Giovanna’s Story: Surviving the Cholera Pandemic of 1837 (a Zimmardi Family Story)

Ancient Palermo

A long time ago, in the city of Palermo, Sicily, lived a girl named Giovanna.  She was born in 1812 to her happy parents, Giovanni Messina and Grazia Danisi.   On the 26th of May, 1834, when she was 22 years old, she married her sweetheart, 27 year old Filippo Giordano, the son of the late, Vincenzo Giordano (who had died in 1832), and Gaetana Tarantino Giordano.  They were married in a section of Palermo by the sea called Santa Oliva.  Although the couple looked forward to becoming parents, Giovanna found that she had difficulty bringing a child to term and it took them three years to have their first and only child together.  Grazia was born on the 11th of March 1837 to the absolute joy of her parents!  However, Giovanna and Filippo’s joy was not to last for long.

When little Grazia was only a month old, her grandfather (Giovanni Messina), passed away on the 5th of April, 1837 at the age of 66.  Giovanni was laid out in their family home and friends and family came to visit and “wake” his departure.  Everyone said, “At least he was able to see the birth of his first grandchild before he passed.”  And as the baby was passed from hands to hands, his family was consoled by her very existence.  As sad as this was, it was nothing compared to the unexpected devastation that was about to strike this family and their community.

Perhaps the Cholera was brought by sea through trade with India and the near east.   It took its first lives at the end of June 1837, but no one understood what was causing the deaths.  When Cholera strikes, the body depletes itself of all liquids in so violent a manner that death comes within days, if not within hours, of its onset.  Giovanna’s husband, Filippo, heard that his mother, Gaetana, was ill.  He walked the short distance from Santa Oliva to Santa Agata to visit her.  Both sections of the city bordered the harbor.  He didn’t know when he left his  mother and returned to his home, that he was bringing the Cholera with him.  At 8 a.m. on the 4th of July, 1837, Gaetana died of Cholera in Santa Agata.  At 4 p.m. on the 6th of July, 1837, her son, Filippo, (Giovanna’s husband and little Grazia’s father) also succumbed to the Cholera in Santa Oliva.

The Pandemic took swift action and people were dying quickly by the hundreds.  At first the bodies multiplied, lying and decaying in the streets.  Chaos erupted as people looked for someone to blame.  Some said it was the government poisoning the people.  Others said it was the fishermen who were catching tainted fish.  Still others believed it was brought to Palermo by the “foreigners.”

There was no wake for Filippo or Gaetana.  They were buried in mass graves with hundreds, and then, thousands of others.  So many people died that death certificates were mass produced with the year 1837 and the heading of “Cholera” printed on them to save time for the officials in filling out the forms.

Violence erupted in the streets and people blamed each other.  Looting of stores, lynching of foreigners, fights and murders were fueled by the fear that turned to hysteria.  Palermo locked its gates to the people of the countryside.  Starvation became widespread.  So great was the loss that it wasn’t until February 8th of 1838 that the deaths were recorded.  Representatives from the family were finally able to come to fill out paperwork to notify the authorities of the deaths of Filippo and Gaetana seven months after they had passed.

Meanwhile, Giovanna held on to her infant daughter, Grazia.  Certainly, with the help of her mother, Grazia Danisi Messina, they guarded the child from the dangers that lurked beyond their front door.  In a time when so many infants perished, even under normal circumstances, somehow, little Grazia survived.

Giovanna knew that she had to marry again; there was no way for her to provide for her daughter without a father or husband to help her.  On the 13th of October 1838, Giovanna married Giuseppe DiBlasi in Santa Oliva, she was now 26 years old.  Together, Giovanna and Giuseppe had two more daughters, Giuseppa was born in 1849 and Vincenza was born in 1854.  One year later, on the 1st of August 1855, Little Grazia married Gaetano Zimmardi in Santa Oliva.  Little Grazia was 18 years old and her new husband, Gaetano, the son of Santi Zimmardi and Anna (Rosalia) Scaglione Zimmardi, was 27.

As Giovanna held her last child, Vincenza, in her arms, she watched her eldest daughter being given away in marriage.   She tried to put the past behind her and, instead, found joy in the day and reasons to look forward to happy tomorrows.  Giovanna was now 43 years old.  It wasn’t long before little Grazia became a mother herself.  She gave birth to Santi Zimmardi on the 12th of June 1856 in Santa Ninfa, Palermo.  After three daughters, Giovanna now had a grandson!

Little Grazia and her husband Gaetano Zimmardi had one more child before she died.  Anna was born on the 29th of September 1861 in Santa Oliva.  Little Grazia never fully recovered from this birth and on the 24th of October, 1861, she passed away in a hospital in Palermo at the age of 24.  Giovanna raised Grazia’s children as her own after that and when Giovanna’s youngest daughter, Vincenza DiBlasi, was about to turn 20, Vincenza married her half-sister’s husband, Gaetano Zimmardi, the widower of little Grazia.

Little Grazia’s son, Santi Zimmardi, married Maria Trischitti on the 3rd of December 1874.  Giovanna was at the wedding, she was now 62 years old.  Santi and Maria had seven children together.  Twins, Gaetano and Santo, were born on the 26th of September 1874.  Gaetano died sometime before 1879 and Santo died on the 15th of September 1876 at the age of two. Twins Rosalia and Grazia were born on the 21st of February 1876.  Rosalia died on the 17th of April 1876 at 2 months old.  I am still searching for the death of Rosalia’s twin, Grazia, lives to be an adult.  The second Gaetano was born on the 24th of January 1879, he is my grandfather.  He came to America on the 15th of January 1902 at the age of 22 and died on Staten Island, New York on the 13th of February 1971 at the age of 92.  The second Rosalia was born on the 4th of March 1882, she also lived to be an adult.  Santi and Maria’s last child, Giuseppe, was born on the 23rd of November 1884 and died a few days later on the 30th of November 1884.  Maria died in 1884, probably in childbirth.

Santi was remarried on the 19th of December 1889 to Maria Maglio.  He and Maria had two children, Vincenza, born February 6th 1899 and Giuseppe, born May 6th 1901.  They both lived to be adults.

Giovanna Messina Giordano lived to see the birth of her grandson, Gaetano, my grandfather, in 1879.  She died on the 13th of July, 1890 in Palermo.  Without her efforts, her daughter, Little Grazia, would never have survived.  If Little Grazia had died of the Cholera in 1837, then none of my family would exist today.   Author of The Tin Box Trilogy

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