Grosse Isle, Canada, and the Death of Ellen Keane

Father Bernard McGauran immigrated to Canada in the 1830s.  In 1847, he led over forty priests who (along with Anglicans) saw to the sick and dying of Grosse Isle.  At least four priests died (a small percentage probably because they had built up an immunity to typhus working among the poor).  Boarding waiting vessels and seeing to the ill on land, priests might give Last Rites to 50 dying a day.  Like so many, Father McGauran contracted typhus.  Fortunately, he survived. Three orders of nuns also administered to the sick; it is unclear how many of them died.

Four-year-old Ellen Keane of Ireland was the first to die at Grosse Isle, Canada, on May 15th, 1847.   In the weeks to follow, the names of the dead would not be recorded and 6 men would be employed full-time to dig graves.

Grosse Isle was a quarantine station and the port of entry to Quebec.  It lies in the St. Lawrence River and had NO fresh water source.  Astonishingly, it had room for only 150 PATIENTS and boasted a small medical staff.  (As the island became overrun with the ill and dying, Canada released prisoners from the local hospital to help; unfortunately, they stole from and abused the patients.)  In the summer of 1847, Grosse Isle was tasked with handling ALL emigrants bound for Quebec.  Within two weeks of little Ellen’s death, there was a line of 40 ships stretching up river – the queue was well over a mile long.  The hospital could not absorb the sick who were stuffed into sheds, left on the beach or kept in fetid quarters on grossly overcrowded ships.  Bodies of the dead were removed from ships holds with fish hooks and eyewitnesses told of horrific scenes of inhumanity.

It isn’t known how many died on Grosse Isle that summer from starvation, dehydration and disease.  Bodies were piled in mass graves ‘like cord wood’.  Officially, the number is put at about 7,000 but anyone perusing the Canadian Government websites and reading the sanitized version of events there and in ‘official’ records will discount this number.  Scholars put the death toll at more than twice that number.

Among the four doctors who died of typhus was a 60 year-old emigrant named John Benson.  He had been evicted from his Irish home and upon landing at Grosse Isle volunteered to help.  He died within the week.

How did this happen?  The influx of 100,000 Irish to Canada in 1847 could have been no surprise to those in Montreal (then Canada’s capital) or London.  Ships sailing from Liverpool took up to two months to reach Canada and the inspecting officers knowingly allowed the sick to sail.  Canada was a Crown colony after all, and offloading sick there was akin to the transportation of criminals to Australia.  Passage to Canada was significantly cheaper than to the U.S. because Canadian law allowed the overcrowding of immigrants and did not require that a doctor be on board.  This is why mortality rates on Canada-bound vessels could be anywhere from 20 – 50%.

That Montreal and London (i) knew 100,000 Irish would be emigrating; (ii) did not ensure passenger safety; and, (iii) did not prepare to deal with the consequences is well documented.  Like the Germans a century later, British bureaucrats were meticulous record keepers.

One could argue that the Grosse Isle disaster resulted from incompetence, tangled bureaucracies or the like, but I won’t.  Emigration in sub-human conditions, many times forced by landlords like Dennis Mahon whose execution is detailed in another post, is a form of mass murder.  It is as simple as that.

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