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“Nothing is to be heard but the cholera”
Like so many Hip songs, this one's a story within a story. Lake Fever seems to take us for a stroll along a moonlight lake with a pair of young lovers. As the couple walk, the young man: anxious, nervous and eager, begins to fumble for the right words, the right mood, the right move. He begins telling the young girl the story of a great lakes disaster, a tale of lake fever: a cholera outbreak on Lake Ontario.
During the summer of 1832, Upper and Lower Canada were ravaged by a plague unlike anything ever seen in the new world. Those who braved the odds and the elements, setting out from Europe for British North America, were confronted with cramped, stifling and inhumane conditions aboard their intercontinental carriers. These fever ships brought families, adventurers, labourers and dreamers. Amidst their human cargo, they also carried a devastating disease, one that would shake the social and political foundations of an emerging nation.
By that summer, immigrants were arriving at Quebec City in numbers ranging from 600 to 10,000 per week. Some would stay in Lower Canada, settling in Montreal or Quebec City, while others would venture further southwest along the St Lawrence to Upper Canada, eventually making their homes in Toronto or Kingston. Unbeknownst to many of them, they were doomed before they even arrived. They were saddled with cholera, and they were about to create an epidemic.
Cholera is caused by a micro-organism which enters the body through the mouth, often via unsanitary drinking water. The ‘dirty water’ as it was then called, was found in unkempt cities, cramped living quarters and aboard damp and oppressive immigration ships. It essentially upsets the chemical balance in the body and causes severe dehydration and eventual death. A person might at first display symptoms such as a husky voice or slight cramps. This degenerates into severe spasms, sunken facial features and a blue skin complexion which is followed by the inevitable kidney failure.
At first, ships carrying those displaying the symptoms were quarantined at Grosse Isle, Lower Canada. The sickness was believed to be a simple virus, something that would run its course. After three days, and nothing more than a simple spraying, the ships continued on to their various destinations. As more ships began arriving with the same illnesses aboard, administrators ordered a halt to all shipping movements pending their investigation and approval. The investigators did not yet worry about the infected crowds already disembarking throughout the province. Unable to diagnose the ailment, most ships were allowed to sail after the standard three day delay.
Fever hospitals had been established in many cities to provide for those with contagious diseases. Those with communicable illnesses were kept separate from other patients. As it became apparent that a new fever was sweeping the land, many of these hospitals refused to treat the undeserving “sick poor.” Some going so far as to condemn the “foreign mongrels” and their European strain.
More and more new Canadians fell to the mystery fever, but it wasn’t until the disease began to spread through established communities; largely due to their shared drinking water and communal, open-air, ‘privy’ toilets: that panic began to set in. While the nature of cholera remained unknown, a connection between dirt and disease was finally registering. Newspapers began to warn citizens of “evil water” and its dangerous effects. Those from all sides of the political spectrum began to ruminate on the cause of the disease: every theory from an immigrant conspiracy, to foreign government plots, to God himself poisoning the lakes as punishment, was suggested.
“Gloom and panic spread with the disease,” wrote one expert. As those afflicted began to die in great numbers, fear brought most cities to a grinding halt. Alexander Hart wrote that in Kingston, most shops were shut and no business was being done except by those who sold one-inch boards. They were in great demand for coffins.
In Montreal, as in other cities, the newly created board of health began sending carts through the abandoned streets each morning. In the tradition of Europe’s Black Death, their drivers would yell, “bring out your dead.” The source of Gord’s famous adlib during “Poets.” Ironically, of the poor, it was the poets and musicians who suffered most. The minutes of one Quebec City public meeting record: “the group which appears to be hardest hit is the artisans living just above the level of absolute want.”
It was said the silence in the streets was broken only by the whispered rumours of the townsfolk. They would gossip about who had the fever, how it was spread, and most sensationally: just how many of their fellow townspeople had actually been buried alive.
The corpse carters became a despised element in many cities, especially when rumours turned into accusations that overzealous carters were hauling away those who were not yet deceased. Not a single live burial was ever proven or reported, and corpses were often left for days before internment, yet the rumours grew. The stories became so widespread that newspapers in Toronto and Montreal had to calm the fears of their respective citizens, begging them to employ common sense.
The root of the undead rumours and the macabre story telling masked a greater fear, especially in arch-Catholic Lower Canada. The mass cholera graves were unconsecrated ground. At first, this knowledge was not publicized, and the churches were complicit in keeping it quiet. It was simply too taxing to administer so many last rights, or to bless the rapidly expanding number of corpses. This was understandable given that it was not yet clear if the disease was airborne.
For years, devout family’s would not speak of the circumstances surrounding the burials of some members. The undignified committal was coupled with the false stigma initially attached to cholera: only the poor and sin laden were affected. The entire existence of some deceased family members was spoken of only in whispers.
