Chapter 10 - Famine Inspired Immigration


The Charter-Hemphill Story


Chapter 10

Rodney Charman’s painting “The Odessa” showing the turmoil that characterized each day of a famine ship’s gruelling journey. From the the exhibit, Fleeing Famine: Irish Immigration to North America, 1845-1860, at the Knights of Columbus Museum in New Haven, Connecticut.

Normally emigration dwindled away in the autumn, but in 1846 it increased, and the arrival at Quebec of the Elizabeth and Sarah, a sixty-year-old ship from Killalla, County Mayo, was a harbinger of what was to come. She was decrepit and leaky and carried 276 people-sixty-four more than allowed by law—and a third less drinking water that the law permitted, and that in foul barrels. The master also broke the law by failure to serve out the statutory breadstuffs. There were only thirty-two berths, those on the starboard side having collapsed, so most slept on the floor. The voyage took eight weeks during which forty-two people died, and once in the St. Lawrence she had to be towed up to Grosse Isle. Buchanan described the emigrants as being “in a most wretched state of filth and misery brought on by the crowded state of the vessel, want of cleanliness, bad water, and starvation.” Three ships were wrecked that spring, the barks James and Mary and Hebe and the brig Brilliant, but by the end of the season 100,000 Irish had crossed the Atlantic, a third more than the previous year. At least two-thirds went directly to the United States, and the rest to Quebec City or St. John, Newfoundland. Upwards of 1,000 were sent out by landlords, being “absolutely destitute” on arrival at Quebec City.

The cost of passage—between two and a half and three pounds per adult—was beyond the reach of most who wanted to go, and Lord Monteagle, who sent tenants on his own account, urged state-assisted emigration as part of famine relief. But the new Colonial Secretary, Lord Grey, turned a deaf ear, stating that the cost would be too great and that the government involvement would do more harm than good. Despite once supporting state-aided emigration, he feared the greater demand for passage to North America would prove overwhelming.

The coffin ship Hannah, a brig that was launched at New Brunswick, Canada in 1826. She transported emigrants to Canada during the Irish Famine. She is known for the terrible circumstances of her 1849 shipwreck, in which the captain and two officers left the sinking ship aboard the only lifeboat, leaving passengers and the rest of the crew to fend for themselves. She was transporting more Irish immigrants fleeing the famine from Warrenpoint and Newry to Quebec City, when it sank in the Gulf of St. Lawrence on Sunday, 29 April 1849, resulting in, as well as can be ascertained, 49 deaths.

According to the documentary Famine and Shipwreck: An Irish Odyssey, ship’s doctor William Graham later accused Shaw of several times slipping into the bunks of unmarried young women during the voyage. The ship encountered “heavy winds, and a quantity of floating ice” on 27 April. At 4 am on 29 April, the Hannah struck a “reef of ice” which punched a hole in the hull. When they found that there was no hope of saving the ship, Shaw ordered the ship’s carpenter to hammer shut the after hatch, trapping the passengers below, but another seaman wrenched it open. Shaw and his first and second officers then fled in the only lifeboat. Dr. Graham asserted that he swam after them, but was held at bay by Shaw swinging a cutlass.

The remaining crewmen helped the passengers onto an ice floe next to the bow. The ship sank in 40 minutes. A strong gale was blowing, and there was sleet. Some went down with the Hannah, others slipped and fell into the water, while some who did make it safely to the ice later perished from the cold. Ann McGinn (or McGenn) found and gathered together her six children, only to have them all perish. John Murphy left his twin boys on the ice to search for his infant daughter. Miraculously, not only did he find her, but she survived being immersed in the frigid water. Sadly, however, the ice holding his boys drifted away.

In all, 49 were ascertained to have died. The barque Nicaragua, under the command of Captain William Marshall, appeared the next day and picked up either 127 or 129 survivors. The Guardian of 11 June 1849 reported 49 dead and 127 rescued, a total of 176 – “the total number supposed to be embarked,” but this may exclude the three officers who abandoned ship. The same article also lists 159 passengers and an unspecified number of daughters of an Ann Lennox. Captain Marshall compiled a slightly different list that includes ten passengers not found on The Guardian”'s tally and omits four that are. Marshall later transferred a number of survivors to other ships: 28 to the barque Broom, 17 to the barque Lord Byron, 22 to the barque Aldebaran, and 20 to the Port of Glasgow. He arrived in Quebec City with the remainder on 10 or 14 May. Dr. Graham later died in a Quebec hospital. Shaw successfully defended himself by casting doubt on the testimony of Graham and others, and escaped punishment.

By October 30, when Dr. George Douglas, superintendent at Grosse Isle, completed his last report for the season, 40,000 emigrants had arrived in New Brunswick, Quebec City or Montreal, about one third went on to the United States, and the rest went to Upper Canada. Most were poor but in reasonably good health, and though the migration for most of the year had been much as usual, the last ships to arrive carried a portent of what was to come. “A large number of those by Rockshire from Liverpool,” reported Douglas, “had left their homes at this late season in consequence of the failure of the potato crop, fearing that if they should delay until next year they would not have the means of paying their passage. As it was they landed here quite destitute, and required assistance from this department to enable them to proceed to their friends.”

The walls of Liverpool were thoroughly placarded with the notices of the days of sailing of the various ships.

On November 20, as reports of mounting famine in Ireland trickled into Quebec City, Douglas added: “I am persuaded that next season the number of sick will exceed that of any other year, pouring upon our shores thousands of debilitated and sickly emigrants.” His warning was largely ignored, as was the warning issued by the prime minister in London, Lord John Russell, who said in December, “Those eager for emigration on a large scale should recollect that the colonies cannot be prepared at once to receive large masses of helpless beings, and there is no use sending them from starving at Skibbereen to starve in Montreal.”

