British physicians had become well acquainted with the contagion’s deadly symptoms: stomach cramps, a loose bowel, vomiting, sunken eyes, and a “look that is expressive of terror and wildness,” warned Henry Halford in The London Gazette. Death was inevitable for at least a quarter of its victims. They usually succumbed not to the bacterium itself, but to its effects on the body’s ability to hydrate itself. Severe dehydration inevitably led to kidney or heart failure and left behind a tired, broken body that had turned gaunt and bluish. Death followed in as little as twelve hours or could drag on for as much as a week.
A visitor to Soho in the mid-nineteenth century probably would have found it hard to believe that it was once a highly fashionable part of London. Historian Steven Johnson estimates “almost a hundred titled families lived there in the 1690s,” among them the Prince and Princess of Wales and several of England’s greatest artists and poets. But as the city expanded over the next century, families of means moved further west, leaving behind an infrastructure that new landlords repurposed into multiple residences and small industries, like the Eley Brothers’ percussion cap factory, and various slaughterhouses and livestock markets.
The net effect of crowding so many people and animals together left Soho rundown and with its fair share of nauseating odors, many of which emanated from overflowing privies, basement cesspools, and “dung heaps the size of houses,” which, in defiance of local ordinances, were never properly cleared away. It is no wonder the brightest minds of the period thought cholera and other contagious diseases were miasmic in origin. That is, the diseases were believed to be transmitted through the air by poisonous gases. Proponents of the theory only had to point to the prevalence of sickness in London’s overcrowded and smelly slums like that of Soho.