Wednesday, April 10, 2013

The Cholera Cross

One of the things I like the best about writing is doing research for my current book. The book I'm working on right now includes the subject of cholera in Illinois, and this has turned out to be more fascinating than I could ever have expected.

Illinois suffered three devastating waves of this disease, in 1830, 1840, and again in 1888. Cholera is waterborne and highly contagious, and it traveled north on the Mississippi and west via the Great Lakes, thus catching my home state in its cross-hairs. Small towns were decimated. Even Chicago ran out of isolation shelters, and that is how Mercy Hospital came into existence. 

But the most touching story I uncovered was that of the Cholera Cross in Breese, Illinois. In 1832, a farmer named Joseph Altepeter prayed to God to save his large family from the epidemic. He promised that if God would spare his loved ones, that he would place a large cross at the edge of his property, close to the main road, as a sign of gratitude and devotion. The entire Altepeter family was spared, and Joseph accordingly built the cross right beside the main road. The first cross was made of wood and needed to be replaced from time to time. At some point, the wood was replaced by concrete, and if you drive out U.S. 50 and then turn south on County Highway 7, you can see this concrete cross on the edge of a farm, right beside the road.

My husband, who is always up for a road trip, agreed to drive from Glen Ellyn to Breese last February,  to see the cross. I don't know what I was expecting, but when I got there I couldn't believe how choked up I got at the sight of it. Now, 181 years after the first cross was placed, there still stands a monument of one man's hope and belief that he and his family could be spared from the terrible nightmare that besieged his homeland. I touched the cross with a gloved hand and felt, for just a moment, the turmoil of this man's desperation and hope. I don't know how to explain all that I felt, but if I can find a way to share even just a part of it, accurately, in the book I'm writing, the work will hopefully have the power, the juice, the vibe, to put the reader in touch, just for a few minutes, with a part of history that is nearly forgotten but that still calls out across time.

I have several pictures of the cross and of Farmer Altepeter's pledge to God, written on a plaque and mounted on stone at the foot of the cross, and if I were really technologically clever, I'd know how to share them with you. As it is, I hope that you will google "Cholera Cross" and see what pops up. I never knew the cross existed before I started writing this book, and now I know I will never forget it.

1 comment:

  1. What a beautiful story. It is amazing what research turns up sometimes. Often a whole new story. Haven't heard this one before. Must take a look.