For the village of Ogdensburgh in the 1830s, diseases and epidemics were mysterious plagues that could sweep through a community with residents helpless to prevent the death and misery they left in their path.
In an age before science, medicine, sanitation or even an understanding of how diseases could be treated or prevented, the communities early leaders struggled to protect their fellow residents as best as they could.
In 1832, Ogdensburgh found that it’s unique status as a major port on the St. Lawrence River could be a mixed blessing at a time when international shipping could also bring diseases along with cargoes across the ocean.
When an intercontinental plague of cholera spread from Asia and across Europe, communities across the eastern seaboard of North America discovered that the ocean could not protect them from foreign epidemics.
An article published by the Northern New York Hospital Library Program and Samaritan Medical Center’s newsletter describes how Dr. Socrates Norton Sherman fought one of the community’s first epidemics.
Dr. Sherman was one of Ogdensburgh’s leading doctors and also served as the public health officer for the village.
In June of 1832, news reports had arrived that cholera had crossed the Atlantic Ocean and was sweeping through the streets of Quebec City and Montreal, leaving a trail of death, especially in the slums.
For physicians of the era, what passed for modern “medical” treatment usually involved “bleeding” the sick or making them drink a mixture of mercury and chloride, a poisonous compound that would make the sick person violently ill until they threw up the “impurities” polluting their bodies.
Doctors were convinced that the compound could help people rid themselves of disease even if it also sometimes caused the patient’s hair and teeth to fall out if too much was administered.
Public health measures involved cleaning streets that were often littered with human and horse excrement, tearing down slums and quarantining the sick to keep them away from the healthy.
“The village of Ogdensburg established quarantine grounds, first at the mouth of the Oswegatchie and later at Mile Point. On June 18th, the first case was recorded at Ogdensburg.
Officials estimated that in the early part of June somewhere between 100 and 150 Ogdensburg residents were in the Montreal and Quebec vicinity either in boats or rafts or otherwise occupied in some business enterprise in the two cities. Amazingly, as far as is known, not one of these individuals was to suffer from the disease,” the article reported. “The first death was of a resident Frenchman, according to Dr. Sherman, “of dissipated habits and broken down constitution,” who testified before his death that he had not left Ogdensburg for several weeks. The second death was a four-year-old child, the third another Frenchman, the fourth near one of the wharves. Once the disease appeared, cases appeared in rapid succession, perplexing the medical community by their location in sites remote from each other. A total of 160 cases were reported, 49 of which were fatal. Reappearing in 1834, ten cases were reported with seven deaths.
“Also stricken in 1832 was the village of St. Regis, north of Massena. Dr. Bates of Fort Covington, who attended to the sick of the village, reported that about 340 residents had the disease which raged through the village during only eleven days. Seventy-eight died. In one family of eleven, only one survived. Friends and family became so frightened that they fled, leaving the sick to die unattended. Mourning for the dead ceased,” the article said. “Reports of the pestilence reached neighboring villages and the militia was called to guard the road to Hogansburg, only two miles away. The epidemic was confined to the area near the river and few cases were reported in nearby villages.”
“The second epidemic, occurring in 1854, was equally severe. According to Dr. Robert Morris, at the time the Ogdensburg City Health Officer, the disease arrived in July of that year with
the case of a middle-aged woman, who had become ill on passage on a ship from Montreal. She was taken to an inn where she died within a few hours. Five days later the innkeeper died, followed shortly by the woman who was responsible for washing clothes at the inn,” the article reported. “Within ten days of its introduction there would be 15 deaths on one block from the disease. Again the medical community was perplexed by the disease’s intermittent nature and how on its reappearance it would appear miles distant from the last case. Dr. Morris observed that of the 105 deaths from the epidemic, only seven occurred in families who lived in “favorable sanitary conditions,” most occurring in “rudely constructed hovels” built for railroad employees and construction workers employed in a project to improve the harbor. In April 1855, village trustees received a petition asking, “the shanties on the land of George Parish, Esq. on Washington St., be removed.” The inhabitants of the infected localities were relocated and their
housing burned to the ground. Few cases were reported after this event.”
Over 150,000 Americans died of cholera during the 1832 and 1854 cholera pandemics.
By 1866, American medical thinking had recognized that cholera was actually spread by contaminated water supplies. Public health officials had learned from those thousands of deaths that “disinfecting the bedding, clothing and excreta of the diseased could stop the epidemic.”
In 1860, Dr. Sherman was elected to the U.S. Congress as a Republican along with President Abraham Lincoln on a platform opposing slavery.
When the Civil War broke out, Dr. Sherman responded to Lincoln’s call to save the Union by enlisting with the 34th New York Regiment while still serving in Congress. The Biographical Dictionary of the Union: Northern Leaders of the Civil War wrote that with his regiment stationed for the first year near Washington, D.C., Major Sherman used his congressional position to obtain better medical care for the troops, higher pay to attract more surgeons and professional nursing staffs to care for the injured.
As a physician serving in the field with the troops, his colleagues in Congress listened closely to his recommendations, implementing many of his recommendations.
Dr. Sherman used the knowledge he had gained from battling epidemics in Ogdensburgh to impose sanitary measures on the Union troops, reducing the number suffering from diseases.
In June, 1862, Major Sherman had to give up his congressional activities when his regiment went into action He served with the regiment at Antietam, Chancellorsville and Gettysburg.
In 1862, he gave up his seat in Congress to continue serving in the military. He worked as the surgeon in charge at the military hospital in West Virginia until the end of the war, leaving with the rank of colonel.
Dr. Sherman was an early supporter of the public school system at a time when free education for the masses was considered a radical notion. He fought for the construction of Ogdensburg’s first public school in 1849. He served as the first superintendent of schools and was known as the “father of the public school system in Ogdensburg.”
Sherman School was named in his honor for his service as one of Ogdensburg’s school board members.