While searching for my Keegans of Montana in the online newspapers, I stumbled upon a mention of my 3rd great uncle, Hugh Keegan, being held in a pest house after contracting smallpox. Sounds creepy crawly, right?
Born in 1874, Hugh Keegan was the youngest child of Hugh and Margaret (Cavanagh) McKeegan and brother to my 2nd great grandmother, Catherine (Keegan) Fitzgerald. The family actually started in the Ormstown area of Quebec where Hugh’s sibling were born. They then moved to Morris, IL, where Hugh was born. In 1890, the Keegan family left for Sand Coulee, Montana. In 1900, Hugh is 25 years old and living with his parents, who are in their 60’s, his older sister Martha, and her husband, and his nephew, William J Fitzgerald (my great grandfather). Hugh is working as a coal miner. 1
Two years later, by April 28, 1902, Hugh has contracted smallpox. The paper states he has been brought to the pest house in Great Falls from Sand Coulee to be cared for.2 On May 4, 1902, another article states that he is “afflicted with a malignant form of smallpox” and has caused a great scare among the locals. It goes on to say that “he exposed may before his removal to the pest house, sleeping with members of the family, going on the streets and mingling with men in the saloon.” He was quarantined but “should have reported to the proper authorities before going home to his aged parents.” 3 By May 19, 1902, he been proclaimed cured and is released from the pest house.4 His illness lasted about 20 days.
I was curious about these pest houses, so I did a little research. Basically, these were houses where people with contagious diseased such as smallpox, scarlet fever, and typhus would be quarantined until they either recovered or died.5 One local article about the opening of a new pest house explained the need for the house because hospitals refused to accept such cases. The city had been renting a shack and employing a nurse when cases popped up, but it was too expensive, so they were going to build a shack on the county poor farm.6
As a reminder, smallpox was a contagious disease characterized by a fever and a distinctive rash that progresses to pustules. Before eradication, three out of ten people with the disease died. The article about Hugh mentions that he had a malignant case of smallpox, so I looked into that too. It was a rare version of smallpox, more common in children. It was also called flat-type because the lesions remained flat and never progressed to the pustular stage.7 A vaccine was developed at the end of the 1700s, and in 1901, after the creation of the Montana State Board of Health, vaccines were required before attending school.8 Smallpox was eradicated in 1980.
- 1900 United States Federal Census [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com. Year: 1900; Census Place: Sand Coulee, Cascade, Montana; Page: 18; Enumeration District: 0151; FHL microfilm: 1240910 ↩
- The Butte Daily Post, Keegan Has Smallpox, 28 Apr 1902, page 4 (accessed 12 Nov, 2017) Newspapers.com. ↩
- Great Falls Tribune, Afraid of Smallpox, 4 May 1902 , Page 3 (accessed 12 Nov, 2017) Newspapers.com. ↩
- Great Falls Tribune, Cases of Smallpox, 18 May 1902, Page 8 (accessed 12 Nov, 2017) Newspapers.com ↩
- Jones, Jennifer; The Dead History: Giving the Past New Life, History of Ogden’s Pest Houses; 15 Feb, 2016 (accessed 4 Aug 2018), https://www.thedeadhistory.com/. ↩
- Great Falls Tribune, Another Pesthouse, 8 Feb, 1901, page 10 (accessed 4 Aug 2018) Newspapers.com ↩
- Center for Disease Control and Prevention, Smallpox, 12 Jul 2017 (accessed 4 Aug, 2018) https://www.cdc.gov/smallpox/index.html ↩
- Hollenbach, Natasha; Montana History Revealed, Vaccination Not Quarantine, 15 Jul, 2015 (accessed 4 Aug, 2018) http://mthistoryrevealed.blogspot.com/. ↩