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.

2003-04-24_791

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19 comments on “Santal de Midy and Fort CalgaryAdd yours →

  1. I read your page on Fort Calgary. I too found a Santal de Midy bottle like the one you described. I thought it was perfume because it said Paris. Thanks for sharing your research.

  2. I found a Santal De Midy bottle. It’s a clear, 10-sided bottle and was found in the New Orleans area with other US Army Medical Corp pieces. Is this bottle of interest? Please contact me.Thanks.

    New Orleans, LA

  3. I am a Chef who lives in Hayward CA. About three weeks ago I found one of these bottles in my back yard. After a little clean up I figured out that this bottle has to be pretty damn old but I had no clue what it was used for or how the hell it ended up in my back yard. Now I know what it was for but still have no idea how it got here. If you have any theories I’d love to hear them.

    Hayward CA

  4. I would be willing to bet that the bottle came to SF via people moving west or with traders. I’m not too familiar with SF history and more specifically its port history — but the bottle comes from France.

    Perhaps it came with some UK sailors, traders or people migrating to the west during the gold rush. SF was one of the main ports for getting up to / going to Alaska around the turn of the century.

    I wrote a paper on this 14 years ago — I think I might dig that up and add it to my post because the post does get a lot of people interested in Santal de Midy. Those little bottles are cropping up all over NA!

    If you find out any more I would love to hear about it.

  5. I’m a non-trad archaeology grad student researching glass bottle fragments excavated at the Chinatown district of Deadwood, SD (1876- 1930s). I’m puzzling over a clear 10-sided bottle embossed “SANTAL DE MIDY//PARIS”, and your site is the only one I’ve found that even alludes to the product’s active ingredients (Mercury, etc). Do you have a reference that would list the contents? Thanks.

    Deadwood, SD

  6. Hi Pat. The references I found were advertisements for the medicine in the local newspaper. In finding these in an 1880s paper I was able to track the product back to the east coast then to Europe. I’m not sure if I’ll be able to dig this up (that in itself is a bit of a challenge given the state of our garage) but I can certainly give it a quick poke around. I’ll let you know if I find anything.

  7. hi, found one of these bottles at the same level as the foundations in our house built 1885. thanks for the info on it. guess they had the same problems here in 1885!

    Dumbarton, Scotland

  8. Sharlene,
    I have found one of these bottles as well, and cannot find any other information either. I also have some other bottles, I can’t find information on as well. Has anyone found out if the bottles are rare? Please contact me if you have more information. I found mine in Jacksonville, Fl, on the Saint John’s River. Thanks Scott.

    Jacksonville, FL

  9. i found one today! in new orleans on tchoupitoulas in an area where a lot of bars served a lot of mariners and river workers.

    New Orleans, LA

  10. It’s the post that keeps coming back! I’ve found the essay that I wrote many many years ago. I’m trying to figure out the best way to put this up. It may be PDF or it may be a new post.

  11. We have a bottle that is fully intact – it has maybe 60 round, grape-colored capsules in it cushioned with paper wadding and a cork that seals it. Thanks for the information – now we know what it is!

  12. we found a bottle in the mud of the North Arm of the Fraser River in Vancouver,B.C. Just off the end of the Marpole Midden

    Vancouver, BC

  13. My husband and I are fully renovating our house. We started tearing out layers of walls until we finally came to the outside framework and to our surprise we have found a few things and one of the items is a Santal De Midy bottle. This bottle is perfectly preserved. The writing on the label is just as dark as the day it was printed. The only thing we can see wrong with it is the cork on the top is a bit worn. There are still 4 pills encased inside,

    Your website is the only one that gave us any insite to what the bottle was about… Would love more info. if possible. We live near a major railway and the famous sulfer springs of northern New York.

    New York

  14. I too just found a clear bottle with Santal de Midy on it – I just had a building torn down and was leveling the ground underneath and found this empty clear bottle

    New Jersey

  15. I too found a 10 sided clear bottle with Santal de Midy in raised letters. I found it yesterday in 20′ of water, while scuba diving at Seacrest West Seattle in Elliott Bay/Puget Sound

    Seattle, WA

  16. My hubby found one today at a construction site here in Maine. Thankful that you shared your research. Thanks very much.

    Maine

  17. I found the same bottle near an abandoned homesite on DL 102 in Delta BC 12 years ago. The home was built in 1872 on the edge of Burns Bog. A new highway, the South Fraser Perimeter Road is now passing nearby. Two murder suspects had lived in the house in 1887.

    Delta, BC

Thoughts?