Category Archives: Disasters

The Immigrant Experience in 1892: New York’s Cholera Scare and its Effect on Boston

The emigrant ship Moravia crept into its dock in New York late on the night of August 30, 1892.  The ship was sent straight to quarantine.  On its ten-day voyage from Hamburg, Germany, 22 of its 358 passengers had been buried at sea, victims of Asiatic Cholera.  Two more passengers convalesced in the ship’s hospital, suffering from similar symptoms:  vomiting, nausea, and excessive diarrhea.  Those aboard ship did not know that cholera had been discovered in their departure city in the days after their ship left port. Consequently, they did suspect cholera was aboard ship with them as they travelled toward the United States.

Photograph of working class people crowding two decks of a transatlantic steamer, ca. 1907 (Courtesy: Wikipedia Commons)

The Moravia set sail from Hamburg, Germany on August 17, 1892.  Less than a day later, a small boy aboard ship in steerage began suffering from severe and excessive diarrhea.  No one yet suspected Asiatic cholera.  Sickness among emigrant children in steerage was common on transatlantic steamships.  By the end of the second day, however, the little boy suffered convulsions of increasing severity and eventually became rigid and died.  Hours later, a nine-month-old girl succumbed to similar symptoms.  Those aboard ship did not comment much on the deaths of the youngsters as their bodies were sewn into weighted gunney sacks and cast into the Atlantic.  The deaths of five other children soon followed and the hospital filled.  Within days, more children began to develop diarrhea, cramps, and cold chills.  Their skin began to blacken from their illness.

The ship’s doctor, Dr. Israel, observed the sick infants and children aboard the ship, but dismissed their illnesses as the more common and non-epidemic cholera morbus instead of Asiatic Cholera.  The doctor blamed the children’s symptoms on the hot August weather and the tight conditions within steerage.  Dr. Israel called for all children to come on deck, thinking the open air and sun would help them.  The next day, though, two more children died, and, on the day after, one more perished.  Deaths were common aboard immigrant ships, especially among children; but when four more deaths occurred two days later, people began to grow nervous; two of the four deaths were adult passengers.  The rapid onset of death was also troubling to the passengers.  All of the deaths occurred within 48 hours after the first symptoms began to show; most died within 12 to 16 hours.

The Ship Manifest listing passengers aboard the Moravia: top of the first page.

As the Moravia approached New York toward the end of its journey, Joseph Roth, a pilot for the port of New York, boarded the Moravia carrying news of Asiatic Cholera’s spread into Hamburg, the ship’s origin.  He noted some sickness aboard ship, but was reassured by the Moravia’s medical personnel that all of it could be attributed to the non-epidemic cholera morbus.  The Moravia’s medical personnel learned from Roth that the spread of cholera into Hamburg had been announced.  The officers and passengers aboard the Moravia had no idea of the panic that had since surfaced on both sides of the Atlantic.

22 passengers died from cholera during the Moravia's voyage from Hamburg to New York; their causes of death were noted on the Moravia's Ship Manifest

Passengers began to grow alarmed as the ship was turned away from New York and toward quarantine.  The following morning, its passengers were removed from the ship to Hoffman Island, where they were bathed and their clothing was fumigated.  After that, they remained in quarantine while doctors waited to see if cholera would develop among them.

While the Moravia languished in quarantine, other steamers approached New York, the Rugia – three days behind with 300 passengers, the Normannia, five days behind that with 700 aboard, and the Scandia, which had left two days after the Normannia with nearly 900 aboard.  The US quickly determined that the country was at risk of a cholera outbreak.  The US Consul ordered the steamship lines to fumigate the baggage of all incoming passengers with sulphur fumes for no less than six hours.

Boston nervously listened as news reached its streets that cholera had been identified on board the Moravia, and that 22 cholera victims had been buried at sea.  Older residents recalled the city’s cholera outbreak of 1849, which resulted in 611 deaths.  Boston port officials had been enforcing stringent health regulations at immigration ports, singling out Russian steerage passengers, and enforcing the disinfection of all arriving vessels that contained them.  Disinfection was eventually extended to include all ships arriving from Havre and Hamburg too.

