“The privies were all in horrible condition, some being so full that their contents overflowed on the surface of the ground…In some places the narrow space between two closely-set dwellings was used as the receptacle for the most offensive waste materials. Pig sties were next to tenements and cow stables reeking with filth were not far away…Some of the wells and cisterns were too near the privies and pools of decomposing liquid to escape serious contamination. In short we found a condition of affairs utterly inimical to the hygienic welfare of the people inhabiting the neighborhood.”
This description, of a slum filled with the noise and smell of animals, their waste mixing with people’s drinking water, is not of Nairobi, or Sao Paolo in 2016. It’s a description of the conditions in Brunswick, Maine – specifically the “French quarter” of the village, in 1886. One hundred and thirty years ago, Brunswick provided the most egregious example of the health risks that French Canadian immigrants suffered when they found themselves living in overcrowded, poorly-constructed, and neglected neighborhoods. Many, like the Brunswick tenements, were owned and operated by the textile manufacturers for whom the immigrants came to work.
Increasingly, we’ve been hearing stories of tragedy, frustration and anger from Flint, Michigan, where a modern-day health crisis has erupted over the polluted city water supply, which contains dangerously-high levels of lead. Among the accusations leveled at Governor Rick Snyder (whose administration knew of the hazards months before they intervened to help), is that Flint’s inhabitants were simply too poor, and too Black, to merit attention from the state. More than a century ago, the conditions of Franco-Americans in Maine raise similar questions.
The Annual Report of the State of Maine Board of Health for 1886 is littered with references to outbreaks of infectious diseases among the Franco-American immigrant communities, which by this point were found state-wide and growing rapidly – Whooping Cough in Biddeford, scarlet fever in Saccarappa (Westbrook), diarrhea in Waterville, typhoid in Winthrop. A year earlier, in 1885, the board of health had been concerned about the possibility of an outbreak of small pox among Franco-Americans. An epidemic in Montréal that year had resulted in the death of thousands of unvaccinated French Canadians. But it’s the prevalence of diphtheria in Brunswick in the summer of 1886 that stands out. I spoke with David Vermette, a writer and researcher, about the incident, which he describes vividly in his blog, French North America. (Listen to the interview in full or read excerpts below).
“When I started researching genealogy, I consulted the newspaper index at the Curtis Memorial Library in Brunswick, expecting to find some sentimental family pieces, and I did…and then I came across an article that described absolutely appalling conditions in the tenements, and this diphtheria outbreak, and repeated outbreaks of typhoid.
“Frankly, I was shocked and angered. I could not believe what I was reading. I knew my father’s family, in particular, came from a poor background, but I didn’t really know what that meant. But when I came across that article, by the [Brunswick Telegraph’s] editor, A. G. Tenney, which really hammered the Cabot Manufacturing Company for treating its employees so badly, this really became a special cause for me.”
I asked David why he thought he hadn’t gleaned any of that social history from his family –
“Where I grew up in Massachusetts, to the South of Boston, there were many people with Franco-American names; now I recognize that…but there wasn’t any sense of ethnic consciousness there. Like my family many had moved from mill towns like Brunswick and Biddeford to larger cities – Portland, then Boston, so the sense of ethnic consciousness was lost. Everyone spoke English, whether their ancestors were Irish, Italian or French Canadian. Everyone was middle class.
“I did get this sense that there was some “wrong side of the tracks” aspect to our family, but I couldn’t have put my finger on what that was, until I started doing this research. There was a tendency of people in my family and community to deflect the trauma and horror of what went on then. They’d say things like “well, you know, it was bad for other people as well,” “conditions of life weren’t as good then, standards of living were lower.” Statements to deflect it. But I would point out that people at the time thought they were appalling. Mr. A G Tenney is hammering at the Cabot Company, saying that the conditions in the tenements shouldn’t be tolerated in a civilized society. People at the time thought this was appallingly bad.
“Generally, French Canadian immigrants were housed, as well as employed, by the Cabot Mill. There was also a company store. The company repeatedly denied the existence of the store, but newspaper reports show that workers were sometimes paid not in cash, but in credit for the store, which reveals their denial to be a lie. The immigrants were really tied to the mill – and until around 1900, the Francos were all living together in the tenements. I believe my father was born in one of those, literally in the shadow of the mill, in an apartment my grandfather had taken over from his aunt.
“Today, the number one correlation with outbreaks of diphtheria is poverty, and it’s strongly associated with overcrowding. What you see in Brunswick, at the height of immigration, in the 1880s, is that there were, on average, eighteen people living in a small tenement. That’s the average – I’ve seen more than thirty people living in an apartment that nowadays we’d call a small two-bedroom apartment. How you can even do that is beyond imagining to me. This was an era in which people had large families, but being on a farm [in Canada], is very different from living in a small city, with an average of eighteen people living in apartments close together.
“They’re bringing farm animals from Quebec to Brunswick, and these are also housed, somehow, in pens between the apartments, and this is just creating more odor, more filth, more problems. Also, there was no garbage collection as we know it. So people are just throwing garbage into the river, into the yards. There’s a photo – probably from the early 20th century – where you can see a big dump just down from the tenements, close to the river. It’s very, very bad sanitary conditions. This didn’t happen because our ancestors were slobs but because the company did not provide a sanitary infrastructure for housing their large workforce.”
As Vermette noted, and the Maine Board of Health recorded, the diphtheria outbreak not only began among the Franco-American community, but claimed all its victims there. Dr. Onésime Paré, a Franco-American doctor supplied the Board with a list of mortalities that makes for difficult reading – dozens of children. David believes his own great-grandmother probably saw her neighbors’ children “dying all around her.”
So what about the response to this tragedy? Apart from Tenney, the editor of the Telegraph, and the reports to the Maine Board of Health, it was fairly muted.
“It’s hard to judge the Franco response, because Brunswick didn’t have a French-language newspaper. The one voice we have is that of Father Gorman, of St. John’s parish, who is reported to have said that he was burying more babies than he was baptizing. On the side of the dominant English-speaking part of the town, we have Tenney’s response, but I don’t see much on the part of the town [authorities]. In fact, I’ve read one source that said that efforts to build a new sewage infrastructure to address the situation were resisted. Then, as now, people didn’t want to spend money. Another Franco-American researcher, Michael Guignard, looked into Bowdoin’s response [then home to the Maine Medical School] and found nothing. It was only when visitors to the town started noticing the smell, that they did something about it. The Town ordered the Cabot Company to clean up the mess, but they ignored it, and the company was fined $100, which even in that time was a pittance compared to what the company made. There were no consequences for the Cabot Company. I don’t think they cared at all, because they would get another fresh supply of French Canadians in the spring.”
Do you see any parallels to the present crisis in Flint?
“I think the parallel exists, and I became angry about the situation in Flint because it mirrors the situation in Brunswick in the 1880s. You have a population of African-Americans that was attracted to Flint by the industries – but I think these populations just become invisible. You have a tendency among the dominant English-speaking population to see the African- or Franco-Americans as others, and when they don’t have political clout, they don’t have a voice. And that leads to the situations we see in Flint today, or in Brunswick in the 1880s.”
The epidemic among Brunswick’s Franco-American community in 1886 is a stark case of corporate neglect. While the crisis in Flint is not identical – the blame in that community lies with local, state and federal government – the parallels that do exist remind us that there always have been, and always will be, groups and communities on the margins who can be overlooked with tragic consequences. The long history of this pattern reminds us that our ancestors, were probably part of that overlooked group, at one point in time.