In the manuscript United States Census for Cumberland County, Brunswick, Maine for the year 1880, I find the family of my great-grandmother, Albina Ouellette (b. February 1868, Roxton Falls, Québec). The census reports that Albina, age twelve, her father, and six of her eleven siblings, including her ten-year-old younger brother, worked in the Cabot Manufacturing Company textile mill. The census for Brunswick in that year contains approximately twenty continuous pages of French names. Almost all of these individuals were born in Canada and were employed by the Cabot mill. There is little doubt that the area of Brunswick represented in these pages is what is referred to in contemporary newspaper accounts as “the French Quarter” or “the French locality.”
In 1886 a serious outbreak of Diphtheria would spread through the French Quarter of Brunswick. This disease, which is associated with overcrowded and unsanitary conditions, would spread to at least 142 individuals, mostly French-speaking children, between April and September of 1886. I estimate that somewhere between eight and ten percent of the French group in the town became infected with the disease.
Mr. A.G. Tenney, editor of the English-language newspaper, the Brunswick Telegraph, mounted a campaign in his paper against the Cabot Company, which lasted several weeks and detailed the poor conditions that prevailed in the company housing in the “French locality” at that time. I will quote one passage from this series at length:
The houses are built in close contact; there are no yards; the sheds and privies are near by; the drainage – the sink spouts are running only a few feet or so outside of the houses where all dirty water is poured out – falling on the surface of the ground, some of which drains into the cellar and leaves one of the most prolific sources of disease. The houses have from two to three stories, some of which are divided into eight tenements; the average number of people is about twelve in each tenement (96 to a house); the number of rooms in each is from five to seven; bedrooms are small, many of which have only one window where there are two beds. This will give you an idea of the amount of dirty water and slops that are poured out on the surface, close by the block – leaving the most offensive odor that can exist. These large blocks are accommodated with only four privies – giving about twenty five people for each privy – and those privies are cleaned only once a year, and this is done during this present hot weather of July. These places have overflowed since the month of May.Swine, cows, and hens are kept in the sheds, pig-pens in close connection with wood sheds &c. – giving additional offensive odor. The wells are in the midst of this filth, some of which are not more than twenty feet distant from the sink spout and privies. Sandy soil as it is in this place there is no doubt that some of these wells receive the slops in a few days after their pouring out of doors.The collection of refuse matter in or around the dwelling houses, such as swill, waste of meat, fish and decaying vegetables, dead carcasses are all present, giving or generating disease germs, affecting the purity of the air; – they should be considered the worst kind of nuisances. Such nuisances one should be compelled to remove or dispose of either by burial, burning or otherwise. Now then, summing up in a few words the above mention will show the favorable condition for any contagious disease to spring up.[Brunswick Telegraph, July 30, 1886]
Doctor Onesime Paré (b. June 1854, St-Gervais-de-Bellechasse, Québec) provided the Telegraph with descriptions of these conditions, as well as other information regarding the extent and spread of the disease. Doctor Paré and Mr. Tenney should be remembered for the efforts they made to draw attention to the deplorable housing conditions in the tenements. In the newspaper, the evidence of other (Yankee) doctors is brought forward to corroborate the facts as presented by Tenney.
For further corroboration, we may examine the statistics for burials at St. John’s church. William N. Locke, in his article, “The French Colony at Brunswick, Maine: A Historical Sketch” (Les Archives de Folklore, 1 (1946, pp 97-111), provides statistics on burials from this parish in the years 1877-1895. There is a sharp spike in the number of deaths among the French community in the years 1886 and 1887. That this increase in mortality is not a natural consequence of an increase in the French population during these years is demonstrated by the fact that there were nearly half as many burials in 1888 (41 total) as there were in 1886 (81 burials).
These records also show that Diphtheria, in that summer of 1886, was not an equal opportunity disease; without exception the children who died that spring and summer had French names.
This post is excerpted and edited from an article called "French Pride and the Question of Repression" originally published in Le Forum mars-avril/March-April 2004.