Death on the Irish Sea

by Dr. George Nielsen, Special Features Editor
The optimism of the Wends as they left their European homeland for a new home in Texas was soon tempered by the recurrent deaths within their group. The first death took place in Hamburg on September 10 even before they boarded a ship. That death may not have caused concern because Matthäus Schulze’s death, though unexpected, was an isolated case. But then came the deaths at Liverpool, England.

The first person to die there, again an isolated event, died on September 16 of a chest ailment. But then on the 17th cholera broke out. In all, fifteen people died in Liverpool, thirteen from cholera. Cholera is a disease resulting from a microbe that enters the victim’s body-often through water or food that has been contaminated by fecal matter from another victim. The symptoms are diarrhea and vomiting, frequently followed by death from dehydration. Now we know that death from cholera can be avoided by maintaining appropriate levels of liquids and electrolytes in the victims.

After the Wends had stepped off the train in Liverpool they had found shelter in three buildings as they waited for the final preparations of the Ben Nevis and the sorting out of freight and baggage. Four days later, September 17, they boarded the Ben Nevis. However, that same day four passengers became ill with cholera, so they disembarked and returned to the earlier quarters while the ship was cleaned and fumigated. Two people died of cholera on the 18th: fifty-three year-old Rosina Schatte and forty-five year-old Agnes Pampel. The incubation for cholera can be as short as four hours or as long as five days so the exposure to the microbe probably occurred during the four days while they were waiting to board the ship.

Just as today’s cruise lines employ doctors as part of the crew, large ships during the era of sailing ships often did the same. An issue for debate in the 1850s among reformers, who cared about the wellbeing of immigrants, was on the training and skill of the ships’ physicians. Some were incompetent, and some were unqualified persons who placed M. D. next to their name and signed on as a ship’s doctor. Two doctors joined the Ben Nevis crew at Liverpool: Richard Blennerhasset, who was hired by the ship’s owners, and a German, Dr. Hanka, employed by Valentin Meyer’s shipping company. Blennerhasset was well qualified. His father had been a doctor and Richard had attended the medical school at Edinburgh. He also had prior experience serving on other ships. Hanka’s previous medical experience had been in Brno (now in the Czech Republic) and Johann Kilian spoke highly of him.

Delay contributed to the frustration of the passengers and to the mounting costs of the shipping company. The delay, however, made it possible for Pastor Kilian, who had taken a different route to England, to catch up and join the group on September 20. The next day Kilian and others visited the German Evangelical church in Liverpool. On the 22nd the Ben Nevis departed from the dock with everyone on board and dropped anchor in the harbor in anticipation of sailing. From then on, all connection between the ship and the shore was made via a small steam ship. The captain, William Herron, however, could not leave the harbor without the authorization of the port’s emigration commissioner. The longer the interval between the last cholera case and the departure, the better were the chances that no new cases would appear on the voyage. Three people died of cholera on September 23 and there were two new cases. But then there were no new cases on the 24th or the 25th and the ship was cleared to leave the harbor on September 26. Ten of the Wends who had been stricken by cholera, but did not succumb, remained behind in a Liverpool hospital. The decision for sailing, however, was made under a strange circumstance. Rosina Schatte (age 32) died on the day of departure and if the cause of death had been cholera the ship should have remained in Liverpool. However, the two doctors certified that she died “from effusion on the brain caused by excessive grief of losing a child” – an unusual finding. At least the diagnosis was not cholera and the ship sailed.

Within hours of the departure eight more immigrants showed symptoms of the disease. Seven more cases appeared in the next two days so Captain Herron decided to stop at Queenstown (Cobh) on the southern coast of Ireland. The Ben Nevis entered Cork Harbor on September 29 and by that time there were fifteen cases and eight deaths. The port authorities at Queenstown and the citizens of the town were no strangers to ships carrying people with a contagious disease. Just the previous year, another immigrant ship with cholera victims had entered the harbor. The passengers disembarked and found shelter in local boarding houses while the ship was cleaned and fumigated. The immigrants eventually went on their way, but two residents had been infected with the disease. The necessity of a more regulated procedure was obvious so the authorities implemented one that would keep the immigrants off of the mainland. They decided to convert the hull of a large, old frigate that had been retired from service into a floating hotel for the healthy yet potentially contagious passengers. The name of the ship was the Inconstant.

