Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Uh Oh, Everyone's Dying Of Cholera, Parts I & II

Front and Simcoe, 1834
This is the second in a series of posts telling the story of William Lyon Mackenzie and the birth of Canadian democracy. You can read the first part here.

York had changed a lot in the decade since William Lyon Mackenzie first set foot here. It was no longer a tiny little town alone in the middle of the woods. The population had skyrocketed from 1,600 to  nearly 10,000. The first few blocks around the St. Lawrence Market had spread all the way west to Bathurst Street. And  with a new Lieutenant Governor, John Colborne, aggressively encouraging immigration, there were more people arriving all the time.

What they found here was a disgusting mess. There was no sewer system or running water.  People dumped their garbage everywhere. They emptied their shit buckets into the street. King and Yonge and Queen were a muddy soup of excrement and filth. And there were no sidewalks, either; you'd just wade through it, track it into your homes. Francis Collins (who published one of the big liberal Reform newspapers, the Canadian Freeman) wrote about "[s]tagnant pools of water, green as a leek, and emitting deadly exhalations". He called the lake water, where people would just dump whatever gross crap they wanted get rid of, "carrion-broth". In the winter, he said, "[a]ll the filth of the town—dead horses, dogs, cats, manure, etc. [was] heaped up together on the ice, to drop down, in a few days, into the water". That was their drinking water. That watery pig corpse horse shit juice. Soon, it would kill Collins — one of the great Reform heroes, a man who'd spent months in jail for criticizing the Family Compact too harshly. It would kill his wife, too. And his brother. And hundreds more.

It had all started in India, five years earlier and more than 12,000 kilometers away. It came from the spot where the Ganges meets the Bay of Bengal, one of the most fertile places on earth. The river widens out into an endless expanse of swamps and streams, of lush mangrove and bamboo forests. There are tigers and elephants and leopards and pythons. And there's also cholera. It's been in the water for as long as anyone can remember. Millions upon millions of deadly bacteria lay dormant in the silt and come alive in the monsoon season when the conditions are right. But in 1826, of course, they didn't know that's what was happening. They just knew that people were dying. And that the cholera was beginning to spread.

Cholera strikes Paris
It was slow at first. People started to die further up the river. And then all across India, wherever the trade routes led. It took a year to get to China and another to get halfway across Russia. But when it hit Europe and the Middle East, things sped up. Three thousand Muslims died on their pilgrimage to Mecca in 1831. Thirty thousand deaths were announced in Cairo and Alexandria. There would be 100,000 dead in Hungary. And in France. Bodies piled up in all the cobblestoned capitals of the Old World. Death struck without warning. One survivor, who had suddenly fallen ill while walking down the street, said it was like being "knocked down with an ax. I had no premonition at all." Heinrich Heine, a German poet, was in Paris when the plague sweep through a masked ball: "suddenly the gayest of the harlequins collapsed, cold in the limbs, and underneath his mask, violet blue in the face. Laughter died out, dancing ceased and in a short while carriage-loads of people hurried from the Hotel Dieu to die".  The deaths came so quick, they ran out of coffins. All over the world, corpses were being tossed into mass graves by the thousands.

In England, they were shipping cholera back directly from the source. Their British East India Company had been gradually conquering India for more than a hundred years. And when they shipped tea back home, they'd scoop up bilge water from the Bay of Bengal, carry it halfway around the world and dump it into the Thames. More than six thousand people died in London. More than fifty thousand across the UK. Ireland was hardest hit. In places like Dublin and Limerick and Cork, terrified refugees packed into ships and set sail for the New World. They crowded together in squalor, sharing cholera-ridden water and cholera-ridden piss buckets for weeks on end. By the time they reached the Canadas, some ships had already lost dozens on board to the disease. Officials in Lower Canada, where they arrived first, did their best to screen passengers and quarantine anyone who showed signs of the sickness, but it didn't seem to do much good. Cholera would devastate Quebec City that summer, killing more than two thousand. In Montreal, doctors rushed through the streets all day and night. The apothecaries stayed open around the clock. The army fired blank artillery shells at nothing — a desperate attempt to drive the cholera out of the air. More than a thousand died in a single month.

