In one of those great moments you could call coincidence or synchronicity, as I was writing my post on The Famine Plot, I heard an interview with author Kathryn Miles about her book on one of the “famine ships” that carried Ireland’s emigres to new worlds. Also called coffin ships for their appallingly high rates of shipboard mortality, they were barely a step above dying of starvation in the streets, and more than one story is recorded of people succumbing to hunger and disease while still in the harbor.
The remarkable confluence of four men made the Jeanie Johnston a exception to this rule. In the New World, there was John Munn, a renowned shipbuilder who kept his workers employed during an economic downturn by building the vessel at a time when there was no market for new ships. In Ireland, there was Nicholas Donovan, an upstart Catholic businessman who had made his fortune and was determined to find profit in the successive waves of Irish people fleeing or being driven off their land. And aboard ship, Captain James Attridge and Dr. Richard Blennerhassett were determined to maintain the health of their passengers during the journey.
Of the four, Dr. Blennerhassett seemed to me the most heroic. In a time when cholera was ravaging all of Europe, he made sure that clean drinking water and efficient waste disposal was available. He encouraged exercise and cleaning of bedding that prevented an outbreak of typhus-carrying lice. And he spent time in the passenger hold watching for any outbreaks of illness that might spread. While sailing conditions didn’t always allow full practice of this regimen, it was successful enough that Blennerhassett did not lose a single passenger on any of the voyages he took. Unfortunately that didn’t prevent him from being lumped in with the incompetents that sailed on most coffin ships, and he was personally attacked in legal actions and the press.
In addition to the dangerous ocean crossing, emigrants faced hardships when arriving in their hoped-for new homes. In Canada, all ships were held until they could be inspected for cholera and typhus, and the flood of victims could not be contained in the fever sheds set up by the ports’ medical inspectors. Disease swept through ships stuck in the St. Lawrence river while waiting their turn, even as thousands more died ashore. When they were able to land, some passengers still carried disease, and were blamed for outbreaks on land. Mobs rioted to prevent them staying and local governments pushed them out of town to starve, freeze, or make their own way.
Even here there were heroes – the doctors, nurses, priests, and ordinary people who came forward to help the immigrants, all too frequently at the cost of their own lives. Orphaned children were adopted, and families given shelter and opportunity in the New World.
Miles folds another story into the narrative, bringing it all the way down to the personal. She tracks the story of Daniel and Margaret Reilly, a young married couple who left their farm to sail aboard the Jeanie Johnston, and their son Nicholas, who was born aboard ship. Daniel would work on the railroad, buy land, and start a farm in Michigan, while Margaret raised their children. Nicholas would marry, raise six children, run his own business, and own his own home. An immigrant family, overcoming prejudice in a new culture, finding their way into a niche and succeeding – that’s the real strength of the United States.
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