Keepapitchinin, the Mormon History blog » Faith in a Time of Cholera

Faith in a Time of Cholera

By: Amy Tanner Thiriot - February 19, 2014

Ann Prior was born into a prosperous family in East London, but the family was reduced to poverty through a series of misfortunes including the death of her father. When Ann was eleven, she acted against her Scottish mother’s wishes and left school to become a dressmaker so she could help support the family.

East London, 1856

She worked as a dressmaker for several years, and then when she was almost seventeen, she married George Jarvis, a sailor who had traveled around the world several times.

Between ocean voyages, George took care of ships in harbor. He and Ann were living on board a ship with their two children when George heard the missionaries of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints preaching on an English street-corner. He hurried back to the ship to tell Ann what he’d heard about Joseph Smith and the restoration of the Gospel. Ann heard his explanation and replied, “George, it’s true!”

They were baptized in the Thames on Christmas Day, 1848. When George sailed on a voyage not long afterward, Ann moved in with her mother, Catherine Prior. She told about her subsequent experiences in her autobiography:1

I will write a few lines about the cholera. I was home with my mother when it was so bad that cards where posted about warning you that if any one was [taken] with it and you did not send word to persons apointed to take them to the pest house, you were under a heavy pena[l]ty. You were not allowed to have a docter at your home.2

When cholera swept through London in 1849, the disease killed more than 18,000 people in a single season.3 It was not until the next decade that doctors began to understand the cause of cholera and how the bacteria Vibrio cholerae spread through primitive water and sanitation systems.4


A cholera infection starts when a person is exposed to large amounts of cholera bacteria transmitted by fecal matter in water or food. First comes vomiting and diarrhea. As the disease progresses, victims become visibly dehydrated, get weaker and weaker, and turn purple and black in their extremities and face. Treatments in 1849 were primitive: doctors could do little more than give solutions of electrolytes in water, although a few were making some early but unsuccessful attempts at intravenous saline rehydration.5

The cases of cholera got nearer and nearer to Ann and her mother and children.

A Child that had played with my boy in the evening the following morning was dead.

Close neighbors to us while the woman was puting her things on to follow her husband to the grave was taken with it, and in two hours they buried her with him. My [step]brother went with a man to bury his wife and he declared he heard her scream while going to the grave.

Then Ann came down with the disease.

… the neighbors heard me [retching]. They expected to hear my Mother or I had passed away before morning. They did not know which one of us it was that had the cholera.

I implored my mother not to send me to the pest house or I should die. We were miles from any Elders. What could I do or what could my mother do with my baby in her arms?


I had, by good fortune, a bottle of consecrated oil and it was [where] I could see it in the window… I could not speak but I pointed to the bottle of oil. My Mother did not know but what it was hair oil. I had not told her about it; I had told her about baptism and she did not believe.… She thought I was delirius but she gave me the oil to pacify me.6

I asked the Lord to add to my testimony by staying the continual [retching] and I was healed. My mother said I was quite black in the face. I do not say I should have died if I had not used the oil, but I do know those that did recover … were six week[s] or more before they got well. The stench was so bad Mother had to burn things to sweet[en] the rooms.

I was up and told my brother and others of the goodness of the Lord to me. I was laughed to scorn, but I give God the glory to this day for I know He answers prayers.7

Eight years after Ann survived the cholera, she left her mother in London and traveled with her husband and children to Boston, then later to the Salt Lake Valley, and still later to the Cotton Mission in St. George, Utah. She raised nine of her eleven children to adulthood and left her descendants with many stories of faith healing, hard work, and adventures on both sides of the ocean.



The pictures are of London in 1856 (David Rumsey Map Collection), John Snow’s cholera map of London, also from 1856, showing how he tracked the cholera in a London neighborhood to a particular public water pump, and Ann’s mother, Catherine “Kitty” McEwan Prior (1791-1867).

