19th Century Epidemics (I): 1832 Cholera Epidemic in Montréal


If you are doing a descending genealogy, just like I do, and are gathering the baptismal records of all the couples' children, I am sure you have noticed how high was the infant mortality rate among French Canadians during the 19th century. If the poor quality of water and milk—before pasteurization—as well as bad sanitary conditions were partly responsible for it, certain epidemics, such as the cholera in 1832, didn't spare any age group.

Cholera came to the city of Québec through ships sailing from Great Britain on June 8, 1832. Two days later, the city of Montréal was its next victim. Various sources tell us that about 1,900 Montrealers died from cholera which subsided at the end of the following fall.

Meanwhile, the critical situation resulted in unexpected consequences: charlatans took advantage of the panic that ensued to propose ridiculous and useless remedies; a health bureau was hastily established, and some of its regulations were a bit surprising to say the least—like trying to fire off cannons to purify the air; and politicians and businessmen were finger-pointing at each other—some thought a quarantine was delayed to protect businesses in Montréal, others were asking why more French Canadians than British were among the victims—and so on.

It is always interesting to go beyond statistics and turn to historical newspapers to have an idea of how the epidemic was perceived and what the mindset was at the time.

Friday, June 22, 1832 edition of La Minerve newspaper invites:

"people from the country and our fellow citizens to be on guard against fear. From our daily experience, we learned that it is fear that has taken so many lives. Fear has an effect on the nerves, which when too excited, hinder remedies to work. The disease is not contagious at all, and with some caution and self-control, you have nothing to worry about." (!)

Advertising published in La Minerve of Thursday, June 28, 1832:

Anti-Cholera Plaster […]
One dollar for adults and one ecu for children.

In La Minerve of Thursday, August 9, 1832, we can read of the disease's devastation in villages near Montréal such as Saint-Paul-de-Lavaltrie, Saint-Philippe, L'Assomption and Saint-Esprit. For each village, there is a list of the deceased. Death often occurred only 8 or 10 hours after a person was infected by the disease which was particularly aggressive.

Any of your ancestors died between June and November 1832 in Montréal or nearby? Don't hesitate to take a look at your tree and review the burial record found for these people. You might find a detail that you didn't catch before. And why not consulting the newspaper archives on BAnQ?

Louis Tourville and Élisabeth Lamoureux lost two children in 1832. The first one on July 24, the second one, on September 25. The newspapers are silent on their fate. However, the first one was buried the same day he died. Who knows, this might be a clue?