by Peter F. Stevens
In 1847, a crisis unfolded nearly daily along Boston’s docks. Leaking, lurching vessels aptly dubbed “coffin ships” unloaded hordes of ragged Irish passengers who had fled the Great Famine, An Gorta Mor. Some 25,000 arrived in “Black ‘47,” and with thousands wracked by “ship fever,” likely a form of typhus, Boston officials so feared a citywide epidemic that they ordered a medical receiving room erected on Long Wharf. As overwhelmed physicians dispatched the gravely ill to hospitals, the city of Boston frantically made emergency preparations to set up Deer Island as “the place of quarantine for the Port of Boston.”
The swelling influx of Irish crowding Boston-bound famine ships posed such a health risk that local leaders deemed it “a settled matter that the City must support a Physician at Deer Island, and that that is the suitable and proper place to attend to all the nuisance and sickness accompanying navigation…”
The Deer Island Quarantine Hospital and Almshouse was established in 1847. All famine ships plodding into Boston Harbor and judged by port officials to be “foul and infected with any malignant or contagious disease” moored at Deer Island until the port physician quarantined Irish men, woman, and children suffering from typhus, cholera, and an array of fevers and oversaw the “cleaning and purification” of ships. Only then could the healthier immigrants set foot in Boston. From 1947 to 1849, approximately 4,186 people were quarantined at Deer Island “as a precautionary measure to ward off a pestilence that would have been ruinous to the public health and business of the city.” Not all were to make it off the island.
Today, an effort continues to erect a memorial to the immigrants buried on Deer Island that would be visible from virtually every point of the harbor’s edge.
The brainchild of Dr. William O’Connell and his wife, the late Rita O’Connell, the memorial would stand as a poignant and dignified symbol of the Irish who fled their famine-gutted country and survived the terrifying Atlantic crossing only to perish on Deer Island. Rita O’Connell once noted, “It’s important we don’t forget the stories of people such as Patrick J. McCarthy, who lost his mother, father, and six siblings on Deer Island but went on to graduate from Harvard and become mayor of Providence.”
Even before Bostonians grasped the health hazard posed by Famine ships clotted with direly ill passengers, the Irish newcomers were not welcomed. In 1847, the city was changing – and its Yankee population did not welcome that change. As the shiploads of Famine Irish arrived almost daily, Anglo-Protestant families who had ruled over the city since their Puritan ancestors set foot in the region in the 1620s embraced still the anti-Irish, anti-Catholic prejudice of Boston’s founders. Ephraim Peabody, whose family ranked high among Boston’s founding fathers, lamented that the Irish were infesting “proper Bostonians’ ” turf with a horrific “social revolution.” As the city’s population swelled from some 115,000 to over 150,000 in just 1847, the newcomers quickly discovered that they were not welcome. They had escaped the Famine only to find themselves in a new battle for survival among what historian George S. Potter dubbed “the chilly Yankee icicles.” The age-old prejudices that the Irish had encountered on the “old sod” now confronted them in the New World, and even though some one million Irish poured into America from 1845-1850, the roughest reception awaited them in Boston. For many, the first and last site they would see in America was the Deer Island Quarantine Station.
It was scant surprise that so many Irish reaching Boston were sick after the perilous six-to-eight-week Atlantic crossing from Famine-ravaged Ireland. During the Great Hunger, over a million people perished in Ireland from starvation and associated diseases between 1845 and 1852. Over two million emigrated to the United States, Canada, Australia, and other sites, and roughly six percent of the Irish emigrants fleeing to Boston and other North American cities died at sea from disease or went down with vessels ill-suited to the crossing.
Before Boston-bound Irish caught their first glimpse of the city or Deer Island, they endured physical and emotional nightmares that few had ever dreamed to encounter. The logs and records of Famine ships sailing to Boston and elsewhere recorded unforgettable scenes of human fear and misery. In an 1848 letter penned by British official Stephen E. De Vere, the description of the berths is chilling: “The passengers have not more [room] than their coffins.”
A Parliamentary Report of the Select Committee to Investigate the Operation of the Passengers Acts related: “I have known cases of females who had to sit up all night upon their boxes in the steerage,” said one eyewitness, “because they could think not of going into bed with a strange man.” With men and women packed into steerage so tightly, there were scant or no means to preserve even a semblance of privacy or modesty. Fevers spread rapidly and lethally.
Irish men, women, and children, all thrashing with sickness, crying out in their fitful sleep, and dazed by the growing realization that no matter whether their ship went down in a storm or disgorged them at Deer Island, they had probably had their final glimpse of Ireland, of home. The desperate enormity of each step and every Famine refugee gathered at a ship’s gunwales had taken materialized as Ireland faded in the distance. An elderly woman slumped against the rail of a coffin ship and exclaimed, “God save me. Old as I am, I should never have left Ireland. Who knows where I’ll be buried now.”
For some 721 to 850 Irish – various sources place the number as high as 1,000 – the burial place proved to be Deer Island’s old Rest Haven Cemetery between 1847 to 1850. Of 4,816 persons admitted to the hospital from its opening, in June 1847, to January 1, 1850, 4,069 were ailing; At least 759 (15.8 per cent) died on the island. Figures as to how many were buried in an unmarked grave vary because a number of bodies were claimed by family members and buried elsewhere in or around Boston. Those who were unclaimed – literally dying alone – were laid to rest on the island at the city of Boston’s expense.
Many immigrants who were not weak enough for quarantine on Deer Island did not last long in Boston’s North End Irish tenements and rooming houses where conditions were little better than the crowded coffin ships. A Boston Committee of Internal Health study of the slums related that the Irish languished in “a perfect hive of human beings, without comforts and mostly without common necessaries; in many cases huddled together like brutes, without regard to age or sex or sense of decency. Under such circumstances self-respect, forethought, all the high and noble virtues soon die out, and sullen indifference and despair or disorder, intemperance and utter degradation reign supreme.”
The lack of sanitation in the slums, or “rookeries,” unleashed a wide array of disease, cholera proving the most lethal. Of Irish children born in Boston during the Famine years, approximately 60 percent died before the age of six.