Thursday, August 21, 2014
The headline in bold type must have stunned the citizens of Lowell. If you lived in 1847 you probably knew that more than half of those who contracted ship fever never survived. The disease made no preference as to gender, age, or economic status. It took whomever it met, and its effects were swift and agonizing. It would first appear as a rash on the chest accompanied by a high fever, often reaching 102 degrees. As it progressed victims would fall into delirium and most often death.
The disease was transferred so quickly by means of the common body lice. In the 19th century lice were common to many people, but it was also known to be found more so in places of crowded conditions and poor hygiene. If there was one group that could be pointed at as those spreading the contagion it was the Irish. The disease was more appropriately known as typhus, but to use the terminology of the day it was better known as Black Irish Typhus. The term would ensure that those immigrating on ships and the Irish population would be associated with squalor, disease and death.
The year the article appeared, 1847, was no accident either. In the Irish diaspora, 1847 was better known as Black 47, the worst year of the famine. Between 1835 and 41, the port of Boston saw about 10,000 emigrants from Ireland. Just in the year 1846 there were 65,000 entering the same point. Cities like Boston and Lowell saw the effects of such an increase in the population. Many of the ships which would carry those escaping the Famine were not meant to carry passengers. They were converted freighters where profit was based on how many souls could be fit into a limited area. Often planks were placed just above the bilge water giving a breeding ground to all types of germs. The crowded conditions, unclean water, and lack of food made for a perfect storm. They became known as Coffin Ships. Those who were able to obtain passage on a ship leaving Great Britain were not guaranteed a successful journey. It is estimated that approximately 5% of those who crossed the Atlantic died at sea, and a full 16% of those who crossed died shortly after from all types of diseases, ship fever being among them.
A moving account was published by a British lady who was on such a ship. With him we endured a trip of four months from Queenstown to Castle Garden, and with him we endured three, months' quarantine for ship' fever in New York harbor. Halfway over we stood with him, a lad often with his little brothers and sisters, about the body of the poor mother who had succumbed to the fever leaving her five babies alone in mid-ocean. With him, we looked curiously at the unrecognizable figure secure in its canvas wrapping, a bag of sand tied to the feet. It lay on a plank, which supported by two sturdy seamen, rested on the gunwale. With him we heard the droning voice of the captain reading the burial service, and like the little lad failed to realize the full significance of the proceeding until we, too, hear a splash in the water below. For moment the mother's body bobbed u and down on the waves, then obedient to the bag of sand attached to the feet, sank. A few bubbles, a little heart-rending cry of “Mamma! Mamma!" from the eldest sister who stood with her baby brother in her arms, and all was over. The orphans turned their eyes westward to this Land of Promise, and the old wooden vessel with its flapping sails proceeded on its way.
When the headline appeared in the Lowell Courier it was very clear to the reporter who was to blame. Surely it was because of the great influx of immigrants which has taken place in Lowell. There was even a case of Lowell’s Mayor finding an infected person on his doorstep, and another case of an infected man being stranded alone in his home by his own family when hearing of the diagnosis. To demonstrate the deep fear people had of ship fever the reporter wrote of a supposed visitor to Lowell who stopped at a local hotel on his way to Boston. Having heard of fever in the city, he reportedly left the next day after hearing a funeral pass by the hotel every ten minutes. The funerals were merely carts removing night soil (waste) during the hours of darkness.
There were attempts to curb the illness by quarantining ships for up to 20 days to stop the spread of new arrivals infecting the population. Places like Grosse Isle, Quebec with their 5000 burials and Deer Island in Boston Harbor with 1000 Irish burials were built for such a purpose. In Lowell the plan was to use the pest house on Chelmsford road. Typhus, as Ship Fever is really known, was not new to Lowell. There were waves of it before the Famine Irish came and waves for many years after until living conditions improved. Earliest records record the disease passing through entire families and neighborhoods. Through burial records, it can often be traced moving down streets taking its victims. Though reports of its occurrence continued through the rest of the century, nothing would parallel Black 47.