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Cholera + Exploitation of Irish Labor = Tragedy

[ 80 ] March 25, 2013 |

This is a pretty amazing story of the discovery of a mass grave of Irish laborers who died in the 1832 cholera epidemic. Basically, the Irish found whatever jobs they could when they arrived in the United States. A lot of this was in the growing industry of building transportation infrastructure, mostly railroads but also canals. There were almost no safety precautions in construction at this time. Over 1000 workers died building the Erie Canal, a point rarely brought up. 1000! That’s a lot of dead people.

I want to focus on one piece of the story. During the epidemic, the Irish laborers were not allowed to leave their camp.:

Dr. Monge found signs of blunt head trauma in three more sets of remains, as well as a bullet hole in another. For the researchers, these forensic clues, coupled with contemporaneous news accounts, conjure a possible sequence of events in which a few workers escaped from an enforced quarantine, were subdued and killed, then returned in coffins to Duffy’s Cut, where the rest soon died of disease. Then all were buried in an anonymous grave.

“I actually think it was a massacre,” Dr. Monge said.

When the Irish sought to escape death in their makeshift concentration camp, they were murdered in cold blood.

The 1832 cholera epidemic was the first of the three great cholera epidemics to ravage the United States in the 19th century. And it was really scary. Cholera only came to Europe from India in the 1810s and 1832 was the first true year of the epidemic. So people didn’t know what was going on. When you combine that with the other epidemic of the early 19th century–racism against the Irish–you have the recipe for an even greater disaster. With Irish lives worth so little in the United States, shooting and beating them to death to keep them away from the non-infected was an all too easy decision for a lot of Americans.

The everyday violence of 19th century America is largely lost to us, which is one reason why I respected the show Deadwood so much–it was really only the second major cultural event to display the sheer ugliness of the 19th century (Gangs of New York being the first). For most of the 20th century, you really couldn’t honestly display that stuff and now it seems very distant. The lack of accessible media for the period doesn’t help; not only were there no photographs and recorded music and movies, but even the editorial cartoons of the time are completely opaque for the modern reader.

It wasn’t until Thomas Nast that this began to change. Not coincidentally, editorial cartoons are really only teachable beginning with Nast.

So this story made me really sad. But it also at least provides a window into a lost bit of American history, even if it is something we’d probably rather forget.

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  1. Dana Houle says:

    I’m not sure this story is really all that submerged in the American consciousness. After all, it’s a raw, open wound, the recent and virulent hatred experienced by so many white dudes who claim that because they’re 33 years old and Irish they’ve experienced prejudice little different that what was directed at Medgar Evers.

  2. J. Otto Pohl says:

    Cholera outbreaks unfortunately are not that unusual in the Greater Accra area even today. There have been a couple of big ones since I have been here. You have to be careful where you eat. Fortunately, I have never contracted cholera.

    • JoyfulA says:

      My Polish mother-in-law used “cholera” (hoLAIRa)as a sort of curse word, a “God forbid.” I always figured cholera had been a curse in the first half of the twentieth century in Eastern Europe, especially in the aftermath of the world wars.

      • J. Otto Pohl says:

        It is evidently similar in symptoms to extreme dysentery and kills through dehydration. It is spread by flies. It is not something you want to get. I no longer eat fufu at the Bush Canteen due to its proximity to a latrine and the risk of cholera.

  3. ploeg says:

    We do not ride on the railroad; it rides upon us. Did you ever think what those sleepers are that underlie the railroad? Each one is a man, an Irishman, or a Yankee man. The rails are laid on them, and they are covered with sand, and the cars run smoothly over them. They are sound sleepers, I assure you. And every few years a new lot is laid down and run over; so that, if some have the pleasure of riding on a rail, others have the misfortune to be ridden upon. And when they run over a man that is walking in his sleep, a supernumerary sleeper in the wrong position, and wake him up, they suddenly stop the cars, and make a hue and cry about it, as if this were an exception. I am glad to know that it takes a gang of men for every five miles to keep the sleepers down and level in their beds as it is, for this is a sign that they may sometime get up again.

