Friday, February 19, 2010

Smallpox Epidemic of 1899

Copyright by Brenda Joyce Jerome, CG
May not be copied without written consent

There have been epidemics of deadly diseases throughout time. The cholera epidemic of the 1830s was rampant in parts of Kentucky, wiping out entire families in some cases. There were epidemics of other diseases, too.

Even after a vaccine became available, there were smallpox epidemics. It is a nasty disease and often deadly. Smallpox, caused by the variola virus, is acquired from inhalation. It starts in the lungs and then invades the bloodstream and spread to the skin, intestines, kidneys and brain. The vaccine can prevent smallpox, but a concentrated effort to vaccinate everyone and to isolate those already infected is necessary.

In the Spring of 1899, smallpox began showing up in Union County, Kentucky. Few safeguards were taken to prevent it from spreading. It was thought that the "migratory classes, such as farm and mill hands," had carried the disease into neighboring Henderson County also.

By November, smallpox was rampant in Union County, especially in Uniontown. On the 21st of November, the Kentucky Board of Health quarantined the whole town. No one was allowed to enter or leave the town. Guards with shotguns were stationed to enforce the quarantine. The Illinois Central Railroad discontinued train runs between Morganfield and Uniontown, a distance of eight miles.

The majority of the smallpox cases were at Uniontown, but there were also a few cases at Grove Center. Some cases were so mild that persons stayed home only a few days and then resumed their normal activities. This probably contributed to the spread of the disease.

The headline of the Evansville, Indiana Courier on 24 November 1899 proclaimed "Uniontown Reeks With Smallpox." It was reported that more than 100 cases were present in Uniontown with people ill with the disease walking on the streets. Posey County, Indiana Board of Health stated their cases of smallpox could be traced to Uniontown.

At a meeting of the Morganfield District Medical Association, it was stated the Uniontown physicians did not want to admit the disease was smallpox for fear of injuring the business of the town.

Not all western Kentucky counties had an epidemic of smallpox. Crittenden County reported a few cases, mostly in Dycsusburg, but efforts were being made to keep it from spreading. The hardest hit counties appear to have been Union and Livingston.

Smallpox had also showed up in the spring in Livingston County. Eight cases were reported in Grand Rivers and the County Judge called for measures to be taken to stop the spread of the disease. At the end of November 1899, the Livingston County Court of Claims met in a special term to determine the means to prevent the spreading of smallpox within the county. The disease was then "near the limits of the town of Smithland." The Livingston County Board of Health presented a notice stating that one house in the black neighborhood contained people infected with smallpox and ordering that house, as well as all others in the neighborhood be quarantined. Authorization was given to hire guards at $2 per day to maintain the quarantine. Also, a committee was appointed to purchase the farm of Richard Stokes to use as a pest house.

The measures apparently worked as, by the middle of December, the quarantine of Uniontown was lifted, freight trains were again running and residents of both Union and Livingston County were allowed to move about freely.


David Sullivan said...

This is OUTSTANDING information Brenda. Thanks for posting it. We'd heard about the epidemic being ABOUT that time, but weren't sure of the geographic boundaries. We lost two in our family either in Hardin or Pope County Illinois, both in 1899. My Great grandmother Mary Francis Mitchell/Sullivan, and her husband's sister, Emma Jane Sullivan/Stone. No death records that we've located on either, but presuming it had to be the epidemic. Since you say Crittenden County wasn't affected much, I question now if it had crossed the river then? Our two 1899 deaths are still a mystery, and even though this helps in ONE way, the geography raises some doubt again. I'm very glad to have these details spelled out now. Thanks.

Brenda Joyce Jerome, CG said...

David, there was a lot of movement back and forth between Crittenden and Hardin counties so it would not be surprising if diseases hitched a ride to the other side. At this late date, though, there is no way to be sure. The movement from Livingston County was aimed primarily at Pope County, being just across the river.