"No pestilence had ever been so fatal, or so hideous," wrote Edgar Allan Poe of the "Red
Death." "Blood was its Avatar and its seal - the redness and the horror of blood. There were
sharp pains, and sudden dizziness, and then profuse bleeding at the pores, with dissolution. The
scarlet stains upon the body and especially upon the face of the victim were the pest ban which
shut him out from the aid and from the sympathy of his fellow-men." In March of 1885, the "Red
Death" - smallpox - gripped the city of Montreal.
The plague rode the rails from Chicago to Montreal. A conductor on the Grand Trunk
Railway, George Longley, arrived at Bonaventure Station feverish and covered with fiery
eruptions on his hands, face, chest and arms. Since Longley was a Protestant, he was rushed to
Montreal General Hospital. There, the resident physician diagnosed him with smallpox, and then
refused to admit him!
When the patient presented himself at the gates of the old Hôtel-Dieu, a nun came to take
his name. "Why did you not take your disease to the English Hospital?" she asked. "I went there
but was refused," Longley replied. "Then we are happy to have you here," the sister said.
Longley survived, but his bedding infected Pélagie Robichaud, an Acadian girl who worked
in the laundry. She died on April 1, followed soon by her sister Marie.
By mid-April it was clear that smallpox was loose in the hospital and could not be
contained. The health department then made a catastrophic error. They discharged all patients
who did not appear sick. Of course many were in the stage of incubation and they set the virus
loose in the streets of Montreal.
Smallpox is one of the most contagious and loathsome diseases ever to menace humanity.
But the real tragedy of the smallpox epidemic in Montreal was that it was preventable. The
practice of vaccination, developed by Edward Jenner in England in 1796, was so widespread and
so successful that it was widely believed that the disease had been eradicated.
Unfortunately, French Canadians were suspicious of vaccination. They associated it with
British surgeons. Many of them lived in shabby, filthy, overcrowded tenements in the poorest
quarters of the city. They were hostile to attempts to help them or to contain the disease. They
were confused by the rhetoric of the anti-vaccination campaign and homeopathic advocates, who
called the vaccinators "charlatans," who were trying to carry out "l'empoisonment de nos
Meanwhile, Montreal was gaining the worldwide reputation of a city of plague, to be
avoided at all costs, like the cholera infested towns of Spain. It was now high summer in the city
and people with smallpox in their dwellings were seen on the streets along with their children,
whose scabs were still contagious. By July the disease had spread to St-Henri and Vaudreuil.
Every night more bodies were hauled up to Côte des Neiges cemetery in hearses marked
Even the eminent victims were dispatched quickly. When Sir Francis Hincks, a former
prime minister of the Province of Canada, died of the disease, his stinking corpse was hastily
buried in the early morning with only a few family present.
Attempts by the public health officials to enforce vaccination or isolation or even to carry
away the dead met with resistance and even rioting. Sanitation constables were assaulted as they
removed corpses from the worst-infected neighborhoods.
On September 28 the bells of Notre Dame rang out calling police from all over the city to
disperse the unruly mob that stalked the streets hurling stones and wild denunciations. Abbé
Filiatrault fulminated that Montreal was being punished for the wanton behavior of the populace
at last year's carnival, citing in particular the promiscuity of the toboggan slides.
The Red Death ran its course in November, finally exhausting the supply of unvaccinated
hosts. In the 15 months since George Longley had entered Montreal, the disease had taken more
than 5864 lives and had disfigured another 13 000. Nine of ten victims were French Canadians,
most of them children.
Thanks to the slow advances in medicine and public health, the smallpox epidemic of
Montreal was the last uncontained eruption of the disease in a modern city. In 1979 the World
Health Organization announced the global eradication of the disease, though the virus itself
remains ominously alive in military laboratories in the United States and Russia.
James H. Marsh is editor in chief of The Canadian Encyclopedia.