The 1885 Montreal Smallpox Epidemic

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At 9 p.m. on Feb. 28, 1885, George Longley arrived at Bonaventure Station in Montreal.

For the past few years, he had been working as a porter and conductor for the Grand Trunk Railway, and this trip to Montreal was one he made many times before.

But this time was different. When the train had left Chicago at the beginning of his shift, he started feeling sick

Now, as the train pulled into the station in Montreal, Longley was too sick to continue working, he had sores and pustules erupting all over his body.

He went to the office of Doctor Thomas Rodger. Dr. Rodger knew immediately what he was looking at.

Without wasting any time, the two men made their way to Montreal General Hospital. As Dr. Rodger explained the symptoms to doctors, they quickly refused to allow Longley to enter. If he was going to recuperate, it was not going to be at that hospital.

With nowhere else to go, the two men spent the night isolated in a room at Dr. Rodger’s office. The next morning, Dr. Rodger took Longley to the Hotel-Dieu of Montreal, a Catholic hospital. Thankfully, the hospital, which doubled as a hotel, admitted him.

That decision changed the lives of thousands of Montrealers. For the next three weeks, Longley slowly recovered. He returned to the United States on March 22 and vanished from the history books. Longley was one of the lucky ones.

Others were not so lucky, like Pelagie Robichaud, a laundry girl at the hospital who cleaned Longley’s bedding. She died on April 1, followed by her sister Marie ten days later. They were just the first of a wave of deaths that were to follow.

For the next nine months, Montreal had the dark cloud of a deadly epidemic over it, and by the end of the year, nearly 4,000 would’ve died.

It’s a story that sounds familiar even though it took place 137 years ago when the smallpox epidemic ravaged the city and riots erupted over vaccine mandates… I’m Craig Baird….and this is Canadian History Ehx!


In 1885, Montreal was a thriving metropolis.

It was the largest city in Canada, with a population of nearly 225,000 which had seen explosive growth due to its manufacturing sector, thanks to the completion of the Lachine Canal in the 1820s.

The canal’s completion, and its expansions in the 1840s and 1870s, allowed Montreal to become a port, servicing international markets.

In 1885, the city was in the middle of what some historians call its Golden Age. Saint Jacques Street was the economic centre of Canada, where the CPR had built its headquarters five years earlier. There was Golden Square Mile, at the foot of Mount Royal, where the richest men in Canada lived. Railway magnates, bank owners and at least one future prime minister, Sir John Abbott, had extravagant homes there.

Anglophones made up the rich, upper-class while men and women who worked for the millionaires of the Golden Square Mile were mostly Francophones, and they lived in the poorer areas of the city. This was a trend that extended well into the 20th century and lead to deep divisions in the city So while the rich occupied sprawling estates, the poor lived with their large families in small homes with poor sanitation.

Any disease introduced to such conditions would run rampant, but smallpox was the worst of them all and it found a perfect home in those slums, amid an environment of distrust between Francophones and Anglophones.


The disease is caused by the variola major virus, symptoms include fever, headache, vomiting, mouth sores and a rash. Blisters can develop, along with scabs and the trademark pitted scars, or pocks. While the disease kills up to 30 percent of those it infects, those who survive are often left with lifetime scars, and in more extreme cases, blindness.

Smallpox has been around for almost as long as humans. The first known case dates to 1500 BCE, found in Egyptian mummies but it likely occurred well before that. Writings from India in 1500 BCE and China in 1122 BCE describe what modern historians believe to be smallpox as well.

For the next 2,000 years, the disease would sweep through Asia, North Africa and Europe at various times. It was believed to be the disease that caused the Antonine Plague, the first known pandemic of the Roman Empire, which killed up to 10 million in 15 years from 165 to 180 CE.

Its introduction to the Americas truly caused devastation. As soon as Europeans began to arrive in the 16th century, they brought with them smallpox. The first recorded instance of smallpox in what is now Canada occurred between 1634 and 1640 when Jesuit priests introduced the disease to the Wendat people of the Georgian Bay. The priests insisted on baptizing the sick and dying Wendat people, but this unknowingly resulted in the disease spreading further as the priests carried the virus from those dying people to others in the area.

With no natural antibodies to fight off the virus, 60 percent of the Wendat population in the area were dead by 1640.

Smallpox reached the Canadian Prairies via European fur traders in the late-1700s. From 1779 to 1783, smallpox spread from present-day Manitoba to Alberta. Among some communities of the Plains Indigenous people, 75 percent of the population was killed. It is estimated that half of the Indigenous population living along the Saskatchewan River died from smallpox.

