This story was first published on June 6, 1992, in the Montreal Gazette.
Montreal has had more colourful mayors than John Easton Mills. It surely has not had a mayor more humane.
Mills was born in Massachusetts in 1796 but came to Montreal as a young man and made his mark as a fur dealer and banker. He was a member of the American Presbyterian Church here, but contributed generously to the building of St. Patrick’s, the church for Montreal’s Irish Roman Catholics. Popular, perfectly at ease in French as well as English, something of a reformer, he was elected mayor late in 1846.
The following spring, he and the city he served would be put to an appalling test.
Times were hard in the mid-1840s. Economic depression hit Britain and Canada alike, and in Ireland, already desperately poor, the failure of the potato crop added to the misery of the people. Thousands emigrated, and the risks they faced while packed into leaking, filthy, rat-infested ships were scarcely less daunting than the famine they left behind.
The first immigrant ship of the 1847 season reached Quebec City on May 17, and the emerging shape of the disaster quickly became apparent. The fetid ship, like so many of the scores that would follow, was a perfect breeding ground for typhus, as deadly as it is contagious. Sure enough, among that first ship’s 241 passengers, 84 had so-called ship’s fever. Another nine had already died at sea.
As the later ships streamed up toward Quebec, they were obliged to put in at the Grosse Ile quarantine station, which had been set up in 1832 to handle cholera victims. However, the overworked authorities there could not isolate all the cases. Thousands slipped through the net and continued on their way.
Late in May, a professor of medicine at McGill, Michael McCulloch, was passing along Montreal’s waterfront and saw a number of recently arrived immigrants. Several were ill, and one clearly was suffering from an advanced case of typhus. Ships were arriving almost daily; McCulloch was in no doubt as to what was in store and quickly reported to the city’s board of health.
Mayor Mills wasted little time. He ordered the construction of temporary sheds at Point St. Charles to house the growing flood of humanity. Tragically, conditions there were to be little better than what the immigrants had already faced on board ship. The “fever sheds” soon were packed not only with still-healthy people but also with the ill, the dying and, most horribly, the dead.
Newspapers, The Gazette among them, were frequently ambivalent. They deplored the suffering on the waterfront; but they wished the immigrants would take their misery elsewhere, and argued that charity simply encouraged them to stay.
Many Montrealers were angry at the Irish for bringing typhus to the city. Some ghoulishly flocked to the sheds, “as if,” The Gazette reported, “they expected to see a circus or peep show gratis.”
But if some Montrealers were found wanting, others, to their eternal credit, were not. Clergy of all faiths were soon in the sheds, doing what they could. The Grey Nuns, the Sisters of Providence and even the cloistered nuns at the Hotel Dieu came to nurse the sick; scores of them fell ill and died themselves. A number of officers in the local garrison answered the call as well.
Not least among those who helped was Mayor Mills. He organized relief efforts. He worked to defuse the anger of alarmed citizens gathering on the Champ de Mars who threatened to march on the fever sheds and hurl them into the river. Most notably, he did not shrink from tending the sick himself.
In the sheds, patients in the first grip of the disease could be seen suffering from severe headache and pain in the limbs. Others, with more advanced cases, ran high fevers, were swollen in the face and were subsiding into drowsiness or delirium. The worst cases were covered in a rash. Gangrene, the result of failing circulation, afflicted some. Death, when it occurred, would come after two weeks of torment, generally from a heart attack.
The stench in the sheds, the cries of the afflicted, by all accounts were awful. A report in The Gazette of June 18, 1847, gives some idea of the horror:
“We met with one poor, heartbroken man whose children were in the hospital at Grosse Ile and whose wife was uttering her last sigh in our sheds. An interesting girl, with tears in her eyes, entreated us to visit her dying sister – her only relative in this continent. Lonely was she amongst multitudes.
“Numbers were lying about on their wet bedding and boxes, the subjects of excessive weakness and dysentery. They manifested a state of apathy and indifference to personal cleanliness, ever the result of great and protracted suffering. The most serious cases of sickness are, of course, found in the hospitals. Rows of roughly constructed beds, each containing two patients, line the long, narrow sides of the sheds. Dysentery and fever are evidently doing their fearful work with many.”
And outside were stacked the waiting coffins.
The disaster was compounded as the weather turned scorching in mid- June, and the dying continued through one of Montreal’s notorious “Calcutta summers.” Some 6,000 eventually were to succumb. Most were immigrants, though the toll among Montrealers, especially those who came to their aid, was considerable.
The epidemic finally began to abate as the cool of autumn approached, but still Mayor Mills did not give up his work in the sheds. And so it happened that, worn out, constantly exposed to the typhus, he finally was stricken himself. He was put to bed in his home on Beaver Hall Hill, and though little hope was held out for his recovery, he expressed no complaint, no regret. He died on Nov. 12, 1847, “another sacrifice,” we said in our obituary, “to a sense of public duty and to the cause of disinterested benevolence.”