Killer cholera enters North America

Immigrant ships from Britain waves of cholera to North America, first to Quebec in 1832, later to U.S. ports, as depicted in this New York Punch drawing, July 18, 1883.

Pandemics 1832-1847

From my book, About Canada, Toronto, Civil Sector Press, 2012.

Some 52,000 immigrants, mostly destitute Irish, arrived at Quebec in 1832, carrying with them the cholera pandemic to first reach North America. An estimated 9,000 people died of cholera in Lower and Upper Canada in the first pandemic. By 1872, an estimated 20,000 had died in later cholera epidemics. The disease could have been stopped in its tracks if medical science then knew it was spread in cholera-contaminated water that people drank, or more rarely, in food they ate. Clean, safe drinking water would have stopped the disease. But it was thought that cholera was spread in the polluted air of early nineteenth century towns. Thus cannons shot blank charges skyward and great fires of tar and rosins were lit in efforts to clean the air.

On August 28, 1817, the government of Bengal, India, reported the outbreak of a cholera epidemic at its capital, Jessor. Ten thousand people perished within a few weeks. Twenty-four years and ten months later it would reach North America, landing at the port of Quebec, and from there it spread west as far as Niagara, and south into the United States.

From Jessor, the cholera crawled across Asia and China, reaching Russia in the summer of 1831. With reports from British papers that were two months old, Canadian newspapers in late 1831 began reporting cholera’s march across Europe. At St. Petersburg, there were 4,694 cholera deaths within four months; at Moscow, 2,908 deaths within six weeks, according to Montreal’s Canadian Courant.

Cholera reached Britain, at Sunderland, on October 26, causing “great alarm… throughout England,” the Courant reported on January 4, 1832. The Montreal Vindicator, March 23, said 44 had been killed in Scotland by January 24. The Niagara Gleaner, March 31, said the cholera victims in Edinburgh and Glasgow were mostly from “the lowest ranks of life.” Police were stationed at all the entrances to Edinburgh to “prevent the admission of beggars and other characters,” while within the city, orders had been issued “for the arrest of all beggars and vagrants,” who were to be temporarily confined. A month later, April 29, a Gleaner report estimated the death toll in Paris at 20,000 to 30,000. “By orders of the Government, the funerals are conducted by night, and trenches, instead of graves, are dug for the reception of bodies, which were brought in cartloads” by army horses. “Riots and insurrections are occurring almost every day… multitudes are thrown out of employment.”

The newspaper reports were warning flags, raising fears about the record number of immigrants from Britain and Ireland that were expected to start arriving in Canada by late spring, and the danger that cholera could come with them.

Preparing for the bug

It was from the Canadian newspapers that Matthew Whitworth-Aylmer, fifth Baron Aylmer, governor general of both Lower and Upper Canada, learned that cholera had reached Britain. The ships that had carried Canadian timber to Britain in their holds, would soon be returning with immigrants crammed in their holds, more immigrants sandwiched between decks in steerage class, and a few in the relative comfort of cabins above deck. Aylmer called on his executive council to prepare for a cholera invasion.

Britain had prepared for a cholera invasion by establishing local boards of health. The British plans had been sent to officials in the Empire’s far-flung colonies. Canada would follow the British pattern. The House of Assembly on February 25 passed an Act to establish a quarantine station at Grosse Île (Grosse Isle in the newspapers of the time), 50 kilometres downstream from Quebec on the St. Lawrence, and local health boards at Quebec and Montreal, with provision for boards at other centres as needed. The Act provided £10,000 to fund the health boards and the quarantine station. In March, another controversial act imposed a head tax of five shillings per immigrant, to be paid by ships’ captains, with the money used to assist sick and indigent immigrants, and to assist those who needed help in reaching their final destinations. Most of the immigrants would be heading for Upper Canada, some for the United States.

Grosse Île and its harbour “form one of the prettiest spots in the river,” the Quebec Gazette wrote. The harbour, three miles in length and four hundred to six hundred yards wide, bounded by Grosse and three other small islands, was said to be capable of accommodating more than 100 vessels. Troops arrived at Grosse Île in April to set up the quarantine station, and temporarily occupied the only farmhouse on the island, “to the terror of the farmer and his family.” A hospital and sheds were hastily built to accommodate immigrants. The inspection station was staffed with three doctors, a marine boarding officer, nurses, clerks, labourers, and troops.