On May 5, 1847, the brig Midas, thirty-eight days out of Galway Bay, Ireland, ghosted out of the foggy bay of Fundy and dropped anchor off the city of St. John. High up in her starboard rigging she flew the flag that told of sickness aboard. She had buried ten of her emigrants at sea, and there was fever and dysentery among the 163 passengers, who were quickly quarantined on Partridge Island,  just offshore.

Established sixty years earlier, the Partridge Island station was in poor condition that spring, its two little hospitals in disrepair and able to accommodate no more than 100 people. Though the emigration agent had warned the government of what might be expected, and the local press had urged the station to be renovated, little had been done. Dr. George Harding, the only medical officer on the island, cared for the people from the Midas and was thankful when the ships arriving at St. John during the next nine days carried no telltale flags in their rigging. However, on the tenth day Partridge Island was swamped by disease and death in the first act of a tragedy that lasted all summer, for the Midas was the first of hundreds of emigrant plague ships to reach St. John and Quebec City in the most lethal year in the annuals of emigration.

On May 14 the bark Aldebaran arrived, flying the flag of sickness and fifty-five days out of Sligo, Ireland, which was one of the towns most heavily afflicted by famine fever. The Aldebaran had lost thirty-six emigrants at sea, and a quarter of her 418 passengers were seriously ill. Four days later the Weekly Observer warned that worse was to come. “The [Irish] provincial papers appear to be alarmed at the magnitude and character of the emigration from all parts-more particularly from counties of Limerick, Waterford, Cork and Sligo. Upwards of 3,000 sailed from Limerick within the past months and the tide of emigration is growing . . . “

The steerage area of the ship was once used to accommodate passengers, often placing hundreds together in a single large hold. Beds were routinely long rows of large shared bunks with straw mattresses and no bed linens.

During the next two weeks, a dozen ships arrived with 3,700 emigrants, 2,000 of whom were quarantined in the dirty holds of the crowded ships or in tents erected on the damp ground to take the overflow from the hospital buildings, “the floors of every ward being completely covered to the doors.” There were no cots in the tents and people slept on spruce boughs or straw. Some, with no covering but their clothes, took the fence around the island’s lighthouse to make fires to keep warm on the chill May nights. There was nothing on the twenty-four-acre island but the hospitals-little more than fever sheds—the lighthouse, a signal station and a house or two. Twenty-six bodies from the brig Pallas, from Cork, had to be buried during the first few weeks, and eighteen from the brig Amazon from Liverpool, the youngest being five-month-old Edward McMullan and the eldest Patrick Lausay, who was forty-five.

John Mullawyn, who came with his sisters Mary and Margaret from Sligo on May 31, wrote to his “Dear and loving Father and Mother & Brothers” of his safe arrival. “There is disorder very numerous in this country, what they the tipes fevir, there is thousands of people dieing . . . “ Mullawyn had arrived with 500 other tenants from the Sligo estate of Sir Robert Gore Booth of Lissadell House. Their ship was the Aeolus, 817 tons, a new vessel which her master, Michael Driscoll, boasted could not be “classed among the dirty old emigrant hired vessels.” Driscoll believed her “superior to any of Her Majesty’s transports: but nevertheless twenty-six passengers had died in the five-week voyage to St. John, “having been weak and destitute before we left home.” There were seventeen sick on arrival and seven were buried on Partridge Island.

Ships laying at anchor on the St. Lawrence River before Grosse Isle.

Early in June Dr. Harding, overwhelmed with work, was authorized to hire his brother, Dr. William Harding, and the twenty-three-year-old Dr. James Patrick Collins, who had been born in County Cork. By the end of June, twenty-seven emigrant ships had arrived at St. John with 5,000 people, 264 having died at sea. More than 500 lay ill on the island, where 154 had died. “The difficulties,” said a St. John official, “hit us like a thunderbolt.” But however serious, the events at Partridge Island paled before the disaster unfolding up the St. Lawrence River at Grosse Isle, where the first plague ship arrived May 14 and the first to die was a little girl name Ellen Kane, who was four years and five months old. Her parents had taken her from Ireland to Liverpool, where the teeming lodging houses were breeding grounds for disease. She died in Grosse Isle hospital the day after her ship, the Syria, arrived, as did Nancy Riley, twenty-four, Edward Riley, thirty, and Thomas Comer, forty. Nine passengers had died at sea, and forty were to die on Grosse Isle.

Writing to Lord Elgin, the Governor, on May 17, Dr. George Mellis Douglas, the Grosse Isle medical superintendent, said: “All the sick now in hospital are from one vessel, the Syria, being the first and only emigrant vessel that has yet arrived. The vessel left Liverpool on 24th March, having on board 241 passengers, recently arrived from Ireland; many were in a weak state when they embarked, and all were wretched and poor. Disease—fever and dysentery—broke out a few days after leaving port, and had gone on increasing until now.”

The quarantine station at Grosse Isle had changed little from the time it was built in 1832—a wooden, 200-bed shed-like hospital, two quarantine sheds, a staff house, a bakery, two chapels, a barracks and some smaller buildings. Before the season began, Douglas had begged the government for £3,000 to repair and enlarge the station, but received one tenth of that amount and a letter saying that the Emigrant Commissioners in London believed him a man of decision, energy and skill who could cope with whatever the season might bring. He had opened the station in late April with his usual staff, the only concession to the emergency being fifty additional bedsteads and twice the usual amount of straw for bedding. Ships were arriving on every tide, and he heard that 10,600 emigrants were already on the high seas and heading for Grosse Isle, where there were facilities for hundreds rather than thousands. Douglas expected there would eventually be 20,000 in quarantine, “the population, in fact, of a large city.” 

St. John, New Brunswick

The Jane Black from Limerick arrived on May 20 with thirteen dead and six so ill they died in the hospital. By May 23 eight ships had arrived with 2,778 people, 530 of them ill. “I did not have a bed to lay them on,” Douglas said, adding that he had “never contemplated the possibility of every vessel arriving with fever as they do now.” To look after them all, Douglas put two in a bed. With the season barely started, Grosse Isle was already stretched beyond its resources.