At Boston, all luggage belonging to immigrants was steam-heated to 230ºF for 20 minutes. Also, all immigrants were removed from the ships while it was washed and disinfected.  Any cholera patients among them were diverted to Gallop’s Island.  In the city, health precautions extended beyond those aimed at immigrants  Filth was removed from city street, cellars, and dirty tenement houses.  Plans were laid to prevent the spread of cholera to New England were it to surface in Canada.  In this case, health officials planned to stop all Canadian immigrants arriving by train, where they would be examined.  They, along with their clothes and belongings, would be disinfected.

Several days later, another ship, the Catalonia, arrived at Boston’s quarantine station at one o’clock on the morning of Monday, September 12, 1892.  One thousand passengers were aboard, including 700 immigrants.  Even though an order had been issued prohibiting the transport of immigrants, the order had taken effect after the Catalonia had sailed.  Bostonians nervously read the 692 of the steerage passengers came from Europe, and that some of these likely hailed from Hamburg.  Health officials watched the steamer as it approached Boston and noted no signs of cholera.  Soon, a port physician boarded and carefully examined steerage passengers.  Still, no traces of cholera were detected.  The ship was eventually diverted to Gallop’s Island where immigrant passengers, 30 passengers from second class included, were administered a scrubbing as part of the disinfection procedures.  At Gallop’s Island, the Catalonia was delayed for two or three days before it was allowed to dock.  Non-immigrant passengers from the ship’s first- and second-class cabins were brought to Boston a few days earlier on tug boats.

New hospital building, Ellis Island; quarantine buildings on Swinburn Island and Hoffman Island (Courtesy: Library of Congress)

As September progressed, officials reassured the public that the cooler weather would slow the spread of cholera.  Steerage passengers aboard the Moravia and the other infected ships remained under quarantine at the Swinburne and Hoffman Island hospitals.  By September 12, deaths from cholera had slowed considerably.  The Moravia had not had a new case in nearly a week.  Officials vowed to hold the infected ships away from the city for at least ten more days, which soothed the fears of those in New York and beyond of the immigrants carrying cholera to their wharves and into their streets.  Steerage passengers aboard the Moravia did not reach dry land until September 22, 1892, over three weeks after they had first approached New York, and over a month since they had left Hamburg.


Fires of Lowell, Massachusetts – Sacred Heart School, 1967

On a cool, cloudy Saturday afternoon in early May 1967, two men simultaneously spotted the billowing smoke escaping from the first-story windows of Sacred Heart School’s “new building” on its Moore Street campus in Lowell, Massachusetts.  John J. McWilliams, an off-duty police officer, ran and activated the fire alarm at a nearby fire-box.  John Sickles, a Tewksbury resident who happened to be driving past the scene, drove to the nearby Lawrence Street firehouse and notified the firefighters inside.

Marked with a black arrow above, Sacred Heart School's "new" building once fronted Lowell's Moore Street.

At 58 years old, the “new building” was the newer of Sacred Heart School’s two school buildings on the corner of Moore and Andrews Streets in the city’s South Lowell neighborhood.  Its cornerstone had been laid on October 9, 1909 by Lowell native and then-Archbishop William H. O’Connell, who later became a Cardinal.  By 1967, the school, which served the children of parishioners of Sacred Heart Parish located across Moore Street, had grown to include the “old” and “new” buildings that served some 600 students, from grades 1-8.  The building now burning housed the younger children, through Grade 4.  The older children attended classes in the “old building”, which standing just 25 feet away, was threatened by the raging fire too.

By the time the first firefighters arrived, a few moments after 2 PM, the fire had spread past the first-floor boys’ lavatory near where it had started, through an air shaft, across the school’s gleaming oil-treated floors, and up the stairwells into its third-floor auditorium.  The first alarm company to arrive on the scene, led by Deputy Chief Mulligan, quickly determined that the three-story brick building could not be saved.  They soon called for more alarm units.  Sacred Heart School’s new building was entirely engulfed in flames before the second alarm units even reached the fire.  Five more companies arrived to fight the blaze, and to protect the surrounding neighborhood, tightly packed in the city’s South Lowell section.  They also worried for the school’s remaining building, the old building, nearby, but still untouched by the flames.