    Thoreau, Walden

  4. John says:

    Political cartoons are particularly opaque when they are provided at a resolution that makes their text impossible to read.

    • Humanities Grad says:

      True, but if you look at many late 18th and early 19th century political cartoons, being able to read the text isn’t that much of a help.

      I use a couple of them in my American history classes, but they need a lot of explaining. A lot of early cartoons seem to have been created with the expectation (probably correct) that readers/viewers would be able to recognize the figures they depicted, and that they’d be familiar enough with the topics of the day to be able to make sense of the captions without any background.

      Since most of those cartoons were probably intended for a small audience, the artists were probably correct in those assumptions. But coming to them a couple of centuries later, they really can appear cryptic. That’s what makes Nast’s work so nice–it’s simplified enough that even students today can usually grasp the gist of what he was trying to say without needing 15 minutes’ worth of background.

    • Erik Loomis says:

      I just did a google image search for “political cartoons Martin Van Buren.” The writing in these cartoons is so small that it’s difficult to find a good version that you could read on this site.

      • John says:

        I’d recommend here, which prints out the text and also has a higher resolution version that’s readable.

        I discovered it by googling the main caption – not difficult at all.

  5. Chester Allman says:

    The everyday violence of 19th century America is largely lost to us

    This point, I think, is not made often enough. I mean, I know Steven Pinker was in the news a lot a year or two ago, but I really don’t think it sinks into people’s heads how violent America (and much of the rest of the Western world) was in the not-distant past – hell, right up through the early-mid 20th century. We were a country in which people took it for granted that black people could be lynched regularly, for instance.

    The fact that we are so much less violent than we were for so long is one of those things that keeps me from adopting any kind of declinist mentality.

    • Dana Houle says:

      I think most of America is far less violent than the working class white Detroit in which my parents grew up in the 50′s. Hell, I started watching Freaks and Geeks last week with my wife, & every few minutes I have to pause it to point out another way in which that show just fucking NAILED my HS experience in suburban Detroit, a few years after that show takes place; it’s a dead-on depiction of the school I attended my senior year. But the way it’s very different from the school I attended through 11th grade is there were one or two fights pretty much every day in that school. I wasn’t uncommon to be suspended for fighting; I was twice.

      From what I can tell, that’s quite rare in most schools today. Thank god.

    • bobbyp says:

      The controls are still in place….just different.

  6. Major Kong says:

    One of my ancestors came over from Ireland around 1860s. He settled in Pittsburgh and worked at the factory that made gunpowder for the Union Army.

    I actually have a copy of his diary from back then that’s been copied many times and handed down over the years. There was a cholera outbreak back then, so they drank whiskey because it was safer than drinking the water.

  7. chaed says:

    Very sad story. Sadder still is that only 1,000 people dying was progress, in the long term. Think of all the suffering throughout history so that the Great Mugwump of Whateverplace could build some monument to his greatness.

    Humans are bastards.

  8. rbcoover says:

    I had always thought the Irish laborers who perished digging the Delaware & Raritan canal were buried where they fell, but this Times story says they were interred in nearby cemeteries. The canal is a delightful place to see turtles in the summertime.

  9. Barry Freed says:

    “King Cholera” as it was then widely known. If you read much 19th century correspondence you’ll see it mentioned frequently.

  10. JamesP says:

    I’m playing BIOSHOCK INFINITE at the moment, just launched, which confronts 19th and early 20th century American violence head on – I’m finding it a strangely nightmarish and traumatic experience for a video game.

    Spoiler alert for the first 30 minutes of gameplay! After being launched into the floating city of Columbia, built for the World’s Fair and which then seceded from the US after massacring Boxers, you spend the first 10 minutes or so wandering through a happy pseudo-4th of July scene in which everyone is white (complete with disturbing theocratic imagery.) Then you win the lottery (echoes of Jackson), the barker draws the curtain back, and you are asked to throw the first stone at an Irish-Black couple bound before the jeering crowd. Then the whole thing erupts into furious violence, you massacre policemen, and disappear into the backstage of the floating city, full of full-on racist propaganda and an oppressed underclass.

