New Brunswick History and Other Stuff

The Year of the Fever

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There is an earlier story in this blog concerning Partridge Island. Following is another story, more specifically about ‘the year of the fever’, 1847, written by William Kilby Reynolds. It is from Volume 1 of The New Brunswick Magazine published in 1898.

The Year of the Fever

by W.K. Reynolds

The story of the year of the ship fever in Canada is one not to be told in the brief compass of a magazine paper, nor can I attempt to do more than sketch some of its more notable features in the ravages of the pestilence among the immigrants bound to the port of St. John alone. The graves of the thousands of victims of disease and want in that year are found at widely separated points in Quebec and the Maritime Provinces, while the bones of an army of unfortunates lie scattered along the bed of the ocean in the track of the ships bound westward across the sea from Ireland. It was one of the most dreadful visitations ever suffered by a people, and one of the saddest reflections regarding it is that the horrors of it were largely due to the selfishness and inhumanity of man. A repetition of the pestilence, attended by the same appalling conditions, would not be possible today in any civilized nation of the earth; not that the world is any better, perhaps, but that half a century has seen a revolution in sanitary science, that the ocean passage has been marvelously abridged, and that it is no longer possible for even cattle to be carried on a voyage under conditions as horrible as were experienced by tens of thousands of human beings in the memorable year of the ship fever.

To discuss the causes of the suffering and mortality would be foreign to the purpose of this paper. Some things were preventable, some were not. Certainly, there was no lack of sympathy and aid from both sides of the ocean, but the world moved slowly in those days, and much of the willingly proffered assistance came too late. It is not with what took place in Ireland that I have now to deal, however, but with what happened at our very doors and is clearly remembered by many who are living at this day. Even in this respect the material which is available is more than sufficient to occupy many times the space than can be allowed at this time, though at a future period and in another form the story may be told with more attention to detail.

In the year 1847, death and emigration depleted the population of Ireland to the extent of more than two million people. The potato crop had been a failure in 1846, and the result was widespread destitution, followed by famine. Then came the pestilence of typhus fever, and death began to reap its harvest among the unhappy victims of destitution. Famine came also to the Highlands of Scotland, and every mail from across the sea brought to this country worse and worse tales of human suffering. The world was appealed to for help, and the work of attempted relief began, but the famine and the fever moved more swiftly than man’s aid. The land appeared to be accursed, and the only hope of the stricken people seemed in seeking a home beyond the ocean.

There had been bad seasons for the crops in Ireland during the preceding years, and the tide of emigration had been steadily increasing. In 1846 the outflow was greater than in any of the previous years, for nearly 130,000 persons embarked, of whom 33,000 were for British North America. The arrivals at St. John in 1844 had been 2,000, and in 1845 they had increased to 6,000, but in 1846 they had risen to the number of 9,000, and there were indications that the following season would greatly exceed all the others in respect to immigration. The government immigration agent for New Brunswick, Moses H. Perley, in his report at the close of 1846, pointed out the urgent need of better accommodation at the quarantine station at Partridge Island, and the government made a grant of £200 for repairs to the existing buildings. These were two old structures, erected many years before by the St. John board of health, and would contain one hundred patients. They were poor affairs, even for that day, and at that time they were very much out of order for the needs of ordinary years. The grant was passed in April, but even then the fever ships had begun to leave Ireland, and before the repairs could be effected they had begun to land their human cargoes upon the Island by the hundreds. Then it became necessary to build a new pest house.

Despite of the extraordinary efflux during the years already named, no special measures seem to have been taken by the authorities on the other side of the water to ensure the comfort and health of the passengers on the emigrant ships. The law, poor as it was, was not enforced by any rigid system of inspection, and grasping shipowners were permitted to send their vessels to sea overcrowded and with provisions insufficient in quality and quantity. During the year 1846 there were thirteen prosecutions and convictions of shipmasters before magistrates in St. John, on charges of this kind, and these probably represented only the most aggravated cases which could not be excused.

