How Smollett Would React to Flint Water

Flint water after  the switch to river water

Flint water after the switch to river water

Friday

For a while now I’ve been trying to think of a work that captures the plight of Flint, Michigan residents after the state started poisoned their water supply. The rage of Matthew Bramble in Tobias Smollett’s Humphry Clinker (1771) comes close.

No doubt you’ve heard about how the Governor of Michigan, acting through executive action, decreed that Flint would get its drinking water from the Flint River rather than from Lake Huron (via Detroit). This was supposed to save a couple of million dollars a year. Unfortunately, river water is far more corrosive than lake water and, as a result, it has been leaching lead out of the pipes. Residents, including Flint’s 9000 children have been drinking and bathing in lead-contaminated water for the past two years. Experts say that the health consequences, especially on the children, will be irreversible.

Smollett, a Scottish surgeon-turned-writer in the mid-18th century, was obsessed with pure water. He recommended cold sea baths for health and insisted on pure springs for drinking. When he saw water he considered unsafe, he let people know, and his curmudgeon protagonist expresses his disgust with the supposedly healing waters of Bath.

Bramble is in Bath for his gout. He discovers, however, that the water is not as pristine as has been reported. The problem in this case is not lead, however, but the running sores and skin diseases of other bathers:

Two days ago, I went into the King’s Bath, by the advice of our friend Ch—, in order to clear the strainer of the skin, for the benefit of a free perspiration; and the first object that saluted my eye, was a child full of scrophulous ulcers, carried in the arms of one of the guides, under the very noses of the bathers. I was so shocked at the sight, that I retired immediately with indignation and disgust—Suppose the matter of those ulcers, floating on the water, comes in contact with my skin, when the pores are all open, I would ask you what must be the consequence?—Good Heaven, the very thought makes my blood run cold! we know not what sores may be running into the water while we are bathing, and what sort of matter we may thus imbibe; the king’s-evil, the scurvy, the cancer, and the pox; and, no doubt, the heat will render the virus the more volatile and penetrating.

In one way, this is the reverse of Flint, where the water is causing skin diseases amongst its children rather than being caused by them. But like the Flint residents, Bramble is terrified by the prospect of drinking the water:

But I am now as much afraid of drinking, as of bathing; for, after a long conversation with the Doctor, about the construction of the pump and the cistern, it is very far from being clear with me, that the patients in the Pump-room don’t swallow the scourings of the bathers. I can’t help suspecting, that there is, or may be, some regurgitation from the bath into the cistern of the pump. In that case, what a delicate beveridge is every day quaffed by the drinkers; medicated with the sweat and dirt, and dandriff; and the abominable discharges of various kinds, from twenty different diseased bodies, parboiling in the kettle below.

Nor are the baths the only source of poisoned water. Bramble discovers, like the Flint residents, that he is trapped with no options:

In order to avoid this filthy composition, I had recourse to the spring that supplies the private baths on the Abbey-green; but I at once perceived something extraordinary in the taste and smell; and, upon inquiry, I find that the Roman baths in this quarter, were found covered by an old burying ground, belonging to the Abbey; through which, in all probability, the water drains in its passage; so that as we drink the decoction of living bodies at the Pump-room, we swallow the strainings of rotten bones and carcasses at the private bath. I vow to God, the very idea turns my stomach! Determined, as I am, against any farther use of the Bath waters, this consideration would give me little disturbance, if I could find any thing more pure, or less pernicious, to quench my thirst; but, although the natural springs of excellent water are seen gushing spontaneous on every side, from the hills that surround us, the inhabitants, in general, make use of well-water, so impregnated with nitre, or alum, or some other villainous mineral, that it is equally ungrateful to the taste, and mischievous to the constitution. It must be owned, indeed, that here, in Milsham-street, we have a precarious and scanty supply from the hill; which is collected in an open bason in the Circus, liable to be defiled with dead dogs, cats, rats, and every species of nastiness, which the rascally populace may throw into it, from mere wantonness and brutality. Well, there is no nation that drinks so hoggishly as the English.

Flint too has “excellent water” it could draw on in Lake Huron. For that matter, the Flint River water would have been fine had it been treated. The Governor Snyder administration, however, made a mistake and then covered it up as the residents became sicker and sicker. Because the city was under emergency management that could override local leaders, nothing was done for two years.

It took the residents shouting like Matthew Bramble for the state and the rest of the country to pay attention. It’s another question whether that will be enough to get the billions of dollars needed to replace the pipes and counteract the effects of the lead.

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