7000 Wonders

7000 Wonders

ArticleA Man With Nineteen Names

Edward Porper

Edward Porper

5 min read

It all started in the middle of 1840s when potato crop failed for several years in a row. Potato being a major food staple in Ireland, the crop failure was bound to present a significant challenge - yet, nothing a competent government wouldn't be able to cope with. After all, the existing food supplies - other than potato - were sufficient to feed about 18 million people, more than twice the population of the country. However, something utterly inexplicable happened: rather than creating food banks, the English rulers of Ireland decided to remove considerable food quantities from the domestic market in order to increase exports. An artificially created famine ensued - a “famine that never was”. While relatively better-to-do Leinster and Ulster were struggling, the impoverished Western provinces took the brunt of the famine. Many thousands died from starvation, and the only chance for the rest to survive was to escape the country. Ireland being an island, the only way to escape was by sea - and those in direst need could afford paying for a ticket even less than buying food. Whole families would pool together their meager resources to provide for just one family member who was hoped to settle down overseas, find a job and cover the expenses for the rest of the family… Shipowners took advantage of the opportunity. While they couldn't charge exorbitant prices, whatever the demand (because the market wouldn't bear it), they knew that “beggars can't be choosers” - and filled their ships not just to, but way past, capacity. Twenty or so people would be squeezed into cabins meant for only four or five. Sanitation measures were often neglected. Considering that a one-way journey would last a number of weeks, outbreaks of infectious diseases became inevitable. When typhoid and cholera started to kill up to 40% of the passengers, the ships turned into what was known as “sailing coffins”. It was about then that Nicholas Donovan acquired a breakthrough technology ship 


and decided to join the “famine fleet” - but with an altogether different purpose.

Apart from a crew led by Captain James Attridge, Donovan hired one more key figure - Dr. Richard Blennerhassett. While Attridge, who had been a ship captain for 27 years, was completely in his element, Blennerhassett was not. He had never worked on ships - and he left a well-paid job in a hospital to team up with Attridge and, in a way, Donovan. Obviously, he needed a very good reason to do so - and the reason was that he recognized both men as his kindred souls. It's safe to surmise that the doctor must have realized: satisfying as his role in the hospital was, working on a "famine ship" would allow him to achieve something no steady income and successful career could possibly provide. And so it indeed happened, because over a relatively short period of time, Dr.Blennerhassett literally made a difference between life and death for many thousands of his compatriots. That said, he would've never been able to achieve that without Donovan's and Attridge's active support. The former had to agree that all ship cabins would look like that


or like that


In other words, while there was not much privacy, there was no overcrowding, either. That meant way less passengers per trip - and way more space for each of them. Attridge's contribution was to provide everybody with regular meals, often including fresh fruit and/or vegetables, and enforce regular exercises and sanitary routine. All that helped healthy people to remain healthy - and Blennerhassett's pre-boarding checkups ensured that no currently sick person would become a passenger on the ship. That was followed by regular rounds - each and every passenger was checked each and every day, for the whole duration of the trip - that went a long way towards nipping in the bud or, at least, curtailing, and developing sickness. As a result of those practices, not a single passenger died on the ship - not even one out of thousands. 

In most cases, one can but imagine how “Jeanie Johnston”'s passengers expressed their gratitude - yet, one such case is well-documented. A pregnant woman gave birth during her trip, and literally everybody onboard had been helping her to take care of her newborn son. Upon safe arrival, she felt a burning need to somehow repay all those people for their kindness, but she couldn't think of any feasible way to do it. So, she named her son after all of them - the captain, the doctor and 17 crew members! Fifty years later, the man with nineteen names - the former “ship baby” - was a successful bar-owner in New York. A picture of him, with his bar in the background, is one of “Jeanie Johnston”'s most prized exhibits - and one of the most striking evidences of a very particular wonder, the wonder of human compassion.