May 26, 1919 was marred by tragic news in Dawson City.
On the front page of the Dawson Daily News was an article about an automobile accident on Hunker Creek that was responsible for the first vehicular death since automobiles were introduced to the Yukon. But even worse news was tucked away on the back page where four deaths were reported under “mysterious circumstances.” Within a few days, the death toll had risen to a dozen.
A total of 41 men ate lunch at the Yukon Gold Company 54 Hunker mess hall on May 22, and more than a dozen were soon rushed to St. Mary’s Hospital in Dawson City for treatment.
Medical intervention for the men was hampered by the unusual symptoms of this mysterious illness: Blurred and double vision, “drunken” gait, extreme muscular weakness, dry mouth and difficulty of speech, difficulty in swallowing, respiratory distress and severe headaches. Throughout the illness, their temperature and heart rate remained normal and the victims retained their mental clarity.
The following day, two more men had died and several others were fading; another two perished on May 28. The final three, Otto Nordling, Thomas Mundy and Antone Smith, succumbed to the strange disease on June 2. The physicians attending the Dawson patients were baffled; officials from the Yukon Gold Company wired the symptoms to distant specialists. The Mayo Clinic was consulted.
Throughout this period, details of the funerals made the front pages, while the coverage of the mysterious sickness remained on the back page. By June 2, the death toll had reached a dozen; the newspaper was filled with funeral announcements and coverage of the burials. The accounts of the lives of the deceased were, in some cases, lengthy.
Angus Chisholm was a cousin of Big Alex McDonald, the “King of the Klondike,” and had been in the Yukon since 1899, spending some of that time working on his cousin’s mining properties. He was 48 years old and left a wife and two little children, aged three and six. His funeral was attended by his brothers in the Yukon Order of Pioneers, who came in full regalia.
Finlay McDonald was also buried in the YOOP cemetery. Like Chisholm, he too was from Nova Scotia, where he was born in New Glasgow, in 1857. Before coming to the Yukon in 1899, he was a stone cutter by trade in Vancouver. He mined in the Atlin district before coming to the Klondike. Unmarried, he was survived by a sister and three brothers.
John Grant, another Nova Scotian, was brother-in-law of Robert Henderson, who was credited as co-discoverer of the Klondike gold fields. Grant was 53 years old when he passed away. He had worked for the Yukon Gold Company ever since his arrival in the Yukon with his family in 1906. Grant left behind a wife and eight children. He too was buried in the Pioneer cemetery.
The funerals for the deceased victims continued until June 10, when Antone Zadielovich, better known as Antone Smith, the last to pass away, was laid to rest in the Catholic cemetery.
Meanwhile, the mining company was taking measures to ensure that there was no second wave of illness. All the food was thrown out and new supplies were brought in. A new stove replaced the old one and new utensils replaced the existing ones. All the buildings were abandoned and the entire camp was moved a kilometre away from the site of the affliction.
On June 5, an inquest lasting for two days was held before a jury of six men. More than a dozen witnesses gave testimony, including the doctors who attended the stricken and others who were at Camp 54 where the tragedy occurred. A list of food served at lunch on the May 22 was compiled and the only food that the victims had in common was beef, although not all of the men who ate beef that day became sick.
Witnesses testified that the meat had been properly inspected before shipping to the Yukon, and again, before being transported to Hunker Creek. The diagnosis: death by botulism. The coroner’s jury so concluded, but did not offer any recommendations for future care of foodstuffs to prevent a recurrence of this terrible incident.
Three months later, the newspaper noted that the Yukon Gold Company had compensated the widows of four of the men who had been working for the company at the time of their deaths. Each was given $2,500 (less than $40,000 today, when inflation is taken into account), while a fifth widow, whose husband had been boarding at the camp, but was not employed by them, received $1,000 (today, $15,000).
The newspaper account took pains to note that technically speaking, the men were not injured while working, and thus could not be covered by the Workmen’s Compensation Act. The workers who survived were compensated at half pay until they were fit to return to work. Nothing is mentioned regarding compensation for the remainder of the deceased.
An editorial in the June 5 edition of the Dawson Daily News expressed the hopeful opinion that the case study of this incident would make a significant contribution to the field of medicine. This wish was later fulfilled.
A case study was prepared by one of the survivors, who was a young physician from Toronto, employed by Yukon Gold. Dr. J.A.R. Glancy was touring the mining camps with one of the senior officials of the company when they stopped at 54 Hunker camp for lunch on that fateful day. He began exhibiting symptoms of botulism 26 hours later.
Dr. Glancy attended to the others afflicted until he was too sick to continue. His account was later published in the Canadian Medical Association Journal and described both his own illness (he was the most severely afflicted of the survivors), and those of 19 others who were stricken by the disease. The outbreak was a rarity in Canada. At the time, the mortality rate for botulism patients was around 60 per cent; in more recent times, better treatments and antitoxins have greatly improved the chances for survival.
The outbreak of botulism at Hunker Creek may have been the largest ever recorded in Canada. Over the next 30 years, only a few isolated cases were recorded, with a second outbreak killing three Yukoners in 1940. The incidence of botulism was extremely low in Canada, much lower in fact than in the United States.
Michael Gates is Yukon’s first Story Laureate. His latest book, “Hollywood in the Klondike,” is now available in Whitehorse stores. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org