During the epidemic, hospitals became known as ‘dying houses,’ and some facilities still refused to admit any cholera patients. Despite the panic and deaths, immigration of the ill was still ongoing throughout the summer of 1832. As people moved along the lakes and rivers, the disease moved with them. Prescott, Brockville, Kingston, Toronto, Cobourg and Brantford all suffered outbreaks in June. Early July saw Ottawa, Hamilton and London added to the list.
In Toronto, an editorialist for the Canadian Freeman newspaper scrutinized the conditions of the city itself and Lake Ontario. He wrote: “Stagnant pools of water, green as a leek and emitting deadly exhalations are to be met with in every corner of the town, and the state of the bay, from which all inhabitants are supplied with water, is horrible.” It was during this time that the term “lake fever” was abandoned as those writing about the disease learned its proper name.
Another editorial from Kingston focused not just on the number of dead, but the type: “several of our skilled artisans and some of our most active, wealthy, influential and intelligent inhabitants have died.” As cholera’s profile expanded, so did the crusade to stop it from spreading. Many cities began enforcing greater levels of sanitation, including for the first time ever: treatment of drinking water.
As winter set in, the fever ships stopped arriving. Churches, foreshadowing what would later become the social gospel movement, began preaching “cleanliness is next to godliness.” The number of cases began to drop, and by the spring of 1833, the disease was considered beaten.
Cholera claimed 4,307 lives in Lower Canada, where most of the infected ships disembarked, and where many of the afflicted settled or immediately fell ill. Another 278 died in Upper Canada where the disease spread along Lake Ontario.
Great discontent spread through the Canada’s in the aftermath of the outbreak. Sir John Colborne, then second in command as Lieutenant Governor, launched an investigation into the epidemic. In Kingston, public meetings were held, and plans were made in case another outbreak should occur. In 1834 cholera returned, but because of greater preparedness and understanding of the disease, the outbreak was much smaller in scale.
Fear however was not so easily quelled. Citizens relived the events of two years prior, and some attempted to use the fever to further their political agendas. The political movement that appeared after the cholera epidemic can be linked to the 1837 rebellion which eventually caused the unification of the Canada’s.
The radicalization of French-Canadian politics was furthered when some, already sensitive to non-francophone immigration, began to suspect that the British government was sending their sickly and enfeebled to Lower Canada on purpose. Governor General Lord Aylmer was convinced the opposition members of his government were spreading these rumours to further their goal of breaking from the British Crown or joining the Canada’s to the United States.
The mayor of Toronto, William Lyon Mackenzie ordered the tents and huts on Toronto’s water front removed. The shanties had been serving as both housing for immigrants unable to find lodging, and as unintended ‘dying houses’ for those afflicted with cholera. The mayor wanted to integrate the slum dwellers into the city and eliminate what he called their “worthless and dissipated haunts.” This may be the source of the alternate “Pack up their tents/Jack up their rents” verse Downie sometimes sings during “Lake Fever.”
Mackenzie was infuriated when he learned that some in the British House of Lords believed the cholera epidemic to be a scam, concocted by the Canadians, to garner a larger portion of the Colonial budgets. William Lyon Mackenzie would go on to lead the rebellion in Upper Canada in 1837.
And so ends the tale of the lake fever. It’s social and political aspects are referenced in the song, interwoven with the flirtatious exchanges of our young couple.
Our “Lake Fever” Romeo is nervously telling this historic tale to his young lover as they walk along the shore. As he speaks, he begins to see in her eyes what he's been looking for. Has his moment arrived? He begins to offer her short cuts, an escape. He offers to skip to the end so that they can engage in "coital fury." However, not wanting to seem too forward, being not quite as sure or confident as he'd like to be, he keeps his overtures in the form of questions: "We can... you know, if you'd like, I can get to the end of the story?"
As he stumbles, fumbles and tumbles through romantic reverence and innocent attempts... she: clinging, close; looks deep into his eyes and whispers: "Hurry."
At this point in the song, Paul and Gord trade beautiful verses which seem to recall the overly dramatic commitments we've all made to "the one" at one point or another. The desire to be that persons everything, to be so great as to appear unattainable like the stars yet present and persistent like a wheezing screen door. To be exciting and sought-after in their eyes. Willing to do anything to be with them.The song seems to take a reflective view of those events on the lake shore. Seemingly melding the thoughts of our lovers with those of a citizenry from a previous time. Just as the fever, fear and investigations faded; so have the feelings of lust, spontaneity and youth for our young couple. They are now found only in memory.
For the concerned townsfolk of a time since passed, the days events of summer 1832 –the pleas for good citizenship and faint rumours of the macabre– were spoken of in hushed tones.For the lovers in modern times; those memories of peaceful, poetic and moving moments along Lake Ontario remain. They represent a time when we talked in whispers, dreamt out loud, and committed ourselves to one another forever.Play Song
All non-lyric content and Hip photographs © 2006 Stephen Dame