Smallpox in the Mercersburg Area in 1902

By Joan C. McCulloh

          In 2016 we know little about the dread of smallpox that not very long ago terrified many people. Inoculation, however, virtually wiped out this disease so that today we have almost forgotten about both smallpox and inoculation. The Mercersburg Journal in 1902 along with articles about electricity that was coming to town that year, church news, Mercersburg Academy news, references to accidents, and accounts of the usual bad behavior present in every society reported from July until December upon an outbreak of smallpox in that year. In July the Journal reported that a young servant girl working in a hotel in Blue Ridge Summit had become ill with small pox, that the doctor and others did not know where to take her, but that they finally took her to the “Franklin county almshouse in Chambersburg” with Chambersburg policemen being stationed along the roads as “the smallpox cavalcade consisting of three men in a buggy, followed by a wagon containing a sick girl and a nurse” went by. In August the Journal reported that the girl, Nellie Taylor, and her nurse had left the almshouse and noted that all of their clothing was new as their old clothing had been destroyed, that Nellie’s purse had been burned, and that she had with her when she left only a few silver coins. In reference to smallpox in the Mercersburg area that began in September we will include the articles of the Journal just as they were written without comment, additions, or deletions.

           The September 5, 1902, edition of the Journal with the headline, “Smallpox Averted,” reported the following: “A number of cases of smallpox developed in Williamsport, Md. on Tuesday of last week, and in view of the fact that W. D. Byron & Sons operate a tannery there as well as at Mercersburg, and many Mercersburg people are employed there, who make frequent trips and visits to this place, prompt action was necessary. The council met on Friday evening and appointed a board of health, composed of Dr. W. M. Irvine, Dr. B. E. Nevin, C. H. Fallon, J. W. Witherspoon , and H. B. Krebs. The board organized by electing Dr. Irvine president, J. C. Rankin secretary and J. C. Atkinson health officer. A resolution was adopted to the effect that no person from Williamsport should be allowed to enter the borough of Mercersburg until such time as the board of health took further action, and the health officer was ordered to see that the resolution was carried into effect.

          As many of the Williamsport hands come to Mercersburg on every Saturday evening and Sunday and as one of the employees had come to his mother’s home at the edge of town and others were known to be in the “Corner,” the board of health wisely took the precaution of guarding the roads leading from Williamsport to Mercersburg, and for this purpose ten special guards were appointed, who took their stations upon the roads. A statement received by telephone from Williamsport Saturday evening that four men had escaped from the quarantined section of Williamsport and were coming in the direction of Mercersburg had the effect of increasing the vigilance of the guards. Whether this report was correct or false we are unable to tell. No excitement prevailed in Mercersburg nor alarm either, on the part of our citizens. A tannery employee was reported by Dr. H. G. Chritzman to be down with the disease about three miles south of Welsh Run, and whether or not that house has been quarantined we do not know. The Mercersburg board of health has no jurisdiction there but has shown a laudable and rigorous determination to keep the disease out of Mercersburg and will continue its efforts as long as possible.”

                   The Journal on October 1, 1902, with the headline, “Smallpox Kept Out,” included the following: “The Mercersburg Board of Health continues active in its efforts to prevent the introduction of smallpox in Mercersburg and has succeeded so far. To be satisfied as to the nature of the disease in the “Corner” the board had one of the most capable physicians in Franklin County visit the home of Grant Metcalfe to examine his case. He reported that it was unquestionably smallpox with which he is afflicted. Several other cases are know to exist there. The wife of George Wolfe was taken sick with a disease resembling smallpox, and the store was closed, but the storekeeper’s father, it is alleged, tore down the sign and reopened the store. A number of the “Corner” people refuse to believe that the disease is smallpox and ridicule the idea. Guards were around Mercersburg on the roads leading south for several days with orders to arrest anyone known to be have mingled with those afflicted. The Montgomery township school board, upon which the law imposes the duties of a board of health, at last agreed to close the “Corner” schools and to use every effort to prevent persons entering or leaving the infected houses.

          The Peters township school board has closed the Gap schools on account of the cases known to exist there. A public meeting was held in in Brubaker’s hall on Monday evening, presided over by Dr. Irvine. Addresses were made by C. A. Suessrott, Esq., attorney for the directors of the poor, Rev. J. G. Rose, H. W. Byron, and Dr. Irvine.

          The school boards of the two townships now realize the high duty imposed upon them and have indicated their intention of using vigorous means, if, necessary. The “Corner” cases were brought there from Williamsport, Md.”