The firefighters called in two more engines.  At 2:43 PM, help was called in from surrounding communities outside Lowell.  Firefighters from Billerica, Chelmsford, Tewksbury, Dracut, Westford, Tyngsboro, Bedford, and Lawrence all answered the call.  Some assisted Lowell firefighters at the fire.  Others manned Lowell’s fire stations, while their firefighters fought the Sacred Heart School fire.  The inferno was declared a general alarm fire.  Veterans on the city’s fire department remarked it was the worst fire they had seen since the 1941 fire that had claimed the Bartlett School, more than 25 years earlier.

Firefighters directed the department’s pump-fed, high pressure lines at all four sides of the building.  They threw up a water curtain to protect the old building.  A few minutes after 3 PM, the fire began poking through the school’s roof.  Seven minutes later, firefighters were ordered out of the school when the top of its west-facing wall began to fail, spilling bricks, plaster, and other debris into Andrews Street.

Sacred Heart School's "New Building" - Lowell, Massachusetts

Police pushed back the crowds that had gathered along Andrews Street as firefighters risked death and severe injury to remove their equipment from the failing wall.  For the next hour or so, firefighters worked to contain the flames while they raced unchecked through Sacred Heart School’s new building.  Eight classrooms, an auditorium, the offices of the principal and of the school nurses, and the lavatories were all destroyed.  At 4 PM, the roof above the third-floor auditorium failed and fell into the building.  Its weight caused the floor of the third story to sag, forcing firefighters to abandon their efforts inside the building and escape using the nearest ladders and fire escapes.  More sections of the school’s roof soon failed, allowing firefighters atop aerial ladders clear access to aim their deck guns at the flames.  The fire was finally declared under control by 4:30 PM.  Smoke towered some 75 feet above the doomed school building as firefighters began to re-enter the building’s first floor and subdue any leftover trouble spots.  Chief Gendron left three companies on the scene overnight to prevent any additional outbreaks.

One firefighter lost his life fighting the blaze.  While helping fellow firefighters raise a 45-foot extension ladder on the school’s Moore Street side, John J. Wojitas, a WWII veteran and a 24-year veteran of the Lowell Fire Department, fell victim to a fatal heart attack.  He was pronounced dead upon arrival at St. John’s Hospital (now Saints Memorial).  Rev. W. Irving Monroe, the fire department’s chaplain, was on the scene of the fire and left with Wojitas when he was stricken.  Rev. Monroe returned to the scene of the fire later, delivering the news that Wojitas had died to his saddened fellow firefighters.

The school’s loss weighed heavily on the local community that had gathered to watch the efforts to save the building.  Most were graduates of, or otherwise connected to, the school.  The school’s nuns, of the order of the Sisters of St. Mary of Namur, stood stricken with the priests of the school’s church, the Oblates of Mary Immaculate.  In its aftermath, the school announced that its classes would be cancelled for a few days following the fire.  Rev. Frederick Higgins, OMI, acting as the church’s pastor while Rev. John T. McLaughlin, OMI, was recuperating in Florida from an illness, announced that plans to place students in other schools would be discussed.  By Sunday afternoon, the day after the fire, a crane had been already put in place to take down the charred ruins of the school.
The top two floors of the school were soon condemned and the city’s deputy commissioner of lands and buildings ordered that students not attend class in the school’s old building until those floors were leveled.  Some talk was made about saving the school’s first floor, but ultimately, this was leveled too.

The Rev. Bruce M. Lambert, pastor of the First United Baptist Church soon reached out to Rev. McLaughlin to offer the church the use of their facilities at Central Plaza at 99 Church Street in Lowell, which included, in his words, “a modern educational wing, with 10 classrooms, accommodating up to 300 pupils, an office and a large open basement recreation room.”  Sacred Heart officials ultimately chose to use their old building on a double session basis, for the few weeks remaining in the school year.