Every ship sailing up the Saint Lawrence from across the Atlantic was to stop at Grosse Île. If no sickness was found among the crew and passengers, and if it was declared that there had been none during the voyage, a ship could then proceed to Quebec. If there were sickness, a ship was to be quarantined for anywhere from three to 30 days, depending on the nature of the illness. Immigrants from the hold and steerage of the quarantined ships were to be put ashore to wash themselves and their luggage, and be fumigated. The ship was also to be fumigated. Cabin passengers, if there was no illness among them, were allowed to remain on board. It was felt that they did not present a risk because they had not been exposed to the damp, dark, airless filth, stench, sickness and astoundingly overcrowded conditions of those below deck.

At Quebec, and more belatedly at Montreal, the health boards set up further defences. At Quebec, health wardens were appointed for each of the town’s 14 wards, with power to enforce the board’s regulations. Every house was to be inspected three times a week. Householders were required to “scrape, wash and cleanse their premises and carry away all the filth” that had accumulated during the winter. Buildings were to be purified with lime and whitewash.

Overwhelmed by ships bringing hundreds, and sometimes thousands of immigrants almost every day, the defences broke down. Some ships landed at Quebec without stopping at Grosse Île. Sickness went unreported, undetected, sometimes deliberately hidden. It did not matter in any event, because the procedures were powerless to stop the arrival and spread of cholera. They were futile because no one knew how the cholera was carried and spread.

Medical authorities strongly disagreed about whether cholera was contagious. There seemed more agreement that it was spread in the fetid, warm summer air, the miasma, as it was called. That seemed logical, since the summer air in the towns of Canada was typically ripe with the mixed scent from outdoor privies, garbage, and manure. At Montreal, a notice posted by the Board of Health described “Low and marshy ground, stagnant waters filled with all the elements of miasma,” and even in the centre of town “all manner of impurity, animal and vegetable substances in a state of putrescence, and acted on by all the fiercest power of a burning sun.”

Conditions at York and its ice-covered harbour were described by the Canadian Freeman on April 15: “All the filth of the town—dead horses, dogs, cats, Manure &c. [are] heaped up together on the ice, to drop down, in a few days into the water which is used by almost all the inhabitants of the bay shore.” When the ice had melted, the Freeman reported on May 17 that “Stagnant pools of water, green as a leek, and emitting deadly exhalations are to be met with in every corner of the town—yards and cellars send forth a stench from rotten vegetables sufficient almost of itself to produce a plague, and the state of the bay, from which a large proportion of inhabitants are supplied with water, is horrible.”

No one knew that it was not in this foul air that the disease was spread, but in drinking water. No one then knew that the cholera bug, a bacterium called Vibro cholerae, resided in the stool of those infected and, like such bugs, prospered in the warmth of summer. The stool, and sometimes the vomit, of the carriers infected drinking water. It is only by drinking infected water or, more rarely at the time, by eating infected food that people are stricken with cholera. That is the only way this bug enters the human body. With outhouses crowded in the towns of the early nineteenth century, and drinking water drawn from shallow wells that were easily contaminated, it seems hardly surprising that the water became infected. And perhaps even less surprising that drinking water on the notorious coffin ships was also contaminated, causing sickness and often death even before the ships reached shore.

Another important thing the medical authorities did not know is that there were seemingly healthy carriers, people whose feces carried Vibro cholerae, but who showed no cholera symptoms. Thus checking for sick people at Grosse Île provided no defence.

The bug lands

The quarantine facilities at Grosse Island were still being set up when the first immigrant ship of 1832 arrived on April 28. She was the Constantia, and brought 141 Irish from Limerick, having lost 29 who died of cholera on the voyage. Six weeks later, 400 ships brought 20,000 immigrants, some of them illegally bypassing Grosse Île to land their passengers at Quebec, according to historian Geoffrey Bilson in A Darkened House: Cholera in Nineteenth-Century Canada. In just four days, June 2 to 5, a total of 7,151 passed through Grosse Île. Not all had been inspected before proceeding to Quebec. By late Fall, a record 52,000 arrived at Quebec, most from Ireland.

No one really knows which ship first brought cholera to North America, or exactly when. Many histories give that credit to the brig Carricks, which arrived at Grosse Île from Dublin on Sunday, June 3, with 104 immigrants, after having lost 42 passengers to cholera on the voyage. But was it Carricks?

