Death in Juiz de Fora

Traveling to Brazil by boat and working there in the 1930s in a godforsaken place. Does this sound like a boyhood fantasy or the plot for an adventure film? Of course, but as the unkind fate of engineer Anders Ugo Persson shows, reality was much harsher.

Anders Ugo Persson departed for Rio de Janeiro by boat on November 19, 1929. Previously he had worked as an telephone engineer in Mexico. Now he had been selected to supervise the construction of a telephone station in the small town of Juiz de Fora. The telephone station was to be Brazil's first with Ericsson's revolutionary 500-switch. Persson would be the only Swede on the project, which was expected to employ local workers.

A conflict between Persson and Ericsson management in Stockholm arose almost immediately. In a letter sent about a month after his departure for Brazil, Ericsson informed Persson that he should have reported that his wife had costs for hospital care that the company was to pay. In his reply, Persson explained that his wife had been taken ill immediately after returning from Mexico and that he had been promptly dispatched to Brazil. He had simply had so much to do that he had neglected to report everything.

Anders Ugo Persson's explanation did not appease his superiors in Stockholm. The tone in the following letters from Ericsson indicates that doubts about him continued. By the end of January 1930, Persson had been in Juiz de Fora for some time. His letters indicate that he was unhappy. He was staying at the town's only hotel, "where the food is not the best". However, he continued, "I am trying to get used to black beans and entrails." Moreover, the weather was hot, nearly 40° C, and Persson reported that after drinking a glass of beer, he sweated ten.

There were also problems with the assignment. Many of the components delivered for the telephone station were defective, because they had not been packaged properly. When Persson's next letter was received one month later, the problems had multiplied. Constant political unrest in the country was making it difficult to recruit workers. According to Persson, a revolution seemed to be in progress. In addition, he was having considerable difficulty in getting the material he needed through customs. Most of the materials had arrived, but critical components, such as relay plates and ring generators, were still lacking. This meant that he was forced to begin work at the wrong end.

Ericsson in Stockholm showed little sympathy for Persson's complaints. Person had requested 45 milreis for living expenses, for example, but Ericsson would only approve an amount of 30 milreis. According to Ericsson, Persson's demands far exceeded the normal compensation for work outside Sweden.

By the time Anders Ugo Persson responded that his requests were justified, it was mid-April. According to Persson, Juiz de Fora was one of the most expensive places he had ever visited. Everything cost twice as much as in Rio. There was only one hotel and one restaurant in the town, and as a result of this monopoly, prices were exorbitant. Persson pleaded with Ericsson to try to understand his situation. He complained bitterly that he was forced to buy mineral water so that he had clean water with which to brush his teeth.

Before receiving this letter, Ericsson had decided that the maximum compensation should be 30 milreis and that Persson would not receive any more. They also wondered what they should do about the bill for six bottles of carbonated water. However, when Ericsson received Persson's letter, they apparently relented and expressed understanding for what were termed "miserable conditions." The per diem compensation that Persson had requested was also approved.

At the same time, conditions in Juiz de Fora had worsened. Anders Ugo Persson began his May letter with the words "living here in Juiz de Fora is complete death". He had stomach problems and had been to three doctors, who were not able to help him. The tone of his letter was desperate, as he explained that he was afraid that Ericsson management in Stockholm would believe that he had been drinking. Work was at a standstill, since one third of all materials still remained in customs. "I'm walking around here like an idiot," he wrote. He had lost three and a half months of working time. "Remaining here is suicide," he concluded.

Persson did not know how right he was.

In July, the materials were finally released from customs, and Persson was able to start work in earnest, only to encounter new problems. The men hired for the assignment were unable to read the design plans, so Persson was forced to assist them constantly. Everything was taking longer than he expected. There were also problems caused by ravenous grubs eating the telephone cables.

The letters from Anders Ugo Persson stopped during the autumn. Instead, a telegram was received in Stockholm from the Ericsson office in Rio relating that Anders Ugo Persson was severely ill. On December 1, 1930, Persson was forced to travel by boat to Sweden. He never made it home.

On December 10, Anders Ugo Persson passed away on the boat. The cause of death was a combination of tuberculosis, heart failure and dysentery. He was buried at sea. In April 1931, a new engineer, David Linhed, arrived in Juiz de Fora to continue work on the telephone station. He was to receive 30 milreis per day for expenses.

Author: Mats Wickman

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