The school did rise again.  On September 22, 1968, a crowd of more than 2,500 people gathered to watch the dedication of the new Sacred Heart School building.  Its student body of 500 began classes there on the following day.  The Sacred Heart School band provided the crowd with a concert as dignitaries, parishioners, students, alumni, and friends looked on.  After the concert, a tour of the new building was given.  The cornerstone was laid during the ceremonies by Rev. John T. McLaughlin, pastor of Sacred Heart Parish, and the Very Rev. Thomas Reddy, OMI, Oblate Provincial of the Eastern Province.  The school’s principal, Sr. Mary Kevin, SSMN, proudly looked on.

Sacred Heart School's new "New" building, dedicated in 1968. Photo from The Lowell Sun, 9/17/1968

As part of the ceremony, Fathers Reddy and McLaughlin passed through the rooms of the new school building, blessing each one, and finished by hanging a crucifix in the principal’s office.  After giving thanks to all those who helped in the rebuilding effort, Father McLaughlin told the crowd about the contents of a box which had been sealed into the new school’s cornerstone.  The box contained all of the keepsakes that had been sealed in the cornerstone of the 1909 building: copies of The Lowell Sun and the Lowell Courier-Citizen detailing the construction of the first school and its groundbreaking ceremony.  In addition to the 1909 items, new keepsakes were added to the cornerstone box:  Lowell Sun articles describing the 1967 fire that had destroyed the former school building and the new school’s groundbreaking ceremony, a Miraculous Medal, a Sacred Heart Badge, and a list of all the current priests and teaching sisters.  The priests had also added a list of parishioners, a medal of Pope Paul, a Kennedy half-dollar, and a picture of John Wojitas, the fireman who died while fighting the fire that had claimed the old school.

By the time I began attending Sacred Heart School more than a decade later, people still spoke of the great fire that had claimed the “new building”.  During my first few years at the school, we still attended classes at Sacred Heart’s “old” building, with its quaint coat rooms and ornate woodwork.  The building was eventually demolished, ten or fifteen years ago.  The school itself closed a few years later.

Do you have memories of the fire, or of Sacred Heart School or Church?  Please share them here!

Note to readers:  The Fires of Lowell series includes several other articles, including one detailing the 1904 fire of Lowell’s St. Patrick’s Church.  This post marks the fifth installment of the series.


1918: Spanish Flu, Attitudes toward Housekeeping, and a Little Bit about Linguistic History

"Coughs and Sneezes Spread Diseases - As ...

Image via Wikipedia

One of the more interesting aspects of writing a blog is seeing which topics attract the most interest.  In mid-December, I wrote a post about the Spanish flu (link below) and its spread across Massachusetts in 1918 and 1919.  Since then, it’s been one of my most popular posts (placing fourth most popular of the current 45 posts, actually).  So, the other day I was reviewing my notes from that post and came across an interesting column (also below) that I didn’t use at the time, but saved for later.

Spanish Flu, sometimes called the 1918 Flu Pandemic, was a worldwide pandemic and one of the most catastrophic natural disasters in humanity’s history.  Experts estimate that somewhere between 50 and 100 million people died worldwide, and that some 500 million were infected.  Stateside, one in every four people suffered some form of the Spanish flu, and the death toll was so staggering that it shortened the average US life expectancy by 12 years during the first year of the outbreak.

These days, it’s rare to come across first-hand living memories of the Spanish flu epidemic, now more than 90 years ago.  My grandfather, who grew up in Lawrence, Massachusetts often spoke of his memories, but he died more than 35 years ago.  That’s why when I came across this column, in the November 1, 1918 edition of The Lowell Sun, I decided to save it.

There are a few things that are interesting about the article, from a column called Man About Town.  First, I’m also working on a post exploring the linguistic heritage of New England – said more simply, the distinctive accent and unique words and phrases we’re known for.  More specifically, I’ve been exploring the idea that we would notice ‘historical accents’ if we were able to talk with people of the past.   In the column below, the writer, uses the phrase “issue of even date” in her letter – a term, now obsolete, that she uses to refer to “today’s edition” of the newspaper.