The year 1847 opened gloomily enough for Ireland and the Irish people. Most deplorable accounts came from all sections. Of thirty inquests reported at Roscommon at the beginning of the year, eighteen were cases of death from starvation. In the same district the number of cases of typhus fever reported daily was 75, with an average of fourteen deaths. The landlords were serving papers on delinquent tenants at a rate treble beyond any of previous years. All over the land graves were being dug, and the carpenters were at work night and day making rough coffins, but labor as they would, the work of death was more rapid. In some instances, for the want of coffins, bodies were carried to the grave on doors taken from houses, a covering of straw sufficing for a pall. The highways abounded with famishing men, women and children, reduced to the state of living skeletons. Driven to extremes, honest men took the cattle and sheep of their more prosperous neighbors. When the law called this theft, those who were sent to prison were at least saved from starvation, whatever might become of their families. Those who lived near the shore ate seaweed. In the extremity of their hunger they would eat anything. In one hut eight starving wretches were found devouring a dog. At times the living, the dying, and the dead were strangely grouped together, as where seven were found lying side by side, one dead for many hours, and the others unable to move either themselves or the corpe. Pages upon pages of dreadful detail could be given, but enough has been told to give an idea of the condition to which a large number of the people were reduced, and why they were abandoning their native land in such enormous numbers during the year 1847.

It will be readily understood that the emigrants varied much in their conditions of life. Some had been saving their money for years with a view to bettering their state in a new land, and in occasional instances they had sufficient to support them for a time in the country of their adoption. Others were utterly destitute, and had their passage paid in order to get them out of the country. Of this class were the hundreds evicted from various estates of non-resident landlords, including Lord Palmerston and Sir Henry Gore Booth. Some of these had scarcely clothes to their backs, and being without means to provide themselves with food and other comforts for the long ocean voyage, which required an average of 43 days, they had to depend on the ships’ allowance of bread, which was often insufficient and of bad quality. Under the most favorable circumstances the fever would have been a scourge among the emigrants on shipboard that year, but when its victims were people who could scarcely walk when they embarked, and who were packed into overcrowded vessels, with miserable accommodations and wretched food, the results were such as to make one shudder that such a condition of things was possible in the middle of the nineteenth century.

The story of the great distress in Ireland did not fall on unheeding ears in America, and early in 1847 subscriptions were called for at many places in the United States and what is now Canada. The response was a generous one, and the people of St. John, regardless of class or creed, gave liberally in aid of the sufferers. On the second of February a meeting, called by Sheriff White, was held at the court house and committees were appointed for all the wards. The churches also made collections, while the proceeds of a charity ball and a concert were devoted to the same purpose. In less than four weeks more than £1,100 had been collected, and this was increased by £450 additional, a little later. A portion of the money was sent to the sufferers in the Highlands of Scotland, but the greater part went to Ireland where it was more imperatively needed. The sum thus collected was about £1,556. In addition to this the Bank of British North America issued drafts to individuals to the amount of £1,083 in one day, chiefly in sums of £5, the money coming from the Irish people here who sent it to their friends and kindred at home. In the general collection, too, the Irish people gave with a very free hand. The largest amount from any city district was from £246 15s from Kings ward, while £129 was collected in St. Malachi’s and St. Peter’s churches. In all, more than £2,600 was sent from St. John, and probably much more was sent through the banks, by individuals, of which no record has been kept. The legislature of New Brunswick made a grant of £1,500 sterling, and that of Nova Scotia granted £1,000. Over £200 was raised at Miramichi, and other parts of New Brunswick, Nova Scotia and the Canadas gave according to their means. There was need of every dollar, for the situation was growing worse and worse every day. Though the poor-houses of Ireland were crowded with a hundred thousand inmates, multitudes were still suffering for the most common necessaries of life, while the fever continued to carry off its victims by scores in every part of the stricken country.

The first of the immigrant ships to arrive at St. John was the brig Midas, on the 5th of May, 1847. It was from Galway, and had made the passage in 38 days. During the voyage two adults and eight children had died, and many of the passengers were sick when landed at Partridge Island. Following this came other vessels, and on the 16th the barque Aldebaran arrived. It had left Sligo with 418 passengers, and of these 34, chiefly children, had died during the 48 days of the voyage. More than a hundred of the passengers were sick on their arrival, and more than 80 of them subsequently died and were buried on the Island. It was charged that this vessel was overcrowded, that the provisions and water were bad and that the deaths of the children were due to the scarcity of soft food for their sustenance. This was true of many of the vessels which arrived later, and one of the saddest features of these ocean tragedies was the proportion of infant mortality. The graves on the Island are chiefly those of adults, for the children perished at sea through lack of proper care and nutrition.

During the month of May twelve vessels arrived and were placed in quarantine, the passengers being removed to the hospital on the Island. Among these vessels were several veritable death ships, such as the Pallas, the Thornley Close and the Amazon. Included in the arrivals was the brig Mary Dunbar from Cork, with small pox on board.