Brick hospital, built in 1881

After 1847, the station underwent a wave of modernization in order to increase the efficiency of the quarantine process. The superintendents who administered it were based on the evolution of scientific disinfection and hygiene processes as well as on new discoveries in bacteriology in order to provide the necessary care to newcomers.

Today it is part of the Irish Memorial National Historic Site. On display are the disinfection building with the original showers, waiting rooms and steam disinfection apparatus.

The First-Class Hotel. Built in 1912 of concrete with some wooden cladding and other details, The First-Class Hotel accommodated arriving passengers who were placed under medical observation. By the second half of the nineteenth century, the shipping companies had made it clear to authorities that facilities for passengers being detained for medical reasons needed to correspond to their classes of passage, to avoid uncomfortable mixing of passengers
The Second-Class Hotel. Now called the Second-Class Hotel, this building served as the first-class hotel from its construction in 1893 until 1912. This two-story wooden building is forty-six meters (150 feet) long and had rooms for 152 cabin passengers, there was a dining room, a sitting room, and washrooms.
The Third-Class Hotel and Bakery. The Third-Class Hotel, build in 1914, is the largest of the three hotels, designed to hold 140 beds in its fifty-two rooms. Built of concrete, it included kitchens and dining areas at either end of each floor of the building, with living quarters in the center. While it offered close quarters and little privacy, it was fitted with electricity and central heating. Today this building houses the cafeteria that caters to visitors to Grosse Isle. A seen is the square-plan Bakery, built between 1902 and 1910. Inside the wooden building are many of he original specialized features used for making and baking bread.

By the end of May, forty ships lay at anchor, stretching a mile down river, and there would have been two more but they were lost at sea. The brig Carricks was lost off the Gaspé coast, only forty-eight of her 167 passengers reaching the shore. The Exmouth from Londonderry sank with the loss of all but three of her 252 people, causing the Liverpool Telegraph and Shipping Gazette to comment: Another ship had foundered and 248 of our fellow creatures have been launched, unshrived into eternity. Another and another will share the same fare unless a strict and searching inquiry be instituted to ascertain if man is not guilty in some measure of causing so great a sacrifice of human life. A few days and the circumstances are forgotten—it is only the

foundering of an emigrant ship—remembered but by relatives.”

On Grosse Isle forty people were dying every day, and six men did nothing but dig graves in the shallow, rocky soil. Dismayed at last by the size of the crisis—long predicted but underestimated—the government hastily granted Douglas what he had requested in vain during the winter. A small steamer, the St. George,  was sent so he could board incoming ships to inspect them. Work was begun on five emigrant sheds, and the government sent four sixty-four-bed hospital tents and 266 bell tents, each with space for twelve beds. Fifty soldiers of the 93rd Regiment, which had been sent to police the island, were pressed into nursing duties due to the difficulty in attracting and holding civilian nurses. Volunteer doctors, priests and Anglican clergymen began to arrive. Captain Edward Boxer from the Port of Quebec set up a commissariat to sell food at cost.

New arrivals to Grosse Isle

By June 6, 25,000 people had arrived on ships that had already buried 1,097 at sea. With 1,115 of the arrivals detained in quarantine on the island, there was so much overcrowding, confusion and death that Douglas had no choice but to declare the ships themselves as quarantine space though this spread disease. The Agnes arrived with 427 passengers and within as short time all but 150 were dead or dying. A medical commission from Quebec City was shocked to find hundreds of sick and healthy are congregated together breathing the same atmosphere, sleeping in the same berths and exposed to the same exciting causes of contagion,” the commission said. “This year’s melancholy experience has in many instances proved that the number attacked, and the mortality of the disease, increased in direct ratio with the length of time the ship was detained under such circumstances.” This was true, but clearing emigrants before they went through the two-week quarantine period merely spread the disease through cities and countryside. On June 8 Douglas wrote a hasty, despairing note to his friend A.C. Buchanan in Quebec City:

Grosse Isle, Tuesday, 9 a.m.
Out of the 4,000 or 5,000 emigrants who have left this island since Sunday, at least 2,000 will fall sick somewhere before three weeks are over. They ought to have accommodation for 2,000 sick at least at Montreal and Quebec, as all the Cork and Liverpool passengers are half dead from starvation and want before embarking; and the least bowl complaint, which is sure to come with a change of food, finishes them without a struggle. I never saw people so indifferent to life; they would continue in the same berth with the dead person until the seamen or captain dragged out he corpse with boat hooks. Good God! what evils will befall the cities wherever they alight. Hot weather will increase the evil. Now give the authorities of Quebec and Montreal fair warning from me. I do not have time to write, or should feel it my duty to do so. Public safety requires it.

As of mid-June, 6,000 emigrants, brought upriver by three steamers hired by the government, had arrived at the Montreal waterfront, where they sought shelter in the sheds built fifteen years earlier during the cholera outbreak. These were so overcrowded people were forced to lie out on the stone quays without shelter. The Legislative Assembly appealed to Queen Victoria to halt the invasion of “starving and the sick and diseased, unable and unfit as they are to face the hardships of a settlers life.” Bishop Joseph Signay of Quebec sent a letter to the bishops of Ireland warning them of the “dismal fate that awaits the unfortunate children of Ireland who seek relief in Canada.” The French-language journal La Minerve said the Irish should be sent to the West Indies to take the place of the slaves freed by English planters.

