Charles Averill’s The Cholera-Fiend: Fiction for a Pandemic

Sari Altschuler and Paul Erickson

What security, we repeat, have we that the events of Gateshead may not be again repeated in Ratcliffe, Rotherhithe, or Limehouse, the squalid and noisome abodes in which the cholera-fiend insidiously slumbers?

—“The Cholera in London,” Lancet, 18 February 1832[1]

We write from within a global pandemic. Many of us sit in our homes, hiding from an invisible disease carried by the very air we breathe. Some risk their own lives to make those of others possible—providing essential services or care for the sick. Others lie alone in hospital beds, suffering and dying (170,000 at this point, just in the United States) from a disease about which doctors know too little and which medicine currently cannot effectively prevent, treat, or cure. At the same time, some politicians and businessmen grotesquely seek to profit from the reigning pestilence, propagating it inadvertently or intentionally through wishful thinking, negligence, and design.

“A Warning to Landlords,” Harper’s Weekly, March 24, 1866.” Courtesy of House Divided: The Civil War Research Engine at Dickinson College.

These circumstances feel novel, a word frequently used to describe the novel coronavirus (COVID-19), but as Charles Averill’s The Cholera-Fiend; or, the Plague Spreaders of New York. A Mysterious Tale of the Pestilence in 1849 (Boston, 1850) shows, they are not. Human societies have always lived with contagious diseases, and their social, cultural, economic, political, and religious dimensions repeat with difference across centuries. Advances in vaccines and antibiotics in the last century have led many people in wealthy nations to feel, hubristically, that terrifying global pandemics were mostly things of the past. But this has not been the case in much of the world, where communicable diseases like influenza, dysentery, malaria, tuberculosis, and HIV/AIDS kill millions each year. And, with the arrival of COVID-19, it is very suddenly no longer the case in rich countries, either. In The Cholera-Fiend readers will find a work of historical pandemic fiction that reveals some disturbing and illuminating continuities between the nineteenth-century cholera pandemics and global health crises in the twenty-first century.

What am I reading?

The Cholera-Fiend is a strange text. We can’t say much with certainty about what kind of book it is, because as far as we know, no original physical copy of the novel exists. Charles Averill (about whom we also know very little) was an author of cheap popular fiction in the middle decades of the nineteenth century, with his output divided between sensational urban novels, pirate stories, and frontier tales. Many of his titles we only know about from ads on the covers of extant novels; some representative samples include Mexican Ranchero; or, the Maid of the Chaparral. A Romance of the Mexican War (1847); The Pirates of Cape Ann; or, The Freebooter’s Foe. A Tale of Land and Water (1848) and Kit Carson, the Prince of the Gold Hunters; or The Adventures of the Sacramento (1849). Most of his early novels were published by the two main story-paper publishers in Boston in the late 1840s: Frederick Gleason, publisher of The Flag of Our Union, and his competitors, the brothers Edward, Henry, and George Williams, who published a range of story papers, most notably a popular vehicle called The Uncle Sam. The Williams brothers employed a host of hack writers to produce fiction that could be serialized in their story papers. It’s not clear if The Cholera-Fiend was published serially in The Uncle Sam or perhaps in one of the Williams Brothers’ other story papers; too few issues survive in library collections to know for sure.

The text of the novel provided here is a PDF made from a hard copy that was printed from a microfilmed version of the novel—a palimpsest of media forms. The microfilm series that includes the novel (and over 10,000 others) was produced in 1969, and was based on Lyle Wright’s three-volume bibliography of American fiction. These three volumes are divided chronologically. The Cholera-Fiend was published in 1850, at the very end of the period covered by the first volume.[2] In the early 2000s Indiana University digitized the microfilm for the second volume of Wright’s bibliography, covering 1851‒1875, but because other digital resources already existed that included partial coverage of literature from the earlier period, the microfilm series corresponding to the first volume was not digitized. As a result, a large amount of popular American fiction from the 1840s—the era of the first boom in cheap paperback fiction publication—has never been digitized. The Cholera-Fiendis one of those books. Wright’s bibliography was based on a survey of 18 major university libraries and independent research libraries and lists the University of Minnesota as the only institution holding The Cholera-Fiend, but in several visits to libraries there we were not successful in locating the original. The copy that was filmed is presumed lost. Paul Erickson read the novel on microfilm while he was in graduate school and printed out the version that was scanned to create this PDF. Thus, the novel has had a vanishingly small number of readers over the past 50 years.