Dr. George J. Harding was the quarantine physician, and was assisted by Dr. George L. Murphy, but the cases multiplied so rapidly that further medical aid was necessary. In the latter part of May two doctors from the city were sent to the Island. One of these was Dr. W.S. Harding, who is now a well known citizen of St. John. The other was Dr. James Patrick Collins, who was destined to give his life in the effort to lessen the sufferings of the stricken people of his race. Dr. Collins was then only 23 years of age, and there was every promise of a most brilliant career for him. He had been married in the previous autumn to a sister of the Revs. James and Edmond Quin, who is still living.

Drs. Harding and Collins were well aware of the terribly infectious character of the fever, but they went to the Island to do their duty, whatever might be the result. They had more than enough to tax their energies. During the month of June 35 vessels arrived. On these 5,800 passengers had embarked, but nearly 200 had died in quarantine and on the Island, while some 880 of those who had been landed were sick in the hospital at the close of the month. By that time, however, both Harding and Collins were prostrated with the fever, and on the 2nd of July Dr. Collins died, a martyr to his duty and a hero in the truest sense of the word. The funeral took place on the following Sunday, and was the largest ever seen in St. John. The body was brought from the Island to Reed’s Point, followed up the harbor by a long line of boats. The funeral procession reached from Reed’s Point to the head of Dock street, and was composed of nearly 4,000 people, all classes of citizens uniting to pay tribute to the memory of the devoted young physician. Bishop Dollard and his clergy were among those who followed the body, and the pall bearers were all medical men. The burial was at Indiantown cemetery, now the Redemptorist grounds, but the body was afterwards removed to Fort Howe cemetery, where a simple monument marks the spot.

In the meantime, the infection was extending to the city, and by the last of July 660 had been admitted to the Emigrant Hospital at the old poor house, at the corner of Great George’s (now King) and Wentworth streets. Of these 62 had died and the death rate was increasing. When the hospital became too crowded the sick immigrants were housed in sheds at the back shore, near the marine hospital. The latter institution had also its quota of sailors ill with the fever. Then the disease became epidemic and many deaths took place among the citizens, but of these there is no specific record. No one who had any communication with the sick was safe. Drs. Harding and Collins had already contracted the fever at the Island, and in August Dr. George Harding was prostrated, but recovered. Dr. Wetmore was sent to the Island with Dr. W. S. Harding at this time. In the city, Drs. W. Bayard, Wetmore and Paddock were ill, one after the other, in their (atten…?) at the poor-house, but all recovered. Andrew Barnes, steward of the marine hospital, contracted the disease and died.

Father James Quin went daily to the Island and was unceasing in his ministrations to the sick and dying. He did not take the fever, nor did Fathers Dunphy and Edmond Quin, who were in constant attendance at the poor-house hospital. Rev. Robert Irvine, of the St. John Presbyterian church, also attended at the latter place, but contracted the disease and narrowly escaped death.

During the month of July 4,058 more immigrants, arrived, making a total of nearly 9,900 up to that time. Among the vessels was the barque Ward Chipman, from Cork, with 505 passengers. There had been 27 deaths on the voyage, 40 persons were sick and the fever was increasing rapidly. Closely following this vessel was the barque Envoy, from Londonderry, with a most malignant type of small pox. As many as six vessels with immigrants would sometimes arrive in one day, and the greater number of them had the fever among the passengers, though in some cases to only a slight extent.

On the sixth of August a heavy gale sprang up from the south-east. The brig Magnes, from Galway, was lying to the eastward of the Island, all the passengers having been removed. This vessel was driven ashore and became a total wreck. One of the crew, who was lying sick on board, was drowned. The brigantine Bloomfield, from Cork, having on board 74 passengers in a destitute and starving state, was driven up the harbor and into the timber ponds at Portland Point, but with no loss of life.

The scenes on Partridge Island during the six months that the immigrants continued to arrive and the fever to rage are beyond description. When it is remembered that in some instances as many as 500 people were landed from single vessels, and that numbers were so helpless that they had to be carried, some idea can be gained of that constant and awful procession of wretched beings during that memorable summer and autumn. In many instances a whole day was taken to land the passengers from one ship, and numbers were so weak that they would sit down utterly helpless on the high ground just above the landing place, to lie there for the night amid their scanty personal effects. Many of those who were not sick camped out in various places over the Island, making such shelter as they could. A supply of tents was sent down from the city, and partially served the purpose, but the poor people had to pitch these tents for themselves, and made such rude work of it that when a storm came and the shelter was most needed their tent pins would be pulled out and their houses literally overturned. Others took the rough boards which had been sent down to make coffins, and built rude camps. At the outset, an attempt had been made to make coffins for all who died, and James Portmore, the carpenter who was building the pest house, was kept hard at work with his double duties. As the pestilence increased even this rude undertaking work was found to be out of the question. The sick died faster than the coffins could be made, and they were buried in their ordinary clothing. The soil of the burial ground was so thin in many places that the bodies were little more than covered with earth, and after a heavy rain portions of the clothing could be seen protruding. As a result the odor was carried on the southerly winds to the city. Then quicklime was sent to the Island and scattered  over the graves, and more earth was piled upon the shallow places. In many instances, where the deaths were in rapid succession, trenches were dug and a number of bodies buried together. On one occasion, when the doctors and assistants were all prostrated, 45 bodies accumulated in the dead house. A huge pit was dug close by the building and all the dead were placed in it. The spot is clearly to be distinguished at this day by the vivid green of the grass, which for half a century has been nourished by the bones of the unfortunate immigrants.

