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A Mistake of Epidemic Proportions

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In Ted Kleine's interesting and topical article, "Our Drinking Problem" (May 24), he states that in Chicago "in 1885, 90,000 people died after catching cholera from polluted drinking water."

I was surprised to learn that this often-told story is apparently just a well-established urban legend. You can read more about it in the fascinating book The Chicago River by Libby Hill (Lake Claremont Press). The section "The Flood of 1885 and the Epidemic That Never Occurred" (pp. 116-9) contains contemporary newspaper accounts and a graph of leading death rates in Chicago from 1875 to 1918, and it states that cholera was last seen in the city in the late 1860s.

I believe I've read about this supposed epidemic even in a Chicago Metropolitan Water Reclamation District plaque, at one of their cool aeration (SEPA) stations. I wonder what's the source of this story?

Branko Radosavljevic

Ted Kleine replies:

The experts seem to agree. Libby Hill told me that she researched the cholera epidemic by studying copies of the Tribune and Daily News from August 1885. She read every newspaper from August 1 to August 19, expecting to find stories of coffins rolling through the streets. "It just wasn't there," she said. Cholera's incubation period is two and a half weeks tops, so any deaths would have showed up by the 19th.

The river did flood early that month, she added, "but the wind shifted to the northeast, and the polluted water never reached the intake system." Her book also includes a chart from the city's health department, which shows that in 1885 Chicagoans died of diphtheria, tuberculosis, pneumonia, typhoid, cancer, scarlet fever, and nephritis, but not cholera.

Dick Lanyon, director of research and development at the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District, concurs that the epidemic never happened. He researched local death rates for 1885 and found no evidence of a massive die-off. "It's not verified by the media of the day or by the records," he said. "Twelve percent of the population--that's quite a bunch. Where would you stack all those corpses?"

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