History of Chestnut Street Cemetery Marked by Two Pandemics
By Marlene A. Ostrow, M.A.
2021 marks the 200th anniversary of the founding of the Chestnut Street Cemetery, the oldest Jewish cemetery west of the Allegheny Mountains. The handful of earliest Jewish settlers in Cincinnati had met on a few occasions for services, but they did not even have an official congregation. When the need arose to prepare to bury Benjamin Leib, in November 1821, establishing a consecrated cemetery became imperative. Thus the first Jewish institution here was created. Yet just 28 years later, that cemetery closed to further burials. Why so soon?
Throughout this year in which we have rededicated Chestnut Street Cemetery, Americans have continued to deal with the Covid-19 pandemic. Its appearance in 2020 called up memories of the Spanish Flu pandemic a century before. However, even before the Spanish Flu the world experienced pandemics. Major pandemic waves of cholera significantly affected Ohio during the early 19th century. The cholera bacterium that killed so many in early Cincinnati on the banks of the Ohio traced back to illness along the Ganges River that was brought to Europe and Britain first via commerce, then via immigration, and ultimately to New York and west to Ohio.
Contaminated rivers and inland waterways served as major transportation arteries, accelerating the rapid spread of cholera. Boat crews traversing westward from Pennsylvania via the Ohio River to Cincinnati unknowingly spread the disease. Most 19th century European immigrants to the nascent Queen City lived essentially downtown, in close proximity to the river. Due to the prevalence of pig slaughterhouses and trading on boat docks—both sources of work for many low-income and unskilled immigrants– people were living and employed in locations that were rife with dirt and dampness. Those dual conditions served as a fertile breeding ground for cholera. 1832 marked the year of the first major wave of that pandemic to strike Cincinnati.
In the 1830s, neither scientists nor physicians understood that the human contamination of water was the cause of this disease. Six years before the first wave, the Cincinnati Water Company had developed a network of pipes to transport drinking and washing water from the Ohio River to numerous sites around the city. However, since there was no sewer system in place to prevent human waste from contaminating the waters of the Ohio River, this process merely kept pumping bacteria-filled drinking water into all of its subscribers’ homes.
It took the wisdom and experience of a medical outsider, a Cincinnati citizen, to throw light on the origin of this disease and suggest a means of prevention. In 1832, this insight came from a free Black man, Henry Boyd, a successful cabinet and furniture maker who ran his own thriving furniture store, Boyd Furniture, at 8th and Broadway. Highly progressive for his time, Boyd hired both Black and white men to work crafting his famous Bedstead beds. Boyd’s integrated hiring practices angered less enlightened and tolerant folks and led to the burning of his furniture factory three times. Local Quakers helped him to rebuild each time.
This formerly-enslaved Kentuckian was the first Cincinnatian to postulate that cholera was waterborne, and he advised that to prevent its spread all water should be boiled prior to consumption. Current historians surmise that Boyd may have acquired this knowledge from his earlier life as a slave on a Bluegrass plantation, where both groundwater and rainwater collected in cisterns were used for drinking purposes. The Daily Gazette, a local newspaper, actually interviewed and quoted Henry Boyd in 1832, stating that “boiling water was practical and could do no harm.” Ironically, that very same day the Gazette published the Cincinnati Board of Health’s proclamation that “the cholera pandemic [is] over!” The implementation of Boyd’s suggestion to boil water before consumption could have saved tens of thousands of Ohioans over the next three decades if leaders of the community had not disregarded his advice.
In America, cholera mortality was greatest in the large Midwestern cities like Cincinnati, which lost 732 individuals in the 1832-1835 initial wave. For members of the Jewish faith who perished from that first wave, perhaps it provided some small comfort that there already existed a consecrated Jewish burial ground in the Chestnut Street Cemetery. Although there are no verifiable records to confirm the actual number of local Jews who died from cholera, several Chestnut Street cemetery tombstones are inscribed with the Hebrew word Dever, the same word used in the Bible as one of the ten plagues.
Then after the cholera wave of the 1830s, the second major cholera wave arrived in Cincinnati in 1849. In the 1849-1851 outbreak, our city documented at least 5,969 lost lives with one estimate suggesting almost 8,000 deaths, about six to seven percent of the local population. Although cholera spread throughout Ohio and neighboring states, the city worst hit was always Cincinnati. In fact, statistical records indicate that during the 1849 Cholera Pandemic wave, Cincinnati suffered more deaths than both New York City and London!
According to Joseph Jonas, the earliest local Jewish settler, by 1849 there were an estimated 2,500 Jewish residents in the Queen City. With thousands of cholera-induced deaths citywide, many Jews died as well, and the Chestnut Street Cemetery experienced sadly increasing numbers of burials. The small cemetery parcel now holds 85 tombstones, but it is believed that there were about 100 persons interred there. At least 18 of those burials occurred during the first half of 1849 and are thought to have been casualties of cholera. Ultimately, Chestnut Street Cemetery was closed that very year due to public health concerns and shortage of space.
Two hundred years after that sad time, the historic little cemetery at Central Avenue and Chestnut Street instead became the launch point of a year-long celebration, the Jewish Cincinnati Bicentennial, when on September 26, 2021 the whole community gathered to rededicate the burial ground. Its beautiful new entrance plaza, Ohio Historical plaque and informative signs now further honor the stories told by its dozens of silent memorial markers. Since those cholera pandemics of the early 19th century, our community’s new chapters of Cincinnati’s public health story have, happily, instead centered more on advancing science and the quality of medical care for all.