Cholera has traveled the globe in 6 pandemics since it first left Bengal, India in 1817. Three of my ancestors died in the second pandemic – the one that brought cholera to Europe and North America between 1826 and 1838. At the time, little was known about cholera. The comma-shaped Vibrio cholerae bacteria that transmits the disease would not be isolated until the 1880s. In the meantime doctors, scientists, merchants, and politicians bickered over the nature of the disease and what to do about it – and thousands of people died.
Everyone agreed that cholera was a deadly disease. They recognized it by the presence of prolific diarrhea, “rice-water” stools, and the bluish cast of the dehydrated. But they couldn’t agree on its origins. There were some crazy ideas out there — cholera was caused by imbalances in the atmosphere, by a passing comet, or by invisible insects. But two theories of cholera’s transmission dominated 1830s discussions. The first theory was labeled “miasmic” and emphasized “bad air” emitted from the earth; the second theory was labeled “contagion” and emphasized human contact. Neither theory was correct.
Only after Robert Koch isolated cholera bacteria under a microscope in 1883 did the medical and scientific communities rightly come to understand that the disease was transmitted through ingestion. One has to drink water contaminated with a carrier’s feces – or eat raw foods cleaned with contaminated water – to catch cholera. The easiest way to prevent an outbreak of cholera today is to ensure access to clean water sources. We know that now, but they didn’t know that then….
Cholera was brought to North America on ships originating from England. It hit Montreal, New York City, Philadelphia, and Quebec almost simultaneously during the summer of 1832. The disease was often identified with the Irish immigrants who arrived on those ships – rather than the squalor that passed for sea travel in the early nineteenth century. A contemporary report on the epidemic in Montreal blamed captains, owners, and agents in Irish seaports for “a most horrible traffic in human life that should be immediately arrested by the urgent voice of humanity….” (Heagerty, 196) In particular, the report decried these businessmen for operating aging ships overstuffed with passengers who were advised to bring the minimal amount of supplies, a practice that led to great deprivation as soon as there were any travel delays. And while the Irish immigrants might have been notable for their numbers and poverty aboard these ships, the better sorts on land and at sea caught and spread cholera too.
My rural ancestors should have been safe from the outbreak. Cholera was a disease of urban crowding, population disruptions, and poor sanitation. The British efforts to control Bengal had disrupted local practices and created unsanitary conditions that allowed cholera to build to epidemic levels. As cholera left India, it followed the crowded environments of trade routes and military expeditions. In North America, cholera found a new home in communities that had been impacted by the early phases of industrialization and the increased urbanization that it inspired. These communities hadn’t figured out yet that they had to adjust their sanitation practices in response to denser populations. My family lived to the west of Quebec, in the parish of Ste. Croix. Ste. Croix was a farming community in the 1830s and remained a farming community twenty years later. Urban density was not an issue for them.
Quebec’s first cholera death occurred on June 8th, 1832. It was not recognized as such until the following night – by then the Emigrant Hospital had an additional fifteen admissions. By the end of the first week, 161 of the 259 patients admitted with cholera symptoms that week were already dead. Only two were considered cured and sent home from the hospital.
This must have been a great disappointment as Quebec had tried to prevent the outbreak. In the fall of 1831, British officials warned their Canadian counterparts of cholera’s imminent arrival. The homeland was suffering a devastating epidemic: 31,000 people died in England, Scotland and Wales that fall alone. In response, Canadian civil officials commandeered Grosse Isle, to the east of Quebec in the St. Lawrence River, and created a quarantine station for incoming ships. At Grosse Isle, the ships were required to dock, passengers were inspected, and the ships were cleaned before they could gain permission to travel farther inland. This practice of modified quarantine was already in place before the first victim died.
The inability to control the spread of cholera bared the social stresses of a society going through political and economic changes. People complained that the modified quarantine wasn’t stringent enough – at best it was a compromise that favored powerful merchants who wanted ports to stay open for the shipment of goods, at worst it was a deliberate choice made by British colonial administrators to expose the French speaking population that they governed to a deadly disease.
But the (primarily French) Catholic Church had also tried to prevent the spread of cholera among its parishioners with little impact. Like the British colonial officials, their response was based on the theory of contagion. Like the British, the bishops urged modified quarantine. Specifically, they urged their parish priests to dissuade parishioners from going to the docks and to encourage parishioners to appeal to civil authorities to keep sea-faring crews from their shores. Like colonial officials, religious authorities attacked the wrong culprit.
Today, oral rehydration is the main strategy used to treat cholera. Simply getting a patient to drink enough fluids saves lives. But in the 1830s no one accurately understood cholera and therefore no one could effectively treat it. When modified quarantine proved incapable of preventing the disease’s arrival, cannons were shot off around Quebec in an attempt to change the qualities in the air. Doctors, scientists, and quacks offered saline injections, bleedings, medications of opium and brandy, and outfits made of flannel as treatments for the disease. When the second outbreak of cholera began in Quebec in July 1834, newspapers fell silent about the local epidemic, worried that fear itself could inflame the disease’s progress.
What would my Boisvert ancestors have known about cholera in 1834? Probably quite a bit. Locally, cholera took three members of the Thivierge family (Joseph, Gabriel, and Polonie) between August 28 and September 7, 1832 – and three more women by time the fall was over. Ste. Croix clearly knew what it was up against and buried the cholera victims on the day of their death. In the parish records, only the cholera victims were buried on “le meme jour.”
Since Antoine Boisvert and two of his sons were caught in the second wave of the second pandemic in Canada, they would have known of the six people from their parish who had died of the disease two summers earlier. They would have also known of the great damage inflicted on Quebec in 1832; 3,800 people dead in the three and a half months after the first victim fell in June.
There is a good chance Antoine and his sons knew exactly what was happening to them once they fell ill, but I bet cholera took them by surprise in 1834 nonetheless. During the second outbreak, the disease traveled to my family’s farming community very quickly. The first death in Quebec occurred on July 7th – and ten days later, my GGGgrandfather Antoine was the first cholera victim to be buried in Ste. Croix. Eight days after that, two of his sons and nine other people from his village were dead—and the local outbreak was over.
There wouldn’t be another major epidemic in Canada for 25 years. And when cholera did reappear in 1849, contemporary professionals still didn’t know what to do about it.
- Charles M. Godfrey. The Cholera Epidemics in Upper Canada 1832-1866. Toronto: Seccombe House, 1968
- Donato Gomez-Diaz. “Cholera: First through Third Pandemics.” In Joseph P. Byrne, ed. Encyclopedia of Pestilence, Pandemics, and Plagues, Vol. 1 A-M. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2008, pp. 96-105.
- John J. Heagerty, MD, DPH. Four centuries of Medical History in Canada. Toronto: The Macmillan Company of Canada Limited, at St. Martin’s House, 1928. Quote from page 196.
- Ste. Croix parish records, Drouin collection, accessed through familysearch.org