Cholera Ship Virginia in 1866: Liverpool to New York

What became known as the cholera ship Virginia set sail from Liverpool on 4 April 1866. At the time there were no cases of cholera reported in Liverpool and none of the passengers – “630 Irish, 220 Germans, Dutch, Danes and Swedes, and 179 English and Scotch”[1] – came from any known districts suffering from cholera. In addition, none of the passengers had been sick or showed any signs of cholera during the week they stayed in Liverpool before the Virginia sailed.

cholera ship Virginia - cholera bacteria

Cholera bacteria. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

After leaving Liverpool, the Virginia stopped in Queenstown, Ireland. There it took aboard a few more passengers before finally setting out to sea with “14 cabinet, 1029 steerage passengers, and a crew of 110 men.”[2] Everything was fine until the fifth day at sea. The Fort Wayne Daily Gazette reported:

“Sailors are generally, with all their recklessness very superstitious people, and an ‘old tar’ who was on board on looking over the side on the evening in question, observed several sharks in the ship’s wake, and immediately communicated the fact to some of his fellow passengers, who, such of them as had heard of the old nautical tradition to the effect that when a shark followed a ship a death will certainly occur, were of course considerably frightened, and anxiously looked at each other as if asking the question, ‘Which of us is doomed?’”[3]

Although some people were worried about the shark sighting and fearful that death would shadow the ship, everything remained fine for a few more days. Then suddenly a passenger got sick on 12 April. Details of what happened were published by the London Daily News:

“[A] steerage passenger [Peter Voss], who had been suddenly prostrated by what was supposed to be violent form of diarrhea, died. There was diarrhea, as the ship’s surgeon supposed, everywhere in steerage; and even after the death of the first victim, the surgeon was unwilling to declare it a case of cholera. But two more sudden deaths on the 12th, and others on the 13th, convinced the skeptic that the steerage of the steamship was really suffering under a visitation of Asiatic cholera.”[4]

It should have been easy to identify those sickened by cholera as reports indicated that afflicted passengers showed unmistakable signs of the disease:

“Their countenances were of a dusky colour, their eyes were sunken, and they were suffering from the purgings incident to the disease. Their hands and bodies were shrunk and they had other marked symptoms of cholera.”[5]

When word broke that three passengers had died, other steerage passengers were struck with fear and news spread like wildfire across the ship. Cholera then struck with fearful ferocity:

“One after another fell under the ban of the plague … The other [disease-free] passengers fearful of catching the disease, for a long time refused to lend their assistance to the surgeon of the vessel, and almost without the slightest aid he and his assistants were obliged to work by themselves for the relief of the sufferers. … In steerage, in which the disease broke out, there are two compartments, one for women and the other for men. Between the two is an iron air-tight bulk, by which means any epidemic arising in one compartment is prevented from extending to that adjoining. But the disease nevertheless raged in both with equal fury, proving that persons of both sexes infected with the disease before embarking had been the promoters of the contagion. Amidst the terrible scenes in the steerage, where the prostrated lay livid and gasping, one that struck even greater terror to the hearts of those who had as yet resisted the attacks of the disease, was the occasional visit of the surgeon or one of his assistant to the berths of those who were found to be suffering the most, and whose bodies, when dead, were removed and thrown into the sea.”[6]

cholera ship Virginia - steerage passengers

Typical steerage passengers. Courtesy of New York Public Library.

As the Virginia was making its way to New York, dispatches were sent from it reporting on the cholera crisis:

“Cholera is increasing on the steamship Virginia at a fearful rate, 33 new cases having occurred. The hospital, at quarantine, are capable of holding only 75 persons, and 67 are now on board.”[7]

How passengers might have been affected can be gleaned from the cholera outbreak that happened on another steamship, the England, which left from Queenstown, Ireland, a few days ahead of the Virginia, on 29 March. Aboard it was a Reverend Martin, who later reported what happened in a letter dated 28 August 1866 while he was at a convent in Madison, New Jersey. According to Martin, after the England sailed off it almost immediately hit rough seas and then cholera struck:

