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1,500 Dead in Saint John. The Cholera Epidemic of 1854

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1,500 Dead in Saint John. The Cholera Epidemic of 1854

Death Takes its Toll

From the McCord Museum

George Fenety was born in Halifax in 1812, and died in Fredericton on 1899. He was a well-known publisher and was Mayor of Fredericton at the time that Phoenix Square was being developed to its present configuration.

Today’s blog post is an excerpt from Fenety’s lecture entitled Longevity, which was published in Fredericton in 1887.


Filth and bad drainage were pregnant causes of disease in 1854, when the cholera broke out in Saint John. This City was in a most foul state, and had no proper water supply. No wonder the disease found congenial food here for the destruction of life. What I am about to relate may not be without interest to the younger members of the audience, and serve as a caution to the citizens in case of another cholera visitation, which God forbid. It is now thirty three years since that terrible scourge, when 1,500 of the people of this City and Portland were carried off in about eight weeks. As an epidemic, the disease first exhibited itself at the beginning of July in the neighborhood of the “Bethel Meeting House,” foot of Morris Street, where a woman and three of her children died within the space of forty eight hours; and after carrying off many others, it established itself in St. Patrick’s Street, taking a bound, as it were, over half a mile of ground. In this locality of slaughter houses and other abominations, the scourge was terrible; and it held on while there was a victim left, it would seem, to satiate its appetite. Those who died not die fled, so that the entire street was all but deserted. It next took possession of York Point, and the neighbourhood of the Mill Pond—likewise filthy disgusting places—where hundreds fell beneath the fetid breath of the destroyer. Portland was visited next, and in the main and bye-streets of this Parish, there were not a dozen houses out of four hundred that were not attacked. It then reached Indian Town, where the havoc was more manifest than perhaps in any other part, from the fact of the place being more compactly built. At one time, it was said, there were not a dozen persons, out of a population of 300, remaining, owing to the deaths and desertions. After destroying and dispersing all before it in Indian Town, the epidemic made its way into Lower Cove, and extended its arms right and left, in nearly every street.

Although these localities were the strong battle grounds of the disease, it manifested itself in a sporadic form in all parts of the City and suburbs—the air seemed impregnated, it had an unusual, sulphurous smell—nor was the fog any panacea; on the contrary, when the fog was the heaviest the disease seemed to increase. Upwards of 43 bodies were conveyed over the Abideau Bridge one day, when the fog was so dense that an object fifty yards ahead could not be discerned. The disease performed a circuit, confining itself chiefly to the lowlands, while the higher ground—or centre of the City—being better situated for natural drainage, was lightly passed over. More than one half the deaths were put down to predisposing causes—such as physical debility, inattention to regimen, poverty, ignorance, fright, and so forth. But every one healthy and vigorous felt that the last day was at hand for him, except perhaps the hard drinker; during that year no licenses for selling liquor were granted by the Mayor, and there never was so much drunkenness shown in the streets, in the midst of this harvest of death. The roughs and drunkards lost their heads and fell easy victims to the cholera. No class of men were more zealous or worked harder to mitigate suffering and minister to the wants of their fellow beings than the Doctors and the Ministers They were in the midst of the disease day and night; and although some of them were debilitated and worn out from exposure, it was set down as a most remarkable thing, that not one suffered or died from the disease. Heroic instances might be cited of deeds performed. One case might be mentioned of a reverend gentleman, who spent his days in the Protestant graveyards performing the burial service over the dead, as bodies would arrive one after another, rather than see them buried without such ministrations. On riding one morning to the church yard, head of the Bay, he saw a number of persons crowding together over some object. On coming up he found a boy writhing in agony, a victim of the cholera. He lifted him into his carriage, conveyed him to the Almshouse, and that boy grew up into manhood to relate the circumstance. That Clergyman’s name was Rev Wm. Scovill, who died in England a couple of years since. The orphans were so numerous that it was almost impossible to find them shelter. The Roman Catholic Bishop (Connolly), likewise dead, improvised buildings which afforded temporary quarters for a large number. Heads of families were cut down, leaving in some cases eight and ten helpless children, and starvation for want of care, was in some instances the result. The Almshouse was filled with children, the offspring of well to do and poor alike. In twelve days there were 48 cases of cholera in this Institution alone, and 26 deaths. The shipyards at Courtenay Bay and the Straight Shore were deserted. There were upwards of twenty large ships on the stocks at the time, and almost 2,000 men employed. But now every yard was as silent as a graveyard.

The progress of the disease from day to day will be better understood by the subjoined figures: The object was to keep the existence of the cholera as secret as possible—and no bulletins were issued for some days, until the necessity for doing so was forced upon the Board of Health, at that time not a very vigilant body. July 26th there were 10 deaths. For the 24 hours ending July 29th 33, including St. John and Portland. Next 24 hours 30. Next 31. Next 27. Next 24. Ending August 1 with 27. Next, August 4 41, and for the week ending the latter date 221. Next 24 hours August 11 40. Next 42. Next 37, and for each day afterwards 31, 33, 21, 18, 20, 20, 14, 18, 17, 15 and 13. And August 21 the decline is very marked, viz. 7 then 10—and last bulletin 3 at the end of September. I have omitted some days in the statement, but that is not material. There were probably 5,000 cholera cases and 1,500 deaths during the terrible two month visitation.

