1832 Cholera Outbreak in Philadelphia and Duffy’s Cut

Lately, there has been a fair amount of news coverage (“Fates Of Irish Workers Sealed In Mass Grave”, “Pennsylvania Ghost Story Leads to Murder Mystery”, “CNN Visits Penn Museum to Follow Story of “Duffy’s Cut” Excavations in Malvern, PA”) about the mystery surrounding “Duffy’s Cut,” a stretch of land in Chester County where, during the summer of 1832, 57 Irish laborers died. The men were hired by labor contractor Philip Duffy to construct mile 59 of the Pennsylvania and Columbia Railroad. The cholera epidemic that was ravaging parts of the U.S., including New York City, spread to Philadelphia and reached the laborers’ camp in mid-August. Within two and a half weeks, all of the men were dead.   

All of the deaths were blamed on the disease; however, historical documents and local stories suggest that some of the victims may have been murdered by locals, antagonistic to Irish Catholics, who wanted to prevent the outbreak from spreading. A few years ago, scholars and other interested parties began an archeological dig at the site of the mass grave to try and determine whether foul play had indeed occurred.       

Although downplayed in histories concerning the 1832 cholera epidemic, the toll that the disease took on Philadelphia that summer was high. Many residents fled from the city to the countryside. August proved to be the worst month with well over a hundred cases a day reported. A significant number of those cases resulted in death.  The worst days in the city were August 6, when there were 176 cases and 71 deaths, and August 7, when there were 136 cases and 73 deaths reported.      

There was a fairly organized and concerted effort on the part of the medical community in the city during the early months of the outbreak. However, by August medical personnel were overwhelmed and began to seek outside help. The Committee of the Almshouse, later known as Philadelphia General Hospital, asked Bishop Kenrick if he could request the help of the Sisters of Charity to serve as nurses. The order, founded by Elizabeth Ann Seton, already had a presence in the city. In 1814, at the request of then Bishop Egan and Fr. Michael Hurley, pastor of St. Augustine’s Church and close friend of Mother Seton, sisters began working in St. Joseph’s orphanage.       

Sister Rose White, first sister servant of St. Joseph's Home, no date

Kenrick agreed to contact the order.  In addition to the five sisters already in Philadelphia, eight others were sent from the motherhouse in Maryland. They lived and worked in the Almshouse and other hospitals, including St. Augustine Church, which Fr. Hurley had turned into a makeshift hospital under the supervision of Dr. Oliver H. Taylor.        

Father Michael Hurley, no date

Four Sisters of Charity were also called upon to minister to the dying men at Duffy’s Cut. Their presence was recorded from the accounts of an eyewitness; however, no official record of their mission exists. Relevant documents may have been destroyed in the fire at St. Augustine’s several years later. Ironically, although most of the patients cared for by the Sisters of Charity at St. Augustine were recorded as being non-Catholic, the church was not spared by Protestant nativists when it was burned to the ground during the riots of 1844.       

Lithograph of St. Augustine in ruins, 1844

Cholera had run its course in Philadelphia by early September. None of the sisters who ministered in the city and at Duffy’s cut during the outbreak perished from the disease. Their assistance, as well as that of Bishop Kenrick and Father Hurley, was publicly recognized by the city. The Board of Health and the Almshouse Committee recognized their efforts, and the city awarded silver plates to the sisters and thirteen physicians who had played a prominent role during the outbreak. The sisters declined the offer, instead asking that the money used to make the plates be used as funds for the orphanages and schools that the order administered.          

 In his diary, Bishop Kenrick commented on the noteworthy efforts of the sisters and priests during the outbreak: “…displaying an example of heroic fortitude, with certain peril to their lives, the Sisters took charge of the pest-stricken patients in that Hospital. Four others of the Sisters gave their services in other hospitals…priests proved their character and their strong virtues, caring for the sick in the exercise of the sacred ministry; while non-Catholic ministers generally fled from the city.”       

Excerpt from Kenrick's diary, September 22, 1832

Kenrick was one among many prominent religious figures of all Christian denominations in the United States and Britain who viewed the outbreak as punishment for people’s sins, specifically those dealing with the overindulgence of food and drink. And although Kenrick greatly assisted those affected by the disease, in a letter to Bishop Rese of Detroit, Kenrick shares his view of the outbreak as sort of a blessing in disguise in that it allowed many to reflect on their lives and come to terms with death. He writes, “The cholera has done great good in Philadelphia. Many are prepared for death, frightened from daily examples of unexpected deaths.”   

  

Excerpt from Kenrick letter to Bishop Rese, August 16, 1832

References:  McGowan, Francis X., ed. Historical Sketch of St. Augustine’s Church, Phila., Pa. Philadelphia: The Augustinian Fathers, 1896.    

Prendergast, Edmond, ed. Diary and Visitation Record of the Rt. Rev. Francis Patrick Kenrick, 1830-1851. Lancaster, Pa: Wickersham Printing Co., 1916.    

