The splendour and misery of urban life
Montreal's Night-Mayor on his Ghostly Rounds (Dedicated to the Board of Health)
1875, 19th century
Ink on paper - Photolithography
40 x 28 cm
© McCord Museum
Keywords: Cartoon (19139) , Print (10661)
Keys to History
During the 19th century, infectious diseases claimed many victims in Montreal. The city's factories, like many workers' lodgings, were often breeding grounds for disease.
This caricature sarcastically depicts the deplorable state of health of Montrealers. Its mockery targets the municipal health organization, which was clearly not known for its effectiveness. Since 1870, a committee of police and health officials oversaw sanitation in the city of Montreal, yet it met only two or three times each year. Moreover, the two doctors sitting on the committee had little influence because they never attended meetings. It was only in 1876 that a better organized health bureau was finally set up; it met twice a month and was composed of nine aldermen, nine citizen representatives and six doctors.
Before the discoveries that Louis Pasteur (1822-1895) made in the area of bacteriology during the 1880s, it was believed that epidemics and disease were caused by vapours known as "miasmas." People simply did not know that a number of infectious diseases like cholera, dysentery and typhoid were caused by bacteria that could propagate in food and water.
This caricature shows the grim reaper with his scythe aboard a chariot bearing a coffin. Around the chariot float vapours baptized "Miasma," "Dysentery," "Smallpox," "Typhus," "Cholera" and "Fever."
A factory in the background gives off vapours that symbolize different infectious diseases. In the late 19th century, hygiene was sometimes lacking in factories and other manufacturing establishments, as well as in people's homes.
In 1854, cholera killed more than 5 000 people throughout British North America. In 1847, a horrible typhus epidemic brought over by British immigrants killed thousands. In Montreal, more than 3 800 people died from the disease. Finally, between 1872 and 1885 the city was hit by successive waves of a smallpox epidemic.
In 1875, two men occupied the position of mayor of Montreal in turns : Aldis Bernard (1810-1876) whose term extended from 1873 to 1875, and William H. Hingston (1829-1907), elected for the period from 1875 to 1877.