As cholera marched west, York braced for the terror. Lieutenant Governor Colborne declared a day of "Public Fasting, Humiliation and Prayer" in an attempt to stave off the disaster. The government formed a Board of Health, led by the most famous doctor in town, the staunch Reformer William Warren Baldwin (the same guy who built the first Spadina House on the hill overlooking Davenport and had Spadina Road carved out of the woods south of it so that he'd have a clear view all the way to the lake). Baldwin's Board of Health had a doctor check all new arrivals before they left their ships. They washed buildings and outhouses with lime. They shut the bars at ten. But it was no use. Eleven thousand immigrants came to York in the spring and summer of 1832. And many of them were sick. By late June, it had begun.

Cholera victims
It was terrifying. Cholera fucks you up good. Those bacteria are resilient little bastards; they can survive the acids in your stomach and make it all the way to your small intestine. There, they swim over to the intestinal wall and start to produce a toxin. It sucks the water out of the rest of your body and forces you to expel it in an endless onslaught of watery diarrhea. You can shit out 20 or 30 litres in a day, clear liquid with chunks of your intestine in it. And you vomit, too. A lot. You lose so much fluid that your hands go wrinkly. Your eyes sink back into your head. Your skin changes colour. Then you die. And it happens fast. You can go from healthy to dead in just a few hours. And all of that excrement your loved ones have tossed into the street and into the drinking water is filled with the next generation of bacteria ready to do the same thing all over again.

For the rest of that summer, our city was filled with people dying sudden, grotesque deaths. Hundreds more got sick and thousands fled to the countryside in fear. The Board of Health tried to fight back, but they didn't really know what they were fighting. They asked everyone to burn tar and sulphur in their yards to drive it away. They told people to hide under blankets at night with the windows closed. To cut back on vegetables and drink lots of coffee. To switch from cotton socks to wool ones. And even the good advice — to get rid of standing water, take a bath every day, clean up the garbage, go to the hospital if you're sick — was being ignored. They couldn't force anyone to do anything, since the Board of Health had no real power. And Colborne, who wanted to protect his authority and make sure no one screwed with his open immigration policy, refused to give them any. They reported nine deaths in the first week of the outbreak. Twenty-four in the second. The numbers went up quickly from there. By the time the plague finally died out in the fall, they figure there were at least two hundred fresh corpses in town. One out of every twenty people who'd stayed in the city was dead. It was the worst thing that had ever happened in the town.

Strangely, those horrifying few months also brought us an important step closer to democracy. In the wake of the plague, people were terrified. Cholera was still wreaking havoc all over the world. And if there was a chance it might come back, even some Tories thought the Lieutenant Governor should share some his power. Scared and overwhelmed by the soaring population, the Tory-dominated,  Mackenzie-hating, democracy-bashing legislature voted to turn the Town of York into the City of Toronto. There would be a city council elected by the people. A mayor. A new Board of Health. And they'd all have real power. They could tax people. Pass bylaws and enforce them themselves. All without having to ask the Lieutenant Governor first. This was a Big Fucking Deal.

We had our first elections in the spring of 1834. The Reform Party won. They picked William Lyon Mackenzie to be the very first mayor of Toronto. And the head of the new Board of Health.

Mackenzie's year in power is best remembered for helping Toronto to establish its own new, Canadian identity. The old British name "York" was done away with in favour of the original, native "Toronto". (No more calling us "dirty little York" to avoid confusion with New York or the English York. Plus, "Toronto" just plain sounds cooler. As one Reform leader put it, "Toronto for poets — York for men of business".) Mackenzie also gave us our own coat of arms. And our own motto: "Industry, Intelligence, Integrity." More importantly, he and his Reformers started to clean up the city. They put in sidewalks. Made it illegal to let your pigs run free in the streets. You weren't allowed to toss your shit out into the road anymore. Or to throw your garbage anywhere where you liked. There'd be garbage pickup now. And new regulations about how to dispose of corpses.