  11. Bruce Vail says:

    Frederick, Md. is a town rich in history, not least because it hosted Irish canal and railroad workers 1830s thru 1850s:

    http://www.fredericknewspost.com/sections/news/display.htm?storyid=58020#.UVDqlKWsGRY

    The same 1832 cholera epidemic that killed the workers in Penn. also swept through Frederick.

  12. Leeds man says:

    The Rideau Canal seems to have had about the same number of deaths, although the major illness was malaria. The workers were mostly Irish or French Canadian.

    The exact number of deaths is not known. It has been estimated that upwards of 1,000 men (no estimates available for women and children), may have died during the main construction period of 1827-1831. Extrapolations from the factual records that have survived indicate that about 500 men died of malaria alone. A rough guess is that perhaps another 500 died from other diseases (dysentery, small pox) and work related accidents (blasting accidents, rock falls, etc.).

    • Dana Houle says:

      Having worked on legislative oversight of state OSHA inspections for 4 years about a decade ago, I can assure you that dying from cave-ins is still dismayingly common. One of the most lethal things anyone does in today’s workforce is dig a trench.

    • Dana Houle says:

      BTW, not disputing what you say about the Rideau canal, but the Canadian experience with the Irish was dramatically different. My grandparents were all Canadian, Francophone on my dad’s side and Anglophone–mostly Irish–on my mom’s. My grandfather’s first North American ancestors settled near Ottawa in 1819, long before The Hunger. He lived in the same area they settled until he came to Detroit in 1927. He said he never really experienced any prejudice against Irish Catholics in Canada. That was partly because the township where he lived was almost entirely Irish Catholic farmers, but even in Protestant Ottawa there was nothing like the Klan-influenced society he encountered in Detroit.

      Not everything was great in Canada; one of my paternal great grandmothers lived to 97, and until the end she insisted she was, despite the high cheekbones, protruding brow, straight dark hair and reddish skin, “pure French;” when she grew up, mixed race children were taken from their families and sent to government schools, so “passing” was the only way to keep from being separated. But that ended about 80 years before the Aussies stopped it, was never as bad, and obviously racism toward other groups was, in Canada, absolutely nothing like it was in the US. So, while not everything was great, compared to the US, just about everything in Canada was better.

      • ajay says:

        while not everything was great, compared to the US, just about everything in Canada was better.

        Just reading “War Before Civilisation” which makes this point too – south of the border, the settlers spread westward on a wave of massacre and war; north of the border, there were a couple of “comic opera” Metis risings with a minimal body count and that was it. What made the difference? The RCMP.

      • Tristan says:

        It was different, but I’d be hard pressed to say it was ‘better’. There’s a reason the ‘Irish Catholic cop’ is a stereotype in New York City and not Toronto. There was a period in the 19th and early 20th when to be a policeman in Toronto you virtually had to be a member of the Orange Order. So you can guess how fair the dispensation of justice was for Catholics (One theory on Anglo-French relationships is that the language divide was largely a stand-in for the protestant-catholic divide that eventually came to supersede it. Irish Canadians’ place in society may well have been advanced in the 20th century by virtue of this reorientation. More bluntly, Canadian Irish Catholics won the acceptance of the Anglo-protestant majority by joining them in opposition to the rights of French Catholics. Not exactly something to get patriotic about).

        And I hate to keep playing the contrarian here, but compulsory residential school attendance wasn’t rescinded until the late 1940s, the coercive religious proselytization component was in place until the late 1960s, it wasn’t until 1970 that any of them were allowed to be operated by the affected native band itself, and the last state-run institutions didn’t close until the 1990s.

        • Dana Houle says:

          Note that I said near Ottawa, and that he emigrated in 1927. So, maybe you’re right about Toronto cops & later dynamics RE Quebec, but doesn’t have much to do with the specifics of what I wrote. And let’s say the police where he was from were dominated by the Orange Order. I’d still rather have had that then what prevailed in Detroit at the time: a police infiltrated by the Klan. And I’m sure that would be true of anyone of color, and of Jews as well.

