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The Teacher Who Survived the Pandemic

March 19, 2020

During the first half of the 19th century cholera pandemics spread across the world.  There had been a brief pandemic episode in the United States during the early 1830s.  Cholera reappeared in December 1848.  By midyear 1849 it had given former President James Knox Polk the shortest of all presidential retirements, at least that’s what some people believe. It most definitely killed the 18-month-old son of soon to be famous Harriet Beecher Stowe.  President Taylor proclaimed Friday August 3 a day of prayer and fasting.  The dreaded illness had hit St. Louis hard, but Cleveland, with only two or three victims per day during the month of August, was spared the worst.

In August 1849 James Garfield was a student in Chester, Ohio.  It would be only a matter of time before the people there would be affected by the pandemic.  When teacher John Beach and several students were suddenly taken ill in mid-September, Garfield wrote in his diary that there was “great excitement.”

John Beach had an important early influence on James Garfield.  Although Garfield always displayed respect for his teachers, he would sometimes criticize them to his diary.  As many of his teachers were also Bible preachers, their sermons afforded many occasions for Garfield to nitpick.  John Beach’s sermons not only received no criticism but also considerable praise from Garfield’s pen.

On one occasion there was a rowdy episode at school which prompted Beach to give a lecture regarding gentlemanly behavior.  Because of that lecture Garfield became convicted that he was not living up to his full potential.  If it had not been for John Beach, the teacher who survived the cholera pandemic of 1849, James Garfield might never have become President of the United States.


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