          With the headline, “Smallpox No Nearer,” the November 7 issue of the Journal reported: “On Thursday of last week Dr. H. G. Chritzman, who was appointed sanitary agent of Montgomery township by Judge Stewart upon the recommendation of the school board, quarantined the section of the “Corner” where smallpox prevails. This was deemed necessary by reasons of the fact that there are known to be about fourteen cases there in a number of different families.

          Drs. D. F. Unger and H. G. Chritzman visited eleven cases on Thursday afternoon of last week in the “Corner” and reported that each case was undoubtedly smallpox.

          On Sunday morning the quarantine was raised by the sanitary agent of the township authorities, it being alleged that people of the community were at last recognizing the danger and were carefully avoiding the infected houses and premises. The quarantine, therefore, now, we are informed, is restricted to the houses of those afflicted.

          The Mercersburg Board of Health have had guards out, particularly on the “Corner” road and have refused to permit anyone from the district infected to enter the borough; this on the principal {sic} that the residents there had freely intermingled, until recently, many of them having visited the smallpox victims.

          John F. Snyder, the North Main Street wagon maker, is quarantined, he having visited the “Corner” on Sunday, and it being alleged, that he came in contact with some of the cases. W.A. Culler is also quarantined at his home on North Main street. Mr. Culler’s case is a particularly unfortunate one. On Saturday or Sunday he drove to Warren township by way of the “Corner” to visit his brother, John Culler, who has been sick. As he was passing Wolfe’s store he was stopped by some member of the family, who came out and had a brief conversation. This, of course, was dangerous for Mr. Culler and resulted in the Mercersburg Board of Health taking the action it has. Mr. Culler appreciates the situation and is willing to be separated, although it is a hardship upon him. He is teacher of the colored school and also has a store adjoining his house.

          In the families of Amos Downin and his son, Edgar Downin, north of Foltz the disease continues. In the two families it is said there are seven or eight cases. Upon the recommendation of the Peters township school board Judge Stewart appointed Dr. W. O. Lantz sanitary agent for the school district. He sees that the necessary wants of the families are provided for.

          The two young ladies who were teaching in the Union school in the “Corner” are in an unpleasant predicament. They board with George W
Wolfe, whose wife is a victim of the disease. They are therefore compelled to remain upon the premises. Their homes are at Fayetteville and Waynesboro respectively.”

          The November 21 issue of the Journal with the headline, “Smallpox Spreading,” stated this information: “That the utmost vigilance is required to prevent the further spread of small-pox both at Foltz and in the “Corner” was brought forcibly to bear upon the local authorities when it was discovered, during the latter part of last week, that two new cases had developed in two families near Foltz, and three new cases were reported from the “Corner.” The new cases near Foltz are in the families of George and Otha Glee, who live near each other and near the Downin families. We are informed that the Peters township health authorities are doing their duty well and have armed guards about the houses day and night.

          In the “Corner” the new cases reported are James A. Hornbaker, George Wolf, the storekeeper, and Miss Minola Brandt, one of the school teachers, who has been quarantined in the Wolf family.”

          By November 28, however, the Journal was more optimistic with its article headlined “Smallpox on the Wane.” This article asserted: “We are reliably informed that the smallpox patients at Foltz are well. The two new cases reported to have developed in the families of George and Otha Glee now prove to be something else and not smallpox at all. The disease was confined strictly to two Downin families, which fact is due to the great care and precaution of the citizens of Foltz and vicinity and the health authorities of Peters township. Mr. Amos Downin fully appreciated the gravity of the situation from the first and took every means within his power to assist the health authorities to prevent the disease from spreading. On December 1 the houses of Amos and Edgar Downin will be thoroughly fumigated and the quarantine raised. There are no new cases reported in the “Corner,” and it is confidently believed that the disease has been checked there.”

          Smallpox continued to terrify people until widespread inoculation annihilated the disease in the United States. When inoculation became mandatory for school-age children in Pennsylvania, controversy developed quickly. Some of those against it were afraid of its effects upon their children; others were against it on ethical grounds. Many people in the Mercersburg area expressed these same fears so that the Mercersburg Journal published many letters and articles both for and against inoculation. Another issue of our newsletter will include these heated arguments.

Note: William Downin, the thirty-three year old son of Mr. and Mrs. Amos Downin, died as a result of smallpox in late October.

Note: Foltz today is called Cove Gap. The Corner is an area southwest of Mercersburg at which the mountains running north and south meet those running east and west.

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