by Mary Ducharme (June 2020)
The 1832 cholera pandemic crossed the globe reaching from India to Montreal and Quebec City and beyond. Covid-19 follows a similar pattern, as do all pandemics.
On February 25, 1832, Quebec legislators in the Board of Health set up a small hilly island in the St-Lawrence River as a containment with hospitals to stop the spread of contagious diseases. Already dealing with typhus, the hospitals became swamped with patients sick with an unknown disease. The result was chaos, with exhausted nurses becoming ill themselves or refusing to work. Doctors wore overshoes because of the filth.
On June 3, 1832 The Carrick, a brig from Dublin Ireland pulled into dock at the Grosse Isle quarantine station. The ship had been anchored offshore at a point marked by buoys and rowboats. Medical doctors came aboard to find 133 passengers crammed in steerage with 59 dead. The course of the illness for some was brief: alive and well in the morning, dead the next day. Conditions in Montreal 188 years ago were as perfect a breeding ground for disease as the ships. There were no sewers, the streets were piled with garbage, the land was low and marshy, and slaughter houses dumped refuse into the streets. There were densely populated streets of shanties and other housing.
First reported in India, cholera raged through Asia, Europe, the British Isles, and Ireland. The disease returned in waves, the last in 1854, in all claiming 20,000 Canadian lives. Surviving the disease did not impart immunity: George B. Ward a medical doctor of the time, stated that: ‘’no barriers are sufficient to obstruct its progress … even those whom it has visited are not always exempt.’’
Immigrants in steerage arriving in 1832 numbered 70 to 80 thousand in Montreal and Quebec City. Crossing the Atlantic in 5 to 12 weeks, the ships provided no privies or washing facilities. The food was mouldy and the water foul. On the ships with cholera, acquired through water and food contaminated with the bacterium vibro cholerea, the dying suffered horribly and the death rate was uncontrollable. The Montreal Board of Health denied the unknown disease was cholera, but changed its stance as the death rate grew alarming. The Minerva Newspaper on June 14 said “There is no doubt that cholera is present. We recommend that the public observe strictly the regulations the Board of Health. We are not to worry. The apothecaries have the necessary remedies in stock and their prices are affordable.” Apothecary treatments included bleeding, opium, and calomel, which worsened the symptoms. At the peak of the outbreak there were so many casualties that burial was in trenches, and orphans were sent to Dames de L’asile de Orphelins. The nuns there also became overwhelmed.
The disease spread to the rural towns and villages. One case in LaPrairie shows the effects of the contagion on families. Felicite Denault died on June 23, 1832. Two days later her father died as well as her husband Louis Chabot. Seven of their twelve adult children were also victims.
While city newspapers then seethed with controversy, the story of the pandemic is elusive when it came to the smaller villages and rural areas. Death records do not often include cause of death. L’acadie Catholic Church records name the disease on July 16, 1832: “Maladie Epidemic.” This source reveals an increase in burials from July to August with 191 deaths in L’acadie for the year, 75 of them in August. Napierville Catholic Church records 181 deaths in 1832, with 65 in August, and 27 in September. No Hemmingford death records for that year are found.
At its peak some feared the disease would depopulate the province. The Montreal and Quebec City Boards of Health closed schools and shops. To purify the air, English officials fired off canons and sanitary workers burned tar. All surfaces of buildings were to be disinfected with a white-wash of strong lime, and cellars cleared of dirt and filth. The streets were to be cleared of garbage. The code of regulations grew but were met with non-compliance. The government systems were underdeveloped in 1832 and means of enforcement ineffective.
Angry rumors in Montreal and Quebec City blamed immigrants. The clergy added its support. Jean Jacques Lartigue, Bishop of Montreal spoke of “immigrants who threaten to drive us out of our country and reduce our population by the spread of disease.” A view expressed in newspapers such as the Quebec Gazette was that the Irish unleashed this epidemic. Newspaper editors accused unscrupulous captains and ship owners in Ireland who engaged in “a horrible traffic in human life.”
There were many unoccupied shanties in Montreal at the end of 1832, and no one anticipated the future waves of the disease. Blame was useless and families across the globe continued to be causalities of cholera.