The waterfront at Macdonald Park, where (in better weather) people come to stroll, get their wedding photos taken, and host fitness classes, was once the last port of call for thousands of sick Irish emigrants fleeing the Great Famine, some 1400 of whom died in Kingston General Hospital, Hotel Dieu, and fever sheds set up along the shoreline. Although you read more often about the far greater numbers of emigrants who were quarantined at Grosse Isle, Quebec, receiving boatloads of seriously ill people strongly affected a small city like Kingston. It was a situation that to some extent divided the city, and even resulted in a lawsuit against Mayor Thomas Kirkpatrick and the Board of Health. The first emigrants arrived in Kingston in June 1847, and the worst of the problem was largely over by that October, which shows how intense the waves of immigration and disease were that summer. How did this tragic situation happen?
Hunger was certainly not without precedent in Ireland. Much of the rural population had been living on the bare minimum of food and shelter for decades before the Great Famine hit in 1845. As the poor lived almost entirely on potatoes, which were easy to grow and nutritious, when that summer’s crop was rapidly and unexpectedly hit by the parasitic fungus Phytophtora infestans, people lost their food and livelihoods. (The fungus was unknown at the time.) Next year’s crop was struck with blight as well, and the government’s short-sighted obsession with preserving the economy meant that they curtailed efforts, such as importing corn from the US and selling it cheaply, to relieve starvation. Make-work projects to give people jobs were pointless and often the site of riots. In 1846, the first deaths due to starvation were documented.
Those relatively unaffected (and with enough money) tried to escape the situation while they still could, and emigration to North America began to increase. Sadly, the ships that should have led to freedom were often old, heavily overcrowded, and stocked with poor food and water. In October 1846, the emigration superintendent at Grosse Isle noticed that the last few boatloads of emigrants had been particularly destitute and sick, and the pattern was continuing. Meanwhile back in Ireland, the famine had reached a critical level. Trying to escape starvation, emigrants were crowded into “coffin ships,” where close contact made them prone to “ship fever,” a potential combination of diseases, the worst of which was typhus.
Kingston’s British Whig had been reporting on the situation in Ireland and Canada, and reporting intensified after the first emigrants, usually on their way to someplace else in Canada, arrived in June 1847. They were unceremoniously dumped on a wharf at the end of Queen Street, which was heaped with wood for steamships. One writer to the British Whig on 14 July was outraged by this treatment, especially as an election was going on and candidates had the opportunity to show what they were made of:
[M]any immigrants already feverish and obliged to be all day on this wood, under a burning sun; and those of them who are too frail to climb, have to carry along on the very edge of the dock, at the risk of falling over and drowning. . . . If . . . the members of the Corporation would consider it beneath their dignity to interfere in this matter, the sooner they resign their seats the better. . . . These things are a disgrace to us as a civilized and christian [sic] people.
On 21 July the British Whig reported that cases of illness were confined to emigrants in the hospital, adding that the “number of deaths is certainly large to the proportion of invalids, but not frightfully so.” Although the Kingston Board of Health brainstormed locations where the emigrants could be quarantined (Knapp’s Point, an area several miles down the St. Lawrence; the Naval Dockyard; and Garden Island) sick people were kept either in the hospital or in fever sheds near the freshly-built Murney Tower.
Unfortunately, the situation worsened in August with a peak in the number of emigrants and deaths. Some 2500 people arrived per week, and those who weren’t sick or dying were crowded around King Street, begging for food. Two steamers, Fashion and Gildersleeve, brought in emigrants on a relatively speedy thirty-hour journey, but “many who embarked at Lachine in apparent good health, are obliged to be sent to Hospital on their arrival at Kingston.” (Some emigrants were lucky to have a kind captain on board; one letter to the editor on 25 August applauds a Captain Twohy who personally helped the emigrants get scrubbed clean.)
Typhus was now also spreading to the population of Kingston at large, with doctors, nursing nuns, and volunteers in particular falling ill as they treated the sick. Some Kingstonians were angry that this issue was being overlooked. A 14 August article in the British Whig, reporting on a speech given by Lord Grey, passive-aggressively stated that he never once mentioned the public health issues surrounding the emigration: “That most important matter seems to have been either unknown to his lordship, or to have escaped his recollection, as a matter of minor consideration.”
It certainly wasn’t minor to those living around the fever sheds. In early October mayor Thomas Kirkpatrick, the emigrant agent, and two members of the Board of Health faced a lawsuit for causing a public nuisance – being of course the fever sheds and privies set up along the shore and particularly the ones blocking Emily Street.
