Papineau and the Cholera Epidemic of 1832

Papineau. Green Line. Opened 1966.
Papineau. Green Line. Opened 1966.

With the arrival of cholera in Montreal in June 1832, many people left the city for the country to escape the disease. Papineau though decided to stay. Here, he writes to his wife, Julie, at her temporary lodgings at Verchéres, northwest of the island, of domestic matters – lemons, crackers, and work on a property – as well as the advance of the disease, including the recovery of Dr. Robert Nelson, a political ally who contracted the disease in the course of his work at the hospital devoted to the epidemic. His tone seems philosophical, but we might suspect his “mediations on the terrible state of the country” in the “good company” of his father and Viger, were  as much concerned with the shootings in May at Place d’Armes as the epidemic itself.

Mme Papineau

Montreal, 6 July 1832

Chére Maman,

The public health improves but is not re-established. Everyday there are some new cases which, unfortunately, defy the resources of the doctors. Nevertheless, for eight days, there has been no new case in the city, but only in the suburbs, while yesterday M. Racicot, living with Mme. Osterout, died. The disease has nearly ended in those of Quebec and it is those of Sainte-Anne and Saint-Antoine that now suffer, though in a lesser proportion than in the first attack. The illness of Dr. [Robert] Nelson is not cholera, but the extreme weakness that follows, a worrying exhaustion and a stubborn cough like you have sometimes had, which does not leave him able to close his eyes. I hope and believe that there is no danger; I do not allow grief and worry about his condition.

I wish you all to be in as good health as me. Good sleep, good appetite, the good company of my father, of Côme and Viger, reading and meditation on terrible state of the country, all occupy me well and usefully. The absence of my wife and my children, these sorrows momentarily make themselves known, the worry for their health and that of other parents, friends and compatriots exposed in a time of universal calamity are everyday subject to renewed alarms among which it is right, just and reasonable to oppose any resignation of strength or courage that is possible so as to be attentive to all precautions that might diminish the danger. As long as one is able, say each morning: today I want to acquit all my duties, one can say in the evening, I have missed none of them. One has ten chances against one to not be attacked by contagion, or, in case of attack, to rediscover the spiritual force, a moral energy to vanquish it.

I made to speak to the workers. It is difficult to find them, such is the number of their engagés who have left the town for the country. Nevertheless, they will start on Monday. I cannot send you the lemons. You will have had them from Monsieur Donegani and I will bring them next week. Les crackers [Papineau uses the English] are from the same place and of the same pastry as those you like, and though these are not of the same shape. Taste them before censuring, bite them before biting the buyer.

Adieu, beautiful, good and dear friend, have care of yourself and our children, kiss them for us both. The time lost for the culture of their spirit will be repaired if they return bodies more robust and capable of application. Nevertheless, it is not only by practice that one acquires a taste for the study of good principles and science, and in this taste [of mortality] more than any other circumstance, is the chance to live happily and usefully for other, to escape vice and misery, to enjoy the constant friendship of honest people.

Adieu, greetings and friendship to both your parents, and my sincere wishes for the return of Mme. Amiot [Julie’s aunt] from her dangerous condition.

Your sincere friend and faith spouse.

L. J. Papineau

Consulted for this post

Louis-Joseph Papineau, Lettres à Julie, établi et annoté par Georges Aubin et Renée Blanchet (Sillery, QC: Septentrion, 2000), pp. 249-50 (Montreal, 6 July 1832). My translation.

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