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Outbreak: a short story

This is a work of historical fiction. The main character, Dr. John Slayter, was Health Officer for the Port of Halifax in 1866 when called upon to treat cholera-infected patients on a ship in the Halifax Harbour. The details concerning dates, his family life, interactions (with Charles Tupper, among others), treatment protocols, etc. are drawn from historical records. The characters of George, and Maggie and Seamus Murphy are imagined.

*            *            *

Dip, splash. Dip, splash.

Waves gently lapped against the boat.  The motion made me sleepy. Sitting in the bow, I followed the oars’ creaking trail through the water and up into the brisk morning air. Water droplets hopped over the black harbour and spread circular ripples in their wake. Pulling my focus closer I gazed up one oar over the shackle to George's bulging bicep and across his broad back.

I nodded off for a split second. When I snapped my head back up and opened my eyes, George turned toward me.

"This seems about as good a spot as any. What do you think, Doc Slayter?"

George had rowed far past Thrum Cap, the southernmost tip of McNab's Island, but I could still make out the distant speck of a girl watching us from the rocky shore.

"Little further George, please."

I sat opposite the crude pine coffin roped across the stern, protruding over the water. I wished it were a hallucination but I knew otherwise.

Unable to fight the urge, I again closed my eyes briefly and imagined myself on a lazy river, rowing with my wife, Mary, to a picnic spot where we'd while away a summer afternoon. Having been awake several nights tending to the sick I was overcome with fatigue and not entirely lucid. I trailed my fingers in the water hoping the chill would restore my presence of mind.

If someone had told me even one week ago what I was about to do, I'd not have believed it. A letter started it all.

The envelope was hand-delivered to my Argyle Street home. It was on official letterhead from the office of James Morrow, the shipping agent of Cunard Shipping Lines. He began with the date, April 9, 1866, and addressed me using my title, Dr. John Slayter, Health Officer, Port of Halifax.

"The S.S. England has entered the Halifax Harbour," James wrote. He asked that I inspect the ship and passengers, Irish and German immigrants en route from Liverpool, England to New York. His letter stated that 160 cases of cholera had been reported on the vessel and 46 souls had thus far perished. Seemingly by the minute passengers were coming down with diarrhea, vomiting, muscle cramps and dehydration.

Cholera. My heart sank. A disease this virulent and contagious was a serious threat to the citizens of Halifax.

I hastily began a new letter to my friend and colleague, Dr. Charles Tupper, Nova Scotia's Premier, Provincial Secretary, and Medical Officer for the City of Halifax. I updated him on the gravity of the situation and my plan to perform the inspection near the lighthouse on McNab Island's. I folded the paper and handed it, along with a 5-cent tip, to the delivery boy to take to Charles's office.

It was within my purview as Halifax's Health Officer to take on this important task, yet I wondered fleetingly if there weren't another physician who could do this job. A doctor without a wife and four boys to support, or a bustling private medical practice to maintain. I banished the thought from my mind, fastened the brass buttons on my coat and grabbed my medical bag.

My wife joined me in the parlour. "Going out?" she asked.

"Mary, dear, I must inspect a ship in the outer harbour."

Her face filled with concern. Like me, Mary had been reading in The Halifax Citizen about the London cholera epidemic and no doubt worried about what ills I might confront. "Will you be home for supper?" she asked hopefully.

"I don't expect so. You and the boys should eat without me. Until I can properly assess the seriousness of the situation I can't say how long I'll be needed."

We kissed and I laid my hands briefly on her stomach, just beginning to swell with our fifth child, thinking how lovely it would be if this one were finally a girl. Mary’s eyes followed me as I closed the door and began my brisk walk to where George docked his dory for transport to the S.S. England.

As we approached the England, a hulking iron and steel behemoth some 370 feet long and 50 feet wide, I filled with foreboding. The yellow quarantine flag flapped angrily in the biting April wind. My urge was to retreat to the city, back to Mary's comforting embrace, or even the relative safety of my hospital where patients presented with all manner of disease and disability but nothing as loathsome as cholera. However, my position demanded I take charge and I would not disappoint. Besides, in all my 36 years I had never shirked responsibility. I climbed the ladder and boarded, holding a handkerchief over my mouth and nose as some small measure of protection.

Captain Grace greeted me and gave me a status report as we navigated among the passengers and coffins crowding the deck. I had seen shocking things in my life but nothing compared to this. The living, dying and dead mixed together in an agonizing blur. 

"Water, sir, water please," pleaded a small girl in Irish brogue, tugging at my sleeve. She appeared about seven years old, the same age as my eldest son, Joseph.

"What's your name, child?" I asked her.

"Maggie Murphy," she replied.

"Well Maggie, I have no water with me but I promise you'll get some soon. A supply boat should be here shortly."

