Hidden Histories

The Last Man's Society and the Cholera Epidemic of the 19th Century

Thursday, 5/24/12
Topics: 19th century

 

Cholera! The very name in 19th-century America brought justifiable fear and the dread of certain death among many of our nation's citizens. It usually killed quickly, often within four hours of contamination. The death toll from the disease rose into the thousands, specifically in 1832, 1849, and 1866. Many members of my own family in Kentucky left the state to escape its wrath.

The Epidemic of 1832 brought a high mortality rate to many towns, cities, and villages located up and down the Ohio River from Pittsburgh to Cincinnati. By October of 1832, 351 people had died of cholera in Cincinnati. It was there that a strange and unique organization was formed on September 30, 1832. The group consisted of seven individuals of varied professions, from physicians to stone masons, namely: Dr. John L. Vattier, James S. Mason, Fenton Lawson, Henry L. Tatem, William Disney Jr., William Stanberry, and J. R. Mason. This peculiar club was called the Last Man's Society. As people were suffering and dying in Cincinnati from cholera, this group of men recognized their own mortality, and perhaps in defiance of death itself, thought to give it a toast, rather than succumb to its morbid finality.

The members of the Last Man’s Society agreed to meet annually for dinner, according to published reports in January 1881 in both the Irish American Weekly of New York City and the Cincinnati Daily Gazette. The first dinner was held on October 6, 1832, during the height of the cholera epidemic. At this initial meeting, the men made the following pact:

"In a mahogany casket a bottle of wine was placed, and the casket was locked, the lock sealed and the key thrown away. The casket was to be kept by the members of the society, and when six had died, the seventh was, on the 6th of October next following the death of the sixth, to open it and drink the wine." This agreement was carried out faithfully. Each man survived the cholera epidemic of 1832. Then in June of 1837, James Mason was the first of the club members to pass away, followed by the other members of the club. Member William Disney Jr. fell victim to cholera in 1849, when a second epidemic swept through the city.

In June of 1855, Fenton Lawson, a native of England, was the fifth man to pass away. The event was said "to have produced such an effect on the mind of Mr. Tatem {or Tatem}, in whose custody the box was at the time, that he died two months later. In the delirium preceding death he is said to have begged that the casket be removed from the house."

The last surviving member of the club was Dr. John L. Vattier, a physician born in Ohio (his father being a native of France and his mother from New Jersey), and as required, on October 6, 1855, he "broke open the casket, opened the bottle and drank the wine," in honor of both Lawson and Tatem. Vattier had led a successful career, being a graduate of the Medical College of Ohio, a druggist, a state senator, as well as a postmaster in Cincinnati. He died on January 13, 1881. 

Dr. Daniel Drake in his Account of the epidemic cholera: as it appeared in Cincinnati, published in 1832, and Ruth C. Carter's article, "Cincinnatians and Cholera: Attitudes Toward the Epidemics of 1832 and 1849," in Queen City Heritage, Vol.50, (Fall, 1992), give apt and thorough investigations on the history of cholera in that city and elsewhere for those inclined to study the disease. In 1882 German physician Robert Koch discovered a link between contaminated water and the disease, and a cholera vaccine was developed around 1900.

As author and religious leader Thomas S. Monson has said, "We can't direct the wind, but we can adjust the sails." Perhaps the seven men of Cincinnati decided to attempt to adjust their sails when faced with possible death by calling themselves the Last Man's Society.

  

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