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April 20th, 2023
There are many studies on epidemics. In Latin America, the demographic impact of plagues is usually studied. In the United States and the United Kingdom, more attention is typically paid to the scientific development of medicine. In France, epidemics have given rise to studying, among other things, how a professional group —the physicians— have operated to impose their knowledge and their social status.
I am interested in studying those aspects of the cholera of the 1830s. However, I am increasingly curious about how people lived through that pandemic.
Tim Newfield —one prominent historical epidemiologist and environmental historian— told me that the body of cholera victims transformed so quickly that it was frightening. The skin becomes livid, the baggy eyes black. Death can come in just one day. How was that horror lived in the 19th century?
On September 11, 1834, William Thompson was admitted to the hospital at half past two o'clock in the afternoon. He had had diarrhea for three days before he was admitted. He was constantly vomiting and purging. Thompson was so dehydrated that he had cramps and a feeble pulse. Cramps are caused by a lack of potassium. When the body loses so much fluid, the blood becomes thick. The pulse is languid, and the lack of salts causes terrible headaches.
Thompson received ice-water injections. That allowed him to spend the night in a better way. At noon the next day, he lost many liters of fluids, including about two hundred milliliters of blood. His urine and feces were yellow, which denoted liver failure. Incredibly, he stayed alive, perhaps thanks to injections.
On September 18, the delusions began, an uncommon symptom in cholera patients. Pulse dropped to sixty. His extremities became very cold. William Thompson died at five in the morning on September 21. He was forty-two years old.
The doctor who attended him noted that Thompson had intemperate habits, i.e., he loved food, sex, and drink. "Intemperate habits": this phrase was used to refer to poor people, so we'll assume that Thompson was. How to know about the life of this man?
I will develop this question: How can a historian know and investigate the life and tragic death of an ordinary man of the 19th century? Floyd Ferris, the doctor who treated him, did not write much about what Thompson was like. He only noted his age, that he was intemperate, and racialized him. These few facts allow me to look at the United States Census of 1830: only two William Thompson around that age lived in New York, in Ward 8, near the corner of Spring and Sullivan Streets. That ward was a neighborhood of working people, including many of African descent. I don't know anything else. In the New York City Archives catalog, I see that a guy called William Thompson declared insolvency in 1820. Is him the same? How to keep track of a case like this? I am afraid that there is no other option than to consult dozens of files on various topics -close in time and the area. That can take a long time. That's why it's easier to make political history! If you are studying the debates to make laws, read newspapers and minutes of sessions of the assemblies; If you want to know how it was governed, check official documents. The documents are made from the perspective that you are interested in studying. What happens when no records are produced for the topics you want to learn?
I'll go back to the public archive, but first, I'll read Arlette Farge one more time.