I laid a hand on her slight shoulder. Maggie looked up at me, dark hair framing her pale white face, her saucer-like blue eyes locking on mine. I had to turn away.

I was pulled in many directions and beseeched to cure the incurable. Some held rosaries in their hands and kneeled, praying loudly in Irish dialects. Others, worse off, lay groaning and doubled over with muscle spasms. Above the din, an argument broke out.

" 'Twas Germans who brought the plague on board. God will damn ye all to hell!" shouted a man. As he rose to point a finger at another man, I saw the seat of his trousers was soiled.

The second man rose unsteadily and replied as vociferously in German, and though I don't speak the language, it was obvious when he said "Irisch" and spat on the prow that he blamed the Irish for the cholera outbreak. I believe the argument would have led to blows were not both men too weak to fight.

So many needed help. Men and women hung their heads over the rail, vomiting into the water below. I despaired to see soiled bed linens bobbing along the white caps toward Halifax. I ordered all infected materials burned.

The supply boat arrived and I sought out Maggie. I offered her a canteen but instead of taking it, she grabbed my wrist with surprising strength and led me down slippery stairs to third class steerage quarters.

It was dark and crowded there, the ceilings no more than six feet high. Long lines of people snaked down narrow corridors waiting to use the two rudimentary privies. Although I breathed through my mouth, a fecal stench permeated my nostrils.

Maggie escorted me to a bunk where a man lay motionless.

"Dadaí, help has arrived."

I splashed water from the canteen onto my handkerchief and pressed it to the man's bluish forehead but he didn’t react. Then Maggie tilted the canteen to her father's lips but the water only dribbled down his stubbly chin. I bent to hear his breath but it was almost inaudible. Pressing my stethoscope onto his chest I confirmed that his heartbeat was weak.

"You're a good daughter Maggie," I told her. "Where's your mother?"

Her large blue eyes filled with tears. "Mamaí was delivered already to God, sir."

Without a doubt, should Maggie survive this ordeal, she would be an orphan. "What's your father's name, dear?"

"Seamus. Are you going to help him, doctor? Make him better, please. He’s all I’ve got left."

I spoke quietly. "I'm afraid I can't."

I whispered a few words of comfort into Seamus's ear but got no response. I handed Maggie a second canteen supplemented with mint and chamomile. "This one is only for you—no sharing," I directed her. Although it is not well understood how cholera spreads, the medical community presumes it is airborne and further there is a chance it’s waterborne. Maggie clutched the canteen and buried her sobbing face in her father's sleeve.

A priest was reading last rites to a patient on the bunk opposite, and I motioned to him that he should visit Seamus Murphy next.

Back on deck I ordered that the dead be separated from the living. The volunteers and crews created a pile of corpses 50 or 60 high. Those in rigor mortis were placed on the bottom while the floppy limbs of the newly dead protruded from the top at odd and obscene angles.

I requested help and was sent two physicians to assist me in the grim task of treating the infected. An old receiving vessel, the Pyramus, was sent down from the naval dockyard to act as hospital ship. Many were already symptomatic and I ordered some 400 people onto the Pyramus for treatment, which mainly involved isolating and rehydrating those not already in full renal failure.

The remaining 800 or so passengers I escorted onto McNab's Finlay’s Wharf to a primitive quarantine station where the others doctors and I performed cursory diagnoses by checking temperatures and pulses. The immigrants slept in hastily erected tents with wooden floors, and I could immediately see both shelter and food supplies were inadequate.

On April 14 I wrote to Charles Tupper: “The arrangements here are bad for want of help . . . more people on the shore are dying of starvation. When food is sent the strong seize it and the sick and the old who have no friends suffer.”

My two medical colleagues and I barely rested. When not attending to the sick, we watched the dead bodies pile up faster than coffins could be constructed on the England. They were taken to Thrum Cap, the southernmost tip of the island attached to the rest of McNab’s by a rocky sandbar so narrow it is only accessible by boat. I asked George to row me there so I could assess the situation, and saw that graves were not being dug quickly enough. The sight of more corpses awaiting burial was bad enough but when I caught sight of Seamus Murphy's body tossed crudely onto the pile it was more than I could bear.

Charles had insisted that all dead bodies must be buried at Thrum Cap in deep graves as soon as possible after death. How idealistic of Charles, I thought, to issue such a directive from his comfortable office. Were the Premier standing aside me now, breathing in the sour milk scent of human decay, he would have been aware of the impossibility of accommodating this request. I hoped Charles would pardon me for what I was about to do and God would consider this an act of mercy. Yes, I would be breaking quarantine, but at this moment the rules seemed pointless and cruel.

I pulled the remains of Seamus down with my bare hands and maneuvered him awkwardly into the last available coffin. With no grave to receive him, I resolved to bury Seamus in the Halifax Harbour. It was risky dumping an infected body into the water. What if cholera was indeed waterborne and the disease washed up onto Halifax’s shores? It was I who gave the directive not to throw infected materials into the water yet here I was, prepared to dispose of a body there. I pushed the thought from my mind and acted impulsively. Seamus may have suffered an undignified death but I would make it up to him with a dignified burial.

