Ohio Valley History: Beware the smallpox

By Chris Rizer - Special to OVP

Since time immemorial, quarantine has been a tried-and-true method of dealing with disease. It appears in the Bible, most prominently in the Book of Leviticus. It was used with great effect during the Black Death, lowering the death rate in Milan (Italy) and central Poland from the staggering 60% suffered by other cities and regions to less than 15%. Even here in Mason County, mass quarantine has been employed before.

Four instances come to mind: the 1832-34 cholera pandemic, 1870 smallpox outbreak, 1892 smallpox outbreak, and 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic. For the sake of space, we’ll focus on 1892.

It all began in Pomeroy in April. A merchant there, David Geyer, had recently received some goods from a firesale in New York, and it was later found that these goods were the source of the disease. Before long, there was a spike in cases of what the Pomeroy doctors diagnosed as chickenpox and measles. That diagnosis was quickly changed after Judge Robert Brewster’s death on May 28th. Unfortunately, by then, the disease had been given a month to spread.

It was brought to our side of the river by a young man, Peter Roseberry, who was from Flatrock but was then boarding at the Lerner home in Mason. After purchasing clothes from Geyer, he came down with a disease that Dr. Hysell pronounced short-lived and non-contagious. A few days later, this changed to chickenpox, then black measles, and then Peter was gone. Here, John Mason picks up our story.

Mason was a Justice of the Peace and foreman of the State Gazette, and he frequently went home to Mason on the weekend. As he told Anna Lederer, when he arrived home, he was met at the depot by John Myers and Virgil Lewis, who quickly brought him up to speed. The three rushed to Pomeroy to meet Dr. Hysell, who told them a very different story than he had told the Lerners. Peter had indeed contracted smallpox and visitors were to be barred from his room.

That cat was, as they say, out of the bag. Peter knew everybody in town, and nearly a hundred people had visited him while he was sick. Their only option was to limit the damage.

The three men collected Pomeroy’s undertakers, Rappold and Biggs, and rushed back to Mason to quickly bury young Roseberry. Apparently, this angered Mother Roseberry, and she threatened to sue Mr. Mason. Her anger lessened somewhat after she had Peter disinterred and reburied at their homeplace in Flatrock, after which seven other members of the family came down with the disease.

Virgil Lewis quickly sent letters off to the State Board of Health and leaders of the surrounding towns. Dr. Baker of the Board of Health quickly placed the Bend Area under quarantine, with Mason and Pomeroy under the strictest orders. Guards were placed on the roads in and out of town, nobody was allowed in or out of Mason or Pomeroy, and those leaving the other Bend towns required a certificate from their doctor verifying that they were not infected.

On June 3rd, Point Pleasant placed itself under a protective quarantine, much as we are today. There were no cases in the town, and they wanted to keep it that way, placing guards on the roads to ensure nobody from the Bend or Flatrock came into town. It was apparently effective, and no cases developed in Point according to Editor Tippett. Gallipolis issued similar orders, though a case did develop there.

On June 4th, the O.R.R. ordered that no trains would stop between Letart and Lakin. This effectively isolated the Bend Area. No travel was possible by road or rail, and steamboats stopped only to deliver necessary supplies. However, travel restrictions were not the only measures taken.

In Mason and Pomeroy, the epicenters of the outbreak, normal life came to a halt. Churches were closed, social interactions were limited as much as possible, and certainly, handshakes were considered an insult. Postal service was suspended. The bedding, clothing, and in some cases entire home of infected persons were burned. Especially heart-breaking were the orders regarding funerals.

John Mason wrote, “I attended several such burials, carrying a lantern ahead, while two or three men pushed a handcart containing a coffin. No one else was allowed to attend the burial, which in some instances were very crude, as well as sad.”

There were in fact seven deaths on our side of the river, all in Mason. This was out of 46 cases in Mason, 7 in Flatrock, and 1 in Hartford. I don’t have the numbers for Meigs or Gallia, though Pomeroy was said to have been hit harder than Mason.

Despite a death rate of 13%, the smallpox outbreak of 1892 could have been much worse had appropriate measures not been taken. Our salt supplied Cincinnati, and had the disease reached there, the death toll would have been devastating.

Now, as we face the current coronavirus pandemic, we can learn from the outbreaks of the past. Limit your travel and personal contact as much as possible, and we will recover in time. We always have.

Information from the writings of Anna Lederer and Mildred Gibbs, as well as the Weekly Register.

The meetings of the Mason County Historical and Preservation Society are cancelled until further notice.


By Chris Rizer

Special to OVP

Chris Rizer is president of the Mason County Historical and Preservation Society, reach him at masonchps@gmail.com.

Chris Rizer is president of the Mason County Historical and Preservation Society, reach him at masonchps@gmail.com.