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Colt in the time of Cholera

From time to time, I'll use this blog to explore persistent curiosities of mine about Colt’s life, or simply to share images readers may find interesting. A good place to begin, given our current pandemic, is with this lithograph of the Masonic Temple in New York City, in the terrible summer of 1832.

Earlier that year, when he was 17 and recently back home from a voyage to Calcutta, Sam Colt had embarked on an extraordinary American adventure. He'd decided to travel the country selling hits of nitrous oxide (laughing gas) to paying audiences. The idea was to earn enough money to fund work on the gun he’d invented while at sea. 

Shortly after Colt began his travels, the United States was hit by the world’s first cholera pandemic. After sweeping across Asia and Europe, the disease arrived in North America in the spring of 1832. Then, as now, the scariest place to be during a pandemic was New York, the densest city in the country. New York did everything possible to keep cholera out, but it came anyway. The first cases were reported in late June.

On, Tuesday, July 3, New York’s terrified populace began to flee. The New York Evening Post described the scene: “The roads, in all directions, were lined with well-filled stage coaches, livery coaches, private vehicles and equestrians, all panic struck, fleeing from the city, as we may suppose the inhabitants of Pompeii or Reggio fled from those devoted places, when the red lava showered down upon their houses.”

It was precisely at this moment that our boy Sam arrived. I have no idea how he got into the city-- the mayor had closed it to outsiders-- and can only wonder why he chose this, of all possible times, to visit. My guess is that he was just young and bold and felt invincible to death, as so many young people do. He was also Sam Colt, which meant he did what he pleased, pandemic be damned.

Newspaper advertisements tell us that he began performing on July 7. He rented out the second-floor Long Room of the Masonic Temple, on lower Broadway. (This lithograph

was made in 1832, the same year Colt performed there.) Outside the hall, people were starting to fall desperately ill. Inside, Colt invited audience members to approach the stage and inhale the gas and laugh hysterically one last time before the plague descended. Within a few months, cholera would kill 3,500 out of a population of 250,000. In our current city of 8,400,000, that ratio would come to about 120,000 dead.

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