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The mandatory vaccinations that triggered a riot in Montreal in 1885

A vintage engraving depicts an incident during the 1885 smallpox epidemic in Montreal, where the sanitary police removed smallpox patients from a public area. (iStock)
4 min

More than 2,000 violent rioters — some armed with stones, others with revolvers — stormed through the streets protesting mandatory vaccinations.

“Kill the vaccinators,” they shouted.

The scene was Montreal on the night of Sept. 28, 1885, after the city moved to impose compulsory vaccinations to fight a smallpox epidemic.

The protesters were residents of Montreal’s French Canadian neighborhood, where distrust of the English-majority government ran deep.

On Monday, the Pentagon announced that all active-duty service members must get vaccinated against the coronavirus by mid-September.

Pentagon will mandate vaccination for all active-duty military personnel by mid-September

The mandate comes amid a new surge of coronavirus cases across the country, fueled by the hyper-infectious delta variant. Other federal, state and local government agencies are also expected to require workers to get vaccinated, along with an increasing number of hospitals, universities and private companies.

The mandates have triggered resistance, though no violence.

Montreal’s smallpox epidemic began in early 1885 when a conductor on the Grand Trunk Railway arrived in the city with the disease and sought treatment at several locations. As what was known as the “Red Death” spread, Montreal began a voluntary inoculation program, but French Canadian residents resisted.

Though inoculation against smallpox wasn’t new, some feared the vaccinations were dangerous. Some didn’t understand how contagious the disease was. Some believed rumors that city vaccinators were going into bedrooms and tying down children to be vaccinated.

One anti-vaccination pamphlet read “Stop!! People Driven Like Dumb Animals To The Shambles.” Some religious groups called the smallpox shot the biblical “mark of the beast” — the same claim being made by conspiracy theorists about the coronavirus vaccines on the social networks of some Christian groups.

A Puritan minister incited fury by pushing inoculation against a smallpox epidemic

As Montreal’s smallpox deaths rose past 3,000 residents, the city’s Board of Health moved to make vaccinations compulsory as of Sept. 28, 1885. The board’s chairman tried to counter false fears.

“It does not mean that people are to be seized and manacled and so vaccinated by force,” he said. “It means that the vaccinator will go to the door of a house and ask for proof that all [residing there] are vaccinated.” If not and they refuse to be vaccinated, they would be fined, the Montreal Gazette reported.

Still, uneasy crowds began to form the afternoon of the 28th. Three French Canadian city council members “uttered the most incendiary threat to burn the city and shoot all who favor vaccination being made compulsory,” the Detroit Free Press reported.

The outcome was reported across Canada and the United States under such headlines as, “MONTREAL’S MAD MOB.”

At about 7 p.m., “a howling mob” attacked a branch office of the health department and “wrecked the building,” the Philadelphia Inquirer reported. The crowd, growing in size, then marched to city hall. A few policemen were on duty, but “the mob drove them out of their way like sheep.”

The attack on city hall had eerie similarities to the Jan. 6 assault by Donald Trump supporters on the U.S. Capitol.

“A remarkable feature in the riot was the utter collapse of the police force and the proof of its inability to deal with the mob,” the Montreal Gazette reported. “The rowdies went about their work with a nonchalance which showed their indifference to the presence of the police.”

The riotous crowd turned next to the central police station. “Revolver shots were freely fired at the police,” the Boston Transcript said. “To scare the men, the police fired over their heads only to be received by jeers and laughter.”

Montreal’s mayor was sick at home when he got word of the protest. He got on the phone and had the bells of the Notre Dame cathedral “ring out the alarm for policemen from the various stations of the city to muster” at the central police station, the Montreal Gazette reported.

The mayor and the chief of police headed to the health office, which was again under attack. When the chief tried to rush inside through the mob, he “was knocked down with a blow from a stick and kicked till nearly insensible,” the Gazette said. Finally a large group of policemen arrived: “The constables charged the mob, clubbing them right and left, and succeeded in dispersing them.”

By 1 a.m., the city was quiet.

A Detroit Free Press reporter was on the scene. “Your reporter at 1 o’clock this morning has just returned from the east end, which is entirely of French-Canadian population. Two thousand people are gathered there in a perfect frenzy of excitement. They declared they will rather die than be vaccinated and will not submit to ‘the English dogs.’ ”

Two protesters were reported killed during the melee, and property damage was extensive. The mayor called in the military the next night and calm was restored to the city.

At a city council meeting, the three French Canadian representatives continued to denounce the vaccinations rather than the rioters. “These are the men who represent the wards where smallpox is most prevalent and take this course to curry favor with their constituents,” the New York Times said.

Two weeks later, Dr. Alexander Ross, one of the anti-vaccination city council members who had incited the protesters, was stopped aboard the Chicago Express train from Montreal by a Canadian health inspector, the St. Louis Post Dispatch reported. A search revealed “the great advocate of the ignorant antivaccination party had been vaccinated recently.”

Read more Retropolis:

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Suffering from smallpox after Gettysburg, Lincoln may have infected his valet

A Puritan minister incited fury by pushing inoculation against a smallpox epidemic