By late June, 5,784 emigrants had reached Toronto, where precautions had been taken that would save the city the high fatality rate suffered in Montreal. A building on King Street was converted into a fever hospital, and the city was taking advice from a man who had come over from Ireland on an emigrant ship and witnessed conditions at Grosse Isle. His name was Stephen De Vere and he was no ordinary emigrant. Landowner, magistrate, teacher, convert to Catholicism, nephew of Lord Monteagle and a member of a respected Anglo-Irish family that lived near Adare in County Limerick, he was also a social reformer. In April he subjected himself to the hardships of a steerage emigrant in order to report conditions to the Colonial Office, whose information was secondhand at best and, when coming from the shipowners, biased. The ship he sailed on was better than most, but his findings were to shock the government into reforming the Passenger Act.

The fearful state of disease and debility in which the Irish migrants have reached Canada must undoubtedly be attributed in a great degree to the destitution and consequent sickness prevailing in Ireland, but has been much aggravated by the neglect of cleanliness, ventilation and generally good state of social economy during the voyage.

Before the emigrant has been a week at sea he is an altered man. How can it be otherwise? Hundreds of poor people, men, women and children of all ages, from the driveling idiot to the babe just born, huddled together without light, without air, wallowing in filth and breathing a fetid atmosphere, sick in body, dispirited in heart, the fevered patients lying between the sound, in sleeping places so narrow as almost to deny them the power of indulging, by a change of position, the natural restlessness of the disease; by their agonized ravings disturbing those around . . .

Irish immigrants on the dock at Grosse Isle

The food is generally ill-selected and seldom sufficiently cooked, in consequence of the insufficiency and bad construction of the cooking places. The supply of water, hardly enough for cooking and drinking, does not allow washing. In many ships the filthy beds, teeming with all abominations, are never required to be brought on deck and aired; the narrow space between the sleeping berths and the piles of boxes is never washed or scraped, but breathes up a damp and fetid stench until the day before arrival at quarantine, when all hands are required to scrub up and put on “a fair face” for the doctor and government inspector. No moral restraint is attempted, the voice of prayer is never heard; drunkenness, with its consequent train of ruffianly debasement, is not discouraged, because it is profitable to the captain who traffics in the grog.

De Vere caught the captain cheating on water rations. The meat was so salty it caused great thirst, and there was not enough fresh water to boil the ration of rice, let alone wash. The captain refused to hear complaints, and some of the passengers lay for days in their dark bunk, like animals in a cave, “because they thus suffered less from hunger.” Nor were conditions better when the emigrants reached Canada. De Vere said the river steamers were spreading disease with emigrants crowded on to open barges “like pigs upon the deck of a Cork and Bristol packet.”

The three large vessels, the Queen, Quebec and Alliance, that brought tens of thousands of emigrants from Grosse Isle to Point Saint-Charles in Montreal carried an average of 1,200 each trip but sometimes as many as 2,000. “In almost every boat were clearly marked cases of fever, in some were deaths, the dead and the living huddled together. I have myself, when accompanying the emigrant agent on his duty to inspect the steamer on arrival, seen him stagger back, like one struck, at meeting the current state of fetid infection exhaled from between her decks.” At Grosse Isle, medical inspection was hasty and superficial. Dr. Douglas walked down a line of emigrants, selected those who looked particularly unwell and ordered them ashore, even when this meant breaking up families. “The ill effect of this haste was twofold,” De Vere said. “Some were detained in danger who were not ill, and many were allowed to proceed who were actually in fever.”

Father E.J. Horan, one of the volunteers on Grosse Isle, wrote, “The number of sick rose to between thirteen and fourteen hundred. On Friday there were sixty-seven deaths. There are a number of cooks and nurses but never enough. From every side people are asking for food, and when you see how thin most of these poor wretches are, you have no doubt that lack of food is the principal cause of all this sickness.” One of the volunteer doctors, Dr. Benson, who had arrived on the Dublin emigrant ship Wandesworth as a passenger, contacted typhus and died.

Scrub typhus, caused by Orientia tsutsugamushi, is an important and neglected vector-borne zoonotic disease with an expanding known distribution. The ecology of the disease is complex and poorly understood, impairing discussion of public health interventions.

Two other doctors died in July, both in New Brunswick, both in their twenties. Dr Collins came down with typhus on Partridge Island while ministering to 900 of his fellow countrymen and died July 2. His wife, Mary, wrote, “On the 1st day of July when all hope for my husband’s recovery was given up, word was sent to the city that we (that is myself and his patients) could go down and see him. He was quite conscious when we arrived. He had not been told we were coming and was greatly distressed to see us there in the midst of the awful infection.” Some 4,000 people attended his funeral and he was buried in a double coffin, one wood and one lead, because of the typhus.

The same week brought death to Dr. John Vondy, who at twenty-six was the resident doctor at New Brunswick’s second quarantine station, Middle Island near Chatham, which contained 350 emigrants, including thirty orphans. His death came shortly after the arrival of the bark Looshtauk, which had been bound for Quebec when desperate illness on board forced her master to put in at Chatham. During her seven-week voyage, 117 of her 467 people had died, and forty died on Middle Island, where emigrants were housed in old fish sheds whose sides were open to the weather. The Looshtauk, whose home port was Dublin, had sailed from Liverpool and was only a few days at sea when the typhus broke out. Captain John Thain did all he could to fight the disease, including removing passengers to the deck while steerage was fumigate with brimstone and chloride of lime, but on the eighth day the disease spread among the children “who died very fast.”

The Looshtauk took her survivors on up the St. Lawrence to Grosse Isle, where fever ships were arriving almost daily “reeking with pestilence.” On two days, July7 11 and 12, four ships with 400 sick anchored off Grosse Isle, the alarming number of 343 having died at sea. One of them, Erin’s Queen from Cork, brought many bodies to the island for burial and the captain had to bribe crew members with a sovereign for each body hauled out of steerage. One witness said the saddest sight he ever saw was a glimpse of a young girl’s body lying on deck, her blonde hair stirring in the light breeze.