Silly cholera preventive costume
But it wasn't enough. Toronto was still a pretty gross place. And all of those big, famous doctors really had no idea what they were doing. They didn't wash their instruments. They treated most sick people with bizarre cures: concoctions of charcoal, hog fat and maple sugar; crushed deer antler and red wine; leeches. They could do little to fight the wave of disease that arrived with the thousands upon thousands upon thousands of new Canadians who were still pouring off ships at the waterfront. Too many of those ships were pulling around the islands and into Toronto Bay flying a yellow flag from their mast — a warning that there were cholera victims on board.

The outbreak that summer would be even worse than the first one. Hundreds more died. Maybe as much as ten percent of the population. Most of the city's richest citizens fled to their park estates north of Queen and up onto the escarpment, but the greatest of Toronto's leaders — Reform and Tory alike — stayed behind to battle the disease. Some of them, like Francis Collins, would die. The garbage carts became ambulances, and then death carts. Mackenzie volunteered as an attendant. And so did John Strachan, the Anglican Archdeacon and leader of the conservative Family Compact. They would both tour the town, loading the dead onto their carts and burying them en mass in a pit beside Strachan's church, an earlier version of St. James Cathedral. They're still there, those victims, maybe as many as six thousand of them, buried together in the ground beneath the park at King and Church. It was dangerous work. Mackenzie fell sick, nearly died, and was lucky to survive.

The disease did peter out here eventually. But in some parts of the world, the pandemic raged on for years. Millions died. And it would take another worldwide outbreak before a doctor in London made the first major breakthrough: in 1854, he mapped out the cases in Soho and tracked the source to a water pump. For the first time, people realized that contaminated water was the problem. Still, there would be another four cholera pandemics after that one, the most recent in the 1970s. Cholera is easy to prevent: just don't drink any water with feces in it and you'll probably be okay. But more than a hundred thousand people still die from it every year because they just don't have that option.

Toronto would never suffer at cholera's hands like that again. To fight it, the Family Compact and the Reformers had found more common ground than you'd expect. The Tories had helped to create a new city with new, democratic powers. And the Reformers had shown that while they might not support the monarchy, they still believed in the power of good, strong government. But the two sides still hated each other's guts. And on the road to Canadian democracy, things were going to get a whole lot worse before they got better. Our colonial overlords in England were about to name a new Lieutenant Governor for Upper Canada. And Sir Francis Bond Head would prove to be one of the biggest enemies of democracy Canada had ever seen.

Continue reading with part three in this series, "Bond Head The Bonehead", here.


A version of this story will appear in
The Toronto Book of the Dead
Coming September 2017

Pre-order from Amazon, Indigo, or your favourite bookseller
I pieced this together from a ton of articles, but some of the best ones are here (about cholera's impact on the founding of the city -- you need a free trial for that link, but you can find it other places too) and here (about the 1832 outbreak and the Board of Health). But they're both pretty dry. I also got lot of more fun and gross information from The Toronto Story, which is super-great kids book about our history. You can buy it here. And one of the coolest online sources is from the Toronto Public Library. Here they have a saaaaad letter from the son of one victim and other writings and images from those terrifying days.

The Star looks back at the outbreaks here. Toronto EMS looks back on their part of the history here. And there's more about how cholera swept through the rest of the world here and here and here.

Another interesting bit I didn't think I could cram into the main post: people were really suspicious of the hospital. It was at King and Peter, two-stories tall, and the precursor to Toronto General. The Board of Health begged them, but people preferred to die at home. And there was a rumour that the officials there had tried to bury at least one person alive. There was also a makeshift treatment centre in John Strachan's old blue grammar school at Jarvis and Lombard, a precursor to today's Jarvis Collegiate and Upper Canada College. I also thought it was kind of interesting that they tried to evacuated the area around Market Lane (now Market Square, where the Rainbow Cinema is). But none of that, of course, seemed to help much. As Strachan himself put it: "In short, York became one general hospital."

This post is related to dream
10 The Battle of Montgomery's Tavern
William Lyon Mackenzie, 1837

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