A person named Munford, who was sexton in the Germain Street Methodist Church, was engaged by the Board of Health to attend to the sick and dead. If there was a hero, that person was one in the true acceptation of the word. He was at work everywhere, day and night. Death had no terrors for him. Rough wooden coffins were going about the streets by cart loads; and Munford often unassisted would place the dead in coffins and have them carried away for burial. Persons in a dying state deserted by friends in sheer terror, had in Munford a ministering angel, doing what he could to afford relief. The Victoria Cross, then not instituted, has never been bestowed upon a more worthy hero. He worked and lived through the whole plague, and came out more than conqueror. Every house was provided with cholera medicine, and disinfectants were used in almost every room. The vapours from chloride of lime went up like incense pouring out of the windows like smoke, and scenting the air in all the neighborhood. House to house visitation by physicians, was a means used to find out the sick when in the incipient stages of the disease and provide remedies. The plan was considered most valuable, and was no doubt the means of saving many lives, especially among the poor and destitute. Finally, tar barrels and various combustible compounds were set on fire in the streets, so that the whole town was a glare of light at night. This proceeding was considered to be highly efficacious. The air was full of smoke and tar fumes, which perhaps destroyed the miasmatic germs and went towards bringing the plague to a close.

I thus described on the 21st August, 1854, the desolation of the scene that everywhere presented itself, and it may not be out of place if I here read it:

“We passed through Portland on Friday afternoon. Oh what a change was there presented since our previous visit! It was a scene of desolation and church-yard stillness, the houses with their closed shutters and white blinded windows, serving as monuments to remind us that the angel of death had passed with destructive rapidity through the tenements of this broad avenue. Scarcely a human soul was to be seen in the street. A field-piece might have been placed in any situation and discharged, and the chance of hitting any person would have been very remote. It was Portland at 12 o’clock at night, and yet the sun was in his meridian. The gutters were strewed with lime, in a yellowish state, showing the preparations that had been made for the terrible scourge. In these houses death had been busy for the past six weeks,—hundreds of human beings who inhabited there, in whose veins just now beat the pulsations of life and happiness, are now in eternity. From the Portland (Rev. Mr. Harrison’s) Church out to the Valley Church, through Paradise Row—a distance of about a mile and a half—where thousands of people and vehicles of all kinds are usually to be seen, it being one of the greatest business thoroughfares in the whole Province—we counted (at 4 o’clock in the afternoon) six human beings, and not a single vehicle. Out of about two hundred shops, there were not more than ten that were not closed. As a universal thing we may add, the white blinds were drawn at all the upper windows. It appeared to us as if those who had survived had deserted their houses and gone into the country— anywhere to get clear of the fatal destroyer. But a person must go through Portland to judge for himself it was a most painful and soul-stirring visit, that of ours on Friday afternoon.”

Public meetings were called, and steps taken to guard against future visitations. A Committee was appointed for the relief of the destitute, composed of the following citizens: James A. Harding, Chairman; Rev. William Scovil, Rev. William Donald, Rev. George Armstrong, Rev. Wm. Ferrie, James Macfarlane, John Boyd, W.D.W. Hubbard, Chas. P. Belts, James M’Millan, to whom contributions were to be sent. The destitution was terrible, especially among the poor; for during the eight weeks of the plague there was no business done, no employment, and consequently no money and but little food.

Although the cholera is again on the advance (it has found a lodgment in New York), and as in 1854 may diffuse itself far and wide, I do not think it possible, even if it gets to St. John, that it can work such destruction as on the former occasion. Our City in a sanitary point of view was then greatly neglected. We counted too much upon the fog as an epidemic preventive, and therefore took no precaution against an attack. The Mill Pond was a receptacle for the dumpage of all sorts of abominations. Erin Street was a large dish which received the flowage of all the high lands round about, and an unsavoury odor pervaded the atmosphere all the year round. All the Back Bay was occupied by slaughter houses in a reeking state of decay and putrefaction. We had no sewers worthy of the name. Stagnation in these respects was the rule. We had no regular water supply. The works were in the hands of a Company, and the pipes run only through certain streets, while the supply even from these was intermittent and uncertain. The Board of Health was not a live body as it is today. The necessity for undue exertion in 1854 may not have been considered essential.

Now all this is changed. The Mill Pond has been filled up, and fine railway structures occupy the site. Erin Street, York Point, and all adjacent streets have undergone a transformation which represents altogether a totally opposite condition of things. Instead of stagnant sewers, the whole city is well drained. The slaughter houses, once so noxious in the back part of the city, have been banished into the suburbs, and are now conducted under proper rules and regulations. The city owns the water works which are well managed, and the supply is generally satisfactory. The Board of Health is alive and active. In short, the sanitary condition of St. John and Portland today is pure and healthful; and the great fire of 1877, by which a large amount of animal and vegetable life was destroyed, may have contributed somewhat to this better condition of things. I do not mean to say that everything is in perfect order, and there is no room for improvement still. No precautionary measures to ward off the cholera should be neglected, whether by Boards of Health or people.


Written by johnwood1946

June 14, 2017 at 8:38 AM

Posted in Uncategorized

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