Typist wearing mask, New York City, October 16...

Typist wearing mask, New York City, October 16, 1918, during the "Spanish flu" influenza pandemic. - Image via Wikipedia.

Another interesting comment about the letter is the writer’s reaction against the “fresh air” idea that was so prevalent during the epidemic.  Soon after Spanish flu emerged, fresh air was thought to be one way to protect against infection.  Open-air emergency camps were quickly set up across Massachusetts to treat the infected.  And, amidst all of the fear, one newspaper columnist proposed that a messy home and poor housekeeping put people at a greater risk of infection.  An irritated reader wrote the following response, taking him to task for assuming that her house was “in a dirty condition” just because the Spanish flu had invaded her home.

From the Friday, November 1, 1918.  Lowell Sun, Page 18.

Dear Sir: 

In your issue of even date you say you wish we could have a national, state, or municipal statute to enforce personal and household cleanliness among industrial families.  You state you have thought about it more particularly since the Spanish influenza has been prevalent because the social workers tell you of unsanitary homes (bordering on being in a state of filth) and that this causes the disease to thrive more than any other single agency.

I am writing this in all kindness and good feeling toward the Man About Town, but I do not like to think that because I happen to have a case of Spanish influenza in my home, it was brought about because my home was kept in a dirty condition.  I am

Sincerely yours,

A MAN ABOUT TOWN READER

The Man About Town responded, and his counterpoint also exhibits the general thinking of the time, regarding WWI-era thoughts about women, housekeeping, and protection against infections:

The Man About Town’s Response:

A woman wrote this.  No name was signed to it, but I can tell a woman’s handwriting and sometimes detect the feminine process of thinking.  I rather think she is a good housekeeper and her house is kept in a clean condition.  If it got to that point where she wanted me to personally inspect her home and qualify as a judge of a clean home, or, if she had any lingering doubts in her own mind as to whether she was as good a housekeeper as she ought to be, I think here is a situation she and I ought to both sidestep.  I think, if judgement must be passed on her home, she and I ought to leave it to the opinion of her family doctor and of the nurse employed.  But I am satisfied to believe that this woman’s home is clean and all right.

Sometimes, veering off the beaten path of research materials (and into the land of columns and other ‘lighter’ newspaper content) can yield interesting insights into the lives and thoughts of people whose living memories have long since faded.  These insights can help us better envision as living, breathing people the names and dates of the individuals who make up our family trees.  They can also breathe life into the events and beliefs that shaped their lives and that we now read about in historical accounts.


The Great White Hurricane – New England’s Blizzard of 1888

The Blizzard of 1888 in New York City, via Wikimedia Commons.

During New England‘s Blizzard of 1888, also known as the Great White Hurricane, over four feet of snow fell in Connecticut and Massachusetts.  The storm dumped as much as 40 inches of snow in New York and New Jersey.  In a world before road salt and snowblowers, the Great White Hurricane suspended communication and travel in the U.S. Northeast for nearly a week in March 1888.  History most remembers the particularly horrific conditions in New York City.  There, the New York World reported that almost two feet of snow had fallen amidst biting 50 mph winds and sub-zero temperatures.  However, the storm also wrought havoc in smaller northern cities along the US East Coast.

A wet, swirling snow began to fall around dawn on Monday, March 12, 1888, in Lowell, Massachusetts, then a city of about 65,000 residents.  Many of Lowell’s residents, workers in the textile mills, gingerly picked their way along slick sidewalks as they began their workweek.  Most did not know that a blizzard was approaching and that it would drop increasing amounts of snow in Lowell on that day and the next.  As they took their places behind their spinning machines and warpers, the morning’s light breezes intensified into winds and then gales.  Temperatures, near freezing in the morning, never warmed.  Outside the mills, milkmen shoveled passages through drifts that had grown several feet high.  Patrolmen struggled through blinding snows before being forced to suspend their rounds later that afternoon.  Most agreed that they had never before seen such a storm.  Almost all had thought these kind of storms only happened in the “west”, which had suffered through the Schoolhouse Blizzard just two months before.

