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The Shambles


Consumption of meat in America is much higher than most other countries and that was even more true in the 19th century. But it was the era before refrigeration, so every city, Agincourt included, would have had an abattoir or slaughterhouse for the daily processing of beef, mutton and pork for local consumption.

There are four fundamental ways that meat can be preserved: drying (jerky), smoking, salting (brine), and corning. Fresh meat required a daily supply and even a modest community of 5,000-7,500 would have generated a great deal of offal—everything that’s left over when the process is complete. Meat, organs (liver, kidney, testicles, etc.), brain, tongue, even hooves (“pickled pigs feet”) left some pretty foul stuff for disposal: the remaining skeleton, horns, skin, and guts. Where do you suppose all that stuff went?

Fargo and the story of Long Lake

There is a true story that played itself out in the early years of the 1880s, one which illustrates all too clearly the awareness of public health as a matter for general concern.

On Fargo’s near west side, just south of the university, there is a paved drainage channel currently straddled by the soccer fields. But during the 19th century that was a natural seasonal watercourse called Long Lake, one of several coulees part of the Red River drainage system. Just outside the city limits, it was unregulated and therefore available for dumping, including the offal from Fargo’s multiple meat markets. Imagine wagons driving the mile or so from the CBD the make the days deposit. One especially hot August, in 1882, the “lake” transformed into a toxic soup, surely as organic matter settled to the bottom and decomposed.

That fall, two families resident on North Fourteenth street (it had a different name then) were struck with some sort of fever which especially affected the children. Several became ill, including at least one of the parents, but it was the children who succumbed, four of them, as I recall. Two were in the Frank Irons family; I don’t remember the other name.

The deaths occurred in October and early December by which time winter had set in a roads to the cemetery were impassable and the children couldn’t be properly buried. Since at least one of them sang in the choir of Gethsemane Episcopal church, Father Cooley volunteered the church grounds for quick interment, Oddly, though the scandal of Long Lake was completely unregulated by any ordinance, the city itself had enacted strict control of human burial within city limits. So the situation which effectively killed the children, came down on Fr Cooley with a $50 fine. I’ve always intended to set the story down in much greater detail but this serves my purpose for the time being. And I raise it only because Agincourt would have endured a parallel situation, but much earlier and possibly more egregious.

In the meantime, if you’d like to read about a British instance of large-scale meat production for an urban population, take a look at this story of The Shambles, a street in York, England, famous for its concentration of meat markets.


By the way, that’s where we get the word “shambles”.

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