Quebec’s 1832 Cholera Epidemic

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Black smoke hangs over Québec in 1832 as terrified citizens burn smudge pots to combat cholera. Painting by Joseph Légaré. (Courtesy National Gallery of Canada).

When cholera invaded Quebec City in 1832, this devastating disease gripped people’s minds, creating a climate of terror. The corpses it left behind were blue-black, which gave rise to the French expression avoir une peur bleue, meaning to be badly frightened (scared blue).

Up to the end of the 19th century, people associated sickness with miasma (noxious vapours from putrefying matter), believed to poison the body. This explains why cannon salvos were fired in Quebec City during the 1832 epidemic. It was hoped they would change the negative vapours in the air.

Doctors Didn’t Know Cause of Cholera

Doctors didn’t know how to cure the dreadful infection and its attendant diarrhea and vomiting. Inevitably, there were opportunists who claimed to have found miracle cures. Many quack medicines were introduced into the market.

Before the discoveries that Louis Pasteur (1822-1895) made in the area of bacteriology during the 1880s, people were very superstitious about the unknown causes of numerous diseases. Some believed they were retribution for sinful acts. People simply did not know that a number of infectious diseases like cholera, dysentery and typhoid were caused by bacteria that propagated in food and water.

Priests Grapple with Cholera

“The cholera broke out at Quebec early in the summer of 1832 and by the end of July it was estimated that one-tenth of the population, which at that time numbered 28,000, had been carried off,” writes the Rev. Armine W. Mountain, son of Quebec’s third Anglican bishop, Dr. George J. Mountain, and grandson of its first bishop, Dr. Jacob Mountain.

Writing in his memoir of his father, Rev. Mountain notes that the deaths included sailors and newly-arrived immigrants. He reports that in 1831 Anglican clergy in the Quebec area presided at 382 interments. In June of 1832, burials almost equaled the 1831 total. “On two consecutive days in June upwards of 70 persons were buried by the rector,” he writes. At that time, there were just short of 5,000 Anglicans living in the region.

1866 Book Describes 1832 Cholera Epidemic

Here is an excerpt from Mountain’s 1866 book.

“A house opposite the hospital had been engaged to afford additional accommodations, but the unfortunate subjects for admission came pouring in before any arrangements at all sufficient could be completed; and, the desertion , in one afternoon, of part of the servants that had been hired, rendered the attendance, before most inadequate, so miserably inefficient that the passages and floors were strewn with dying persons, writhing under wants to which it was impossible to minister, some of whom, I believe, actually died before they could be got a bed. The health commissioners, the head of the medical staff, and the first medical practitioners of the city were upon the spot together, and doing all they could; but how could their skill or judgment meet all the exigencies of such a moment?

“Women were met at the doors, bewailing their affliction, who had come too late to take a last look at their husbands while alive; parents or children were surrounding the death-beds of those most dear to them; patients were, some clamoring in vain for assistance, some moaning in the extremity of languor, some shrieking or shouting under the sharp action of the cramps; friends of the sufferers were contending angrily with the bewildered assistants; a voice of authority was occasionally heard enforcing needful directions, but quickly required in some other quarter of the establishment; a voice of prayer was also heard, and the words interchanged between the dying and their pastors were mingled with the confused tumult of the hour.

“The clergy, in passing through some quarters of the town, were assailed sometimes by importunate competitors for their services; persons rushing out of the doors or calling to them from windows, to implore their attendance upon their respective friends, and each insisting upon the more imperative emergency of the case which he pleaded.”

Cholera Epidemic Aftermath

Quebec clergy of all faiths did all they could, but nothing was enough. During and after the epidemic, Quebec residents generously assisted its victims, primarily widows and orphans. Churches raised money to meet many of the victims’ emergencies and provided food and shelter. In an amazing gesture of compassion and concern, people adopted dozens of orphaned children.

The 1832 cholera epidemic was not the last. There were other less severe ones. Then, in 1847, there was another widespread epidemic which claimed thousands of lives in Quebec. People were still four decades short of discovering the causes and cure of cholera.

Cholera in Today’s World

Cholera, historically, was rampant because nobody understood what caused it to happen and spread. In the 21st century it is still found in third world countries where unsanitary conditions often exist. The 2010 Haitian cholera epidemic is a spin-off of the Jan. 12, 2010 earthquake that affected nearly three million people. Nine months later, most of the rubble, containing thousands of bodies, had not been cleared and more than one million people were living in tents in refugee centers.

There have been several cholera epidemics. Example: Cholera deaths in India between 1817 and 1860 are estimated to have exceeded 15 million people. In the early 1990s there were more than a million cholera cases, with about 10,000 deaths, in Peru. In the 21st century there have been serious cholera epidemics in Zimbabwe and Nigeria.

Source:

  1. Mountain, Armine W., A Memoir of George Jehoshaphat Mountian, D.D., Late Bishop of Quebec (Montreal: 1866)