CHOLERA EPIDEMICS IN CARNIOLA IN 1886
While the deadliest epidemics of the Middle Ages were outbreaks of the plague, in the nineteenth century the population of Europe was faced with the menace of epidemics of Asiatic cholera, which British soldiers brought back from India in 1829. In just over six years, this infection of the lower intestine, which was highly contagious and caused sudden, mass fatalities, had spread throughout Europe and North and South America. The first cholera epidemic to strike Europe broke out in 1831.
In order to prevent the spread of cholera from Hungary in 1831, the Austrian authorities set up customs control stations and cordons sanitaires and ordered the isolation of infected areas and other safety measures. The penalties for crossing a cordon sanitaire without authorisation were severe: five to ten years in prison. The Duchy of Carniola was hit by five cholera epidemics: in 1836, 1849, 1855, 1866 and 1886. The first three epidemics were the worst, with the epidemic of 1855 proving to be the most deadly. On that occasion cholera was brought into the country by soldiers returning from Italy. More than 19,000 people in Carniola caught the disease, of whom 5,748 died (in Austria the figures were 662,814 sick and 270,915 fatalities).1
The authorities succeeded in halting the spread of cholera during the 1866 and 1886 epidemics by means of clear instructions on hygiene (including the disinfecting of dungheaps and toilets) and other measures. Every traveller from areas in which cases of cholera had occurred had to be immediately reported to the police. Every suspect person was required to remain under medical supervision for three days. In the case of a cholera outbreak, the head of the local community was required to notify the district captaincy, convene a medical commission and ensure the isolation of patients – without delay. Experience had shown that closing provincial, municipal or local borders and issuing quarantine orders was not sufficient to prevent the spread of cholera and at the same time was harmful to the economy. Children were prohibited from going to school in areas where cholera was present, while children from cholera areas were not allowed to go to school in localities yet to be affected. If unfavourable housing conditions made the isolation of patients impossible, the latter were taken to the hospitals. Patients could not be transported by carriages or wagons that were used for public transport. Suspect packages were burnt. People who came into contact with infected individuals were required to disinfect their hands using a 5% solution of carbolic acid. The clothes, underwear and bed linen of infected patients had to be disinfected and washed.2
Knowledge of the disease advanced. After 1883 it was known, thanks to research conducted by the German physician Robert Koch, that cholera was caused by a bacterium and transmitted via touch and from faeces, contaminated food, raw milk, contaminated water and flies. Airborne transmission does not occur. The poorer classes of the population were more susceptible to cholera because they lived in places with poor hygienic and sanitary conditions. The most effective weapon against cholera was good hygiene. The authorities in Ljubljana responded to an outbreak of cholera in Trieste in June 1886 with the following proclamation, issued on 5 July 1886: »Particular attention should be paid to the cleanliness of dwellings, furniture, the body, clothes, linen, and so on. Dwellings must be carefully cleaned and ventilated and all malodorous articles, remains of food, wet linen, rubbish and so on must be removed; toilets and cesspits must be washed or disinfected; clothes and linen must always be clean.« The municipal authorities advised citizens to eat and drink in moderation; to avoid unripe fruit, wilted salad, cucumber, fatty or rotting meat, imperfectly baked bread, all indigestible food, cloudy beer and excessive spirits. They also advised them to avoid excessive mental and physical exertions, »while maintaining fortitude and trust«. People should »beware of taking preservative remedies, drops and tinctures against cholera«, since these were not effective medicines. At the first signs of the disease, in particular vomiting and diarrhoea, people should send for the doctor, stay in bed and drink camomile or lime tea and avoid food and other drinks.3