In 1862, a person infected with smallpox landed at Victoria, the capital of the Colony of British Columbia. By the time the disease had run its course a few months later, 14,000 Indigenous people had died along the coast. In 1796, Edward Jenner demonstrated that the milder cowpox could protect humans from smallpox. He discovered that milkmaids who contracted smallpox rarely became severely ill. This was due to their exposure to cowpox. By 1800, this first smallpox vaccine was introduced to North America at Trinity, Newfoundland by Dr. John Cinch, a childhood friend of Jenner.

The slow process towards eradicating smallpox had begun.

Even with the arrival of the vaccination, by the late-19th century the disease still killed upwards of 400,000 people per year worldwide.

Yet, despite the fact the vaccine had been around for decades, many were hesitant to use it. Many believed vaccines caused illness and suffering, and mandatory vaccinations were a breach of individual rights.

Sounds familiar right?

The divide between French and English in Montreal played into the suspicions of the vaccine. Many French Canadians associated it with British surgeons whom they did not trust and called the vaccinators charlatans. It was in this environment, that the last major smallpox epidemic in Canadian history spread in Canada’s largest city.

While George Longley, the Grand Trunk Railway employee, had been infected and kept at the Hotel Dieu where the disease spread, there was a second porter with the railroad who was stricken near the same time. That porter, who was unnamed, was kept isolated in a private house. As a result, no cases were linked to him. But from the moment Longley arrived, the disease slowly began to spread through the poorer sections of the city. By May, two months after Longley arrived, Montreal was now gaining a reputation as a city of plague and was to be avoided.

Despite the growing number of deaths, The City of Montreal would not pay to provide general vaccinations to fight the smallpox epidemic. In response, Sir William Macdonald, a millionaire with a deep civic pride, donated $25,000 to pay for the vaccines. This amounts to about $1 million today.

Around the same time the vaccines were distributed, several cases of erysipelas, a skin infection that can lead to a fever, were reported. This led people to believe and claim the vaccine batch was bad.

In truth, the skin infections were likely caused by the unsanitary conditions of the poor areas of the city. Nonetheless, the vaccine program was suspended for three months from May until July. Meanwhile, deaths continued to mount.

As the city moved into summer, and the heat drove many from their small homes. Some who escaped the heat for the cool streets were infected with smallpox, as the scabs on their bodies were still contagious. The result? the disease spread further, killing up to 100 people per week. While the poor were the hardest hit, smallpox was an equal opportunity virus. The disease did not care how much money a person had, or how famous they were.

Sir Francis Hincks had served as the co-premier of the Province of Canada from 1851 to 1854, the Governor of Barbados from 1856 to 1862, and the Canadian Minister of Finance from 1869 to 1873.

He was one of the most eminent and famous men in the city, who lived at the base of Mount Royal in a huge home. He contracted smallpox in the summer and was dead by Aug. 18. In any other year, his funeral would have been attended by the leaders of Canadian politics. With smallpox raging, he was buried early in the morning of Aug. 19, with few people present.

The Montreal Daily Witness wrote on Aug. 19,

“The fact that one of her most noted citizens has been carried off by smallpox will make Montreal more notorious than ever for toleration of that hideous disease, which is one of the worst blots on her fair name.”

Perhaps because someone so well-known had died, or because the newspapers were reporting daily numbers of dead, some in the city began to wake up to the danger.

Isidore Durocher, the owner of the Richelieu Hotel, recognized the importance of vaccinations to stop the spread. He ordered that all 150 employees of his hotel be vaccinated and requested that a physician come to the hotel within two days to conduct the vaccinations. The firm of J.C. Wilson and Chateloup brought in Dr. Lapthorn Smith to ensure their employees were vaccinated. Dr. Smith stated to the Montreal Gazette that it was his estimation that 5,000 French Canadian children had not been vaccinated and that stringent measures were needed, or a law passed to enforce vaccinations.

While these men helped ensure the safety of their employees, there was still a growing mistrust of the vaccine. The same day that both those employers were ordering their employees be vaccinated, two men who were employed as vaccinators were thrown down a flight of stairs when visiting a house in a French-Canadian neighbourhood of the city. Then came September, seven months after Longley’s arrival, the epidemic seemed to climax as the city and many of its residents scrambled to stop the spread.

On Sept. 2, the Board of Health of Montreal believed there were at least 2,000 cases of smallpox in the city, a number that would double by the end of the month. On Sept. 5, the City of Montreal closed all public amusement places where crowds could congregate. Of course, those with powerful friends found ways to stay open to make money.

Henry Thomas, the manager of a theatre in Montreal, received the support of his friend Mayor Honore Beaugrand to keep his theatre open despite the danger. Thomas explained to city council that there was no more danger related to smallpox due to cold weather starting to arrive.

 he was wrong, as were others who believed smallpox was not a winter disease.

