Wakes, beggars and ‘bad air’: When typhus killed 65,000 people in Ireland
Irish newspapers have been covering the devastating effects of disease for centuries
A disappointing grain yield and particularly wet weather created the perfect conditions for typhus to ravage an already-vulnerable population between 1816 and 1819. Illustration: iStock
An epidemic, a scramble to deal with it and much space in newsprint; it’s not an unfamiliar pattern in newspaper archives.
One of the worst disease outbreaks, in Irish terms, to make headlines was a typhus fever epidemic in the early 19th century. Between 1816 and 1819, typhus racked up 1.5 million cases and killed about 65,000 people in Ireland, according to estimates, with the greatest rate of mortality recorded in the summer of 1817.
In truth, it was likely a problem before that, but the gravity wasn’t fully appreciated until it began to affect higher classes. That’s according to a report on the disease’s progression published in 1821 by doctors Barker and Cheyne. The work, comprising two volumes, collects official documents, recommendations and accounts of cases from doctors throughout the country.
A disappointing grain yield and particularly wet weather in the period before the onset of the epidemic created the perfect conditions whereby the disease could ravage an already-vulnerable population. It spread quickly, particularly among the poor.
A number of factors were blamed; prominent among them was the abundance of wandering “beggars” and the popularity of holding of wakes for dead typhus patients. Gathering in cramped places with corpses was a needless hazard that helped spread the fever quickly among affected populations, doctors concluded.
The 1821 report reads: “Another circumstance, which we have good reason to believe tends, in a very great degree, to the extension of contagion, is the practice so universal amongst the poor of waking, as it is called, the corpse of their deceased friend, a ceremony which, from force of habit and ill-directed feeling, brings together a large assemblage of persons, generally in a close ill ventilated apartment, in immediate contact with infection in its most active state; and such persons, previously free from fever, too often carry it to their respective homes, and thereby spread it amongst habitations and families, that would otherwise, in all human probability, have escaped it.”
There were calls for a ban to be placed on wakes, and in Delgany, Co Wicklow, it was reported that avoiding the events, while also refusing “beggars”, had benefited some locals: “In the parish of Delgany, county of Wicklow, the small farmers and labourers who refused admission to beggars, and who ceased to frequent wakes, escaped the fever, while others of the same class suffered; and some months after a fever had gone through a family in the Wicklow mountains, the disease was frequently re-introduced by beggars from Dublin.”
Typhus fever is transmitted by lice. Headaches, chills, high fever, coughing and severe muscular pain accompany an infection, along with dark spots on the body after a number of days.
Cleanliness and hygiene have much to do with preventing the spread of the disease. Authorities in the 19th century knew cleanliness was important, but they mainly blamed poor ventilation for the spread of typhus; its association with lice was not yet established.
“The proof here is easy,” wrote Dr Robert John Thornton in a letter to the Freeman’s Journal on November 6th, 1817. “The connexion betwixt life and the air we breathe is now so well understood, that I scarcely need mention, that the motion of the heart, circulation of the blood, animal heat, digestion - all these depend upon the oxygene or vital air in our atmosphere...”
Within the doctors’ report from 1821 were various snippets of advice issued to the public at the time:
Though you may have sent your friend to the hospital, yet the infection in all probability still remains in your rooms, and about your clothes. To remove it, you are advised to use, without delay, the following means:
- Let all your doors and windows be immediately thrown open, and let them remain so throughout the day.
- Let the clothes you wear be steeped in cold water, and afterwards washed: and let any chest, box, drawer, &c in the infectious house be emptied and cleansed.
- Let the house, room, or cabin from whence the patient is removed be immediately cleansed; all dirty clothes, utensils, &c immersed in cold water; the bed clothes, first steeped in cold water, then wrung out, and washed in warm water and soap.
- If you lie on straw beds, let the straw be immediately burned, and fresh straw provided, and let the ticken be steeped in cold water.
- Whitewash all your rooms, and the entrance to them, with lime slaked in the place where you intend to use it, and while it continues bubbling and hot.
- Scrape your floor with a shovel, and wash it clean; also your furniture.
- Keep in the open air for the space of a week as much as you can.
- And lastly, wash your face, hands, and feet, and comb your hair well every morning at least.