On 13 August 1886 the Imperial-Royal Provincial Government for Carniola (k.k. Landesregierung für Krain) issued a special proclamation with information about cholera and regulations for its prevention and eradication.4 In a second proclamation, issued on 20 August 1886, it emphasised that »In order to prevent the further spread of cholera once it has arrived in a locality, particular attention must be paid to ensuring that floors, drinking water, dwellings, and so on are kept clean and tidy. In particular, municipalities should carry out a careful sanitary inspection of, if possible, all houses, inns, guest houses etc., or in any case of all more densely populated and unclean establishments, and ensure the prompt elimination of all observed shortcomings. This inspection should be repeated after at least 14 days in order to verify whether or not said shortcomings have been eliminated.«5
Newspapers published reports on the spread of cholera and the number of sick, dead and recovered. The disease, which was raging across Italy, appeared suddenly in Trieste in December 1885 and broke out again in June 1886. In early May 1886, the Trieste correspondent of the newspaper Slovenski narod reported: »Cholera in nearby Italy is causing great alarm among the populace here, and many families are waiting for the good weather to arrive in order to leave Trieste and remove to the salubrious districts of upper Carniola. Cholera is increasing and has now spread throughout almost all of Italy. It has spared us for two years but it is hard to imagine it doing so this year.«6 A total of 22,000 people left Trieste in July 1886 because of their fear of cholera. Soldiers from the city’s barracks were billeted in temporary barracks and tents.7 The city authorities banned dancing, fairs, pilgrimages and the Corpus Christi procession.8 In June 1886 the governor’s office in Gradisca d’Isonzo announced a suspension of fairs, while the governor’s office in Gorizia prohibited gatherings of pilgrims at Sveta Gora/Monte Santo, Mirenski Grad/Grado di Merna and Barbana, and banned the tombola in Gorizia.9
Cholera also caused panic in Rijeka. Citizens fled to the hills on either side of the Karlovac railway: to Fuzhine, Delnice, Karlovac and Zagreb.10 By the middle of July, 85 people had fallen sick and 39 had died. Barrels of tar were burnt every evening along the coast and on the city streets, since this was believed to purify the air. Shopkeepers complained that there were no foreigners in the city, that many of the locals had fled and that nearby Opatija was completely empty.11
In August 1886 an inspection station was set up in Pivka (at that time called Shent Peter na Krasu – St Peter in the Karst), where customs officers inspected travellers arriving from Trieste and Rijeka and examined their baggage. Passengers changed carriages at the border between Austria and Italy and their baggage was fumigated.12
Among the measures similar to those we have seen with the current coronavirus epidemic were prohibitions of mass gatherings such as pilgrimages, processions and fairs. Article 42 of the proclamation of the Provincial Government for Carniola provided as follows: »While cholera remains present in a locality, no event may be held there or in the vicinity that would result in a large number of people gathering in this locality or flocking to this locality. Celebrations, processions, popular gatherings, fairs, excursion trains and other such things are hereby prohibited.«13
At the end of August 1886, the district captaincy in Radovljica prohibited pilgrimages to Brezje, Ljubno and Bled to mark the Nativity of Mary (8 September).14 Fr Henrik Damish (1883–1958) noted in his history of the Brezje pilgrimage that visits to the sanctuary there were increasing. People went to beseech the Virgin Mary to mercifully avert the deadly disease.15
In Idrija the unveiling of a commemorative plaque on the house where Anton Aloysius Wolf, Prince-Bishop of Laibach (Ljubljana), was born was due to take place on 8 September. The district captaincy prohibited the ceremonial committee from inviting groups from other towns to attend the ceremony. The committee therefore decided to postpone the ceremony to the following year.16
In Kamnik the district captaincy cancelled the annual fair. At the proposal of the Provincial Government for Carniola, the Landwehr Command in Graz cancelled musters of reserves in Vrhnika (26 September) and Ribnica (12 October). In Ljubljana a temporary hospital was constructed behind St Christopher’s Church.17