Watson, William. “The Sisters of Charity, the 1832 Cholera Epidemic in Philadelphia and Duffy’s Cut.” U.S. Catholic Historian 27no. 4 (Fall 2009): 1-16.    

For more information on Duffy’s Cut see:    

Watson, William E. et al. The Ghosts of Duffy’s Cut: The Irish Who Died Building America’s Most Dangerous Stretch of Railroad. Westport: Praeger Publishers, 2006.    

 

Daughters of Charity Nursed Wounded Civil War Soldiers at West Philadelphia hospital

by Christine McCullough-Friend

Women’s religious orders have served both Catholics and non-Catholics within the Philadelphia community since the establishment of the Diocese of Philadelphia two centuries ago. These women, who have and who continue to devote their lives to the betterment of society have played a pivotal role in social work, education and medicine.

As we begin to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the start of the Civil War, one example of this service that should be highlighted is the work of the Daughters of Charity (formerly Sisters of Charity) at Satterlee Military Hospital. The sisters ministered to thousands of wounded and dying Civil War soldiers from 1862 until the hospital closed in 1865. 

Nurses and staff

The 12-acre site where the Satterlee Hospital was located in West Philadelphia, bounded roughly by 40th to 44th Streets, from Spruce to Pine Streets, was at that time very rural, far removed from the cramped and crowded conditions of urban Philadelphia. The ‘pure country air’ afforded the soldiers an opportunity to rest and recover from their wounds.

The hospital, initially called West Philadelphia Hospital, was renamed Satterlee Military Hospital in honor of Richard Smith Satterlee, a distinguished army surgeon. The surgeon in charge was Dr. Isaac Hayes, an Artic explorer before he joined the army. The hastily constructed buildings were completed in just over 40 days. The 2,500-bed facility was not quite finished when 22 Daughters of Charity arrived on June 9, 1862.

Initially, the hospital was fairly ill equipped, especially with regard to the accommodations for the sisters. Beverages were served in wash pitchers and the food in basins. The sisters ate their meals earlier than the officers, sharing just four eating utensils reserved for officers’ use. The chapel was so small that some sisters had to exit the room so others could enter and receive Holy Communion.  

Satterlee Hospital became a self-contained city when a tent city was built on the grounds in 1863. The hospital increased its capacity to accommodate 4,500 wounded soldiers. A 14-foot high fence surrounded the property, which now sprawled south to Baltimore Avenue and west to 46th Street. On the grounds there was a post office, clothing store, laundry facility, carpenter shop, printing shop, dispensary, library, and three kitchens referred to as restaurants.

Although the official capacity of Satterlee was 4,500, the actual capacity exceeded this number. After the Battle of Bull Run, the wounded arrived by the hundreds. After the Battle of Gettysburg, they arrived by the thousands, swelling the hospital population to more than 6,000. During the Battle of Gettysburg which occurred during July 1863, the greatest number of wounded were admitted to the hospital in a single month. The following month of August saw the greatest number of deaths in any one month, averaging at least one per day. In just one year, patients consumed more than 800,000 pounds of bread, 16,000 pounds of butter and 334,000 quarts of milk.

During the war, more than 100 Daughters of Charity passed through the doors of Satterlee Hospital, ministering to the wounded soldiers’ spiritual and medical needs. The tiny chapel was soon expanded to seat 400 worshippers. Many soldiers often arrived several hours before mass to obtain a seat. Several wounded soldiers contributed generously to outfit the chapel properly, purchasing a set of stations of the cross and taking great pains to decorate the chapel for feasts and special occasions. 

The hospital’s chaplain was Father Peter McGrane who was stationed at St. Patrick’s at 20th and Locust Streets. Every day, Father McGrane traveled from St. Patrick’s to Satterlee to say mass, hear confessions, instruct and baptize and frequently arrange for burial. He labored throughout the war ministering to the wounded and dying. Archbishop James Wood also visited Satterlee several times to confirm many adult converts.

Father Peter McGrane, no date

The practice of military medicine during the war was an eye-opening experience. The wounds caused by the new and improved artillery met the outdated medical practices of understaffed field hospitals, resulting in an epidemic of needless deaths. Conditions began to improve with the advent of permanent army hospitals like Sattelee, staffed by experiences surgeons and dedicated sisters.

During its four-year existence, more than 50,000 wounded soldiers were treated at Satterlee. The contributions made by the medical professionals and the Daughters of Charity who staffed the hospital are immeasurable.

PAHRC holds a copy of a diary kept by a Daughter of Charity at the hospital from 1862 to 1865.

References:

Smith, Sara Trainer, ed. “Notes on Satterlee Military Hospital…from the journal kept at the hospital by a Sister of Charity.” Records of the American Catholic Historical Society 8, no. 4 (December 1897): 399-449.

West, Nathaniel. History of the Satterlee U.S.A. Gen. Hospital at West Philadelphia from October 8, 1862 to October 8, 1863. The Hosptial Press, 1863. (Call# IC0135)