The Greater Miseries
postcard, postmarked 1906
It is easy to drift off into historical reverie: the bright whistle
and cheers from a crowded steamer reversing from a wharf with a
wafting of coal smoke; white sails beaded across the horizon; the
clop of hoofs echoing down an elm-lined street at evening; piano
music drifting out across lamp-lit porches...
Allow me to dash your sepia-toned recollections with the cold
sea-water of reality.
lifesaving print, ca. 1890
An average year between 1890 and 1910 saw the total loss of 409
vessels on or near the coasts and rivers of the United States; lives
lost annually averaged 565. Even when factoring out the 1904 extreme
of 1457, largely due to the 1000+ victims of the General Slocum
steamer fire in New York City, the average number perishing annually
in maritime disasters was over 500.
life-ring from steamer Portland
Maine's most grievous sinking was the loss of 192 aboard the steamer
Portland, which foundered in an 1898 November gale. (For reference,
1496 were lost aboard the Titanic in 1912.) Vessels damaged but
surviving, for reasons of collision, storm, stranding, etc.,
averaged about 1000 annually for the same two decades.
A portrait of the physical woes of American seamen can be
extrapolated from the records of the Marine-Hospital Service, the
precursor to the Public Health Service. Established by the federal
government in 1798 and financed through vessel tonnage duties, this
agency was founded to provide medical relief to mariners.
In 1886, 5% of all seamen admitted nation-wide died of accidental
injuries. Within the hospitals of its North Atlantic district, which
included Maine, there were 327 total dispensary-treated and hospital
admission injuries; not surprisingly, a third of these were
contusions and wounds of upper and lower extremities.
eelskin bandaging, ca. 1850
A year 2000 International Labor Organization "Hazard Data Sheet" for
merchant seamen could be transposed, with the exception of
micro-wave exposure, to year 1850 virtually unchanged. Of 32 hazards
listed, falling off the ship is number one, followed by a variety of
falls aboard ship, cargo cave-ins, fire, explosions, entanglements,
and "Cuts, stabs and amputations caused by sharp parts of cargo,
ship mechanisms, mooring lines, ropes, chains, etc." Last on the
list is exposure to port hazards: crime, alcohol, drugs and
ship's medicine chest, ca. 1850
Again using the 1886 Marine-Hospital Service North Atlantic district
as a representative population, of 1538 mariners treated for
"General" diseases, 462 were serious hospital admissions.
Tuberculosis was the most fatal, killing 6 of 30 admitted, but
malaria (144 admitted) was the most endemic. Not surprising, as
trade to mosquito infested areas of the Caribbean basin, Mexico, and
Central American ports was prolific and continual even for smaller
U.S. coasting schooners.
fever powder from ca. 1850 medicine chest
pressed tin pharmacy sign, ca. 1930
Also not surprising was the second highest malady among a population
of mariners: venereal disease, which moved about the world aboard
ships. Spread by seamen, soldiers, or merchants, most harbor cities
had endemic host populations. An early round of serological testing
established that 5 to 19 percent of New York City males were
syphilitic in 1901.
laudanum for pain, blue vitriol for running sores
In 1886, the wards of the Marine-Hospital Service, North Atlantic
District, treated 434 seamen for primary or secondary syphilis, and
gonorrhea. This was 11% of all district cases, including general
disease, local disease, poisonings, and injuries; 84 were multi-day
admissions; one death from secondary syphilis occurred that year, in
As detailed in the 1886 Marine-Hospital Annual Report, this
Massachusetts-born mariner, "C.C.", who at age 43 did not survive
his fourth admission in three years for his advancing syphilis,
still seems to have done his part in spinning the yarn of the
wandering Jack Tar. "His personal history was romantic", serving
during the 1857 Sepoy Mutiny in India, and with Gordon in the 1862
Chinese War. Refusing hospital food, he survived on sardines, ham,
and cabbage even as his nose and sinuses rotted away to expose his
"A night with Venus; a month with mercury," - said of syphilis treatment
shark vertebrae cane
If you survived birth in 1900, 51 years was your expected allotment
(78 today). The top two killers in 1900 were pneumonia/influenza
(202 deaths per 100,000) and tuberculosis (189), and they waited
alongside the whole length of one's life. Heart disease was 4th
(137), accidents were 7th (72); cancer was 8th (64).
By 1950, the balance was shifting: Heart disease held sway at No. 1
(355 deaths per 100K); accidents were 4th (60); pneumonia/influenza
was 6th (31); TB had declined to 7th (22).