        • Dana Houle says:

          But for the rest of your comment, regarding the state schools, do you have any links/recommendations for where I can read that history? As I alluded, it wasn’t really discussed much, but I later figured out my grandmother’s family was Ojibwa. It’s kind of family pre-history that I’d like to excavate a bit.

    • ajay says:

      The exact number of deaths is not known. It has been estimated that upwards of 1,000 men (no estimates available for women and children), may have died during the main construction period of 1827-1831. Extrapolations from the factual records that have survived indicate that about 500 men died of malaria alone. A rough guess is that perhaps another 500 died from other diseases (dysentery, small pox) and work related accidents (blasting accidents, rock falls, etc.).

      Those figures make a lot of sense. You have a lot from “being in a malarial area”, and a lot from “living in an early 19th century shanty town”, and the rest from “19th century concepts of worker safety”.

      The Forth Rail Bridge was built in 1883-1890, in a non-malarial area, with the workers living in much healthier conditions (permanent stone-built or brick-built housing in the east of Scotland), and it still killed 57 men.

  13. max says:

    The everyday violence of 19th century America is largely lost to us,

    Not just 19th century America. Also 18th century and 17th century America. Massacring people was the national pastime for 300 years.

    (And to tie a bit back to the post about Mexican food: the English whites slaughtered the Indians, who got mad and slaughtered them back, which meant the English had to go kill a bunch of more. The same thing went on in Mexico, and after a bit of the old imperial expansion, the two sets of Europeans decided to slaughter each other for awhile. But 183 died at the Alamo, so America, fuck yeah, unless you want to go for the Cadets of Mexico City, in which case Viva Mexico!

    The problem with American violence is not that we’re more violent than other humans, it’s that we’re particularly *successfully* violent. More than just about just about anybody, except maybe the Germans.)(Not really – the Germans lost.)

    max
    ['The one advantage they had was that violence and the threat of violence was likely to be brief.']

  14. jon says:

    What good is an epidemic quarantine if it is not enforced?

    • Origami Isopod says:

      Obviously there is no gray area between forcibly quarantining people in wretched living conditions guaranteed to reduce their chances of surviving an epidemic, with little to no food at that, and letting cholera patients run free in society.

  15. Bruce Vail says:

    I have a wonderful book of Nast cartoons on my bookshelf. Many, many of his cartoons are crowded, verbose and impossible for non-histoprians to understand today. Your example of Tweed above is the exception, not the rule.

    In addition to giving us Boss Tweed and Santa Claus, Nast also gave us terribly offensive caricatures of Blacks and Irish immigrants. He hated Catholicism, unions and Democrats.

    • Erik Loomis says:

      Yes, but Tweed started the process toward simpler and more comprehensive cartoons based around images rather than words.

      • Bruce Vail says:

        Oh, I agree Nast wholly deserves his reputation as the father of the modern political cartoon.

        But others had used the device of a bold, simple graphic before (see Ben Franklin “Join or Die” or Elkanah Tisdale “The Gerry-Mander” or even the Confederate Adalbert Volck). What was really innovative was his creation of lasting symbols (the Rep Elephant and the Dem Donkey and the Tammany Tiger) and the use of an independent voice (as opposed to party hackery) in creation of his work. He lionized Lincoln, adored Grant, but was practically driven out of the Republican party at the end of his career for his independent views.

      • jon says:

        Tweed, himself, had nothing to do with cartoons. He was but a mere content provider.

    • witless chum says:

      I remember seeing a comparison of Nast’s cartoons post-Civil War, when it started with one of Columbia with her arm around a not-caricatured black man and by the time 15 years later a faction of Republicans wanted to give up on enforcing democracy in the South, the blacks became heavily caricatured and were dishonoring the august chambers of the South Carolina legislature of something. A man of his times, I think it’s fair to say.

      • Bruce Vail says:

        The depiction of black people by Nast is confusing to me. There are many examples of his showing the freedman in a positive, non-caricatured way. But there are also numerous examples of very offensive caricatures. I’m not sure that he had a consistent view of the ex-slaves as a race.

    • Halloween Jack says:

      See also. (tl;dr–Nast could be racist, but only when it suited him.)