“On the fourth day after our departure a German boy was found dead by the side of his mother. We had already had three days of equinoctial gales – hatches battened down – seas washing over us – passengers nearly frantic with fright. I performed the service over the poor boy, being exposed to be washed overboard. The body was consigned to the deep. The same evening a man named Thomas Walsh, 35 years old, complained of cold feet and cramps in the legs and stomach; three doctors attended him, but all was useless; he died a few hours after. … When he was dead, he was black; it was cholera. … Everything was done to cheer up the other passengers, but to no purpose; still death continued. … Eight, ten, and even fifteen, died in one day, and the same number of times a day I was to be seen standing on the gunwale performing the last service and sliding the bodies into the deep amidst the screams of the passengers. It was a terrible sight! … Often did I carry a dead man or woman on my back, or a boy or girl in my arms; they were black and putrefied before they died, black matter, like liquid blacking, running from their mouths and nostrils – it was most awful.”[8]

The bodies of those who died from the disease while at sea did not remain on board long. To ensure that the disease would not spread corpses had “weights attached to them, and amid the prayers for the departed, slowly consigned to an ocean grave. One short slide along the gangway, one short splash, a few eddying bubbles, the ship passed on, and the silent graves were filled, beneath the tablet were man can trace no name.”[9]

Martin’s ship headed for Halifax where it was quarantined. Passengers were put out at McNab’s Island where all their belongings were burned and new supplies, clothing, and food was issued. Those who died while there were buried on the island. In the meantime, the ship was scoured, cleaned, and fumigated and then set off again. It arrived at New York on May 3, apparently cholera free, although ultimately 214 aboard would die from the disease.

A French Caricature of Cholera, “Cholera Morbus.” Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Martin soon learned that that people aboard the quarantined cholera ship Virginia were dying without the benefits a priest. He boarded that ship and remained there because he discovered no priests would be coming from New York to administer to those ill on the Virginia. He also quickly learned he had his hands full. Besides the sickly on the cholera ship Virginia, a brig named the Bertha arrived in quarantine with yellow fever and then another emigrant ship, the Harpswell, arrived with smallpox on board. As there were no other priests available, Martin found himself busy comforting the sick and giving last rites. Moreover, after aiding these disease-infested ships, he became sick himself and was sent to the hospital. He afterwards reported that even though he was getting better, he was “still very feeble.”

As to the cholera ship Virginia, it reached quarantine on 18 April. When the Virginia arrived, “thirty-five passengers and two of the crew had died, and twenty-two were prostrated.”[10] In addition, while coming up the bay, three more passengers aboard the Virginia died from cholera.

Although the first quarantine hospital had been built in the United States in 1799,* quarantine was still not always accepted as a feasible means to prevent the spread of disease. This was noted by the New Orleans’ Times-Picayune:

“For a while we, in common with many of the medical faculty and a large portion of the people, have no great faith in quarantine, we are willing to yield so far to the prejudices of the world. We cannot, however, shut our eyes to the fact that plagues have more generally visited countries which have strict quarantines than those in the same latitude which have none. The inevitable moral effect of quarantine is to alarm the people, and that is frequently worse than the plague itself. As for fear of the cholera being brought here by our shipping from New York, we have none whatever. The best medical authorities, both of that port and Halifax, according to the latest reports now before us, are of the opinion that the disease on board the emigrant steamers which have caused so much alarm, is nothing but ship fever, diarrhea and attendant cramps, all of which is the necessary consequence of crowding twelve hundred miserable wretches of both sexes and all ages into a filthy and ill-ventilated steerage. Up to this time, therefore, we are gratified to learn that our New York shipping is to go and come free as before; only greater vigilance is to be exercised by health officers.”[11]

Still it was decided confinement of the cholera ship Virginia was necessary and when it reached quarantine, it was immediately boarded by a Dr. Burdett, an assistant health officer. He found twenty-eight passengers sick with the disease in steerage. He communicated his findings to Dr. John Swinburne of the New York Sanitary Committee who then made a thorough investigation and reported:

“In addition to those who were lying sick, I found ten or twelves others who were laboring under the disease in its incipient form. The passengers who had escaped the disease were full of apprehension less their continuance on board might be the means of their taking it, and they were anxious to leave the ship. … After making the requisite examination, I left the steamer, and made the necessary arrangements to have the sick attended and the disease limited to the vessel on which it broke out.”[12]

John Swinburne. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Swineburne also addressed passengers who were not ill but wanted to get off the ship. According to the Baltimore Sun, “Not withstanding the solicitation of the passengers, the doctor ordered that no person – not even the pilot – should be permitted to leave the Virginia under any circumstance.”[13] Swinburne then ordered the cholera ship Virginia be sent back to the Lower Bay where it was to be chlorinated and fumigated along with all the passenger baggage.

As to the sick, the hospital ship Falcon was to hold them, and the steamship Empire City was sent to take off passengers who were thought to be free of the disease. However, all those removed whether to the Falcon or the Empire City were still to be kept on board until they received further orders from Swinburne.