George fetched Maggie and rowed her to Thrum Cap to bid her father good-bye. I averted my eyes when she dropped to her knees beside the coffin and began to wail. With the coffin then roped across the stern, George and I climbed into the dory and pushed off.

Dip, splash. Dip, splash.

Maggie stood on the beach watching us, her frame growing more miniscule the further out George paddled. I made sure we were out of Maggie's eyesight so she wouldn't have to witness our deed. 

“George,” I now called to his back, “do you think it will rain?” So shaken was I by what we were about to do I sought to restore normalcy with small talk.

 “Yes, I’d say she just might, doc. Them clouds don’t look friendly and there’s nothing more common in April than a spatterin’ of rain. Don’t bother me none, though. I got used to it years back.”

It was both odd and a relief to chat about the weather. George was not a man burdened by doubt or even contemplation. He simply carried out the tasks asked of him. He didn’t even ask why we were doing it—yet I was compelled to try to explain, to make sense of it.

“George, I appreciate your helping me with this body. As you probably suspect, this man died of cholera just hours ago. The dead bodies are piling so high I felt I had no choice."

Although I was unable to stop shaking, chilled by my actions and the bitter April air, sweat glistened on George’s brow as he tugged at the oars. 

“No need to explain to me, Dr. Slayter," he called over his shoulder. "I seen you helping them sick Germans and Irish folks and knows you to be an honourable man. If you says it's the right thing to do, well then it is.”

His assuredness made me uncomfortable. Since he first rowed me to the England George, along with everyone else, had entrusted me to do the right thing. If only it were clearer what the right thing to do was. I became a doctor to heal people, and at that I was failing miserably.

"Here, sir?" George called out.

Maggie was a speck in the distance. I nodded and gazed at the horizon. “Oceans the world over have claimed the lives of many. In fact, when I think about being buried on land under six feet of dirt with bugs soon crawling into every orifice of my body, I’m not sure I wouldn’t prefer to decay in salt water myself.”

“I hear you sir," George said as he deftly untied the ropes securing the coffin. "Ready?" He asked, positioning himself on the top right corner.

I grabbed the top left corner. "On the count of three. One." My tired brain flashed me an image of Maggie's face. "Two." Her words: Dadaí, help has arrived, echoed in my ears. "Three."

We tipped the casket upright. It slipped from our grasp and plunged into the harbour.  It descended more slowly than I expected, the light pine easily visible for several interminable seconds against the dark water. I grabbed a dog-eared bible from my breast pocket and began reading the Committal prayer number 406 § 4. "Lord God, By the power of your Word you stilled the chaos of the primeval seas, you made the raging waters of the Flood subside, and calmed the storm on the sea of Galilee. As we commit the body of our brother, Seamus Murphy, to the deep, grant him peace and tranquility. . ."

It rained. I tilted my head upwards so my sou’ester was unable to keep the water from my face. I welcomed its cold cleansing and let the drops soak my face. We turned and rowed back to McNab's.

Dip, splash. Dip, splash.

By April 16, conditions were improving. There were police on the Pyramus and McNab’s Island, while teams fumigated the S.S. England. The Sisters of Charity sent three nuns who comforted the sick with prayers. I was hopeful things were turning around and wrote to Charles: “About seven deaths last night on the Hulk and two on the Island. We have only about 12 more to die in the Hulk and at most four on the Island. The disease, I am sure will then be at an end.”

After retiring my quill, I started feeling unwell, wore down, no doubt, by the relentless job of administering to the sick. I checked on Maggie, who although still shaken appeared in good health under the excellent care of the Sisters of Charity, and asked one of my assistants to take charge temporarily, until I could recover from this feeling.

*            *            *

Dr. John Slayter died on April 17, 1866, the last new case of cholera to die on McNab's. He was buried on McNab’s Island on April 18 with full Masonic honours. Later that afternoon, the S.S. England sailed for New York, having completed the quarantine regulations. Various historical accounts suggest Dr. Slayter ordered if not himself disposed of several victims in the outer Halifax Harbour. The need for clearer guidelines became apparent and Nova Scotia passed its first Quarantine Act in 1866 shortly after the epidemic passed.  The epidemic claimed an estimated 200 people, most of them immigrants, but this number also included Dr. Slayter and a Halifax child and her mother who handled contaminated canvas that washed up on the Halifax shore. A small number of grave markers can still be found on Thrum Cap today.



Cameron, I. A. (2007). Quarantine: What is Old is New. Halifax: New World Publishing.

Laffoley, S. (2009). Death Ship of Halifax Harbour. Halifax: Pottersfield Press.



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