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"Fire, Pestilence And Death:" Surviving St. Louis In 1849


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July 11, 2018
St. Louisans who are disheartened by the challenges currently facing our city might take courage from the tale of survival and growth presented in Christopher Alan Gordon's "Fire, Pestilence, and Death: St. Louis 1849."

Gordon writes of the momentous year in St. Louis history in which a cholera epidemic claimed at least 4,547 lives, a ruinous riverfront fire burned 23 steamboats and 430 buildings and a sharp increase in crime clarified the need for a professional law

enforcement agency.

In addition to the damaging fire and the ravages of cholera, St. Louis in 1849 was also adjusting to an influx of people headed west in search of gold. The population spike inspired a corresponding spike in crime. Schemers and con men found plenty of victims among the hopeful '49ers.

Despite the fact that St. Louis boasted a population close to 78,000 in 1849, the city had no official police force. A City Guard with one captain, three lieutenants and 30 patrolmen proved to be insufficient to properly guard the whole city. The establishment of the St. Louis Police Department in 1860 was an answer to a demonstrated need for a better, more organized

law enforcement system.

Another lasting legacy of 1849 was the development of the commuter suburbs such as Kirkwood and Webster Groves. A desire for space and fresh air and easy access to the city made the property along the Pacific Railroad line ripe for development.

In addition to giving a stirring and detailed account of the many misfortunes of 1849, Gordon writes about how St. Louisans weathered these calamities and made changes to improve the city. Thus the legacy of 1849 is progress rather than devastation.

Gordon, the director of library and collections for the Missouri Historical Society, writes in an engaging, conversational style and thoroughly documents his sources. Materials from the Missouri Historical Society Collections provide not only the facts and figures but many of the personal recollections as well. The book is amply illustrated with images of newspaper clippings, photographs and paintings. The result is an absorbing account of a pivotal year in St. Louis history.

Despite the grim title, "Fire, Pestilence, and Death" is an optimistic look at how St. Louis responded to disaster.

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