There were always at least thirty ship lying off shore, their hold full of sick and healthy cooped up together, according to Father William Moylan, vicar of St. Patrick’s, Quebec, and a volunteer on Grosse Isle, they were badly treated by fearful, resentful crew members. Moylan said mortality was twice as heavy as that ashore, which must have been bad indeed considering conditions in the island’s sheds and hospital tents. “Corpses were allowed to remain all night in places where death had occurred,” Moyland said, “even when they had a companion in the same bed.” Three new hospital sheds had been erected with space for 360 beds, but that was still far too few. Late in July there were 2,500 sick on Grosse Isle.

There were never enough people to care for the sick; twelve of the seventeen volunteer doctors went down with the fever. No nuns had been sent to nurse on the island, but priests and Anglican ministers filled in as nurses when they were not ministering to the dying. Father Moylan brought water to fever patients who had received nothing to drink for almost two days. “I have seen in one day,” said Father Bernard McGauran, the island’s young chaplain, “thirty-seven lying on the beach, crawling in the mud and dying like fish out of water.”

Grosse Ilse Quarantine Station

Dr. Douglas, a strongly built, stocky man, the thirty-eight-year old son of a Scottish Methodist minister, had the fever himself for a while but kept on limping about the island in conditions that would have broken a lesser man. At the time, Douglas, who was to become the hero of the Grosse Isle tragedy, was probably the most experienced quarantine official in the colonies, having begun his public health career at the small quarantine station on the Gaspé during the cholera epidemic of 1832. Four years later he was appointed superintendent at Grosse Isle, where he married and had seven children and established a small farm were he lived on the east end of the island. He was a respected figure in Quebec City, where he served as secretary of the Literary and Historical Society in 1843, and wrote extensively for medical journals. Little in his career was to prepare him for the superhuman efforts he displayed during the famine migration.

Even by the standards of the age—a few years before Florence Nightingale introduced modern nursing into army hospitals—Grosse Isle was a nightmare. Nurses were afraid to come to the island, and when Douglas tired to enlist healthy women emigrants, offering them high wages, they refused. A great part of the problem was the nature of the disease, for even doctors were “disgusted with the disagreeable nature of their duties in treating such filthy cases,” Douglas conceded.

Beginning with aches, chills and fever, the patient took on the stupor that gave the disease its name. On the fourth day dark blotches appeared, the pulse leaped or was feeble by turns, and within a fortnight a climax was reached in which the patient would either recover or die, usually due to heart failure. Treatment consisted of purgatives such as castor oil, doses of laudanum, glasses of brandy as stimulant, and bathing the patient in tepid water mixed with vinegar, though given the conditions on Grosse Isle the latter was rarely if ever attempted that year.

“The sick remain lying in their excrement for whole days,” wrote Father Jean Ferland. “They complain frequently that they are condemned to go without drinking water for ten or twelve hours. The assistants, if blamed, will tell you that with the best inclination in the world it is impossible for them to carry water from the river to quench the thirst of so many persons.” Spring dried up and not enough water was brought from the mainland. “I was eight days on the island,” said Father Bernard O’Reilly, who had come down from Sherbrooke,  “and during that period I could convince myself that, if things continue as they now exist, very few of those who land on the rocky shores will ever leave them.”

Quarantine station Grosse Île, Magdalen Islands, Quebec.

Attempts to segregate the sick were sketchy; patients suffering an injury or minor illness were put into the same bed with a typhus patient. That there was some awareness of the contagious nature of the epidemic was demonstrated by the appearance at Grosse Isle of two men claiming to have an antidote. Mr. Ledoyen and Colonel Calvert had convinced Lord Grey at the Colonial Office that they had invented what Grey at first called a ‘really wonderful” disinfectant, though he was later disillusioned and called Calvert “that pottering blockhead.” Douglas was skeptical when he saw them fill a tent with barrels of human excrement to demonstrate the value of their disinfectant. “This was affected,” said Douglas, “by M. Ledoyen, who sprinkled the fluid, and waved a wet sheet with the same through the tent for about an hour.” Douglas’s doubts were strengthened when both men came down with fever and Calvert died. Two dozen priests and seventeen Anglican clergymen who came to the island at one time or another were infected. The Anglican Bishop of Quebec, George Mountain, concerned at the fate of Protestant emigrants who made up 10 percent of that year’s migration, came to Grosse isle and was touched  by the plight of the children. More children arrived than ever before—fifty for every hundred adults instead of thirty-eight per hundred adults as heretofore—and many were orphans sent out by the workhouses. Others, like the child Bishop Mountain saw lying under a heap of rags in a dirty tent, had lost their parents to typhus during the voyage and were dying themselves.

“Although the mortality among children has been very great,” wrote Lord Elgin, “nearly 1,000 orphans have been left during the season at Montreal, and a proportionate number at Grosse Isle, Quebec, Kingston, Toronto and other towns.” Many were adopted by French Canadians through the efforts of the “priest of the Irish,” Charles-Félix Cazeau, Vicar-General of the Diocese of Quebec, and were brought up indistinguishable from Québécois except for their Irish faces. There are records in Quebec City that 619 were adopted. Many families had been split, the children adrift, and it was common to see notices such as the one in Montreal Transcript: “Information wanted of Abraham Taylor, aged twelve years, Samuel Taylor, ten, and George Taylor, eight, from County Leitrim, Ireland, who landed at Quebec about five weeks ago, their mother having been detained at Grosse Isle. Any information about them will be thankfully received by their brother, William Taylor, at this office.” Another in July said: “Information wanted of Patrick Hurley from the County of Cork who left his wife and two daughters at the Quarantine station about two weeks ago.”

The Laundry Built in 1855, at the shoreline. The Laundry facilitated the washing of the immigrants’ clothing. Inside are some of the original features, including three of the four original chimneys and fireplaces used for heating water and disinfecting clothing. It is the only remaining structure that attest to one of the important steps in disinfection as practiced in the mid-nineteenth century.