At the time, it was still unclear what caused the disease. This resulted in conjectures being made as to why people suffered from cholera. One theory published in the London Daily News was also published in other newspapers:

“There is theory that certain conditions of the atmosphere are conducive to cholera, and that there are certain zones wherein the pestilence is most rapidly generated. It is remarked, also, that cholera was developed on board the Virginia in the latitude where it first appeared on board the steamship England. ‘The facts seem to be … that the steerage passengers of both vessels, huddled together as a thousand persons must necessarily be in a vessel of less than 3,000 tons burden, were attacked when they had been long enough together to poison the atmosphere of the ship.’”[14]

Another popular theory at the time was also not based on the germ theory, which had not yet been developed. Most people still believed diseases such as cholera and bubonic plague were caused by the miasma theory, a theory that blames disease on pollution or noxious forms of “bad air.” People did not understand that cholera was an infection of the small intestine by some strains of the bacterium Vibrio cholerae. In addition, they were unaware that that transmission occurs usually through the fecal-oral route of contaminated food or water caused by poor sanitation.

cholera ship Virginia - representation of cholera

A representation by Robert Seymour of the cholera epidemic of the 19th century depicts its spread in the form of poisonous air, known as miasma. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Most people had also not heard of John Snow. He was an English physician who was skeptical of the miasma theory and who discounted the theory of foul air. Although he did not understand the mechanism by which disease was spread he eventually published an 1849 essay, On the Mode of Communication of Cholera, and followed it with a more detailed treatise in 1855 incorporating the results of his investigation where he identified the source of the cholera outbreak in the Soho epidemic of 1854 to the public water pump on Broad Street, which had been dug only 3 feet from an old cesspit that had begun to leak fecal bacteria.

John Snow. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

A New York state medical report ultimately stated that doctors determined that of the 196 who came down with the disease aboard the cholera ship Virginia, 58 died or in other words 30 percent. However, despite the high rate of death aboard the ship there was good news by the end of April. Newspapers reported that quarantine hospitals appeared to be disease free. Further, according to the Cincinnati Enquirer on 30 April:

“Doctor Swineburne … visited the steamers and hospitals at quarantine yesterday and reports them in excellent condition. There have been no cases of cholera on the Virginia for the past week. On the England none of the passenger have been attacked. There are ninety-eight in hospital, of which fifty-eight are convalescent.”[15]

Cholera pandemics have struck seven times with the cholera ship Virginia occurring in 1866 during the fourth pandemic. Moreover, cholera pandemics in the 1800s have resulted in the loss of many famous and important people. Among some of its more well-known victims of the disease are the French socialite Madame Récamier, the Irish writer John Blake Dillon, Jane Austen‘s brother Charles, the 41st governor of North Carolina Tod Robinson Caldwell, and  the daughter of President Millard Fillmore, Mary Abigail “Abbe” Filmore,

*The Philadelphia Lazaretto.


  • [1] New York . Legislature. Assembly, Documents of the Assembly of the State of New York v. 9 (Albany: E. Croswell, 1867), p. 271.
  • [2] Ibid., p. 271.
  • [3] Fort Wayne Daily Gazette, “The Cholera at New York,” April 28, 1866, p. 1.
  • [4] London Daily News, “The Cholera on Board the Virginia Steamship,” May 4, 1866, p. 7.
  • [5] Ibid.
  • [6] Falkirk Herald, “A Terrible Voyage,” May 6, 1866, p. 3.
  • [7] The Saturday Evening Press, “Telegraphic Summary,” May 1, 1866, p. 2.
  • [8] Kilkenny Journal and Leinster Commercial and Literary Advertiser, “Cholera on Board the “England” and “Virginia,” September 12, 1866, p. 4.
  • [9] Fort Wayne Daily Gazette, p. 1.
  • [10] London Daily News, p. 7.
  • [11] The Times-Picayune, “The Cholera Quarantine,” May 1, 1866, p. 6.
  • [12] Fort Wayne Daily Gazette, p. 1.
  • [13] The Baltimore Sun, “The Cholera Ship Virginia – Further Particulars,” April 21, 1866, p. 1.
  • [14] London Daily News, p. 7.
  • [15] The Cincinnati Enquirer, “The Hospitals at Quarantine in Good Condition,” May 1, 1866, p. 3.
  • [16] Pittsburgh Daily Post, “The Cholera Ship Virginia,” April 24, 1866, p. 1.
  • [17] Ibid.

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