While we don’t know exactly what the original novel looked like, we can make some educated guesses based on other titles published by the Williams firm. It would have been issued with paper covers—maybe yellow, perhaps pink. It might have had an illustration on the front cover; the back cover would probably have advertised other novels for sale by the firm, or perhaps would have promoted The Uncle Sam. The novel would have cost either 12.5 or 25 cents, which were standard prices for cheap fiction in the U.S. until the Beadle & Adams firm revolutionized cheap publishing with the introduction of the dime novel in 1860. Novels like The Cholera-Fiend would have been sold at newsstands on sidewalks and at railroad stations, as well as in cheap bookstores and through the mail. There is no way to know how many people read Averill’s novel. The Williams brothers claimed in 1847 that The Uncle Sam had a circulation of over 30,000, so if The Cholera-Fiend had been serialized there, it could have been widely read.[3] If it was only published in book form, the potential audience would have been much smaller.

The Cholera-Fiend is a very different sort of book from most of the works that get assigned in American literature courses in 2020. Those works are typically chosen because they meet some aesthetic standard, or because they help shift how we understand the story of American life and letters, or because they bring diverse perspectives to important issues, or because they are considered to be “important.” The Cholera-Fiend is not like those books. Charles Averill almost certainly did not consider himself an “artist”—he wrote stories because it was a job. The novel was not written with any expectation that it would be reviewed, or held in libraries, or that it would otherwise leave a mark in the culture. It was written and published entirely as a commercial enterprise. So, like most popular fiction of the day, as a piece of writing it isn’t very good. Its pacing is odd, the action is difficult to follow at times, and the many strands of the plot get wrapped up in a hurry in order to meet the 100-page target length.

But precisely because it was created for mass appeal, it offers a useful window into popular American culture in the 1840s. Like much popular genre fiction, it relies on stock characters that readers at the time would have been familiar with: the licentious clergyman; the saucy, streetwise city kid; the quack doctor; the prostitute who wants to reform; the African American servant, rendered in racist caricature. The novel also refers to other popular texts and public figures that would have resonated with readers in 1850. A long digression about licentious priests in Montreal is clearly a reference to the 1836 anti-Catholic exposé The Awful Disclosures of Maria Monk, while the figure of Newton Mathews, the lascivious minister, draws on the sensational story of Benjamin Onderdonk, the Episcopal Bishop of New York who was suspended in the 1840s for having made sexual advances to female members of his congregation. These narrative shortcuts, which are characteristic of most genre fiction, can make the book seem strange to readers today, but they would have enticed readers in 1850, making them feel in the know.

What is/was cholera?

What is uncommon about the novel, and what makes it worth reading today, is its focus on cholera. In an age when pandemic diseases like cholera were sources of terror, it is striking that little fiction from the period addressed the disease except in passing. Averill’s novel is an exception. In The Cholera-Fiend, the eponymous character is two things at once: the disease itself, referred to even in medical literature as the cholera-fiend, and its human propagators: three men who plot to spread cholera around New York City. Averill was not the first author to make use of this plot, as he undoubtedly knew, but he was the first American author.[4] This double sense, of a disease with its own insidious behavior and of one caused by human action, echoes larger uncertainties about cholera whose etiology and very nature was not fully understood in 1850. Americans did not know what caused cholera; they did not know whether it was a new or old disease; and they did not know whether it was environmental or contagious, that is, whether humans were themselves disease vectors.

This “cholera-fiend,” as the book’s title suggests, was truly terrifying. Cholera begins with stomach cramps, vomit, and diarrhea. When a sufferer is sufficiently dehydrated, his/her/their skin grows puckered and blue. It killed quickly, sometimes in a matter of hours—and was fatal to half the people it infected. Historian Charles Rosenberg perhaps puts it best when he writes, “It was not easy for survivors to forget a cholera epidemic . . .  [symptoms] could not be ignored or romanticized as were the physical manifestations of malaria or tuberculosis. One could as easily ignore a case of acute arsenical poisoning, the symptoms of which are strikingly similar to those of cholera.”[5] Rosenberg’s description indexes a real prevailing fear about the pandemic: that people would use it, as characters do in The Cholera Fiend, as cover for murder. The practice was apparently common enough that an 1848 treatise set out to clarify the difference, since, “in numerous cases, arsenical poisoning has been mistaken for cholera and the fact of poisoning has been concealed until an analysis was made.”[6]

Although the symptoms were rarely described in fiction about the pandemic, or in polite company, many Americans would have had first-hand experience of the disease by 1850.[7] The first global cholera pandemic to reach the West began spreading out of India in 1829, crossing into Europe, and arriving in North America in June 1832. The press covered its movement for two years before it finally arrived in Quebec and moved quickly down the Eastern seaboard. The second pandemic to hit the United States arrived in 1849, and outbreaks continued frequently in the years that followed. Although literary scholars have not attended enough to these pandemics, which fundamentally shaped American life in the antebellum era, it profoundly affected the lives of writers like Harriet Beecher Stowe, whose son Charles understood Uncle Tom’s Cabin as a response to her loss of a child in an 1849 outbreak.[8]