On May 8—24 days before Carricks reached Grosse Île—the Quebec Gazette stated: “An idle report was circulated this morning that some cases of cholera had appeared in the vessels recently arrived at Grosse Île. The rumour, we are happy to say, is groundless.” Or was it? A similar rumour was later also denied, only to be proven correct.

On Wednesday, June 6, three days after Carricks arrived at Grosse Île, Quebec “was thrown into a great alarm this morning by a report of two persons having died at Grosse Île of cholera,” the Montreal Vindicator reported. Quebec Health Commissioner Dr. Joseph Morrin, and Health Board Secretary T.A. Young, went to Grosse Île that day to investigate. Morin concluded that “the fever” at Grosse Île was “in no particular different from many now in the Emigrant Hospital” in Quebec, and that in neither case was the fever cholera. The rumour of three cholera patients at Grosse Île “is entirely without foundation,” declared the Gazette the next day, while the rumoured cholera death at Quebec “is also entirely without foundation.” But the rumours were right.

The next day, Thursday, June 7, Europe, landed 371 Irish immigrants at Quebec, some of them said to be “labouring under the small pox.” Europe had not stopped at Grosse Île. A Quebec medical officer, on assurance from the ship’s captain that there was no cholera aboard, had issued a licence for Europe to enter the harbour and discharge her passengers. “We have heard it stated,” said the Quebec Gazette, “that a committee of the board of health has been appointed to report on the conduct of the Health Officer in that respect.”

On Friday, the steamboat Voyageur, landed at Quebec some of the passengers that Carricks had brought to Grosse Île four days earlier. The rest of the Carricks immigrants continued on the Voyageur to Montreal. Two patients died at the Immigrant Hospital in Quebec that Friday. It would soon be confirmed that they had died of cholera. They were the first acknowledged—if not the first actual—cholera deaths in North America. Had they come to North America aboard the Carricks? Or aboard the Europe? Or were they among the “many” fever patients whom Morrin had said were at the Immigrant Hospital before either Carricks or Europe reached Quebec?

On Sunday, three days after Morrin and Young visited Grosse Île and denied the existence of cholera, Dr. John Skey, chief military medical officer for Lower Canada, and other doctors, visited the sick at the Immigrant Hospital. “The truth flashed through our minds,” Dr. Skey stated, that these were indeed cholera sufferers. The number of reported cholera deaths at Quebec jumped from two on Friday to 12 on Monday, and 161 within a week.

The bug bites

“No building for the sick is yet provided in the lower town,” the Gazette noted in reporting Skey’s confirmation of cholera at Quebec. “Enormous rents have been asked.” The Gazette offered Quebecers a word of advice: “Cleanliness about houses and about the person, temperance in drinking, the moderate use of food, no excess of any kind, warm clothing, and perhaps above all a manful determination to meet the worst, and indeed, a kind of heedlessness about the disease.”

Voyageur—“a pestilent steamer,” according to Montreal Health Commissioner Dr. Robert Nelson—continued her trip from Quebec, bringing the cholera to Montreal, on Sunday, the same day that it had finally been confirmed at Quebec. At Montreal, a sick immigrant from the Voyageur “was carried to a tavern on the wharf, where he died,” Dr. Nelson, recalled in his 1866 book, Asiatic Cholera. “All that night and all the succeeding day, the body of this man was exposed to the gaze of the public, and, actuated by motives of curiosity, many people visited it.” The Montreal Gazette reported 23 deaths in three days, citing whisky and fear as causes. “The greater proportion of those who died, have been irregular in the habits, or have been guilty of some imprudence.” As for milder cases, they were “attributed to the effects of fear operating to produce sickness among the timid.” Within two weeks, there were 56 deaths at just one boarding house, and hundreds of others throughout the city.

One day after its appearance at Montreal, the cholera reached Upper Canada, striking at Prescott where there were 16 deaths in two weeks. “Our village is in a dreadful state of consternation,” a Prescott correspondent wrote in the Brockville Recorder June 17. “Many are removing their families to a distance. The crews of the Government boats between here and Montreal… have deserted. Our Magistrates have purchased all the spare boards in this place, sent a bateau to Drummond’s Island, and a number of carpenters to erect sheds for the sick emigrants destined for the upper parts of the province.” It hit nearby towns almost immediately, and even country inns and taverns. Seven miles south of Brockville, reported the Recorder, “an intemperate man died in one of Mr. McKenzie’s out houses.”

