Old Settlers Club 1916

Early Milwaukee
Papers from the Archives of the Old Settlers' Club of Milwaukee County
Published by the Club

First Small Pox Epidemic

By Dr. J. B. Selby.

In. 1843 smallpox appeared in Milwaukee for the first time among the white settlers. The first case was that of Mrs. Mary Dewey, the wife of Linas N. Dewey, who came to Milwaukee in 1842. She had the disease in a mild form, and soon recovered. Where she was exposed or how she took the disease, neither she or anyone else ever knew. It probably had existed among the Indians camped about, and as they were in numbers here, she may have been exposed to one who had recently recovered. Her husband attended to her wants during her illness, and before she had fairly recovered, he came down with the disease, and had a severe time before his recovery. This was in the spring of 1843 occasionally there was a case of smallpox during the summer but by the middle of August the disease had spread to such an extent as to cause alarm. While no unusual publicity was given, it was well known at Buffalo, Cleveland, Detroit, and other ports along the line that an epidemic of smallpox had broken out at Milwaukee. And soon that knowledge must seriously interfere with the landing of immigrants and other passengers destined for this port, who would prefer to go on to Racine, Southport, or even to Chicago, than land at a port whose hotels might be stricken with the contagious disease, while at the same time the rural population, who depended on Milwaukee to buy their produce and give them in return their supplies, would go elsewhere to accomplish that object rather than to risk the danger here.

Then it was that the board of supervisors took action to stamp out this pestilence. They passed a resolution creating a board of health, a hospital or pest house, whence all taken with smallpox should be conveyed and another resolution, that any physician who failed to report any case, should be subject to a fine. The question of locating the pest house was one of much importance. The ground around the location should be high and free from miasmatic influence; fresh, pure air is important to all hospitals, and particularly so to one where all are forcibly sent, having a contagious disease, and so far from a residence as to justify no remonstrance to its use.

The supervisors were fortunate enough in finding a location that answered favorably all these questions. This location was on the east side of the river, about 3^ miles north of Wisconsin Street, and y 2 mile east of Humboldt. There a Mr. Kirby owned 40 acres, having an east front on what is now known as Oakland Avenue, of 1/4 of a mile, having a south front of ¼ mile on the sectional line road; called the town line road, running east from Humboldt and about eighty rods north of the new location of the female college. The land was high and dry, covered with a rich and vigorous growth of native timber. There was no house between it and Milwaukee; and the only house in Humboldt was through the woods 1/2 mile away. These 40 acres now clothed with rich meadows and pasture were then clad with a forest of oak, maple, and hickory, except a clearing of about 2 acres on which stood a log house. The time was pressing and so was the alarm in Milwaukee. A contract was soon agreed upon between the owner and the supervisors to rent the land and house from September 1st, 1843, to May 1st, 1844, for $100.00. The house not affording sufficient room for those awaiting their retreat, an addition was thrown up on the north attached to the log house, with a door between. This addition was 16x30, two stories high. A substantial frame was run up, sheathed with boards up and down and well battened, covered with a good shingled roof. A stairway was made connecting the two floors, and the space above and below, was divided into bed-rooms, except that below a large room was reserved for the dining table.

The weather being warm and favorable the windows were al-lowed to stand open admitting a free use of fresh air, so necessary to purify a crowded house filled with cases of smallpox. The land between Milwaukee and the Pest house, was covered by heavy timber. Between the two points were some three or four deep gullies or ravines, along the river. The land being higher along the lake bluff, caused the spring freshets to run towards the river and in time cut these deep ravines through the clay. So that the Indian trail from Milwaukee to the north ran along the bluff, crossing the heads of these rivulets, till, passing the last ravine about opposite Mineral Spring Park, it struck off west to the section line, now known as Oakland Avenue; thence to the north, passing the Pest house, and on to Port Washington. The Board of Health was composed of three members with Thomas J. Noyes as Chairman. Doctors Bean and Bartlett were appointed physicians to the hospital, and it was directed that all cases of smallpox should be sent there. J. B. Selby who had attended lectures at Willoughby Medical College in Ohio, and was then in Bean and Bartlett's office, transiently, was employed to superintend the hospital and receive instructions from the attending physicians who came out usually once or twice a week to see the sick.

The log house was occupied by the cook and his sleeping apartment; also by the superintendent. In the new part were the dining and various other rooms, both above and below for the sick. One of the first cases sent out was a negro called Tom Field. Whether that was really his name, or one borrowed from his master, for he had formerly been a slave at the south, is not known. During the sea-son he had been a cook on board of a vessel, and as his was a mild case of smallpox he soon recovered, thence was employed as the cook of the establishment; and a good cook he was, busy from morning till night, preparing gruels, broths, beef tea and chicken for the sick and convalescent. Our number was few at first but they increased until we had about 40 including the sick and convalescent, then the number dropped off, till the house was closed. The treatment of smallpox at the hospital in 1843, adopted by the physicians in attendance, was very simple. Like all eruptive diseases, its nature is to run a regular course and then gradually to disappear. The main attention of the physician is to watch the patient, remove obstructions to its regular course and confine the disease to its simplest and least dangerous form, and by the use of emollients such as cream, vaseline or oil to lessen as much as possible the pox marks left after recovery. The disease is usually ushered in by chills, rigors and fever. The obvious course is to learn the condition of the bowels if constipated, remove by the use of a mild laxative of salts or oil, to be repeated in 2 or 3 days if necessary. After eruption is fully developed, the fever lessens or passes away altogether. Now the patient is to be carried along with simple food and drinks that strength may be sustained during the weakness attending recovery. Our duty seems to be to nurse our patient and see that the pulse is even, assist nature that no undue obstruction of the bowels occurs, seek such nourishment as the digestive organs may bear and daily to strengthen them till convalescence ensues.

