the travel geek

"Sometimes reality is too complex. Stories give it form."

Santal de Midy and Fort Calgary

Physical evidence can sometimes be just as informative as historical evidence as to what types of diseases were present in historical societies and the treatment of these diseases. One piece of material evidence found
at the Fort Calgary Archaeological Site which indicates that venereal disease was present in the NWMP force at Calgary is the presence of two Santal de Midy bottles. — From Santal de Midy and Venereal Disease Among the Northwest Mounted Police of Canada by Sharlene McKinnon for Arky 306; June 30, 1992

I have a forensic osteology degree. What does this mean? It means I spent four years of my life hunched over boxes and boxes of skeletal remains trying to piece together where, when, what, how and sometimes who was in that box. This degree earned me an unpaid summer job at Fort Calgary as an archaeologist.

As an archaeologist I got to see first hand a lot of the stuff that people don’t know about the history of Fort Calgary. I always make a habit of ferreting out all the interesting stuff I can find. I am, after all, a Maritimer and every Maritimer likes a good story.

Here is a brief overview of Calgary’s history:

It all started with the NWMP in 1875. They came and built a fort on a small parcel of land at the junction of the Bow and Elbow Rivers. The first commander of the fort was Captain Brisebois who tried to name the area Fort Brisebois. This, however, didn’t stick and James MacLeod (of MacLeod Trail fame and also a Scotsman) suggested the name Calgary, after Calgary Bay on the Isle of Mull in Scotland, and this is the name that persevered.

Calgary had many defining and dramatic redefining moments in her very short history. As was mentioned, she started out as a small NWMP detachment. With the arrival of the railway in 1883, she became a hub for westward homesteading activity. This was further developed at the turn of the century when the government offered free land to those who wanted to resettle in the area. This morphed Calgary into a prosperous ranching and farming community. In 1914, oil was discovered in Turner Valley and whamo! Calgary became an oil and gas hub.

That’s Calgary’s history in a nutshell.

Let’s go back to Fort Calgary and 1875. My introduction to the fort and its history started with the discovery of a small non-descript clear bottle with the label Santal de Midy on the side. It was a cute little thing that led to an interesting round of discoveries.

Santal de Midy was imported from Paris, and even though the name suggests it could be a perfume, it was not. The bottle actually contained capsules used in treating bladder, liver and venereal problems. It took a week long date with a microfiche machine for me to find this interesting tidbit out. And from here it was all downhill.

After doing a survey of the NWMP disease statistics for the years 1875-1915, I discovered that bladder and liver problems were virtually non-existent. But, venereal disease ran rampant through the fort; and syphilis was the king of them all.

In A Chronicle of the Canadian West one doctor writes: “during the winter of 1874 and 1875 there was very little sickness in the troops and I cannot say that those who were sick suffered from any particular disease more than another except towards the spring the troops got pretty well inoculated with syphilis and several cases of gonorrhoea.”

Syphilis is a nasty disease. It can change your skeletal structure and turn your bones to mush. Any incidences of broken bones in the fort took an abnormally long time to heal. If you live long enough after contracting the disease it will eventually destroy your brain. Rather than go into a long explanation, here are photos of what the disease does to your bones.

So, how does a little clear Santal de Midy bottle fit into all of this?

The government official in charge of the public purse strings, Commissioner Herchmer, felt that the public shouldn’t be paying for the indiscretions of the troops in Calgary. He ordered the men to take deductions in pay to compensate for their medical costs if they were sick with an STD. This naturally forced the men to hide their condition and seek unprofessional remedies.

Santal de Midy was one of these unprofessional remedies. It came to Calgary from the Midy pharmacy in Paris via New York. In that tiny little bottle is a good example of a cure being worse than the disease. The ingredients have been likened to poison and mercury was the most prominent poison. The men suffered terribly from their treatments.

At the turn of the century, Calgarians can thank Captain R. Burton Deane (The Deane House) for a proactive approach that nearly eradicated the spread of sexual diseases. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that the men were frequenting prostitutes and this was how the disease was spreading. Deane was a firm believer in the control and supervision of prostitution to prevent the spread of disease. He noted that the men were visiting both “White” and “Japanese” women in various houses in Nose Creek and outside of the city. He ordered these women tested medically every nine days and after a long proactive approach he could boast that all the women but one were clear of disease. I wonder what else was going on behind the scenes beyond “medical testing” as syphilis is not a disease that just goes away. Before the advent of penicillin there was no cure.

As a final note, part of my job at the fort was to dig in the latrine area. A lot of the more interesting stuff is generally found here because it is an ideal location to hide things you don’t want found. Latrines are famous for housing a whole host of liquor bottles and other little dirty secrets. No need to worry about the sanitary conditions: after a hundred plus years, much garbage and a railway line not much was left of the biodegradables, only a few small bottles and an interesting story about Fort Calgary.


–> GPS Coordinates: 51.045139°N 114.045778°W
–> Google Map: Uniquely Alberta Google Map
–> Cost: admission varies.
–> Season: Open year round; 9am-5pm, seven days a week.

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