Day after day the work of death went on, the number of unfortunates being augmented by new arrivals up to late in October. Mr. Alex. Reed, who was then keeper of the light house, and to whom I am indebted for some interesting facts, has told me how, lying in his bed of a calm summer night, he would be startled by an agonized wail, the lament of some woman whose husband, son or father, had drawn his last breath. In time such sounds became so common that they ceased to disturb him.

From the estate of Sir Henry Gore Booth some 1,500 persons were sent to this country, and another large number from the estate of Lord Palmerston. These were of the class likely to become paupers at home, and were thus shipped to America in order to get rid of them. One of the last vessels to arrive, on the 3rd of November, was the barque Æolus, Captain Driscoll, from Sligo, with 240 passengers, most of them without the common means of support, with broken constitutions and almost in a state of nudity. They are so described in a resolution of the common council, in which Lord Palmerston is censured for his inhumanity in sending these helpless people out to endure the rigors of the winter, in this climate. In one ship, the Lady Sale, which arrived in September, there were more than 400 tenants of Booth, among whom were no less than 176 females, including nine widows with 57 children.

As a result of this class of immigration, the city had many poor on its streets long after the fever had ceased. Beggars from door to door were common, and some of them, reduced by their sufferings, were most pitiful sights. A large number of the immigrants who recovered, however, went to the United States, where they had originally intended to go, coming to St. John for the reason that, under the conditions of trade at that time, passages in ships to this port were easily obtained.

At various other ports of New Brunswick, outside of St. John, fever ships arrived, and in some cases the disease made great havoc. At Miramichi, for instance, the ship Looshtauk came into port early in June with a list of 117 who had died on the voyage. Between the 3rd and 5th of June 29 others died on the ship while in port, and 96 more died after the passengers were removed to the hospital. Dr. Vondy died from the fever while attending the sufferers.

The quarantine hospital at Partridge Island was closed during the first week in November, and the patients were removed to the poor-house hospital in the city. By that date the epidemic was under control, though deaths continued to take place for some time afterwards.

The number of Irish immigrants landed on Partridge Island that year was 15,000. About 800 died on the voyage. The number of those who died at the quarantine hospital after being landed was 601. There is a record of that many, but it is probable that many others who died on the vessels in quarantine and were also buried on the Island are not included in it. The number of deaths at the poor-house hospital was 595, but there were many others who died at the sheds and in lodgings, of whom there is no official account. The total mortality among the immigrants was thus considerably in excess of 2,000.

For more than half a century the grass has grown over the unmarked and unhonored graves of the hapless immigrants who died on the Island. Some years ago, there were to be seen a few rude wooden headboards which loving hands had placed there when the graves were new, but the last of these has long- mouldered away. The burial ground itself gives no indication of the fact that hundreds have there been laid to rest, far from their home and kindred. To the eye it appears like an ordinary barren piece of pasture. At one time and another suggestions have been made that a suitable monument should be erected on the spot in memory of the unfortunate strangers, but no determined action has ever been taken. At last, however, the long deferred project is likely to be carried into effect. A number of the citizens of St. John, of Irish birth and descent, have taken the matter in hand, selected a site subject to the approval of the authorities, and propose to seek the sympathy and aid of all classes of citizens in the undertaking. It is intended to have the monument completed by the first of July next. The project is one which is likely to meet with encouragement, for the reason that the idea must commend itself alike to all friends of humanity, regardless of nationality or creed.


Written by johnwood1946

January 16, 2013 at 10:52 AM

Posted in Uncategorized

2 Responses

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  1. You’re doing a great job with these articles. Just thought I’d let you know it is appreciated.-Dawn

    Dawn McMillan

    January 16, 2013 at 11:45 AM

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