  16. Bill Murray says:

    Mysteries at the Museum on the Travel Center did a portion of an episode on Duffy’s Cut

    http://www.travelchannel.com/video/mass-grave-at-duffys-cut

  17. Origuy says:

    Duffy’s Cut by the great Irish folk singer Christy Moore.

  18. Djur says:

    James Gillray is maybe too early (or not American), but he died before Nast was born and delivered quite a number of cartoons in a quite modern, coherent style:

    The very first “world leaders carve up territory” cartoon.
    Uh, this, too. He was a surly old Tory.

    A lot of his work requires you to recognize the caricatures and be familiar with the issues of the time, but that’s true of Nast as well. And he definitely had his share of crowded word balloons.

  19. ajay says:

    Dr. Monge found signs of blunt head trauma in three more sets of remains, as well as a bullet hole in another. For the researchers, these forensic clues, coupled with contemporaneous news accounts, conjure a possible sequence of events in which a few workers escaped from an enforced quarantine, were subdued and killed, then returned in coffins to Duffy’s Cut, where the rest soon died of disease. Then all were buried in an anonymous grave.

    Emphasis on “possible”. Because there’s certainly no other way in which a labourer, penned up under stressful conditions with a lot of other labourers and their shovels, all with nothing to do but drink whiskey all the time (as Major Kong points out), might end up dying from head trauma. Must have been a massacre.

    When you combine that with the other epidemic of the early 19th century–racism against the Irish

    Against the who? Dr Loomis, I have the Seminole holding on line one for you, and Mr Turner and Mr Vesey are in the waiting room.

    • witless chum says:

      Is this a parody or an impersonation of the real ajay? Because, it seems pretty obvious that nineteenth century Americans were fully capable of being racist against more than two groups at once. I very highly doubt Loomis has forgotten Indian Removal or racial slavery.

      • ajay says:

        Possibly “another epidemic” might have been a better phrase, then. “The other epidemic” is just wrong.

        On second thought, he may have meant that both were epidemics in that they had only recently broken out – cholera only reached the US in 1810 or so, and you don’t see a lot of anti-Irish sentiment before then either. In which case, fair point.

        • witless chum says:

          I wouldn’t have read “the other epidemic” like that, I took it to mean “as opposed to the literal epidemic” but maybe that’s me editing Loomis’ prose for him?

          Now that I think about it, I remember seeing a cartoon about the militias chasing the British Army back to Boston after Lexington and Concord entilted “The flight of the Wild Irish Asses” that seemed to playing up racism in service of the revolutionary cause. Allegedly I’ve got an ancestor who was one of those Irishmen who deserted the British Army sometime during the war.

        • Dana Houle says:

          He used “epidemic,” which wouldn’t apply to the constantly-present racism against Africans and Native Americans. Those problems were endemic.

    • Doug M. says:

      There was a fair bit of violence against the Irish in the Republican period. Nothing compared to what was visited on Indians or blacks, of course, but fairly shocking stuff by modern standards. The residents of Charleston, MA burned down a convent (with the nuns still inside) right around this time, and there were a number of nasty urban riots, including a couple with three-figure death tolls — see, e.g., the Bloody Monday riot in Louisville, KY.

      Presumably Eric meant to say /one of/ the other epidemics of etc.

      Doug M.

  20. One of the Blue says:

    The everyday violence of 19th century America is largely lost to us, which is one reason why I respected the show Deadwood so much–it was really only the second major cultural event to display the sheer ugliness of the 19th century (Gangs of New York being the first).

    Don’t know if it counts as a major cultural event, but Blood Meridian presented and early and very chilling view of hyper-violence in 19th Century America. It’s the very darkest book I’ve ever read, and that’s saying something.

    • Chester Allman says:

      Thanks for the reminder – a book I’ve been meaning to read for some time.

      This makes me think of the guerilla war in Missouri during the US Civil War – another series of horrifically violent episodes.

  21. [...] a completely different biochemistry from the one shared by life as we currently know it.”• The New York Times discovers our local ghosts here in Chester County. Duffy’s Cut, just up the road in Malvern, Pa., was the site of a massacre of 57 Irish [...]

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