Windows, and even their buildings, rattled in the howling winds as heavy, wet snow began to blanket Lowell, Massachusetts.  Communication with other cities was soon lost as strong gusts brought down telephone wires and telegraph poles, already heavy with snow and ice.

Travel to, from, and around Lowell soon devolved into chaos.  Snow drifts grew to ten, or twenty feet high on some train tracks.

Front Page Headlines from the Boston Globe - March 13, 1888

Those lucky enough to arrive from surrounding towns and cities came late.  Some unfortunate souls ended up stranded with their disabled trains in a dark, white wilderness.  The heavy, wet snow just proved too much for the steam engines.  To make matters even worse, downed telegraph wires meant that the stalled trains had lost all means of communication, leaving the stranded passengers and crew completely cut off.

For those relying on horse-cars to travel within Lowell, the situation was hardly any better.  Snow had settled into the horse-car tracks far more quickly than the plows had been able to remove it.  This, and the increasing number or passengers seeking refuge on the city’s horse-cars, began to overtax the city’s work horses.  Newspaper accounts recorded the concern expressed over the horses’ welfare.  When one of the horses dropped dead from overexertion early in the evening, the horse-cars were called back into the stables for the night and any attempts to keep the tracks clear of snow was given up.  Those stranded in Lowell remarked at the city’s oddly quiet streets, deserted without a single horse-car, or even any visible horse-car tracks for that matter.  Sleighs gradually claimed the streets, no longer needing to be mindful of the usual risk of overturning in the horse-car tracks.

City officials fretted that an electrical surge would take out the city’s fire alarm system.  At 5:30 that afternoon, officials shut down the city’s electric light system, after sending a notice to shopkeepers advising them to convert to their gas lights.  Most closed at dusk instead, sending their employees out into the evolving chaos that had been the city’s transportation system.  City officials tried to light their way using the old gas light lanterns that still hung along most streets.  They soon abandoned the effort, however, when they learned that the glass was missing from most of the lantern panes.

The increasing weight of the wet snow proved too much for telegraph wires too.  Communication with Boston was lost by 3 PM on March 12; New York fell silent several hours earlier.  New England Telephone Company suffered extensive damage to its telephone lines as well.

The sun finally reappeared by the afternoon of Tuesday, March 13, but failed to melt much as temperatures failed to hit even 30ºF.  Throughout the day and evening, teams of men picked away at the deep drifts covering the horse-car tracks with their picks and shovels.  Horse car service began to be reinstated on the following morning.  By dusk on March 14, nearly all horse-car service was available.

Train service, too, began to return to a state of normalcy.  Trains that had spent the storm trapped within deep drifts began arriving during Tuesday, March 13.  A train that had left Fall River, Massachusetts at 5:45 AM on that day arrived in Lowell almost 12 hours later, at 5 o’clock in the afternoon.  By Wednesday, March 14, train service too had returned to normal schedules, even though even a passing snow squall had dropped even more snow on the area.

Western Union and New England Telephone remained hard at work in the days following the storm.  Although Western Union began work on felled telegraph poles after the storm ended on March 13, it was several days before service was restored.  New England Telephone had restored most of its service by Thursday, March 15.  Electric light service was restored to Lowell by dusk the night before.

As repairs were completed in the days following the storm, the Blizzard of 1888 faded from local newspaper headlines.  And as communication was restored with Boston, New York and beyond, news of the extent of the damage in New York City became known, where deaths and much more serious damage had been recorded.  Lowell, Massachusetts, recorded several injuries related to the Great White Hurricane of 1888, but escaped the greatest brunt of the storm.  The Blizzard of  1888 remained the benchmark for all other snowstorms, however, for nearly a century until the Blizzard of 1978 swept across New England and became the storm of record.