The quarantine system was failing and by mid-summer emigrants in their thousands were carrying infection into the countryside and the cities. There were 800 in hospital at Quebec City, with deaths averaging thirty or forty every week. In Montreal, a city of less than 50,000 people, 1,730 deaths were reported and efforts to contain the epidemic had little power. Six fever sheds had been built at Pointe Saint-Charles, beyond the Lachine Canal and away from the city, and were described as a “vast charnel house for the emigrants themselves as well as for the physicians and nurses who attended them.”

A visitor in mid-summer, when the sheds contained 907 people and sixteen had died during the previous twenty-four hours, found great activity and confusion. “We saw the physician laboring away with generally half a dozen persons speaking to him at once, and two young gentlemen serving out medicines with great activity, while nurses were coming and going in all directions.”

“A day scarcely passes without the intelligence reaching us of the death of some valuable and useful clergyman, some public-spirited and humane citizen, or some experienced and skillful captain of a vessel or steamboat,’ said the Pilot newspaper. One of the volunteer workers who lost his life to typhus was John Mills, the popular mayor and former fur trader. Eight priests died, and seventeen nuns who had been given dispensation to leave the Grey Nuns cloister to nurse the sick. Official accounts said 3,579 emigrants and citizens died in and around Montreal before the epidemic was over.

The hospital in Quebec City

“The panic which prevails in Montreal and Quebec is beginning to manifest itself in the Upper Province, and farmers are unwilling to hire even healthy emigrants,” reported Lord Elgin on July 13, “because it appears that since the warm weather set in typhus has broken out among those who were taken into service at the commencement of the season as being perfectly free from disease.” A month later he said, “Malignant fever has thus been generated in private dwellings so as might have been expected, under such afflicting circumstances, the sick have been cast back in crowds into the towns, and the doors of the farm houses have been closed against even those who are reported to be free from taint . . . every village becomes a station at which the plague-stricken exiles congregate. What is to be done?”

In Kingston, the British Whig asked: “What is to be the end of the barbarous policy now pursued of pouring, to the extent of from 80,000 to 100,000 of the famished and diseased population of downtrodden Ireland, into this province in one season we cannot tell.” In Bytown, where there were 200 deaths and 1,000 sick, a Dr. Barry proposed that people suspected of carrying disease be driven out of town. A settler’s wife at Peterborough wrote, “The typhus fever and dysentery have reached even this remote place. Wherever those wretched immigrants came they brought with them sickness and death. Some of the members do the Board of Health have already fallen under its malignant influence.” Officials in Toronto tried to keep out emigrants who had no friends or relatives in the city. An emotional account of the scene on the Toronto waterfront appeared in The Times in London: “The quay at Toronto was crowded with a throng of dying and diseased abjects; the living and the dead lay huddled together in horrible embrace. The fever spread with rapid violence  throughout Canada and the inhabitants, though they were reduced to great extremity for want of labor, fled from contact with this gigantic intimation of morality.” There was great consternation throughout the city when the Catholic Bishop Michael Power sickened and died after answering a midnight call to administer last rites to a dying woman.


And down the river at Gross Isle the ships were still arriving. There were 2,000 people on the island, filling the new hospital sheds and tents, and people were lying on the ground under scraps of canvas from the ships. The brig Ganges and the bark Corea from Liverpool were followed by the barks Naprima from Dublin and Larch from Sligo, and among them the four ships carried 254 sick and reported 133 deaths at sea. The Virgtinius from Liverpool had lost 158 of here 476 passengers. and the captain, chief mate, steward and nine sailors had died at sea leaving the second mate and two crew members to work the ship with the help of any healthy emigrant willing to help, but it was said only half a dozen passengers were in any fit state to work. She had hardly dropped anchor when another Liverpool ship, the Naomi, arrived: “The filth and dirt in this vessel’s hold,” said Douglas, “creates such an effluvium as to make it difficult to breathe.”

A detailed description of one of these vessels was provided by Robert Whyte of Dublin, who published a diary he kept while sailing from Dublin with 110 emigrants sent out from County Meath. Few brought their own food to the brig, and Whyte wrote that many of them seemed too old and infirm to attempt the voyage, which they expected to take three weeks. There were twenty children. The captain was a taciturn man of “uninviting aspect” but his wife, a ruddy sunburned woman of sixty, who came on the voyage, wearing a black bombazine dress and a straw hat, was kindly, as was the mate, who had a wooden leg, black whiskers an was no more than five feet tall. Whyte was the sole cabin passenger and ate with the captain. The brig left Dublin May 30 and by June 6, a Sunday, the usual seasickness having abated, the emigrants were taking their ease in the sun on deck:

