The splendour and misery of urban life

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The Mayor and the Board of Health
Henri Julien
1877, 19th century
Ink on newsprint - Photolithography
37.5 x 28.6 cm
Gift of Mr. Colin McMichael
© McCord Museum
Keywords:  Cartoon (19139) , politics (general) (2228) , Print (10661)
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Keys to History

This caricature published in the The Canadian Illustrated News of April 21, 1877 has a caption imbued with a note of black humour: "Hold tight, Mr. Mayor, or the Imps of death will slip from their leashes and devour us".

The illustration and text refer to the responsibility incumbent upon the mayor of Montreal, Jean-Louis Beaudry, and the health bureau to contain the epidemics then rampant in the city. In the 19th century, illnesses like cholera, diphtheria, smallpox and typhoid fever wrecked havoc on city dwellers. Poor sanitary conditions was one of the reasons for such a rapid spread of disease. Industrialization, moreover, brought higher population densities, which further aggravated the situation.

It was only in 1876 that something approaching a real health bureau was set up in Montreal. Starting in 1870, a committee composed of police and health officials was put in charge of private and public hygiene, but was not very effective. The new health bureau had the mandate to inspect sanitation conditions in city dwellings, oversee the draining of cesspools and the disposal of garbage and animal carcasses, diagnose illnesses and, eventually, organize vaccination campaigns.

  • What

    This caricature shows the mayor of Montreal holding four demons - "Diphtheria," "Cholera," "Smallpox" and "Typhoid fever" - on a leash.

  • Where

    In 1875, Montreal had one of the highest mortality rates of all North American cities: in that year it rose to 34.5 for every 1 000 inhabitants. The steps undertaken by the new health bureau set up in 1876 undoubtedly improved the situation because, from 1878 onward, the mortality rate began to decline.

  • When

    In the late 19th century, Montreal health bureau doctors worked hard to improve sanitation conditions in the city. Unfortunately, they devoted little time to the root cause of the problem, which was poverty. Due to their meagre salaries, workers could sometimes afford only unsanitary housing and food that was not always of the best quality.

  • Who

    This caricature by the artist Henri Julien (1852-1908) depicts Jean-Louis Beaudry, mayor of Montreal form 1809 to 1886. Beaudry actually served three terms: 1862 to 1866, 1877 to 1879 and 1881 to 1885.