Typhus was not the only disease to kill tens of thousands of people in Ireland during those decades. More than 50,000 people died from cholera during the 1830s, according to the 1841 census report, with more than 46,000 of those deaths occurring in three years of epidemic, between 1832 and 1834.
Cholera is a bacterial infection caused by water and food contamination. Acute, sudden diarrhoea can cause severe hydration and death. The World Health Organizastion primarily links cholera with poor access to clean water and proper sanitation.
The census report from 1941 notes: “Cholera prevailed most in the towns of the civic districts; and ... in 1833 it had spread throughout the country at large, and prevailed most in the rural districts.”
Dublin had many cases. A news story in the Belfast Newsletter, April 3rd, 1832, detailed a Dublin case before the central board of health, before which “reports were laid before them of the deaths of a man and two women, in the neighbourhood of Summer-hill, and of the sickness of a young woman who had been at the wake and funeral of the man”.
The census report identifies Sligo, Drogheda and Belfast as hotbeds for the disease. The 1832 outbreak in Sligo has since been associated with the works of Bram Stoker, whose mother apparently related vivid descriptions of the devastation to her son. A report in the Tralee Mercury on September 1st, 1832, also notes some “melancholy details” of the illness, which “broke out with fearful violence” in the town: “In almost every case where the sick person died in his own house, three or four of the same family have been attacked, thus paralysing every exertion and rendering them incapable of any effort to subdue the virulence of the plague.”
Cholera, that decade, accounted for one in every 7.36 deaths from all causes; by comparison, influenza killed 10,575 people, or one in 112.28 deaths.
Influenza would make headlines during a well-known pandemic that gripped the world and newspaper headlines. “Spanish flu”, as it is commonly known, killed millions worldwide between 1918 and 1919 and more than 20,000 in Ireland, according to most estimates.
A search through the archive of The Irish Times reveals a more familiar news cycle. By the early 20th century, though many daily newspapers were still mostly dense journals of finely printed columns, the coverage more resembles modern media treatment. Between 1918 and 1920, the stories progress from reports of far-off illnesses, to cases racking up at home, to reaction and editorial comment and a number of advertisers taking advantage.
Tragic vignettes stand out. One story, labelled “A Dublin Family’s Sad Fate”, recounted “a melancholy result of the influenza epidemic”, which quickly portrays the severity with which the illness gripped families.
Frances Phelan was aged 27 when she died, according to the report of her inquest published in The Weekly Irish Times on Saturday, March 1st, 1919. The report was a reprint of a story that had run during the week, detailing the circumstances under which Mrs Phelan’s body was found. Mrs Phelan lived with her husband, their baby, and her sister – identified as Miss Phelan in the reports.
When her neighbours at Corporation Buildings on Corporation Street (now James Joyce Street in Dublin 1) became concerned after not hearing from any of the family, the door of the rooms they rented was forced open. “Mrs Phelan was then found dead in bed, and her husband and child were lying beside her, and Miss Phelan was stretched across the foot of the bed,” reads the report. “Phelan himself, the child, and Miss Phelan were removed to the South Dublin Union Hospital, where he (the Coroner) was informed they had since died.”
A postmortem of Mrs Phelan’s body showed her lungs were heavily congested, and the cause of death was declared as pneumonia, as a result of influenza.
The story of the Phelans sits within a front page wrap of the progress of the influenza epidemic – there were many such updates in those months. The same story carries mentions of Sir Charles Cameron, who was superintendent medical officer of health – and well into his late 80s – when the epidemic began. The advice issued by Cameron at the time was “to avoid crowded assemblies, to keep oneself warm and in good condition”, and at the first sign of illness, go to bed and summon the doctor.
‘Close the schools’
At the point of that report, medical doctors were “strongly recommending that the best method of preventing the spread of the infection would be to close the schools, the theatres and other places of assembly, and even the churches, for a brief period”. Cameron, too, published a number of letters in The Irish Times advocating the closure of schools – and many did throughout the epidemic.
When it was up to many of the proprietors and patrons of amusements and theatres about whether or not the establishments closed, The Irish Times was clear on its position in its editorial commentary on February 22nd, 1919: “We realise that that closing of houses of entertainment would cause much financial loss, and that the postponement of dances at the height of the season would be a disappointment to many.
“Yet, the question remains: Are the providers and seekers of amusement prepared to ‘carry on’ in view of the risk that their action may involve to the health of the community?”