  1. The quotes from Ann’s autobiography are lightly edited for readability. []
  2. “Cholera is rapidly increasing in the metropolis, and we fear must be expected to continue on the increase during the present month at least. One circumstance is most extraordinary in this fearful visitation. Every medical society is closed, so that it really appears as if little or no attention were being bestowed on this dire calamity by medical men.” “Cholera in the Metropolis,” The Lancet, August 4, 1849, 128. []
  3. The Cholera Epidemic in London,” Medical Times and Gazette, December 15, 1866, 639. []
  4. Read the dramatic story of John Snow’s discovery of the cause of cholera in the book Steven Johnson, The Ghost Map: The Story of London’s Most Terrifying Epidemic – and How it Changed Science, Cities and the Modern World, 2006. For a shorter summary of the history of cholera in England, see an essay by Pamela Gilbert. []
  5. “When seen by Dr. Marsden, the symptoms of true Asiatic cholera were rapidly becoming developed: [Miss B——] had frequent vomiting, extreme prostration of strength, and several evacuations had been passed, at first copious, but afterwards more sparing, highly characteristic of the disorder, consisting of the peculiar rice-water fluid, perfectly serous, and containing flocculent matter in considerable quantity; there was urgent thirst; the pulse thready, and but barely perceptible. Dr. Marsden prescribed for her some powders, consisting of common salt, two drachms; carbonate of soda, one scruple; and chlorate of potash, seven grains; one of these to be taken every quarter of an hour, and as much cold water as could be taken. The collapse, however, increased and when seen in the evening, at nine P.M., she lay to all appearance at the point of death. She was breathing heavily, labouring, and with a loud noise; the feet and hands were of a deep mottled purple colour, and the skin covering them was corrugated, and imparted an icy coldness to the touch; the face was shrunken, the eyes were deeply sunk in the orbits and surrounded by a dark zone, the lids half open, and cornea having a peculiar glazed appearance; the mouth wide open; the lips dark and blue; the breath cold to the hand; the countenance shrunken, and the features so pinched that the whole expression was entirely altered. She had taken in all seven of the powders prescribed, but had vomited all but the last; nothing had been taken for the last three hours, as the power of swallowing was wholly gone; she was quite insensible, and could not be roused.” Thomas Carr Jackson, “Report of a Fatal Case of Cholera, Treated by the Saline Injection, occurring in the practice of Dr. Marsden, Senior Surgeon to the Royal Free Hospital,” The Lancet, August 11, 1849, 144. []
  6. A notice in the Millennial Star from this time was written in the style of patent medicine advertisements: “Take one table-spoonful of consecrated olive oil: mix with it half a grain of pure faith. This taken or administered in the name of Jesus Christ, will prove one of the most pleasant, safe, and effectual remedies….[Five cases of contemporaneous healing are mentioned, three or four of them from cholera.]…CAUTION.—Beware of Satan and Co’s., spurious imitations. None are genuine but those marked with the following inscription, (Having Received Authority.) To be had gratis, by applying to an Elder of the church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, in all the principal towns of England, Scotland, Wales, United States, also Society Islands, and Great Salt Lake Valley; we expect shortly to have agents in every part of the world.” “Several Cases of Miraculous Healing,” The Latter-Day Saints’ Millennial Star 11: 19 (October 1, 1849), 302-303. []
  7. Ann Prior Jarvis, “Short Sketch of the Life of Anne Prior Jarvis,” 8-9. Ann finished this story by noting, “I am writing this brief sketch for my childrens benefit. It will not be writing that would do for the educated; I am glad to day that I worked to help my poor mother. If she had her own way she would have kept me at school untill I was perfect in Grammer and others studies. I often wish I had been more thoughtful for my poer dear mother; I love to dwell on her memory although in my zeal for the gospel I told her she would go to Hell if she was not baptized. When I heard of her death I felt Heaven would be no Heaven for me without her.” []


  1. Amy-
    Thank you for another wonderful story! Baptism in the Thames was probably better in the winter as the cold might have kept it from smelling so bad. And speaking of Cholera, one of the Pioneers of medicine, John Snow, discovered in 1854:

    “that customers of the [water] company that took its supplies untreated from the Thames, right next to where the sewers of London were discharged, were between eight and nine times more likely to die of cholera than those whose supplier had recently moved its source upriver, out of reach of the filth.”
    – See more at:

    Comment by Grant — February 19, 2014 @ 8:23 am

  2. Thanks, Grant!

    Dr. John Snow and the beginnings of modern epidemiology is a great story. Epidemiology is one of the most significant advances in modern medical care, along with vaccines and antibiotics and heart surgery and the heart-lung machine. (I’ll stop with that short list; medical history is one of my favorite topics.)

    I spent a few minutes this morning reading some of the accounts of 1849 cholera deaths and healings in the Millennial Star. In most cases it’s clear, but as in this story, it’s not always possible to tell if the oil was applied externally or internally.

    Comment by Amy T — February 19, 2014 @ 11:59 am

  3. I was about to ask about how she used the oil, but as you say, it isn’t clear in her account. Great story. And from what I have read about the Thames in this time frame, it had to take a lot of faith to get baptized in that water under any circumstances, winter or summer.

    Comment by kevinf — February 19, 2014 @ 12:26 pm

  4. Another splendid addition to the historical record. Reading things like this reminds me what a miracle it is that any of our ancestors survived the horrible conditions in which humanity lived for so many centuries.

    Comment by Mark B. — February 19, 2014 @ 3:00 pm

  5. Thanks, all. The two comments about the Thames made me wonder if I got that detail right. George and Ann’s children and grandchildren managed to tell some real whoppers about their experiences, but Ann’s histories have been reliable in every way that I’ve been able to check them, even down to obscure details about the Second Opium War, so here’s what she said about their baptism:

    My husband told me what he had learned the strange news that an angel had appeared to Joseph Smith I listened and then said George it is true I believed every word of It And were baptized in the river Thames on Christmas night 1848 We were living on board of one of Her Magesty Ships at the time, It customary to lock the boat where we came on shore and leave it safe we a came to the boat about twelve at night B[rother] Jarvis [that’s what she called her husband to distinguish him from her son, George] found out he had forgotten the key of his boat I had to stay in the boat with my two babies one 7 weeks old the eldest sixteen months the night was dark and bitter cold when B Jarvis came back with the key he rowed us to the Ship that was at Woorwich [Woolwich]
    Christmas Night
    I believe we were as honest in going in to the water that night and beleived with all our hearts the And the Lord was well pleased with us

    So, she does mention the cold but not the smell. (Here’s a bit about Woolwich Dockyard.)

    Comment by Amy T — February 19, 2014 @ 3:43 pm

  6. I always look forward to reading your posts because they are so interesting and you put so much background into your stories. Thank you.

    Comment by Maurine — February 19, 2014 @ 10:31 pm

  7. Thank you, Maurine, you are so kind. I just wish I had more time right now to devote to the Eminent Women and other projects!

    Comment by Amy T — February 20, 2014 @ 7:44 am

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