & Smith in Birmingham, Alabama

 

SOURCES

  1. Peoples, Jared Encyclopedia of Alabama
  2. Jefferson County and Birmingham, Alabama historical and biographical. Published 1887 by Teeple & Smith in Birmingham, Alabama

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About Donna R Causey

Donna R. Causey, resident of Alabama, was a teacher in the public school system for twenty years. When she retired, Donna found time to focus on her lifetime passion for historical writing. She developed the websites www.alabamapioneers and www.daysgoneby.me All her books can be purchased at Amazon.com and Barnes & Noble. She has authored numerous genealogy books. RIBBON OF LOVE: A Novel Of Colonial America (TAPESTRY OF LOVE) is her first novel in the Tapestry of Love about her family where she uses actual characters, facts, dates and places to create a story about life as it might have happened in colonial Virginia. Faith and Courage: Tapestry of Love (Volume 2) is the second book and the third FreeHearts: A Novel of Colonial America (Book 3 in the Tapestry of Love Series) Discordance: The Cottinghams (Volume 1) is the continuation of the story. . For a complete list of books, visit Donna R Causey

6 Responses to An epidemic in Birmingham, Alabama almost wiped out the city

  1. FYI: Wilis Wesley Jordan and Mary Alice Large married 11 Mar 1873 at the Birmingham Court House. There first daughter Malinda Ann Jordan was born Dec 1873 in Parkdale, Alabama (source application for Social Security) SO the new couple did not stay for the epidemic.

  2. Horse Branch Hill Gardendale Alabama remember my dad telling me the story of families having to move out near the creek and up closer to where now HWy 31 is to get away from this !!! Wish I had more details

  3. Pingback: Birmingham had a birthday on December 19th. Did anyone celebrate? [old photographs of Birmingham] - Alabama Pioneers

  4. Heard most of Union Hill cem internments from this time

  5. The was a Cholera epidemic in Russellville AL in 1836 this was in a paper that was in Marion Herald

  6. There was a cholera epidemic in Russellville Al in 1836 that almost wipe the little town out There were upward 80 people dead some still in the homes the town was almost deserted this was reported by the Marion County Herald

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