This seems a little overstated, as Emily Street doesn’t actually lead anywhere – the helpful “No Exit” sign above shows you that. One witness for the prosecution honestly commented that he “was not sure that it was a street at all.” However, most were more than ready to argue that the sheds needed to go. The Baron de Rottenburg (trying to find out who this is, it’s not this guy) living two streets over on Simcoe, complained of having to pass the sheds every day, and being forced to close the windows on the west side of his house to stanch the “very offensive” smell emanating from that direction. One of his servants had also gotten sick and had to be sent away. The Hon. John Hamilton had similar complaints, and Stafford Lightburne testified he “passed down King street two or three times a day, had seen indecent sights, even females exposing their persons.” Catherine Murney, whose family had until recently owned the land, said she “has a right to cause the immediate removal of the sheds.”
However, as you can imagine Kirkpatrick and the rest of the defence had a pretty easy time justifying their choices. He essentially argued, what else was he supposed to do?
If the jury was to find them guilty, it was not them [i.e. the accused] who would have to suffer, although the offence rendered them liable to fine and imprisonment, but it was the poor Emigrants, those poor Irishmen, those orphans, and the convalescent patients who had just recovered from a malignant fever; the sheds would be pulled down and these poor helpless beings thrown out upon the streets.
Dr. James Sampson stated that it was necessary for the sheds and privies to be near the water for cleanliness. He also found the fear of infection from those living nearby unnecessary; and in fact he was right, as typhus is spread by lice (hence why it was so devastating in coffin ships). As long as you weren’t in close contact with the sick, you would probably be okay.
However, the Counsel for the Defence went into full-shaming mode and delivered this knockout punch:
I feel it an honor, to be the humble instrument of resisting a prosecution, brought against my friends for doing their duty nobly, in the hour of danger and of trial; a prosecution, which in my opinion, is a reproach to the administrates of criminal justice, and an everlasting disgrace, to those who have instituted it. A prosecution founded on aristocratic squeamishness, on aristocratic nonsense, and aristocratic heartlessness.
Unfortunately, it wasn’t enough and the accused were found guilty. They weren’t punished, but the sheds were torn down and rebuilt farther away from town at the foot of Lower Albert Street.
This was in early October, by which time the disease had slowed down: this meant out of the five hundred or so people in the hospital and sheds, an average of six per day died. They were buried near KGH in a huge mass grave which held the bodies of at least 1200 people. All in all, between 1400-1500* people died during the typhus epidemic in Kingston from 1847-1848.
Two memorials exist for the epidemic in Kingston. One is An Gorta Mór Park at the foot of West Street, which was given the Irish name for the Great Famine. It has a Celtic cross monument which was erected in 1998:
In 1966, the remains in the mass grave were disinterred (I still kind of can’t believe they were there for that long) and reburied in the part of St. Mary’s Cemetery closest to the corner of Kirkpatrick and Kingscourt Streets. An angel monument, apparently an earlier one put up by Archbishop Cleary in 1891, was placed at the site.
It can be hard today to imagine such a tragic event occurring in what is one of the most beautiful and busy parts of Kingston. It’s also hard to imagine how the city coped with that level of suffering when it didn’t even have a very big population, let alone modern medicine. Even today, it would be a critical problem to have thousands of impoverished, deathly ill people descend on the city seeking help. This is just another reason why remembering history, and I think in particular local history, is important: these things do not deserve to be forgotten.
*Osborne and Swainson say 1200 people were buried in the mass grave, while death estimates as a whole vary between 1400 and 1500 people. Presumably the discrepancy is due to members of the community who died and would have been buried elsewhere, or perhaps emigrants who were not buried in the mass grave for some reason.
I went day-by-day through issues of the British Whig from 1847 on the Our Ontario Newspapers/Digital Kingston database. Warning: they are old, poorly-done scans and are very difficult (sometimes impossible) to read. That said, if you’re willing to forge ahead you might like to check out the 6 October issue, which features the trial of Mayor Kirkpatrick et al.
Angus, Margaret. Kingston General Hospital: A Social and Institutional History. Montreal and London: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1973.
MacKay, Donald. Flight from Famine: The Coming of the Irish to Canada. Toronto: Dundurn Press, 2009.
Osborne, Brian S. and Donald Swainson. Kingston: Building on the Past. Westport, ON: Butternut Press, 1988.