Sixty-four-year-old Amy Purnell died this date, August 2nd, in 1848 from Cholera and was buried at Bethel Burying Ground. According to the 1847 Philadelphia African American Census, Ms. Purnell lived with a man whom I presume to be her spouse, a “daughter who is completely blind” and under fifteen years of age, and a female child “under five years old.” They lived in a 12’x12′ room in a squalid building on St. Mary’s Street for which they paid $.50 a week. The street was chaos twenty-four hours a day with the usual brawl between residents every Sunday night that ended with one or more participants going to the hospital. (1)
By 1847, the city and districts of Philadelphia had become a filthy, disease-ridden pit. Its streets, courts, and alleys were filled with human and animal waste, garbage, and overflowing cesspools. Its yards and cellars were quagmires. Unfortunately, St. Mary’s Street, Ms. Purnell’s home, was one of the worst. These conditions set the stage for the disease that took Ms. Purnell’s life. Cholera is a bacteria that is spread by ingesting water or food contaminated by the excrement of an infected person. Death occurs after days or weeks of uncontrollable diarrhea that leads to organ failure. The water system for the poor was often contaminated by human waste. Food would be handled with dirty hands and washed in filthy water. The poor did not have a choice or a chance.
Philadelphia Board of Health records between 1848 and 1849 show that 1,681 Philadelphians died from Cholera. During that same time period, 847 died from “Diarrhea” as the cause of death.
Ms. Purnell died on a clear day in early August when the temperature rose to a high of eighty degrees by mid-day. She was buried, with dignity, by family and friends at Bethel Burying Ground.
(1) Sun, 9 June 1846, p.2.
(2) Both images are from the United Kingdom Science website