Of Pandemics and Papineau

As Montreal tentatively lifts some of its restrictions in the face of the COVID pandemic’s second wave, it is worth looking back at the city’s previous experience of epidemics. In 1832, Montreal, along with much of north America, was dealing with the second wave of the cholera epidemic. Here the politician Louis-Joseph Papineau is writing from the city to his wife, Julie, in the country with their children. There is much that we might recognize about our own situation, the worry and the sense of powerlessness, but also renewed attention to life’s smaller things. Some things do never change: there is worry about the effect on children’s education and development and of a husband who concerned about sending his wife the wrong crackers. 

My translation is not the best – Papineau, a great rhetorician, loves a run on sentence and punctuates erratically – but I think it gives a sense of the day-to-day concerns of the time, even if it is not as immediate as Julie’s.

Louis-Joseph Papineau by Alfred W. Boisseau (1878)

Montreal, 6 July 1832

Dear Mother,

The public health improves but is not re-established. Every day there are some new cases, which unfortunately, defy the resources of the doctors. Nevertheless, for eight days, there has been no case in the city, only in the suburbs, where yesterday, Monsieur Raciot, living with the Madam Osterout, died. The sickness has nearly ceased in the suburbs of Quebec and it is those of Sainte-Anne and Sainte-Antoine that suffer now, even if it is much less than in the first invasion. The illness of Dr [Robert] Nelson isn’t cholera but the extreme weakness that follows, a worrying exhaustion following the excessive fatigue seen among the ill, [and]an obstinate cough like you have sometimes had, which does not leave him able to close his eyes. I hope and believe that there is no danger but I cannot let go the chagrin and worry about his state.

I hope you all are in as good health as I am. Good sleep, good appetite, the good company of my father, de Côme and Viger, reading, meditation on the strange and terrible state of the land, all this keeps me usefully busy. The absence of my wife and children, the discomforts they are momentarily exposed to, worry for their health and that of so many other exposed parents, friends, and fellow citizens in this time of universal calamity are a subject of renewed alarms, to which it is appropriate, it is right and reasonable to oppose among such resignation, strength and courage that is possible so as to be always ready to see, to seize all the precautions which might diminish the danger. For as long as one is able to say in the morning: today I want to complete all my duties, and one is able to say in the evening, there is nothing I have missed, one has ten chances against one to not be attacked by the contagion, or, in the case of attack, to rediscover a strength of spirit, a moral energy which overcomes it.

I have spoken with the workers: it is difficult to get them, such is the great number of their employees who have left the town for the country. Nevertheless, on Monday, they started. I am not sending you lemons: you will have had some from M. Donegani and I will bring you some next week. The crackers are from the same worker and of the same pastry you like, some may not be the same shape so taste before censuring; bite them before biting the buyer. 

Adieu, beautiful and good and dear friend, have care of yourself and our children, kiss them for us both. The time lost for the cultivation of their spirit will be made up if they return with a body more robust and capable of application. Nevertheless, it is only by exercise that one gains the taste for application for the study of good principles and the sciences; and in this taste is found, more than in any circumstance, the chance to live happily and usefully to others, to escape vices and misery, to enjoy the constant friendship of honest people.

Adieu, salutations and friendship to all our parents, and my sincere wishes for the recovery of Madam Amiot whose condition sounds very dangerous.

Your sincere friend and faithful husband

L. J. Papineau

Louis-Joseph Papineau, Lettres à Julie. Ed. by Georges Aubin and Renée Blanchet (Sillery, QC: Septentrion, 2000) 249-50.  
Julie Papineau with her daughter Ezilda by Antoine Plamondon (1836)

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