In was an unexceptional Fall Sunday in 1831 in the tiny Scottish fishing village of Nigg. The villagers had just come out of the church having thanked The Lord for having spared them the deadly scourge that had for months been reported to be creeping towards The Sceptred Isle. The scourge had arisen far away in the British colony of Bengal and was called the Asiatic Cholera. Jumping across rivers and creeping along roadways, sneaking through quarantines and slipping on board ships the irresistible scourge had gradually crept towards Britain. In August 1831 the first British cases had finally broken out in Sunderland. By October, the good people of Nigg were relieved that the disease hadn’t yet crept up to their little hamlet from south of the border.
As the villagers ambled out of their little church with a sense of relief and gratitude, one of them suddenly spotted a strange vision. A yellow cloud, flying low, was slowly making its way across the churchyard. Terror gripped the villagers. They ran as a body towards the hill nearby and from there continued to watch the peregrinations of the ominous cloud. Only one young man, Jasper Vass, had the presence of mind to respond to the imminent danger. Having quickly found a large linen bag, he advanced with courage that would have made Sir William Wallace proud. Fashioning the linen bag into an impromptu fowler’s net, he pounced upon the cloud and before the others could blink, he had the mouth of the bag tied up in a knot. Yet, even as he tied it up, he noticed that the white linen bag was gradually turning yellow. Vass realized that the bag would not be able to hold the cloud for long. Hurriedly he dug a grave and in it he dumped the horrid thing. Above it, he placed a stone–The Cholera Stone. The epidemic gradually abated in the area after that, but no one has ever dared to move the Cholera Stone, lest the cloud creep back out.
Over the next three quarters of a century, people across the British Empire and occasionally beyond it, saw cholera clouds. From Nagpur to Newcastle and from Singapore to the Sudan people saw what they believed to be the clouds that bore the disease. Their colours gradually changed from yellow to blue and even occasionally red or green. The clouds even survived the advent of Germ Theory for a while.
There is no dearth of histories of the cholera. But seldom have scholars remarked on the Cholera Cloud. What was it? Why did people see it everywhere? If it was only a figment of one’s imagination, why did people in such different places see the same thing? I discuss the history of this curious entity in an article in the Bulletin of the History of Medicine