Worries of the Past: Smallpox and Boston’s Epidemic of 1872

A smallpox inoculation sign from 1801, via Wikipedia Commons

First, flu-like symptoms emerge -fever, aches, pains, nausea.  Exhaustion soon follows.  It’s not until a few days later when the telltale, flat, red spots appear about the face, hands, and arms.  The spots evolve into pus-filled blisters that scab first and then fall off, to reveal deep, pitted scars.  Smallpox was one of history’s most dreaded diseases, not only for its tendency to produce significant and deep scarring to victims’ faces, but also for its ability to cause blindness, or even worse, death.

Smallpox deaths in Boston, 1811-1873

Fear of smallpox never lurked far from the worries of 19th-century Bostonians.  Older folks still spoke of an epidemic that had struck Boston during 1721 and 1722 and killed 844, which was then more than 7% of the population.  The chart at right, from a February 1881 edition of the Boston Medical and Surgical Journal shows the level of smallpox contagion in Boston during most of the 19th century.  During the century’s first decades, after the first smallpox vaccinations were introduced in 1800, smallpox all but disappeared from Boston.  From 1839 forward, the presence of smallpox remained more or less constant in the city.  The epidemic that everyone talked about, though, dwarfed all the others and even rivaled the earlier outbreak of 1721.  The smallpox epidemic of 1872 claimed over 1,000 lives before it finally abated in the first weeks of 1874.

During the 1872 epidemic, smallpox victims, or even those suspected of having smallpox, were brought, sometimes against their will, to Gallop’s Island in Boston Harbor.  During the epidemic, those who could not get to the island or afford care there, were re-directed to the city’s smallpox hospital on Albany Street.  The hospital, overwhelmed by the sudden onslaught of smallpox infections, quickly found its 30-patient capacity stretched to 48.  Charges soon emerged that those admitted to the Boston Smallpox Hospital on Albany Street did not receive proper care or food and that they were forced to endure substandard conditions.  The testimony provided by patients and medical staff has been preserved and provides some interesting insights into the experiences of 19th-century hospital patients.

The main complaint emerging from the hearings seems to have been the casualness around the enforcement of the smallpox quarantine.  Several hospital patients claimed seeing the hospital’s gates open at different times of the day.  Others reported seeing smallpox patients come in very close contact with women who came into the hospital yard to collect rags or boys who had come to collect nails.  Several saw sailors near the hospital’s gates.  Nearly all could not recall ever seeing the red flag (indicating smallpox contagion) hung at the gates to warn passersby and visitors of the smallpox infection inside.

Late 19th century sanitary water closet

Another complaint involved the hospital’s water closet, or bathroom/restroom as we call it today.  Nearly all patients complained that the water closets were filthy and that most did not work.  Administrators did acknowledge that toilets did not always work and explained the difficulty in finding plumbers who were willing to enter the hospital, make the repairs, and risk infection.  Nevertheless, the stench from some water closets was so oppressive that several patients took it upon themselves to clean the water closets.

Lastly, many patients complained of the food, claiming that there wasn’t enough, or that it was of poor quality.  Several claimed that eggs or meat that had been served them had gone bad, and in the case of meat, contained maggots.

In the end, the Smallpox Hospital was closed in September 1872, and patients were once again cared for either in the facilities on Gallop’s Island or in their own homes.  Claims charging inadequate food or insufficient care were never substantiated.  However, the claims that the hospital was overcrowded and lacked enough help were found to be true.  The committee investigating the claims did decide that more nurses were needed, but also considered that patients, when sufficiently healthy, were expected to patch in too.  Regarding the broken toilets, the committee did find that it was indeed broken, but sympathized with the hospital, which claimed, probably quite truthfully, that no one would enter the hospital to fix them because they were afraid of being infected with smallpox themselves.

No effective treatment was ever discovered for smallpox, a disease that killed up to 30% of those who were infected, and pockmarked up to 80% of its survivors – most often on the face.  In 1967, the World Health Organization (WHO) launched a successful global eradication program, which led to the world’s last case of naturally-occurring smallpox, in 1977.