The Cholera-Fiend in the Time of COVID-19

Readers of The Cholera-Fiend will find that the experience of living in a pandemic differs less markedly between the nineteenth and twenty-first centuries than one might expect. For example, as is the case in our current moment of global pandemic, there is confusion in the novel about what causes the disease in question. The three villains of the novel clearly believe cholera to be spread via miasma—through the air. So, using maps of New York City and an understanding of its weather, they break open tombs in strategically chosen cemeteries around the city, so that foul air will circulate most readily and infect the largest number of people. Nevertheless, the novel itself offers different advice for those hoping to remain healthy, advising readers that the best thing they can do is avoid agitation, excitement, and fruit (60). Additionally, the experiences and outcomes of past outbreaks—particularly the 1832 pandemic—haunt the narrative in 1849, as past pandemics do today. Most strikingly, readers will find echoes of the experience of COVID-19 in the novel’s overt racism and ableism. Racism and racist narratives, as well as ableism and ableist narratives, have long structured epidemics, determining, as Priscilla Wald has demonstrated so persuasively, paths of infection as well as who is treated and who is not, who lives and who dies.[9]

This racist logic organizes The Cholera-Fiend: it bookends the story, it offers “comic relief” in an otherwise harrowing gothic tale, and it fleshes out what might otherwise be one-dimensional “heroes.” In the very first chapter, the villain doctor Quackenboss’s young apprentice Mark claims to treat the Black servant Gumbo with medicine that sickens him. We are asked to understand this as a “good-humored trick,” a phrase used later by Mark to describe Gumbo’s psychological torture by the novel’s other hero, Clinton (68). Gumbo’s concerns about his health (real conditions inflicted by Mark and Clinton notwithstanding) are cast as the products of a paranoid, dim-witted character’s imagination. The joke treatments perpetrated at Gumbo’s expense narratively work to make Mark and Clinton more likeable. And, as with some politicians and public figures today who treat Black lives as expendable during the COVID-19 pandemic, Averill’s characters never worry that Gumbo might really be sick.

Nevertheless, there’s something more than simple racism at play here. After all, Gumbo complains of gastrointestinal distress and anxiously eyes Clinton as he read the day’s paper, “a waitin to see ef dere am any furder ‘counts ob dat debblish tape-worm, dat ebery body is ‘peaking ob” (54). Here the tapeworm, which Gumbo claims to have contracted himself from “dat pump in de kitchen” seems very much like cholera, although the novel itself never says so (54). Although The Cholera-Fiendsubscribes to the popular theory that cholera was airborne—or, in the medical language of the day, miasmatic—the etiology Gumbo offers accords with the popular (and correct!) theory offered by British physician John Snow, who hypothesized in 1849 that cholera was waterborne and largely blamed communal water pumps.[10] We cannot know if Averill knew about Snow’s popular hypothesis, although if he looked to slight Snow with this detail, the slight would have been short-lived, as Western medicine quickly came to realize Snow was right. Furthermore, since the African American community had been disproportionately affected by the cholera in 1832, contracting the disease at roughly twice the rate of white Americans in cities like Philadelphia, it makes particular sense that Gumbo would be both most afraid of the disease and most attentive to information about it.[11] In short, Averill may adopt a racist attitude toward Gumbo, but by framing the novel with conversations about Gumbo’s body—and particularly Gumbo’s persistent presentation of and talk about his body as diseased—as well as the lengths to which the text goes to lampoon Gumbo’s knowledge and symptoms (not all of which are risible) suggests Averill knows, at some level, the African American experience of the pandemic was fundamental to understanding it.

The ableist logic of the novel is also quite troubling, likewise revealing much about the social and cultural dimensions of pandemics. Everyone who is good in The Cholera-Fiend is able-bodied (except for Mrs. Mathews who is sickened and then murdered by her cruel husband), and the work of the novel’s heroes is to ensure that the other good (white) characters remain so. Here we underscore the entanglement of race and disability in the logic of the novel: Gumbo’s foil is Jack Standish. Where Gumbo’s whole raison d’étre seems to be to catalog his symptoms and worry about his physical health, Standish is the one character whose life and character has been permanently altered by physical injury, having fallen from a ship’s rigging several years before the events in the novel. If Gumbo lightens the cholera narrative, Standish makes it unceasingly dark and depraved. The novel dwells obsessively on Standish’s physical appearance, describing him variously as “the hunchback,” “Broken Back,” “the Deformed,” and “dwarf.” In one telling moment, Averill’s narrator lingers over the grotesquely rendered details of Standish’s figure.[12]