By June 18, the cholera had reached York, and, with very few exceptions, was in every town and hamlet in Lower and Upper Canada, from Quebec to Niagara. Immigrants crossing from Lower Canada into Vermont brought the disease into the United States, where it spread as far south as the Gulf of Mexico.

The disease struck with explosive energy, especially in Lower Canada. At Quebec, 440 deaths were reported within three weeks; at Montreal, the death rate was greater.

There was initially no accommodation at either Quebec or Montreal for thousands of sick and indigent immigrants. Few had money for hotels or boarding houses, and were unfit to travel to their planned destinations, mostly in Upper Canada. Cholera patients were not admitted to the existing hospitals and “emigrant” hospitals had to be hastily set up. At Montreal, sick immigrants were put in whatever sheds could be found, one offering little better than a roof with a dirt floor, covered with straw on which lay the sick, the dying and the dead.

The dead were buried as fast as possible. There was no time for prayers, mourning, or tombstones. There was fear that some were buried before they were actually dead. At the Catholic burying ground at the St. Antoine suburb, a trench “10 feet wide, 8 feet deep and over 100 feet long” was dug for as many as two hundred bodies, Nelson wrote. “The dead were closely packed there in tiers, three to four deep, and covered over with earth, leaving the remainder of a trench to receive newcomers.”

The cholera could have been stopped with clean, safe drinking water. But not knowing that, the great effort was made to clean the air. Hundreds of volunteers in both towns joined citizen committees to clean up the manure and filth that fouled the air. “On Saturday, the Artillery went through the different streets of the town, with several pieces of cannon, and discharged blank cartridge, with the view, if possible, of disinfecting the atmosphere,” the Montreal Gazette reported on June 19. “In the evening, fires of rosins and other bituminous matter were to be seen in every part of the town.” At York, every household was ordered to burn, every day, “pitch, Tar, rosin, Sulphur and any other anti-contagious combustibles.” A barrel of tar was provided at “the Court House Yard for the use of such as are too indigent to purchase it for themselves.”

At first it was thought, or hoped, that the disease might be confined to the “lower orders,” the impoverished immigrants from Ireland, not so much because they were in ill health, ill-fed, ill-clothed and ill-housed, but because, it was felt, of riotous drinking and “irregular habits.” The disease knew no boundaries of race, social order or morality, striking the reputable and disreputable alike.

Doctors, clergy and others who attended the sick were particularly hard hit. There were too few doctors; in Montreal, only 15 for a population of 32,000. They were “almost completely exhausted by fatigue,” noted the Vindicator. The Quebec Mercury reported the first doctor killed by cholera on June 16, Dr. C.N. Perrault, secretary of the town’s Board of Health and said to be “one of the most skillful Canadian physicians.” Brockville, too, lost its Board of Health secretary, the youthful Dr. Robert Gilmour. The first medical casualty in Montreal was reported by the Gazette June 19, “Mr. John Grant Struthers, student of medicine.” Also noted at Montreal were the deaths of a member of the Legislative Council, a road contractor, a chair maker, and a tavern keeper. In Quebec, the reported toll included a member of the House of Assembly, a judge, a lawyer, and a clock maker.

Dr. Daniel Tracey, physician, very recently elected member of the House of Assembly, and editor and publisher of the Vindicator, apologized for publishing only a “half-sheet… on account of the prevailing malady having attacked several of our hands.” Tracey wrote that he, too, had “but just recovered from an attack, which we were enabled, by early attention, to arrest.” That was published on June 19. Tracey had died June 18.

There was no precise count of the number of 1832 cholera deaths in Canada. The Quebec Board of Health recorded 3,451 in that town, and almost certainly missed some. Dr. Nelson estimated 4,000 at Montreal. Bishop John Strachan estimated 400 at York. There were lesser totals at each of dozens of smaller towns and hamlets. In the Atlantic Provinces, Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island and Newfoundland all escaped the disease, while only at Saint John, New Brunswick was it reported, with 32 deaths. A widely used estimate of 9,000 Canadian cholera deaths in 1832 seems reasonable.

There was a second, smaller cholera epidemic in 1834, and several more during a period of nearly four decades, with an estimated 20,000 deaths by 1871. But the 1832 pandemic, the first in Canada and North America, was the largest. Yet, 15 years later, far worse was to come when many more Irish immigrants, fleeing the great potato famine, would bring typhus with them.

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