A Terrible Story of Smallpox – Bethlehem PA

Many of you know I’m from Bethlehem PA and I’m a member of the Historical Society. I want/need to share this sad story of the Smallpox epidemic of 1882. I think in these times, we can all relate to it.

Story by Kenneth F Raniere and Karen M. Samuels in “Southern Exposure”.

The Scourge of Smallpox: Equally as contagious as the novel Coronavirus, Covid-19, Smallpox produced a rash and skin nodules that eventually covered the face and the entire body with an appearance  much like measles or chickenpox.  Those who survived were marked for life with scars. It is believed that Ramesses V died from Smallpox. The virus spread throughout Europe; the Spaniards introduced it to America in the 16th century. Smallpox killed hundreds of thousands without any known cure. Everyone was susceptible, from the aged to the child in the womb. It was fatal in the young. Acquired through secretions from the skin and exhalation from the lungs, the incubation period lasted from 9-15 days while the virus itself lasted three weeks.

In the Spring of 1872, Smallpox was in Canada and parts of the US. In 1881, cases appeared in Allentown PA. In January of that year Smallpox was prevalent in South Bethlehem where the virus was believed to have been contracted in Philadelphia and spread to Bethlehem, thanks to the railroads. Through late winter cases continued in Bethlehem and West Bethlehem. Residents in South Bethlehem started burning infected  bedding and clothing. That made the contagion worse as smoke hung over the houses in the still, humid air. Newspapers invited all to offer suggestions of ways to combat the virus.

Though many believed Smallpox was a disease of filth newspapers stated that it affected rich and poor alike. The airbourne disease inpregnated the air within ten feet of an infected person. In winter, with houses closed up tight, cases of Smallpox increase in the trapped poisoned air.

March 1882: To keep the contagion from spreading, barrel filled with burning tar were scattered in South Bethlehem, schools were closed in Mauch Chunk (now Jim Thorpe) and Lehighton and Bethlehem. The faculty of Lehigh University allowed students to leave campus until further notice; parents took their children out of boarding schools and hotels were closed to all patrons. The Board of Health reported one hundred houses under quarantine.

In South Bethlehem, the Bethlehem Iron Co. Hospital cares for sick company employees; stores and saloons were closed and public gatherings were avoided. Though prevention and confinement were practiced, the number of cases and deaths climbed. The Board of Health considered the constant exposure of the epidemic to laborers in their daily travel to and from the iron and zinc works; the Opera House was closed.

In late March, families were told to remain in quarantine for another full week, 117 houses now quarantined.

In May, the number of cases and deaths were in decline. On June 1, the last case was discharged from South Bethlehem and the borough declared itself entirely free of Smallpox. During the three month epidemic, there were a total of 167 deaths.

The heroes of the epidemic were the Boards of Health that ordered quarantines and vaccinations. Public opinion soured against the inadequate state legislature that did little to lend aid during the worst part of the epidemic.

A Miracle Vaccine: The Smallpox virus had no cure.  In 1796, an English country doctor, Edward Jenner, perfected Smallpox immunity and created a blueprint to control the disease. When he noticed blisters on the hands of milkmaids caused by blistered  cow udders, he sampled fluid from the Cowpox and scratched it onto the skin of an 8-year old boy. After a blister formed, the boy recovered. Jenner performed the same procedure with the fluid from Smallpox. The boy showed no signs of the disease and developed an immunity to the disease. Though not a cure, the Smallpox vaccine had a protective component. During the epidemic of 1882, the Board of Health administered the same vaccine that protected the citizens of Bethlehem.

Suffer the Little Children: Fatalities of Smallpox left many children orphaned by the loss of their parents Concerned for their welfare, Bethlehem Iron Co. President, William W. Thurston (1852-1890) rented a house in the Fountain Hill area on Cherokee Street and appointed Lizzie Frick as matron to care for the orphans. In 1888 when the house proved too small, Thurston provided a lot and built a larger structure.

PIcture: the boy (left) exhibits Smallpox. His brother was vaccinated earlier and avoided contracting the disease.

Enforcing the Health Ordinance: In 1885, South Bethlehem solicitor, J. Davis Brodhead compiled the General Borough Law with Ordinances, which included a myriad of laws and guidelines in anticipation of a Smallpox epidemic. In the guidelines, the Board of Health was given authority to detain any person with signs of Smallpox who did not live in the Borough to be sent to the Poorhouse!  One chapter addressed containment of the disease. One rule suggested hospitalization for treatment another recommended vaccines for teachers and students in schools. All doctors were ordered to stay in their offices from 6:00-7:00pm to vaccinate anyone without charge, later to be reimbursed by the Boards.

Note: This story appeared in the Summer 2020 edition of Southern Exposure, published by the South Bethlehem Historical Society. I was compelled to share it with you.

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