The Cholera Epidemic of 1832

by H. Richards Morgan

The following article appeared in the Recorder & Times on January 29, 1932, one hundred years after the terrifying events of 1832 had long been forgotten by the people of this area. This is Just one of hundreds of stories which appeared in the R&T during the 1930s and ’40s written by the editor, H.R.”Dick” Morgan.

Dick Morgan

Dick Morgan, the writer of this article, while Editor of the Recorder & Times

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If this year marks the one hundredth anniversary of the establishment of Brockville as a municipality, it is also the one hundredth anniversary of the outbreak of cholera (politely called “ship-fever”) which raged along the St. Lawrence with the arrival of immigrants from abroad, and which claimed its victims by the hundreds, both from amongst these newcomers and from the established population. In view of the steps which were taken by the community of Brockville to deal with this menace to its health, this year may properly rank as the centenary of the establishment of public health measures in the settlement.

Early in the year 1832, the Canadian newspapers began to publish alarming reports concerning the prevalence of Asiatic cholera on the Continent of Europe and in the British Isles. With the opening of the season of navigation, these reports were followed by information concerning serious outbreaks on the lower St. Lawrence. Gradually the dread disease made its ascent of that stream until by the month of June, its presence was felt in Prescott, Brockville and Kingston.

The authorities of these and other centres took prompt steps to meet the menace which rapidly took the form of an epidemic. So great was the fear of the disease, that on June 19, when there were only a few cases at Prescott, it was stated that business in that community was at a standstill, and the “inhabitants of the village wear the sombre appearance of the Judgment Day.”  Families began to move from Prescott to the country, crews of vessels deserted their boats, and the magistrates ordered the erection of cholera-sheds on Drummond Island, where cases might be treated.

At about the same time the newly-formed Board of Police of Brockville held a meeting, and passed a number of ordinances relating to the outbreak. One of these provided that every boat arrived from Lower Canada, and having on board either immigrants or the baggage belonging to immigrants, should be instantly removed to “the island in the East Ward of the town, or to some other place out of the limits of the town.”  On June 19 it was reported that there were three cases of cholera in the town, one of whom had died.

The outbreak continuing, a Board of Health was formed in the community and cholera-sheds were opened on (“Blockhouse”) island. Here they were tended by some of the physicians of the community, among them a young Scot, Dr. Robert Gilmour, who had been appointed secretary of the Board. Dr. Gilmour contracted the disease and, in spite of the best efforts of his associates, became one of its victims.  (This may not have been the case, according to actual reports written in 1832 at the time of his death. -DMG)  His grave may still be seen in an out-of-the-way corner of the Brockville cemetery. The epidemic also began to affect the established population. On June 28, it was reported that the wife of “Smith, the bell-man,” had died after an illness of only seven hours. Another woman was removed to the hospital on the island and died within 24 hours.

Various cures for the disease began to make their appearance. One of these, submitted by Hiram Norton, who had been member of Parliament for Grenville and who conducted the first stage line between Prescott and Toronto, was as follows: “two tablespoonfuls of charcoal (maple is best); two ditto of hog’s lard; mix together and give two tablespoonfuls when the patient is attacked. Repeat every 15 minutes. Should the patient not be able to retain it on the stomach, melt a teacup full of hog’s lard and pour it down him. When the limbs are cramped, bathe them with warm lye. When the stomach is cramped, foment it with hot brandy. When the patient is recovering, give him soup and chocolate. This has cured every one that has taken it.”

More conventional and less drastic treatment was, however, prescribed by the Board of Health, which recommended the use of the following medicines: laudanum, oil of peppermint, sulphuric ether and spirits of lavender.

By the close of the month of June, Prescott had had 69 cases and 27 deaths; Kingston 147 cases and 47 deaths; St. Regis, 34 cases and 15 deaths; while Brockville had escaped with only eight cases, of which three had proved fatal. By the middle of July, a marked decrease in the number of cases was reported, although patients continued to be taken to the hospital on the island, where some of them passed away.

Four new cases occurred during the week ended on August 9, with three deaths. At that time there had been 21 cases in Brockville, with eleven deaths. Gibson Gilmour, ancestor of a well-known Brockville family, died after only a few hours’ illness. Cases were also reported in Elizabethtown and at Delta. Other deaths were reported. Gradually, however, the outbreak subsided, calm was restored and Brockville and other St. Lawrence Valley communities went about their business in a normal way.

It seems quite clear that but for the prompt measures that were taken by the Board of Health which was established at that time, the mortality in Brockville would have been much greater. The regulations which were adopted and enforced were undoubtedly the means of saving many lives, just as regulations introduced at later periods of epidemic have proved advantageous. And the medical profession, then as upon so many other occasions, carried on its work in complete disregard of the dangers which its members ran, anxious only to bring relief to the suffering, and to save them from a miserable death in the wretched sheds that bore the name of “hospitals.”

The people of Brockville of the present day may regard the epidemic of a century ago with satisfaction in that the possibility of the recurrence of such a visitation is almost too remote to be considered. Nowadays, the health of all people entering the Dominion is carefully scrutinized and special care is taken to guard against contamination from sections of the world where diseases may be raging, and the well-organized and well-equipped health service of this country possesses facilities for readily dealing with any outbreak that may take place.

We should not, however, allow the one hundredth anniversary of this melancholy visitation to pass without giving some thought to the plight in which so many of the immigrants of 1832 found themselves ‒ the ocean separating them from their friends and accustomed surroundings, men, women, and children lying in pain in rude sheds that served as hospitals, and finally welcoming death as a relief from their sufferings, their bodies to be placed in unmarked graves, generally in the form of pits, the whereabouts of which are to this day unknown.

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Hospital Island 1833A map of ‘Hospital Island’ which lay just off-shore from the village of Brockville. It was used during the cholera outbreak here as a place of refuge and isolation from the population of the village, for boat passengers wishing to disembark at Brockville.  A hospital and other buildings were built there in 1832. For a short time after, the island was known as ‘Hospital Island’.

We know it now as Blockhouse Island after the log blockhouse put up on the island in 1839.

It was expanded in size in about 1860 by the Brockville & Ottawa Railway who built warehouses, repair shops and a domed roundhouse there.

For those interested, there are also relevant details  on the Local History TIMELINE  on this site, going from 12 June 1832 to 20 July 1832

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