I'm working on my dissertation on public health. I just came across Robert Morris' book on Cholera called, "The Blue Death". My university library doesn't have access to the book and both Amazon & Google Book previews won't show any internal text. Now, I understand WHY cholera would be called "blue death" -- skin turns bluish gray in most cholera victims (and most diseases got their names from their physical appearance, e.g. jaundice = yellow fever; small spots/pustules/pock marks = smallpox, etc.)

I'm just trying to figure out who was the first to refer to cholera as "blue death" and if this was a popular phrase in 19C America.

AND if there could be any connection between the French word "morbleu" and cholera as "blue death".

I joined this site to ask this question after I came across the "blue murder" thread that makes mention of "morbleu" too. Here's that thread: Why does one scream blue murder?

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    Define "popular". Here's an NGram chart showing that The Blue Death practically "flatlines" by comparison with The Black Death. And the only period when the former registers on the chart at all is 10-15 years ago (Haiti?) - it was comparatively unknown before that. Jan 30, 2021 at 18:03
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    scream blue murder From French morbleu (“gadzooks, zounds”, interjection) (archaic), from mort bleu (“blue death”), a minced oath of mort Dieu (“death of God”). Nothing to do with blue death or cholera. Jan 30, 2021 at 18:06
  • I managed to crack that book ('The Blue Death' by Robert Morris) for you. You can download it by pressing the 'Download' button here Jan 30, 2021 at 18:25
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    Google Books evidence of the 19th c. usage examples suggests rare instances in the USA and just a few in BrE. Other cases are false positives. books.google.com/ngrams/…
    – user 66974
    Jan 30, 2021 at 18:33
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    This interesting question has drawn an excellent answer, and yet it appears to be on the verge of being closed by by review queue voters (I voted to keep it open, but to my surprise the count is now 1 stay open to 3 close). How is this not an on-topic question? Are we unable to tell by checking historical sources whether a term appears frequently or rarely in the written record?
    – Sven Yargs
    Feb 2, 2021 at 6:54

1 Answer 1


January 13, 1832, Elizabeth Barrett Browning published a poem she called "The Pestilence" in The Times (London, paywalled). In it, she describes cholera as "the cold blue death". Among the US papers and magazines that soon reprinted "The Pestilence" was the Philadelphia Album of 21 Apr 1832.

Those, 13 Jan and 21 Apr 1832, are the earliest uses I have found of 'blue death' in the sense of "death from cholera", in the UK and US respectively. In a Lancaster Examiner (Lancaster, Pennsylvania; paywalled) article published 28 Jun 1832, titled "The Cholera", James B. Kirk, MD, observes

Blueness has been said generally to characterize this stage [of cholera]; but in this country that is not the fact. The skin of the hands and face is brownish, not blue.

Aside from occasional reprintings of Browning's "The Pestilence", the next use of 'blue death' to mean "cholera death" in the US seems to have been in the Nov 1849 edition of The Ladies Repository, in a piece called "Fugitive Letters", by Vindex:

The cholera's blue death, the thirst, the famine, and the scalping knife, will meet them on the way, and thin their ranks.

Use of the term 'blue death' in the relevant sense in US publications next appears in early October, 1867. The Evening Star (Washington, District of Columbia, p 1 col 7) of 03 Oct 1867 reprints what was to become a widely reprinted blurb from the New York Post:

It is curious to note the distinctions of color as applied to disease. There are the yellow fever, the black vomit, the green sickness, the white swelling, the scarlet fever, the yellow jaundice, and, as Mrs. Partington says, the "brown creeters." And now we have, as climax, the "blue death," on board the hospital ship at quarantine.

I found no further evidence of 'blue death' in the sense of "cholera death" in US publications through the later decades of the nineteenth century, and no evidence at all of any use of the expletive "Blue Death!", derived from French mortbleu, connected with death by cholera.

About The Blue Death, by Dr. Robert D. Morris: digitized versions of the 2007 hardcover and 2008 softcover editions are available at Internet Archive for free checkout (after registration).

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    There is also a mention of "the blue death" in a William Herbert's "The Christian" (1846): "Pour'd the blue death on Mississippi's swamp, / And there join'd hand with that angelic curse, / Who from hot Gambia to Manhattan's mart / Spreads wide the yellow plague." It's not clear what "lurid pestilence" the poet means by "the blue death," but cholera seems a reasonable possibility.
    – Sven Yargs
    Feb 2, 2021 at 7:10
  • @SvenYargs Interesting. Westward from the Ganges certainly suggests the historic movement of major cholera outbreaks. Arriving Irish refugees, fleeing an Gorta Mór, are associated with outbreaks in the US and Canada, circa 1845.
    – JEL
    Feb 3, 2021 at 8:19
  • @SvenYargs, at first I wondered how I missed (horrors!) the Herbert use. As it turns out, it was published in London, and written by the Dean of Manchester. My answer focuses on US use, as per the question; there might be many UK uses of the term I didn't mention.
    – JEL
    Feb 3, 2021 at 8:49

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