In the 1877, eight years earlier, smallpox outbreak in Montreal that killed 506 people, one-fifth of those who died, did so in January. Between January and March 1877, 231 people died of smallpox. This amount was more than the smallpox death totals of April to September combined that year.

As the situation worsened in Montreal on Sept. 9, Toronto sent four medical inspectors l to help with the vaccination efforts. The city also voted to limit all Montreal-made goods including clothing, cigars, shoes, and factory goods if they didn’t get the epidemic under control. Kingston followed suit, refusing to sell Montreal cabbage in its markets.

Montreal was the centre of the smallpox epidemic, but nearby Ontario was generally spared with only a few dozen deaths due to high vaccination rates and a central health authority that implemented isolation of those infected.

In fact, when Montreal’s mayor and five aldermen attempted to attend the Ontario exhibition in September, they were stopped at the border. Two of the aldermen, both French Canadian, were found without necessary documents to prove they were vaccinated. They were told they could not enter Ontario, and despite their protests, eventually agreed to be vaccinated at the border.

Within Montreal, various communities came together to help each other and limit the spread of the disease. At one factory in the east end of the city, the workmen held a meeting and resolved that any man having smallpox in his home should stay home. Since sick days were not a thing yet, they also set up a benefit fund to help those men, giving them $5 to $10 per week depending on their position in the factory.

As the end of September approached, sanitary police started to forcibly remove people from housing conditions that made isolation impossible. Those taken out of their homes were often poor, with no other housing or social support. They were put into smallpox hospitals, set up in former jails or asylums, where they waited to see if they lived or died from the disease.

As the city continued its voluntary inoculation program, rumours ran rampant.

One rumour said city vaccinators were going into bedrooms and tying children down so they could be vaccinated.

An anti-vaccination pamphlet, widely circulated, read,

“Stop! People driven like dumb animals to the shambles!”

Some religious groups told their followers that getting the smallpox vaccine was equivalent to getting the Biblical mark of the beast.

Not all religious leaders felt that way though.

Many clergy did encourage vaccination, including Father Strubbs of the St. Ann’s parish who stated that his congregation should not be afraid of catching the disease, but should not put themselves in danger without a vaccine either.

Pope Leo XIII issued an edict from Vatican City about the epidemic, stating that it was caused by the negligence of isolation and lack of vaccination.

Despite the understanding of how smallpox spread, there were some who still believed that the disease was spread by noxious fumes coming from the soap and glue rendering factories.

Noxious gases being a source of disease was not a new concept.

That theory was prevalent during the Black Death of the 1300s, when upwards of 60 percent of Europe’s population died. We now know it was fleas on rats that spread the bubonic plague of the Black Death, rather than fumes.

The anger over the vaccinations and the city’s efforts to stop the spread of the disease led to sanitation constables being assaulted when they removed bodies from infected neighborhoods.

By the week of Sept. 16, 93 percent of those dying from smallpox were French Canadians.

A report on Sept. 22, 1885, in the Montreal Gazette showed that 58 people had died on Sept. 19, followed by 41 on Sept. 20.

In the previous week, 216 had died. This number had increased from the week prior that saw 128 dead, itself an increase from 102 the week prior.

With the disease spreading, and few in the Francophone neighbourhoods getting vaccinated, the city enacted a mandatory vaccine policy on Sept. 28, 1885, eight months since the epidemic began.

The chairman of the health board, who was not named in my research, stated,

“It does not mean that people are to be seized and manacled and so vaccinated by force. It means that the vaccinator will go to the door of a house, ask for proof that all residing there are vaccinated.”

Anyone not vaccinated would be fined, rather than forced to get the vaccine.

With the news of the mandatory vaccines, anger boiled over.

Three unnamed Francophone city councilors, who were against the vaccine, called on their supporters to burn the city and shoot all who favored making vaccines compulsory.

This ignited the fury of those against the vaccine, leading to one of the worst riots in Montreal’s history.


At 7 p.m. on Sept. 28, an angry mob attacked a branch of the health department and destroyed everything they found inside.

The Montreal Star reported,

“For a few minutes it looked as though, after all, the branch of the Health Office was going to pass unscathed through the excited scene, when the crash of the breaking of a pane of glass by a stone, thrown at one of the windows of the office, put somewhat of a new complexion on the affair and showed that the work of demolition was ready to be carried on.”

As the night went on, the crowd grew in size and marched towards city hall.

Before they reached the seat of the municipal government, they stopped at the offices of the Montreal Herald to commit more vandalism. After the newspaper office was vandalized, the home of a Dr. F.X Archambault had its windows smashed.

Continuing on their way, the crowd reached the home of a Dr. Laberge. There, the crowd yelled that they were going to kill him. Upon learning he was not home; they smashed windows and did considerable damage inside.