The article accompanying this illustration in the Montreal weekly newspaper L'Opinion publique describes a scene that unfolds in a humble dwelling such as might be found in Montreal. In most Canadian cities at that time, nearly half of the population could be considered poor; in other words, it did not have the means needed for adequate housing, food, clothing and heating. The winter was a particularly trying time. This article encourages the newspaper's readership to be generous toward these unfortunate people:
The passengers were dressed in their best clothes and presented a better appearance than I expected. A group of young men being at a loss for amusement began to wrestle and play pitch and toss but he mate soon put a stop to this, at which they grumbled, saying they did not think Mr. Mate would be so hard. Very few of them could read, neither did they seem to have much regard for the sanctity of the Sabbath. There were prayers in the hold and they were divided into two parties, those who spoke Irish and those who did not. After their religious exercises they came upon deck and spent the remainder of the day jesting and laughing and singing. We had a clear, beautiful sunset from which the captain prognosticated an easterly wind.
June 7: The passengers elected four men to govern their commonwealth, the principal of whom had the title of Head Committee . . . Much to the terror of the little boys who were often uproarious, and to keep them in order he frequently administered the cat. The other duties of this functionary consisted in seeing that the hold was kept clean, preventing smoking below deck, and in settling differences.
June 8: The Head Committee reported that two women were ill. They were accordingly dosed with the best skill of the Mistress . . .
June 9. . . . the shouting of men and the screaming of women was heard on deck, and thinking someone was overboard, judge of our terror when we saw the fore part of the brig in a blaze. All hands having assisted, a plentiful supply of water in a short time subdued the fire. It arose from the negligence of Simon [a young member of the crew] who fell asleep leaving a lighted candle stuck against the boards . . .
June 10: Some more cases of illness were reported. The Mistress was kept busy mixing medicine and making drinks, hoping that by her early attention the sickness might be prevented from spreading.
June 13: The reports from the hold become very alarming: the Mistress was occupied all day attending the numerous calls upon her. She already regretted having come along on the voyage, but her kind heart did not allow her to consult her ease. When she appeared on deck she was beset by a crowd of poor creatures, each having some request to make, most of them of a most inconsiderate king, and few of which it was in her power to comply with . . .
June 14: The Head Committee brought a can of water to show it to the captain; it was foul, muddy and bitter, from having been in a wine cask. When allowed to settle it became clear, leaving considerable sediment in the bottom of the vessel; but it retained its bad taste. The mate  endeavored  to improve it by trying the effect of charcoal and alum, but some of the casks were beyond remedy, and the contents, when pumped out, resembled nauseous ditch water. There were now eight cases of serious illness—six of them from being fever and two dysentery—the former appeared to be of peculiar character and very alarming; the latter cases did not seem to be so violent in degree.
Elisabeth Bruyère, a Grey Nun from Montreal, became the foundress of the Sisters of Charity community in Lowertown Ottawa. It was here that Bruyère and the Sisters worked tirelessly to save lives during the typhus outbreak in 1847. The Sisters of Charity devoted themselves to building barracks to house the sick and to provide for them essential services and care. Bruyère and the Sisters treated hundreds of patients with virtually no assistance. The mental and physical strain on the Sisters caused many to fall ill themselves, including Bruyère.
June 15: The reports this morning were very afflicting, and I felt much that I was unable to render any assistance to my poor fellow passengers. The captain desired the Mistress to give them everything our of his own stores that she considered to be of service to any of them. He felt much alarmed; nor was it to be wondered at that contagious fever—which under the most advantageous circumstances and under the watchful eyes of the most skilled physicians requires the greatest ability—should terrify one having the charge of so many human beings, likely to fall prey to the unchecked progress of the dreadful disease. For once having shown itself in the unventilated hold of a small brig, containing 110 living creatures, how could it possibly be stayed without suitable medicines, medical skill and pure water to slake the patients burning thirst. The prospect before us was indeed an awful one, and there was no hope for us but in the mercy of God.
June 16: The past night was very rough, and I enjoyed little rest. No additional cases of sickness were reported, but there were signs of insubordination amongst the healthy men who complained of starvation and want of water for their sick wives and children. A deputation came aft to acquaint the captain with their grievances, but he ordered them away, and would not listen to a word from them. When he went below the ring leaders threatened that they would break into the provision store . . . In order to make a deeper impression on their minds, he brought out the old blunderbuss from which he fired a shot, the report of which was equal to the report of a small cannon. The deputation slunk away muttering complaints. If they were resolute they could easily have seized upon the provisions. In fact, I was surprised how famished men could so easily bear with their own and their starved children’s’ sufferings. The captain would willingly have listened to them if it were in his power to relieve their distress.
June 17: Two new cases of fever were announced, and from the representations of the mate the poor creatures in the hold were in a shocking state . . . Our progress was almost imperceptible and the captain began to grow very uneasy there being provisions for 50 days. It now became necessary to reduce the complement of water . . .
June 20 (Sunday): The poor emigrants were in their usual squalid attire; neither did the crew rig themselves out as on former Sundays. All were dispirited and a cloud of melancholy hung over us.
June 22: One of the sailors was unable for duty, and the mate feared he had the fever. The reports from the hold were growing ever more alarming, and some of the patients who were mending had relapsed. One of the women was every moment expected to breath her last and her friends—an aunt and a cousin—were inconsolable about her as they had persuaded her to leave her father and mother and come with them . . .
Areas in Canada like Ottawa, Toronto, and Montreal, among others, reported several thousand cases each. In all, more than 20,000 deaths were attributed to the outbreak.
June 23: At breakfast I enquired fo the mate after the young woman who was so ill yesterday when he told me that she was dead; when I remarked that I feared her burial would cause great consternation, I learned that the sad ordeal was over, her remains having been consigned to the deep within an hour after she expired. The sick list now amounted to twenty.
June 24: Being the festival of St. John, and a Catholic holiday, some young men and women got up a dance in the evening, regardless fo the moans and crys of those tortured by the fiery fever. When the mate spoke to them of the impropriety of such conduct they desisted and retired to the bow where they sat down and spent the remainder of the evening singing. The monotonous howling they kept up was quite in unison with the scene of desolation within, and the dreary expanse of ocean without.
June 25: This morning there was a further accession to the names upon the sick roll. It was awful how suddenly some were stricken. A little child, playing with his companions, suddenly fell down, and for some time was sunk in deadly torpor, from which when he awoke he commenced to scream violently and wreath in convulsive agony. A poor woman who was warming a drink at the fire for her husband also dropped down quite senseless and was borne to her berth. I found ti very difficult to acquire precise information respecting the progressive symptoms of the disease, I inferred that the first symptom was generally a reeling in the head followed by a swelling pain, as if the head were going to burst. Next came excruciating pains in the bones, and then a swelling of the limbs, commencing with the feet, and in some cases ascending the body, and again descending before it reached the head, stopping at the throat. The period of each stage varied in different patients, some of whom were covered in yellow, watery pimples, and others with red and purple spots that turned into putrid sores.
June 28: The number of patients upon the list now amounted to thirty, and the effluvium of the hold was shocking. The passengers suffered much for want of pure water . . .
Theophile Hamel’s votive painting Le Typhus is the only authentic, contemporary image of a fever shed and the suffering of the Famine Irish in Canada. As recounted in the annals of the Grey Nuns, it was commissioned by Montreal’s Bishop Ignace Bourget as an iconic image “representing the typhus seeking to enter the city but stopped at the gate by [the virgin Mary’s] strong protection.”
June 30: Passing the main hatch I glimpsed of one of the most awful sights I have ever beheld. Her hand and face were swollen an unnatural size, the latter being hideously deformed. I recollected remarking the clearness of her complexion when  I saw her in health shortly after we sailed. She was then a picture of humor and contentment; now how sadly altered! Her checks retained their ruddy hue, but the rest of her distorted countenance was a leprous whiteness. She had been nearly three weeks ill, and suffered  exceedingly until the  swelling set in, commencing in her feet and creeping up her body. Her afflicted husband stood by her holding a blessed candle in his hand, and awaiting the departure of her spirit. Death put a period to her existence shortly after I saw her. As the sun was setting the bereaved husband muttered a prayer over the enshrouded corpse which, as he said Amen, was lowered into the ocean.

