Uncovering the Cholera Pit of the 1849 Indiana Epidemic
By Tim Bean
170 years ago, a cholera epidemic washed over the pastoral town of Arba, Indiana, leaving a mass grave with 27 victims in its wake.
A small town by any standards, Arba offers an extra helping of the rural serenity of unincorporated Indiana. There’s no restaurants, no gas stations, no businesses. The town’s welcoming sign contains only the most essential information: Arba. Founded in 1815. Speed Limit 30.
The town is a vacation from the world.
Founded by Quakers in 1815, this community of farm homes and friendly neighbors horseshoe around the Arba Friends Church. The heart of the community’s culture and history, this Quaker church has stood since the mid-1800s, built just after the cholera epidemic for worship and to guard the town’s oldest feature—the final resting place of Arba’s oldest citizens.
The graves of the Arba Friends Burial Grounds date as far back as 1815, one of the oldest graveyards in the state. In those two centuries, the church clergy and congregation have been excellent stewards of this consecrated ground. A lone gravel path wide enough for a wagon runs through the middle of the burial grounds. Here the grass is always clipped short, the weeds always scarce. The gravestones might be cracked and faded, but most remain legible.
Visitors can’t find a better or more respectful place to glean Indiana’s earliest history, but they’ll likely notice something a little odd about these burial grounds right away. Rows of graves run neatly perpendicular to the gravel path, but in the dappled shade of the grounds’ southeast corner, there’s a collection of bone-white gravestones standing entirely alone. Weather has eroded most of these stones into pitted lumps, but a few still have visible writing.
Forever quarantined from the grounds’ other occupants, these stones mark the cholera pit of Arba’s 1849 cholera epidemic.
A historic killer, cholera is no longer a mystery. It’s a bacterial infection that still infects 3 to 5 million people a year and is fatal to just under 30,000. It’s exclusively a human disease, since we’re the only animal it seems to affect. Nicknamed “King Cholera” in the 19th century, the cause and the cure are virtually the same: water.
Victims contract cholera from tainted water. After a few days, the disease infects the small intestine, causing severe diarrhea, vomiting and cramps. It kills with dehydration. The cure is clean water (although doctors often use a fast-acting vaccine for modern cases). A middle school student could understand this disease, yet even today King Cholera still haunts communities which have little access to clean drinking water.
In 1849, community of Arba was anything but impoverished, but the cause and cure of cholera had not reached the semi-wilderness of Indiana in the mid-1800s. This is doubly tragic, since famed English physician John Snow had published On the Mode of the Communication of Cholera that same year, which correctly pinpointed the cause of the disease and its prevention. In 1854, Snow singlehandedly ended a cholera epidemic in London by removing the handle of a water pump, preventing people from drinking the tainted water.
“…avoid drinking, or using for culinary purposes, water into which drains and sewers empty themselves; or, if that cannot be accomplished, to have the water filtered and well boiled before it is used.”
~Dr. John Snow, 1849
This discovery took over a decade to trickle down into the rural corners of the Western world, too late for the good people of Arba. From roughly 1830 to 1850, lethal waves of cholera washed over the United States, probably originating in Russia or India, then spreading across the continent and oceans. The epidemic first hit Cleveland, made its way to Cincinnati, then slithered down the Ohio River to infect towns in southern and eastern Indiana, Arba included.
Given the knowledge of the time, the average citizen could do little to fight it. Medical advice against cholera then was largely effective by accident. Local governments pushed the outlandish theory that cholera results from an overindulgence of food and drink, and to avoid “abodes of vice.” It hit the poor hardest and fastest, since the country’s impoverished populations frequently lived near waterways and other damp areas, where cholera thrives.
Contrary to this advice of temperance, alcohol was actually the safest beverage for consumption at the time. Very few species of bacteria can live in the alcohol produced by fermentation. A drunken grave digger supposedly buried 357 cholera victims in a mass grave in Sandusky, Ohio, and this man earned a reputation of being “immune” to the disease. This tale may or may not be true, but it is possible. A person can live (for awhile) on beer, which offered little chance of bacteria transmission.
The idea of alcohol-as-prevention was moot in Arba. This Quaker community, like many of the utopian towns common in Indiana at the time, counted alcohol as a great evil worse than cholera itself. At that time, tainted water was not seen as a threat.
Blame for Arba’s epidemic fell upon a sudden bout of odd weather. This excerpt from the History of Randolph County attributes the disease plaguing Lynn and its surrounding towns (including Arba) to “bad air,” a discredited belief known as the miasma theory of disease.
The day after this supposed storm, King Cholera struck Arba. There is no account of the disease’s specific origin, only that it “ran along the roads west and south,” according to an anonymous witness in nearby Spartanburg. This same account is doubly disturbing to a witness because it not only narrates death after death after death, but also states the onset of symptoms and death to be only hours apart. “Jesse Williams came to shave the corpse,” the writer states, “took sick while shaving and died a few minutes later. twenty-seven died in all.”
The account is either inaccurate or this version of the cholera bacteria had become so frighteningly virulent. That kind of mutation is odd, but possible. The Black Plague spawned similar eyewitness accounts of a rapidly-fatal mutation.
During that horrible year, citizens collected and wrapped the Hoosier victims, then hastily dug a deep mass grave in the southeast corner of the Arba Church Burial Grounds. 75 yards separated the mass grave from others interred there (to bury any victims off the church grounds would have been unthinkable, as would be cremation).
Once the linen-wrapped bodies were under a blanket of dirt, the town forbid anyone from setting foot near the grave for months afterwards. An invisible plague circle surrounded the site and would remain long after King Cholera moved elsewhere across Indiana.
Eventually Arba’s citizens grew comfortable enough to have proper gravestones crafted for their loved ones, placing them along the edge of the mass grave, now indelicately known as a “cholera pit.” This placement gave the illusion of individual graves, but the illusion was of little comfort.
Arba emerged from the tragedy but never grew into a self-sufficient town or the hoped-for utopia of its Quaker founders. The town’s small businesses and skilled labor just…drifted away. 170 years later, Arba is simply a collection of residents and a church. Not a town or village proper, but labeled unincorporated.
The church is still there, and very much alive. The graveyard and the cholera pit are still there. Curious visitors won’t be able to read most of the stones around the mass grave, but strangely enough, a sharp eye can still read the most tragic cluster. Three stones, two of which are legible: Malachi Nichols (44 years), Sarah Ann Nichols (45 years), and James E. Nichols (19 years). A father, mother, and son.
An entire family wiped away in the same epidemic.
Would You Like to Know More?
Trace the life of a cholera epidemic in The Atlantic’s “Hunting for Germs in an Ancient Graveyard,” where students and researchers from Ohio State University examine remains in one of Europe’s largest cholera pits.