By 1998, a more familiar pattern had evolved: No.1 killer heart
disease is rampant at 268 deaths per 100K; accidents are 5th , but
at a lower rate (36); pneumonia/influenza remain at 6th, and
slightly higher (34); TB has dropped right off the 10 leading causes
of death list.
doll's high chair, ca. 1900; Commander Peary doll, ca. 1910
Childhood was as fraught with peril as old age: the mortality rate
of a three-year old in 1910 was about the same as a 55-year old.
Diphtheria, measles, diarrheal diseases, whooping cough, influenza,
typhoid, and tuberculosis claimed 30 in 1000 before age twenty (less
than 2 today).
infant's shirt made aboard Bath-built (1849) ship Zenobia , by Mary Jane Hinkley Peters, wife of Capt. Benjamin Peters, while in the Mediterranean, ca. 1853
Marriage is still not entered into lightly, but its physical risks
have dropped out of the commitment. In the past, the inevitability
of multiple pregnancies, whether desired or not, repeatedly exposed
a woman to a significant cause of death: childbirth. In 1900, the
death rate from problems of pregnancy or delivery in Maine was 5
maternal deaths for every 1000 births; a woman in her child-bearing
years was more likely to die from complications of pregnancy and
childbirth than from any other factor.
(l. to r.) bar shot, ca. 1820; shell, 1898; shell, ca. 1945; ball,
1898; grapeshot canister, 1898
If women were obliged to bear children, men were obliged to go to
war. The War of the Great Rebellion, as it was then known, surpassed
disease and accident as the most likely cause of death for men
between 1861 and 1865. When battlefield casualties are combined with
victims of wartime disease, accident, and prisoners-of-war, a rate
of 3254 deaths per 100,000 of the combined Union and Confederacy
male population can be determined. Of the 70,107 Mainers involved,
9393 (over 13%) died of such combined causes. More died of disease
(5257) than died on the battlefield (3184).
USN cutlass, 1864
In contrast, an American male in 1898 was more likely to die of
cirrhosis of the liver (12.9 per 100K) than from combat-related
causes of the Spanish American War (6.6 per 100K). Forty-four Maine
men died in this conflict, all from disease. (For reference, the
WWII rate was about 610 per 100,000 of the overall national male
'bulls-eye' canteen, 1863
rat trap from Bath-built (1878) schooner John Bracewell
"Like rats leaving a sinking ship," - a phrase we still commonly
use. In the past, rats thrived in the greater presence of livestock;
horses, with accompanying feed grain, fodder, stall bedding, and
manure, were widespread in urban areas.
illus. from 1901 N.Y. City quarantine pamphlet
The greater misery of rats was the bubonic plague that was spread by
their fleas. Rats moved freely about the world aboard ships; the
dark recesses of ship holds and interstices of the hull were ideal
vermin habitat. Plague outbreaks invariably began in harbor towns.
The tin funnel rat-guards encircling a docked ship's hawsers were of
limited deterrence, as rats can swim ashore from a ship; but with
attention paid to ropes, ladders, staging, or other floating
purchase points, they can only return to a ship up the lines from
Works Progress Administration rat rappers, New Orleans, 1934
Bubonic plague outbreaks in San Francisco in 1902 and after the 1906 earthquake prompted rat eradication programs initiated by the U.S. Public Health Service. After a 1919 outbreak in New Orleans, a typical control program ran for several years. In 1922, by employing 60 trappers setting 10,000 traps a day, 181,326 rats were caught; 2239 were caught aboard outgoing vessels; 9,993 vessels were inspected for rat-guards; 757 vessels were fumigated with cyanide gas. In each such case, a written statement from the captain or first officer was required, accounting for every crew member.
In Portland, Maine, during a vermin survey in the winter of 1921, 2450 rats were trapped and examined for plague; none was found. The last U.S. incidence of human-to-human plague transmission was in Los
WPA rat-guard inspector, New Orleans, 1934
Front St., Bath, Maine, 1894
The calamity of fire is a universal misery. "Fire!" has provoked the
same response for hundreds, if not thousands, of years. In this
unique fear we are still viscerally united with people of the past,
whether Rome, 64 A.D., or London, 1666, or San Francisco, 1906.
Were there more fires in Bath a hundred years ago? A glance at the
Bath Fire Dept.'s call-out log for year 1913 may be of interest.
detail from 1851-1924 Bath fire run log, courtesy of Bath Fire Department
1913 is of, well, burning significance to us, because the Percy &
Small shipyard buildings and neighborhood came close to being
totally engulfed by flames early in the morning of June 7, that
year. That fire is the second entry in the left column on this page,
the ditto marks. Two days before, a previous fire had been
successfully snuffed at the yard.