On the first of July the brig was feeling its way through the fog on the Newfoundland Banks, “our horn sounding constantly.” There were thirty-seven sick now, and on July 2 a man died after sending for the mate and giving him a key to open a box and send the money in it to the man’s mother. On July 6, almost half the passengers were sick, and , all the spare canvas having been used to wrap corpses, the dead were now placed in meal sacks. One of the dead men left an orphaned son of seven years who, Whyte noticed, was wearing his father’s coat. “Poor little fellow, he seems quite unconscious of his loss and proud of the possession of his scanty covering.”

When the brig waved its way through the islands and ships off Grosse Isle and dropped anchor on July 27, Whyte found the island cool and green and deceptively attractive—at a distance. Rows of white tents shone in the sun like an army encampment, and the huddle of buildings, hospital, chapels and quarantine sheds looked like a snug village. As soon as Whyte stepped ashore the illusion was shattered: “This scene or natural beauty was sadly deformed by the dismal display of suffering—helpless creatures being carried by sailors over the rocks on their way to hospital—boats arriving with patients, some of whom died in transmission from their ships. Another and more awful sight was the continuous line of boats, each carrying the freight of dead to the burial ground and forming an endless funeral procession. Some had several corpses so tied up with canvas that the stiff, sharp outline of death was easily traceable; others had rude coffins constructed by the sailors from the boards of berths, or should I say cribs. In a few, a solitary mourner attended the remains, but the majority contained no living being, save the rowers.”

The first to board the ship were not doctors, as Whyte expected, but two priests who came in a rowboat, put on their vestments and administered last rites to an old man and woman dying on their bunks. They told Whyte conditions in his brig were much better than in other ships. “In the holds of some of them,” they said, “they were up to their ankles in filth, the wretched emigrants crowded together like cattle, and the corpses remaining long unburied, the sailors being ill, and the passengers unwilling to touch them.”

The doctor came the next morning, wrote a chit admitting six fever patients to hospital and promised to return to inspect the other passengers, after warning the island was already overcrowded with 2,500 people. Whyte saw two German ships come in from Bremen looking clean and well kept, and since there was no sickness aboard the Germans were discharged quickly and taken up river. “It was indeed a busy scene of life and death, and to complete the picture the rigging of he vessels was covered over with passengers’ linen hanging out to dry; from the character of which, as they fluttered in the breeze, I could tell with accuracy from what country they came. Alas, the wretched rags of the majority told but too plainly they were Irish.”

The Celtic Cross. Erected in 1909 by the Ancient Order of Hibernians to commemorate the Irish emigration, it stands on a south facing cliff on the Western Sector of Grosse Isle; cut from Irish stone, it is about 15 meters (49 feet) high.

A doctor’s attention was taken by a man the “very picture of desperation and misery, that increased the ugliness of his countenance, for he was sadly disfigured by the marks of smallpox and was blind in one eye. He walked moodily along the deck, snatched his child from a woman’s arms and went down into the hold without speaking a word.” His wife had just been buried and a sailor told Whyte what had happened. The man stood at the grave until it was covered, whereupon he snatched two shovels, laid them on the grave in the form of a cross and cried, “By that cross Mary I swear to revenge your death. As soon as I earn passage home I will go back and shoot the man who murdered you, and that is the landlord.”

“Ah sir,” one of the emigrants told the doctor, “we thought we couldn’t be worse off than we war; but now in our sorrow we know the differ; for sure supposing we were dyin’ of starvation, or if the sickness overtook us, we had a chance of a doctor, and if he could do no good for our bodies, sure the priests could for our souls; and then we’d be buried along wid our own people, in the ould church yard, with the green sod over us; instead of dying like rotten sheep thrown into a pit, and the minit the breath is out of our bodies flung into the sea to be eaten up them horrid sharks.”

Nearly 13,000 emigrants had reached St. John by the end of August, and there were 800 sick and convalescent on Partridge Island and 558 in the Emigrant Hospital and Almshouse outside the city. Several hundred of the poorest emigrants found shelter in sheds on Lower Cove and thronged the streets begging. There was resentment among the city of 30,000 was expected to care for a total of emigrants equal to half the normal population.

Conditions on Partridge Island reached their nadir in August when Dr. George Harding contracted fever. So many bodies accumulated in the “death house,” or a makeshift morgue, that forty were buried in a large, shallow pit so near the hospital that a well was contaminated. Rain washed earth off the grave, exposing bits of clothing. Newspapers protested that some of the patients were fleeing the island and spreading contagion in the city.

Primary Source:

  • MacKay, Donald. Flight From Famine: The Coming of the Irish to Canada.Natural Heritage Books, a member of Dundurn Group, Toronto, origianlly published by McClelland and Stewart, 1990, Kindle Ed.
  • The Illustrated London News. July 6, 1850. The Illustrated London News.