Finally, the crowd reached city hall and promptly began to throw stones at the building. Two women were passing by, and one was hit in the head by a stone. She was thankfully only injured.

There were not enough police to deal with the mob, and the crowd turned its attention to the nearby police station.

As the police moved to stop the crowd, gunshots rang out from the mob, and the police responded by shooting over the heads of the rioters. Rather than flee, the crowd taunted the police and laughed.

The Herald wrote the next day,

“The mob, which at some points must have numbered several thousand persons, had for three hours possession of the streets. The rioters went where they liked and did what they liked.”

Mayor Beaugrand ordered that the bells of Notre Dame be rung, calling for the police from across the city to disperse the unruly mob.

The chief of police came upon the mob scene and was hit with a stick and kicked by the crowd until a large group of policemen arrived and charged into the mob, hitting the rioters with clubs left and right.

The Star wrote of the scene,

“Soon the police came and forming up in line on St. James Street, charged the mob. The latter fled like sheep. On seeing this, the sightseers applauded vigorously.”

The crowd finally dispersed with the larger police presence, and the city fell into an uneasy quiet at 1 a.m., roughly six hours after the riot began.

In the riot, two protesters were killed, and property damage was extensive.

The next day, 1,400 armed soldiers arrived in the city and started to patrol Montreal and the sanitary police were issued revolvers. The City of Montreal also ordered all police officers to be vaccinated. If they were not, they would lose their job.

Mayor Beaugrand stated,

“We have a scourge among us, and it behooves every intelligent and patriotic citizen to do something else than talk and bluster to get rid of it.”

The Board of Health blamed the lies told by opponents to the vaccine for spreading anger and mistrust.

Despite anger towards vaccine still present, there would be no more civil disorder during the epidemic.

The irony of the riot was that it pushed more people to be vaccinated. On Oct. 1, the Montreal Star reported that businesses were organizing their employees to get vaccinated, while trade unions were doing the same with their members.


“Chiefly upon the firmness and liberality of employers, rests the question whether or not December first shall be the limit of the city’s devastation.”

As October came to an end, daily deaths had fallen to less than 30, a trend that continued throughout the start of winter.

By the end of the year, smallpox had swept through its unvaccinated hosts.

A total of 20,000 residents had been infected, leaving nearly 4,000 dead, or about two percent of the city’s population, and thousands more were disfigured by the disease.

Of the victims, 90 percent were French Canadian, and most were children.

The impoverished Irish Canadians in Griffintown, and the Indigenous people on the nearby Haudenosaunee reserve, were spared high death tolls, due to the early acceptance of the vaccines.

The Indigenous people on that reserve had a long history of accepting vaccines. In 1807, the Mohawks of the Montreal area sent Edward Jenner a string of wampum to thank him for his discovery. Their testimonial reading stated, in part,

“We shall not fail to teach our children to speak the name of Jenner and to thank the Great Spirit for the bestowing upon him of so much wisdom and so much benevolence.”


In 1887, two years after the epidemic, the Quebec legislature passed legislation stating vaccination was required of all children over the age of three months.

As vaccinations spread, the risk of smallpox lessened, and Montreal did not see another smallpox death for almost ten years until 1897.

As bad as it was though, hope was on the horizon for humanity and its battle against the disease that had killed hundreds of millions over the previous 2,000 years.

That’s the end of the Montreal smallpox epidemic and the riot it ensued… but how did the disease disappear?


After the Second World War, humanity declared war on another enemy, smallpox.

The first hemisphere wide effort to eradicate smallpox began in 1950 by the Pan American Health Organization. By the end of the decade, smallpox, through the use of vaccines, was eliminated in every western hemisphere country except Argentina, Brazil, Colombia and Ecuador.

In 1958, Professor Viktor Zhdanov, the deputy minister of Health for the Soviet Union, called on the World Health Assembly to start a global initiative to eradicate the disease. At the time, two million people a year were still dying, among 50 million cases per year. Nearly all were in Africa and Asia.

For the next two decades, at a cost of $300 million, a slow battle against smallpox began. The last European outbreak occurred in 1972 in Yugoslavia, and by the end of 1975, the disease was only found in the Horn of Africa.

On Dec. 9, 1979, a commission of scientists announced that smallpox had been eradicated. This claim was endorsed by the World Health Assembly on May 8, 1980.

To date, smallpox is the only human disease to be eradicated. Currently, there is no evidence of naturally occurring smallpox transmission anywhere in the world

Montreal’s 1885 epidemic the last uncontained eruption of the disease in a modern city in history.


Information from Canadian Encyclopedia, Washington Post, Macleans, Wikipedia, When Antivaccine sentiment turned violet, Queens University, Montreal Gazette,

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