Cholera in North America: How It Showed up in My Family Tree
A Short History of Cholera
Cholera is a bacterial disease that can be traced back to outbreaks in Asia, the Middle East and Europe in ancient times. The "classic" bacteria-- vibrio cholerae-- contaminates drinking water that has been polluted with sewage containing the bacteria.
Cholera shows up as a very rapid on-set purge with vomiting and watery diarrhea. The victim can be reduced to a dishrag state very quickly, with a powerful thirst for water, the body's way to make up for the dehydration that is actually what causes death.
With cholera today, death can normally be prevented by "aggressive hydration" and good hygiene" and with antibiotics in extreme cases.
The North American outbreaks in the 1800's were generally blamed on contagion by sick and dying immigrants from Ireland and other parts of Europe. The shipping companies and letters from afar sold the hopeless with dreams of being rescued from dire conditions at home-- famine, poverty, unemployment, monetary inflation, heavy taxes, merciless wealthy landlords -- to jobs, or even homesteads, in a New World. The "coffin ships"-- so called because they carried the dead and dying-- generally crammed the poor and sick travelers into the craft's underbelly, known as "steerage." They were "imprisoned" there for the length of the voyage. The dead were often 'buried at sea'-- sometimes the very sick were also disposed of in this way.
Cholera made its way from The St. Lawrence in Quebec where the passengers were quarantined, and through the land trek into Ontario where people went to seek work in the cities or to claim homesteads.
The sick and dying were blamed for spreading cholera all on their own. Thanks to an English doctor in London, John Snow, who suspected that contaminated water had something to do with the cholera epidemics, advances in cleaning up drinking water sources and preventing them from being re-polluted, cut back on the spread of cholera. It was also observed that wealthy, "clean" people got cholera when drinking sewage-polluted water.
While advancement in microscopes developed the ability to see the micro-organisms that actually caused cholera, and better techniques for keeping statistic records of the disease's spread meant that action could be taken to stop the pestilence, rural populations were often left without the social awareness to make necessary changes.
A recent book of historical fiction by an Irish writer-- Cold is the Dawn *-- explores in steely cold detail the almost unbelievable hardships of economic refugees from Ireland back in the days of the 'Potato Famines'. The storyteller, Charles Egan, makes certain that the reader see that the devastation to so many thousands of lives was a complex web that grew out of a corrupt political state with aristocratic power-holders attempting to transfer all the perks of a feudal system into their burgeoning industrial empires. There is little compassion shown to the displaced persons who made up their teams of desperate "navvies". Cholera is described as just one of many premature ways to die in this fascinating account. (*Amazon affiliate link)
On April 29th,1891, a newly-minted doctor, Charles Edmond Flatt, M.D., tied the knot with Margaret Fraser, R.N., at St. David's Presbyterian Church in Campbellville, Ontario, Canada. They were both established as adults, on the cusp of thirty, with university credentials and experience in their respective fields of endeavour. Their individual photographs taken around that time show a mustachio'ed and mutton-chopped young man with intelligent eyes, and a sweet-faced Margaret (or "Maggie," as she was known) in what looks like a dark georgette silk dress, the formal attire of many women marrying in that time.
Starting A Family
"Maggie" (Margaret) Fraser had started her adult life as a teacher in Ontario, a common job for single young women with an academic bent but not the funds to study more than a year or so at the "Normal School." Her father, Alexander Fraser, was also a teacher, and a beekeeper.
After a short time as a teacher, she trained as a nurse at the Toronto General Hospital.
It is quite possible that Maggie met Charles ("C.E.") Flatt while he was studying medicine, also in Toronto. They both came from a Scots background. Maggie's parents, Alexander and Mary, had immigrated to Ontario (then called "Upper Canada") from Scotland as children with their parents. C.E.'s father was a farmer at Millgrove, Flamborough County. His grandfather, Robert Flatt, had come to Canada from Scotland's Orkney Isles, as a young agent for the Hudson's Bay Company in the early 1800's and married in 1819 to Mary Baker, whose family had left Pennsylvania to arrive in Ontario United Empire Loyalists prior to the American Revolution.
C.E. Flatt was the first person in his large extended farm family to get a "higher education".
In March, 1891, their first child was born. They called her Marjorie, a variant of Maggie's own name, Margaret. From the Latin "margarita," the name means "pearl." Marjorie was an uncommon name after the Middle Ages, but seems to have made a come-back in the late 19th Century, particularly among those with Scottish roots.
The young couple were living near to both of their families around Hamilton, Ontario when little Marjorie made her entrance into the world.
And, probably just as little Marjorie was learning to scamper, along comes Baby #2, sweet Jean Fraser Flatt. No doubt the house was pretty lively with a new little one and an 18-month old who had learned to climb up onto counters and open the flour drawer to run her hands through the silky white sand.
Lovely Little Girls
When I was a girl of ten, my little sister, Amy Catherine, drowned. Our family was devastated by the grief and the sadness was an unspoken theme in our lives, perhaps still is. I spent a lot of time with my grandparents after my sister's death. I recall that one time my Grandma Rempel, my father's mother, shared with me very briefly that she, too, had lost a little sister. When I asked how, she said that the little girl had eaten some bad berries. I didn't know anything about death related to bad food, and didn't ask questions, but I did wonder. I later learned that my grandmother didn't actually know her little sister, since she herself was not born into her family until about 4 years and two babies after her little sister's demise.
My Grandma Rempel's "little sister" was, of course, Marjorie Flatt. My genealogical research tells me that Marjorie was a victim of cholera, the 'cause of death' listed next to the picture of her small tombstone online.
Everything I have to say about this small child's death is speculative, of course, but I imagine that it was a great blow to Maggie and C.E. She was their first child. And the elephant in the room: both of my great-grandparents were seasoned medical professionals. How could this have happened?
Perhaps their drinking water source was contaminated and the little girl drank some unboiled water, from thirst, that was sitting waiting to be boiled. Maybe C.E. had seen a patient with cholera and had accidentally wiped his hand on his shirt or pant leg before washing up after an examination. The literature states that children who grab onto fabric soiled with the bacteria are vulnerable because they, as little children, frequently put their unwashed fingers in their mouths. Maybe the child had spent the day with a babysitter or who knows?
C.E. died in 1931 after returning from World War I. My father never met him, or not in his recollection, but he did have several visits from Maggie, his beloved Granny, who was very close to my Grandma Rempel. My father described how Granny was so much fun to have around, and how she chose to sleep in a small log playhouse below the farmhouse when she visited them. From his loving descriptions, I am quite certain that this death must have been a terrible blow to my great-grandparents who sound like they were both mindful of their commissions as healers. My great-grandfather stayed behind after other medics were discharged from France to help the men with Spanish flu recover before returning, and Maggie, back in Canada, visited the homes of men returning with the flu, nursing them and their families.
I imagine that my great-grandparents were overwhelmed with guilt and grief after their wee daughter's death. They went on to add three more babies to the family, and in 1903, the family of six reunited after a year's absence with C.E. who had traveled to the Northwest Territories town of Tantallon to become their first and only doctor. The Qu'Appelle Valley is a beautiful setting and perhaps the new start the young couple needed after the death of their first child, Marjorie.
The Causes of Cholera
I looked at several excellent explanatory videos (one by PBS) and read from various historical essays about cholera online. I have included one quick video with good information (above) and would recommend the small easy-to-understand .pdf story booklet from Ontario's Peel Health about the history of cholera as it pertains to that part of Ontario in the 19th Century: