Thursday, August 2, 2012

The Case of the Cabot Mill

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 seven 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-speaking 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-Canadian community in the years 1886 and 1887. That this increase in mortality is not a natural consequence of an increase in the French-Canadian 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).

The sad truth is confirmed by an examination of the handwritten vital records kept by the Town of Brunswick. Here I found that 35 children died between April and September of 1886. The records, in most cases, do not state the cause of death, but, in a few, Diphtheria is cited explicitly. That the majority of these children were the victims of the Diphtheria epidemic we may surmise, apart from the newspaper’s testimony, by examining child mortality rates in the years on either side of 1886. The records reveal that nine children died between April and September 1885. In 1887, 18 children died in this same span of months.

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.

In reading the Brunswick Telegraph’s increasingly shrill outcries against the Cabot Company and its directors, I can’t help but imagine my great-grandparents and my great great grandparents, Thomas Ouellette (b. March 1836, Ste-Anne-de-la-Pocatiere, Québec) and Josephine Racine Ouellette (b. March 1842, St-Charles-de-St-Hyacinthe, Québec), or their relatives, friends, and co-workers living in such conditions. Did my great-grandmother Ouellette hear the cries of the children who had the disease? Or were the infected children too sick to cry out? Did she see the lesions caused by some forms of this disease? Did she attend the funeral of a neighbor’s child?

It’s quite likely that she did. Comparing the names of the children who died with the data provided by the 1880 census, and assuming that the cast of characters involved lived in the same places in 1886 that they did in 1880, I can confirm that children were dying all around the location where my great-grandmother lived.

The census enumerator in 1880 designated the Ouellette’s residence, in order of visitation, as dwelling 25. Two-year-old Marie Claire Ste-Marie and her eight-year-old brother, Alexis Albert, died on the same day, April 13, 1886. The census indicates that this family lived in dwelling 23“Cause of death: Diphtheria,” the town records report. Ten-month-old Joseph Desjardins died on August 26th; this family lived in dwelling 27. Nine-year-old Rosa Leblanc died on June 30th; her family resided in dwelling 29. The census also reveals that no less than thirty-one individuals lived in dwelling 29. On the assumption that these families stayed put between 1880 and 1886, I conclude that my 18-year-old great-grandmother was well aware of the dying children during these spring and summer months.

But when I recounted this history to others, even to my own family, the deflection mechanism went into full swing. The response was to try to justify the brutality our ancestors suffered.  What purpose does the deflection serve?

To answer some of these attempts at deflection, from the Telegraph’s account it is clear that Tenney had some confusion regarding the precise cause, but he was correct that overcrowded conditions are favorable to the outbreak and proliferation of the disease. The fact that the conditions in the tenements were not business as usual is attested to by numerous quotations from Tenney’s articles. For example, in the same article quoted above, Tenney describes the conditions as representing “a degree of brutality almost inconceivable in a civilized community.” Two weeks later, Tenney writes:

We only wish that the Boston Cabot gentlemen could listen to the biting denunciations of them as notorious (at least in the case under discussion) for their filthy greed, by gentlemen, we can tell them who, as manufacturers, are their equals in experience, perhaps in wealth, but infinitely their superiors in all that goes to make up the true man, regardful of the lives and health of the men and women whom they employ. Some of these manufacturers…are downright wrathy over the reflection cast upon all other manufacturers by the abominable neglect of Cabot company Directors, to remedy a state of things which no man here dares to deny exists.
[Brunswick Telegraph, August 13, 1886]
In the final article in the series, Tenney’s rhetoric against the Cabot Company and what he terms “the disgracefully neglected Cabot homes” reaches a crescendo leaving no doubt about how his newspaper viewed the Cabot Company and the condition of “the French operatives” of the mill:

[Its] record should consign to eternal infamy the management of this corporation, more heartless than the Fejees of old, who in hot blood, murdered their prisoners, then roasted and ate them. The Cabot Company has no such tender mercy for the poor slaves bound to it by the necessities of existence, they dying by slow poison germinated in the filth permitted by the company’s home management to flow over the soil in reeking streams from the vaults of the boarding houses, the poor people inhabiting them being powerless to secure relief.
[Brunswick Telegraph, August 20, 1886] 

From these passages it is plain that such conditions were not what was expected in those times since they were denounced as exceptionally bad even by those of the same occupation and “station in life,” as the “Boston Cabot gentlemen.” These extracts also show how at least one educated Yankee of that period regarded the French-Canadian/Franco-American mill worker of his day. The “French operatives” in the mill were, in Tenney’s view, “poor slaves” bound to the mill by “the necessities of existence”; they were “poor people…powerless to secure relief” from the disease and the conditions that contributed to it.

And the poor housing conditions had prevailed for years prior to 1886. Typhoid Fever – which is contracted through drinking water polluted by human excrement – had passed through the French Quarter in 1881 five years before the Diphtheria epidemic; it would have a return engagement in 1887. Tenney, in his 1886 series on the Cabot Mill, says that the same conditions had existed in the worker’s housing for 15 years, that is, since the early 1870s, when French-Canadians had started arriving in Brunswick in significant numbers. It was not a brief episode due, as was suggested to me, to the fact that the directors of the Cabot Company “didn’t really know what was going on.” I suspect they knew full well. Their local agents most certainly did. Their noses couldn’t lie.

The fact that French-Canadians continued to cross the border to work at the Cabot Mill, as they did during these years of the 1870s and 1880s, is more a statement about the desperate conditions in rural Québec in the late 19th century than it is proof that things “must not have been so bad.” Things were so bad. Necessity drove them into the mills anyway. Choices were few, and good choices were fewer.

For more on Franco-Americans in the textile industry please see my new book available here.

This post is excerpted and edited from my article called "French Pride and the Question of Repression" originally published in Le Forum mars-avril/March-April 2004.


  1. Good research.
    Studying history has left me with less appreciation for noble architecture, high culture and beautiful cities. It turns out that without exception, some form of slavery is at the base. I hadn't thought about Boston before; just automatically assumed trade and shipping. The mills sound appalling.

  2. All the major cities of the World, London, Paris, Calcutta, Rio, had conditions of squalor. There were no Public Health Agencies. Insane people were subjected to torture, during "le grand derangement" people were starving in Canada, a farm country. You don't have to look very far back to know that those of us living through the Petroleum Age have it pretty good....