Yet despite the visible mark of his injury—and the novel’s insistent attention to it at the level of language—Standish is the most physically threatening character in the novel and is capable of feats of great strength and agility. In this sense, his “deformity” is pure social stigma, not physical impairment, and his irredeemable nature is simply a product of the ableist character-flattening too many literary works perform when it comes to representing characters with disabilities.[13] It is otherwise difficult to pin down why Standish wishes death upon an entire city. Clinton describes Standish as always having been a “desperate character” but notes that his injury heightened his malice towards all (50). And Standish himself declares that Lizzie was the “only human being I ever looked upon with anything else save hate in my heart” (97). In characterization that was pervasive in antebellum culture, then, Standish’s physical appearance comes to be a visual analogue to his already blighted moral sensibility.[14] It would undoubtedly be best, in the logic of the novel, had Standish never been born at all, and the reader is asked to take pleasure in his horrible and fitting death, trapped with the noxious sepulchral fumes like those he has unleashed on New York.

Still, even as such ableist characterization was extremely common in fiction of the period, it is somewhat strange in a novel about cholera—a disease that Americans understood could suddenly and profoundly affect anyone’s health. Averill’s novel here walks a fine line between, on one hand, suggesting Standish is rotten to the core and deserves his disability and trauma and, on the other, the reality that during a pandemic anyone might be suddenly be visited by disability and trauma. Here is the gothic’s messiness and the unpredictability of life in a global crisis on full display: While Standish is a cholera-fiend, cholera is, itself the novel’s true fiend. In a pandemic no one can be absolutely sure who will remain healthy or able-bodied, who will fall sick and who will die. Fortunes change unexpectedly and without warning. As the novel cautions, “Reader, we expect, before another day’s race is run, to chronicle the fearful progress of the pestilence. In the course of the next twenty-four hours, [a] hundred will probably have followed those original thirteen. Reader,—you, or we, may be among them” (60).


[1] “The Cholera in London,” Lancet (18 February 1832), 734‒35, emphasis added.

[2] Lyle H. Wright, American Fiction, 17741850: A Contribution to a Bibliography, 2nd rev. ed. (San Marino, CA, 1969).

[3] Mary Noel, Villains Galore: The Heyday of the Popular Story Weekly (New York, 1954), 20. Very little has been written about the story-paper industry, but some exceptions are David S. Reynolds, Beneath the American Renaissance: The Subversive Imagination in the Age of Emerson and Melville (New York, 1988); and Shelley Streeby, American Sensations: Class, Empire, and the Production of Popular Culture (Berkeley, 2002).

[4] Averill’s villain Doctor Quackenboss claims “to be the best informed and most skillful of the whole human race, living or dead,” with regard to cholera, “including that ubiquitous worth, the Wandering Jew himself” (83). Averill here nods to Eugène Sue’s transatlantically popular 1844 novel The Wandering Jew (Paris, 1844) about the 1832 cholera epidemic, in which Sue credited a figure called “the Wandering Jew” with spreading cholera and connected it to the antisemitic conspiracy theories that held Jews accountable for spreading the Black Death five centuries earlier.

[5] Charles E. Rosenberg, The Cholera Years: The United States in 1832, 1849, and 1866 (Chicago, 1962), 2. Rosenberg’s text remains the most important book on the subject of the cholera pandemics in the United States.

[6] Alfred Swaine Taylor, On Poisons in Relation to Medical Jurisprudence and Medicine. (Philadelphia, 1848).

[7] For more about why the symptoms of cholera were not described in fiction, see Sari Altschuler, “The Gothic Origins of Global Health,” American Literature 89 (Sept. 2017), 557‒90.

[8] Charles Edward Stowe, Life of Harriet Beecher Stowe (Boston, 1889), 128.

[9] See Priscilla Wald, Contagious: Cultures, Carriers, and the Outbreak Narrative (Durham, NC, 2008).

[10] John Snow, On the Mode of Communication of Cholera (London, 1849).

[11] Rosenberg, The Cholera Years, 59.

[12] See David T. Mitchell and Sharon L. Snyder, Narrative Prosthesis: Disability and the Dependencies of Discourse (Ann Arbor, MI, 2000), for more on how this kind of stock representation works.

[13] See Rosemarie Garland-Thomson, Extraordinary Bodies: Figuring physical disability in American culture and literature. (New York, 1997); and Mitchell and Snyder, Narrative Prosthesis.

[14] For another, more interesting version of this character, see Devil-Bug in George Lippard’s The Quaker City, or, The monks of Monk-Hall: a romance of Philadelphia life, mystery, and crime (Philadelphia, 1845).

23 August 2020

About the Authors

Sari Altschuler is associate professor of English and Founding Director of Health, Humanities, and Society at Northeastern University.

Paul Erickson is Randolph G. Adams Director of the William L. Clements Library at the University of Michigan.

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