Contagion

In recent weeks, Syracuse.com has published a lot of astonishing stories about the forgotten Spanish Flu pandemic. We have forgotten that even smaller epidemics were once much part of the backdrop of New York life. And because it seems there is a Fairmount story for absolutely everything, let’s go back to yesteryear (1837 or thereabouts) for a slice of life from a long-forgotten cholera epidemic that plagued Central New York.

Some background: The writer of this account was a traveling preacher who was reminiscing about this incident much later, in the 1870’s. At the time of this story, Fairmount was the rural seat of the Geddes family, with their cousins, the Jeromes, living just down the road. (James Geddes, the Erie Canal engineer, was probably still living at this time.)

George Geddes, who had assumed control of the family farm some years earlier, was never a big Bible-quoter in his many agricultural writings over the decades. But he actually wrote quite forcefully from a Christian position when addressing church governance and slavery before the Civil War. Perhaps this incident explains the origins of that passion. In any case, it’s a story of how things can happen fast. (Not sure whether to feel inspired, or — looking at it from poor Theodore’s point of view — amused. A little of both?)

I had preached in the morning at Camillus, a few miles west from Brother Jerome’s. I had for one of my hearers Mr. Geo. Geddes, who was a decided sceptic. By invitation I dined that day at Brother Woodward’s, whose premises were separated from Brother Jerome’s only by the dooryard fence. While we were at dinner, an irreligious son, Theodore, rushed into the room unceremoniously and, addressing me, said, “Father wants you to come over to our house as soon as possible.” Inferring from his great haste and expression of his countenance that someone of the family was seized with an attack of cholera, we immediately dropped knife and fork and ran over.

On entering the house we found George Geddes on his knees surrounded by a group of friends. Mr. G had learned, doubtless, that I was a former sceptic, and the all-absorbing question with him seemed to be whether God could or would extend mercy to an infidel. When I instanced my own case, his doubts shortly dissolved into a sweet consciousness of God’s willingness to save. Faith triumphed and there was a time of sweet and heavenly rejoicing.

We returned to finish our dinner. But before we were through with the meal, in came Theodore, saying, “There is another case; Father wants you to come over as soon as you can.” There we found Dr. Jerome, a nephew, penitent, pleading for mercy. Touched by the story of his cousin, Geo. Geddes, he was not long in forming the purpose to become a Christian. We all united in prayer; the struggle was “short, sharp and decisive.” Again, we sang the doxology and we retired to finish the “desert.”

Now we supposed, of course, that we should have no more special case, but we were mistaken. Theodore was on hand again and informed us that Mrs. Geddes was very much distressed in her mind and wanted us to pray for her. O the mystery of Divine love. She saw the change wrought in her husband, and immediately sought for herself the great salvation. That Sabbath evening she was converted. That same evening, the servants, a man and a woman, were converted. The whole household converted! What a happy family!

(This story appeared in the (Auburn) Northern Christian Advocate of October 17, 1878.)