The measures proved to be effective, since the epidemic was limited to just six localities in Carniola. A total of 129 people fell ill with cholera, of whom just over half died. In August 1886 a labourer from Ricmanje/San Giuseppe della Chiusa (near Trieste) fell ill in the village of Hrib, in the municipality of Loshki Potok. Next came an outbreak in Ig (south of Ljubljana) among penal labourers from the prison workhouse in Ljubljana. Cholera was also brought to Vrhnika and Velika Ligojna by two infected individuals who had come from Trieste. There were a few isolated cases of cholera in the Ljubljana area, all of which had a fatal outcome. In the south-eastern Bela Krajina region, cholera only appeared in Griblje, a settlement in the Chrnomelj district.18
By the end of October 1886, the cholera epidemic had been brought under control. There were no more deaths from cholera in Loshki Potok after 19 October, and none in Griblje after 20 October. The outbreak at the Ljubljana prison workhouse was discovered on 25 October. Of the total 15 inmates infected with the disease, six recovered and nine died, the last of them on 6 November. No new cases were reported after 3 November. The settlement of Studenec (today part of Ljubljana) recorded a total of 27 cases. By the time the outbreak was over, eleven people had died (eight penal labourers and three locals), ten people had recovered and six (one warden and five penal labourers) were still undergoing treatment. A medical investigation carried out on 8 November 1886 revealed that eleven people had caught the disease in Velika Ligojna, plus one person each in both Zhazhar and Vrhnika. Of these thirteen individuals, four had died, four had recovered and five were still undergoing treatment.19 On 4 November 1886, the Ministry of the Interior repealed the medical ordinances that had been in force on the border between Austria and Italy.20
In 1888 the artist Simon Ogrin painted a fresco in the Church of the Assumption in Slavina (near Postojna) depicting a group of people supplicating the Virgin Mary and Jesus for protection against cholera. The date 1855 visible on the paper held by the man on the left of the painting refers to the third and worst cholera epidemic to affect the country.
1 From: Olga Jansha-Zorn, »Kolera na Kranjskem leta 1855«, Kronika: Chasopis za slovensko krajevno zgodovino, 1964, No. 1, p. 60.
2 From: France Kobal, »O koleri na Kranjskem«, Zbornik Slovenske matice, Ljubljana 1911, pp. 151–152.
3 From: »Proti koleri«, Novice, 1886, No. 28.
4 »Razglasilo c. kr. dezhelne vlade za Kranjsko z dné 13. avgusta 1886. l., sht. 2383 pr., s katerim se razglasha pouchilo o koleri«, Dezhelni zakonik za vojvodino Kranjsko / Landesgesetzblatt für das Herzogthum Krain, Ljubljana, 7 September 1886, part 11, pp. 48–62.
5 »Razglasilo c. kr. dezhelne vlade za Kranjsko z dné 20. avgusta 1886. l., sht. 2538 pr., o napravah zoper pretecho kolero«, Dezhelni zakonik za vojvodino Kranjsko / Landesgesetzblatt für das Herzogthum Krain, Ljubljana, 7 September 1886, part 12, p. 65.
6 »Iz Trsta. 11. maja« (original letter), Slovenski narod, 1886, No. 107.
7 From: »Trst«, Slovenski narod, 1886, No. 163.
8 From: »Iz Gorice 29. junija«, Slovenski narod, 1886, No. 148.
9 From: »Iz Gorice 15. junija«, Slovenski narod, 1886, No. 135.
10 From: »Primorska«, Novice, 1886, No. 27.
11 From: »Z Reke se nam pishe«, Slovenski narod, 1886, No. 163.
12 From: »Zdravstvene naredbe«, Slovenec, 1886, No. 252.
13 »Razglasilo c. kr. dezhelne vlade za Kranjsko z dné 13. avgusta 1886. l., sht. 2383 pr., s katerim se razglasha pouchilo o koleri«, Dezhelni zakonik za vojvodino Kranjsko / Landesgesetzblatt für das Herzogthum Krain, Ljubljana, 7 September 1886, Part 11, p. 57
14 »Okrajno glavarstvo v Radovljici«, Slovenski narod, 1886, No. 198.
15 From: Henrik Damish, Marija Pomagaj na Brezju, Brezje 1914, p. 10.
16 From: »Spominska ploshcha Antonu Alojziju Wolfu«, Slovan, 1886, No. 17, p. 270.
17 From: France Kobal, »O koleri na Kranjskem«, Zbornik Slovenske matice, Ljubljana 1911, p. 150.
18 From: France Kobal, »O koleri na Kranjskem«, Zbornik Slovenske matice, Ljubljana 1911, pp. 154–155.
19 From: »O stanji kolere na Kranjskem«, Novice, 1886, No. 46.
20 From: »Zdravstvene naredbe«, Slovenec, 1886, No. 252.