The Jackson County epidemic of 1868
Though not a pandemic, smallpox was the scourge of 19th century America. Few diseases caused such fear and panic when it began to race through a community.
Even though Englishman Edward Jenner had shown the effectiveness of the smallpox vaccine over 70 years before the Jackson County outbreak in the winter of 1868, very few in Southern Oregon had been vaccinated.
The sudden epidemic killed over 20 men, women and children, and at least three times that number were infected but recovered.
Four hospitals were hastily set up outside the city limits and doctors assigned to each. There, those infected could safely be treated without fear of infecting others.
By New Year’s Day the town was in a panic.
Sister Mary Francis, one of the brave Roman Catholic nuns who volunteered to nurse and give comfort to those who were suffering, told a horrifying account of an infected 3-year-old little girl whose mother had just died.
“I have in my arms her youngest child,” she wrote. “Her face is as black as my dress, and the little sufferer, in trying to find a cool place, has rubbed her face on my cape and left pieces of her decaying flesh on it. Oh! This dreadful disease! No one except an eyewitness can form any idea of it.”
Two weeks later, the child died and was buried with her mother.
Jacksonville’s Board of Trustees passed stringent ordinances to combat the spread of the disease and established a fine of up to $100 for any violation.
“Each and every person residing within the town limits who has never been vaccinated or, in the opinion of a competent physician, is liable to an attack of smallpox, shall submit to vaccination.”
The town marshal was ordered to record the name of every person in town, and a statement determining whether the person had been vaccinated or had previously survived a smallpox attack.
Physicians were to be immediately notified and were required to vaccinate anyone on the list who was “unvaccinated.” The doctor would receive 50 cents for each vaccination, but would be fined up to $100 if they failed to change clothing after each vaccination.
Anyone exposed to the disease was banned in public places; including stores, bars, hotels, “private houses of amusement,” public gatherings, or even walking down the street.
Funeral processions of victims through town were not allowed, and mourners at nighttime-only burials were restricted to family. County residents who died of any infectious disease were completely barred from burial in the town cemetery on the hill.
On every home or building where infected persons were living, a visible yellow flag was required outside, as was a large sign on the door reading “Smallpox.”
The requirements were so strict that the local newspaper had to apologize for the lack of local news within its pages.
“Our paper is not interesting and we know it. No local items, but we can’t help it. The town is like the grave, but it is not our fault. Yellow flags are to be seen on every side, and if this issue partakes of the ghastly character of its surroundings, we are not to blame.”
At the end of February, it was finally over and the newspaper celebrated.
“We are rejoiced to say that smallpox has entirely disappeared from this place. Every house in which cases have occurred has been disinfected and the quarantine flags removed. We hope it may stay away, but if it should appear again, our people will be apt to recognize it.”
Writer Bill Miller is the author of five books, including “History Snoopin’,” a collection of his previous history columns and stories. Reach him at email@example.com.