When the Ben Nevis dropped anchor a physician, Dr. Scott, made an inspection and confirmed the presence of cholera. The port authorities then arranged for the Inconstant to be brought alongside the Ben Nevis and transferred all healthy passengers to the old frigate. The sick were sent to a hospital ship. Dr. Blennerhasset himself had contracted cholera as the ship crossed the Irish Sea and died the next day, September 30. Although a member of the Church of Ireland, which is part of the Anglican Communion, the dying doctor asked the Lutheran Pastor Kilian to serve him Holy Communion. And Kilian did. The Ben Nevis was then cleaned and fumigated; contaminated bedding and clothing was destroyed. Thirty-one passengers died during the three weeks at Queenstown. The one bright spot during this time was that the delay enabled the Wends left behind in Liverpool to rejoin their families. The last person to die of cholera off of Queenstown died on October 19, and the woman who died on the 22nd died of tuberculosis. The deaths from cholera took place on the hospital ship, and beginning on October 16 no new cases appeared on the Inconstant. On October 23, Dr. Scott reported the good news to the port authorities and commented favorably on the success of the new quarantine procedure. The port authorities also had established guidelines that required a seven-day-period without a new case of cholera before the ship could sail so Scott’s report freed the Ben Nevis to resume its voyage to Texas. No mention is made about any Wends remaining on the hospital ship. Either the victims had died by the 23rd or they had recovered and returned to the Ben Nevis.

The Wends, eager to resume the voyage, prepared for the Atlantic crossing. But another twenty people died between Ireland and Galveston, and Pastor Kilian’s records stated that nine of these twenty died of cholera. The first cholera case identified by Kilian did not take place until November 20 and that was twenty-eight days after the Ben Nevis departed from Queenstown and thirty-five days since the last case appeared on the ship. Possibly the scrubbing and fumigation efforts failed to kill all the microbes lurking in the cracks of the wooden decks, or it is possible that the “cholera” cases were misdiagnosed. There was a least one doctor on board who should have been able to diagnose cholera.

Another possible explanation is based on Kilian’s list of the other deaths. Two persons died of causes that could not be determined, but nine passengers, all children under six years of age, died of diarrhea. Because diarrhea is associated with cholera, a reasonable question would be if the children’s diarrhea could have been caused by cholera. The first of these died the day the ship sailed out of Cork Harbor, and the others died at intervals until cholera was diagnosed in an adult. Possibly these deaths were also from cholera and the children kept the microbe in play until it was diagnosed. If this assumption is valid, then the tragic loss of life that began on the Irish Sea could have been even worse as the Ben Nevis crossed the Atlantic.

Kilian recounted the experience in a letter written on June 9, 1855:

Finally on the 26th of September we left Liverpool, leaving the sick behind in the Liverpool hospitals. Several who recovered later followed us to Queenstown. In the Irish Channel the weather was peaceful. Now since many passengers took sick with cholera, Captain Herron did not dare to continue, but instead entered the port of Queenstown, Ireland. There the healthy emigrants were loaded on the old frigate “The Inconstant.” The sick remained on our old ship “Ben Nevis” until the ship “Elisa,” which had been retired, could be outfitted as a hospital. The English physician, Blennerhassel [sic], who was assigned to us died already on the 30th of September. Even though he was Reformed he demanded that I grant him the bounty of Holy Communion and he received it out of consideration of his plight. On the order of the government the physician Dr. Scott visited us, and the German physician Dr. Hanka whom Meyer had sent us, served on the “Inconstant” and also on the “Elisa.” Later Dr. Kelly was assigned to us as the journey continued. The feather beds and furs of the dead and those who took sick were cast overboard or burned. So we spent three weeks under quarantine in Queenstown, where agent Meyer arrived and provided those who had lost bedding with new covers, but featherbeds were outlawed. During the quarantine the owner of the “Ben Nevis” suffered a loss of 1300 Pound Sterling. We had no other expenses beside those we paid ourselves. The English ship crews treated us well but of the Irish that cannot be said. My wife and I were spared of the cholera. When cholera quit, measles broke out among many children.

We left Queenstown on October 23. A strong wind arose which caused many to suffer from sea-sickness ….

I am indebted to the following three persons for new and additional documentation: Allen Crosbie, Director of the Cobh Genealogical Project; Helen O’Carroll, Curator of Kerry County Museum; and Weldon Mersiovsky, Texas Wendish Heritage Society.

To see contemporary newspaper articles, pictures of the Cobh cemetery and maps, visit the Wendish Research Exchange.

George Nielsen

George Nielsen is a professor emeritus at Concordia University, River Forest, Illinois; noted Wendish historian; author of In Search of a Home, Nineteenth-Century Wendish Immigration; special features editor of the Texas Wendish Heritage Society Newsletter; and author of a biography of Jan Kilian.