Local Historian Sheds Light on Disasters that Shaped Saint Louis

Photo courtesy of the Missouri Historical Society.

-By Michael Pierce

If you want to take a literary deep dive into St. Louis history in the 19th century, look no further than Christopher Gordon’s new book “Fire, Pestilence, and Death: St. Louis 1849” (published by the Missouri Historical Society press).

Saint Louis, like most cities and towns, has a very interesting and somewhat checkered past. Founded in 1764 by Pierre Laclede and Auguste Chouteau, the early history and success of the fledgling village was tied to the fur trade of the American West. Men and women came to St. Louis, in some cases making and losing several fortunes over the course of a lifetime. And, like most cities of the time, Saint Louis had its share of disasters.

The year 1849 was a pivotal year. During that year the city suffered two major disasters – one a huge conflagration, the other brought on by microbes.

It was the year of the city’s worst ever cholera epidemic. Cholera is a waterborne disease, infecting its victims through the consumption of polluted water or by contact with fecal matter from another person. At its height cholera was reaping a harvest of over 100 victims a day. The constant peal of church bells rang out over the city continuously. By the time the epidemic subsided approximately 10% of the city’s population had succumbed to the scourge. Cholera shows no mercy, it kills man and woman and child, rich and poor, with equal aplomb.

And then there was the Great Fire. It began on one of the hundreds of steamboats lined up along Saint Louis’ Mississippi River wharf. When it was finally contained, nearly 12 hours after it began, 430 buildings were destroyed, along with 23 steamboats, and Captain Thomas Targee of Missouri Volunteer Fire Company Number 5 had become a hero.

In the book also are the stories of the two great crimes of the year – the theft of $120,900.00 (roughly $3.7 million today) in gold coins from one of Saint Louis’ premier banking houses, and the murder of two men (one of them the beloved and respected owner of the city’s best hotel) by the brother of a French nobleman. The Frenchmen were touring the country at the time. These two chapters in the book come alive like a modern day crime novel.

Photo of the author, Christopher Gordon. Photo courtesy of Missouri Historical Society Press.

Christopher Alan Gordon’s book is an excellent and concise history of this pivotal year in Saint Louis history. Unlike most other histories, Gordon brings a sense of humanity to the events he describes. Most histories deal with famous people and events. Gordon takes famous events and adds the stories of common folks. It’s through his use of primary sources at the Missouri Historical Society that the book comes to life. Readers hear the voices of the residents of Saint Louis, along with the necessary inclusion of the words of the city’s elite, as they were the men and women who directed the responses to the events already mentioned.

The only error I found was the identification of prominent 19th century attorney Uriel Wright (Gordon calls him Uriah). Apart from that, this is an enjoyable volume for anyone who is into our great city’s history. In the end, Saint Louis isn’t much different now than it was then.

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