Smallpox is usually divided into two classes or grades: The confluent, where the pustules run into each other, and the distinct where the pustules form a round distinct pit on the surface of the body. The confluent is the most malignant and dangerous form and from it few recover. Those brought to the hospital were largely of the distinct class of cases, some were mild, others severe, all of whom recovered and in due time were conveyed to their homes. The house was kept open till December 15th and then closed for want of patients. The epidemic had passed away winter with its chilly frosts had closed the dwellings; and checked the disease. Our supplies were mostly from Milwaukee. There was no trouble in getting the grocery man to send them out; they were brought near the house, and thence conveyed by the cook. We had everything from town, except milk, which we obtained in ample supply from our nearest neighbor, a Mr. Baer. He owned 160 acres in the same section on which we dwelt and by going through the woods % mile we opened on his clearing. We took our can, both morning and evening and after passing through this pleasant forest path, and coming to his house, deposited our can on a stump, and retired a rod or so, to avoid exposure. Mrs. Baer, who was on the watch for us, came out, took the can, and filled it, depositing the same on the stump and then retired. As we advanced, she opened up her questions as to the sick and well. Having satisfied them all, we retired as we came.

Mr. and Mrs. Baer settled on their land in 1842, a young married couple. The husband has been dead some ten years. The wife still lives at the age of 78 in the enjoyment of good health, and a son, who is a prosperous and wealthy farmer, lives near. She attended our semi-centennial Anniversary, and when asked if she did not visit the old settlers reception at the Plankinton she replied "no, I supposed it was intended only for those invited." I told her we should have welcomed her to our reunion and our refreshment table. She seemed to regret not being present and I certainly felt from the circumstances of my first acquaintance with her a remorse in not calling the attention of the visiting committee to her name.

It may be noticed that in this record some facts that would be worthy of mention are not recorded, such as the number of patients treated, their names, when and where born, their date of reception and when discharged. Such a record was by order of the board of health kept at the hospital. At the close of their official duties in December 1843 they made a report to the board of health of which the above mentioned record or diary formed a part and by them was lodged with the board of supervisors.

Some three ^ears afterwards, Milwaukee obtained a city charter and the board of supervisors, having been superseded by a mayor and council, handed over to the new government, when organized, all official papers pertaining to the village system, among others the record of the Pest house of 1843. The city charter had been in operation some 15 years when one night the city clerk's office was discovered to be on fire, and before morning, the whole of Cross Block on the corner of East Water and Huron Streets, in which block the city clerk's office was located, was a mass of ruins, and all the books of that office and papers on file were lost.

This record is made from memory and is believed correct, BO far as it goes. It does not give names and dates of those treated nor the length of time they were under treatment. Most of those brought to the hospital were immigrants recently landed, and being hardy, they generally recovered and were sent home. Of the 60 patients treated at the hospital, one was a colored man, four or five were Americans, the balance was composed of foreigners recently landed on our shores. Of those who died, one was an American and six or seven were immigrants.

As far as I know this record is the only one in existence treating of the above important scenes of 1843, and I leave it with this club, that it may now or hereafter be the means of shedding some light on the early history of Milwaukee.

At this point I am reminded, not for the first time, of the apathy, the lack of a business ability of those employed for others.
The board of supervisors paid the owner of the land one hundred dollars for its use from September 1st till the following spring, and then spent several hundred dollars to build an addition. Had they offered the owner the same amount or a trifle more they could have secured the title to the land. The 40 acres would have been well adapted for future use by the city, and if not so used, would have rented for more than sufficient to pay the taxes. Fifteen years afterward, the timber on the land could have been sold for $40 or $50 per acre, and recently, adjoining land with no improvements, has been sold for $2,000 an acre.

This 40 acres, at the present time, is a smiling landscape. It is now well known that all that tongue of land between the river and lake nearly a mile wide opposite Humboldt and running to a point at the exit of the river to the lake, has a foundation of limestone, covered by a deep soil of red clay, over which is the black loam that gathers up and conveys the oxygen of the air to the soil below; such is the nature of a rich soil. No malaria is ever found on this strip, partly owning to its elevation; 40 rods south of this land is Mineral Spring Park. One mile north is the suburban village of White Fish Bay. This 40 acres lay in a perfect square, having a frontage on its eastern line of 1/4 of a mile on Oakland Avenue, also a south front of 1/4 of a mile on the town line road. Said road dividing it from the city limits, and soon to form a boulevard 150 feet wide. On the west is Humboldt, 1/2 mile distant. On the east, Lake Michigan about the same distance. It overlooks a city of one-quarter of a million. To the west is the village of Humboldt and the winding river to the falls below; beyond are the blue hills of Milwaukee, and the Reservoir. Such is this lovely spot; and such is this lovely outlook, only y 2 m ^ e to the railroad station; where the Lake Shore and the North-Western unite to form the trunk line that runs to the city; street cars pass along Oakland Avenue every few moments; what can enhance the value of such a spot for a high school or university? The city once owned 40 acres in Murray's Addition near the water works, and gave it away for a hospital, and other beneficiaries of a public character. What a princely gift this would be to the Milwaukee Female College, if the city had it to give, and she could have had it, had the board of supervisors done their duty fifty years ago.