"Sparks from Fire Room" is entered as the cause by the BFD. The
boiler for the shipyard's steambox was incorporated into the
blacksmith/machine shop building; the yard's night watchman had been
tending the banked fire for the boiler, but somehow the fire had
engaged the structure by the time he rang in the first alarm.
Bath Daily Times, June 7, 1913
Burning debris spread by a strong south wind prompted a second
alarm. Complete disaster was averted by the combined companies of
Bath's four fire houses, local hydrants and three steam pumpers. The
blaze was contained, barely; the charred adjacent wall of the paint
and linseed oil-filled Paint & Trunnel Shop can be seen today
(below); the large near-by Mill roof was kept soaked, as was the
surrounding underfoot layer of wood chips and planer shavings.
As noted in the log, in the six months from June through December,
1913, 20% of BFD's fire calls involved insurance claims of over
$1000, a sign of a fire of large magnitude. (A ca.1900 dollar's
purchasing power in today's dollars is about $25.) Interestingly,
the Percy & Small fire had no insurance value noted, which
presumably means that no coverage was held to cover the total loss
of the blacksmith shop, its machinery, and the tools within.
23% of the June-December Bath fire call-outs were related to
smoking, both small ($200, "Boys smoaking"), medium ($1000, "Pipe in
coat"), and large ($28,000, "Smoaking"). Note that "Smoaking" was
the cause of the first P&S shipyard fire, and also one at the New
England Ship Building Co. within the same week. (Matches and/or
smoking was the top fire loss cause in year 1918, as in most years
of the 20th century.)
"Sparks Locomotive", "Rats & Matches", and "Overturned Lamp" are
multiply-listed causes virtually unknown today. "Defective chimney",
"Forest Fire [July 4]", "Elect. Wiers", and "Supposed incendiary"
are still with us.
Bath Box Co. fire, 1946
In 1851, there were 24 call-outs logged in Bath; 1913 logged 79;
1924 logged 89. In 2006, BFD responded to 319 (non-ambulance) calls;
only 10 of these required equipment greater than a hand-held
extinguisher. But remember, a 'small' fire is simply a large fire
that was put out sooner; the other 309 'small' fires were on their
way to being large, but a timely response nipped them in the bud.
On one hand, as a town's population grows through time, so does the
probability of fire; on the other hand, improvements in alarm box
networks, increased distribution of local telephones, and the
greater speed, mobility, and effectiveness of arriving equipment
have reduced the chances of small fires becoming more serious.
'Foamite' extinguisher wagon, ca. 1934
When these factors are coupled with greater fire safety awareness,
and advances in the fire resistance of building materials, it is
evident that the fire department of a hundred years ago received
fewer alarms, but was more likely to find a fully involved structure
fire when arriving at the scene.
My particular thanks to Bath Fire Dept., Chief Hinds and
Fire Fighter (and Dept. Archivist) P.S. Thomas for their help and
dry powder extinguisher, ca. 1910, made in Augusta, Maine
Let me know if you stopped by down here!
Chris Hall , Registrar
lifeboat print, 93.90.05 Burden Collection
Portland life ring, 65.1197, Warren S. Anthony
peglegs, 86.85.36, 98.102.15, Burden Collection
eelskin bandages, 69.3470.16, Burden Collection
medicine chest & contents, 92.123.256, Burden Collection
gonorrhea sign, 2004.066.75, Burden Collection
shark bone cane 78.85.42, Mrs. L. M. C. Smith
ear trumpet, 78.085.90, Mrs. L. M. C. Smith
bedpan, 77.121.840, Burden collection
doll's high chair, 78.085.04, Mrs. L.M.C. Smith
Commander Peary doll, 78.085.82, Mrs. L.M.C. Smith
baby shirt, 92.81.1 Edward P. Small
cannon ball, 66.1405, Mrs. Everett White
bar shot, 69.3303, Douglas Leaman
smaller shell 66.1404, Mrs. Everett White
5" shell, 97.106.2, Just Wold
grapeshot canister, 2006.10.1, David Switzer
cutlass 80.96, Olive H. Stratten
canteen, 75.120.54, John Osborne/GAR
rattrap, 99.100.133 Burden Collection
foamite hose reel, 74.107, Bath Iron Works
extinguisher, U6136, Museum Salvage