Fear and the Corpse: Cholera and Plague Riots Compared

  • Samuel CohnJr.
Part of the Medicine and Biomedical Sciences in Modern History book series (MBSMH)


Ever since Barthold Georg Niebuhr’s lectures on ancient history in 1816, scholars have depicted epidemics as giving rise to hate, violence, and the stigmatization of the ‘other’. Acts of charity, the sacrifices of individuals and communities, and forces of unity have thus been largely overlooked. More disturbing has been scholars’ failure to analyze reactions to epidemics historically and their failure to consider the fact that different diseases might affect societal reactions differently just as different diseases affect our bodies differently. René Baehrel’s classic article of 1952, for example, proclaimed that the tendencies of big epidemics to arouse hatred are ingrained in our ‘mental structures’, and are ‘psychological constants’. This essay will compare two diseases of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, cholera and plague. Both led to mass violence and riots involving upwards of 20,000 people. Both drew sharp class differences. Both led to conspiracies and myths of physicians and the state intentionally poisoning wells and food to kill off the poor. Rioters in both attacked hospitals, doctors, nurses, and government officials. As with Ebola in West Africa in 2014, the provocation of violence and hatred often stemmed from clashes over burial practices and violations to corpses, imagined and real. These clashes of cultures occurred not only between colonial soldiers and worshippers in poor districts of Calcutta or Bombay; they also divided communities and led to cholera riots in New York City, Liverpool, London, Glasgow, Dublin, Hamburg, Budapest, Naples, Verbicaro, Taranto, Tashkent, and many other cities, towns, and villages in Europe with different religious beliefs and customs between 1831 and 1911. Behind these similarities in reactions to plague and cholera were, however, profound differences regarding the organization and composition of crowds, the targets of opposition, and, above all, ideologies and politics. This chapter will explore these divergences.

Copyright information

© The Author(s) 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.University of GlasgowGlasgowScotland, UK

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