© Jerry F. Couch
NOTE: This article first appeared in the Clinch Valley Times’ printed edition back in 2012. I began writing these local history articles in the summer of 2011 during St. Paul’s official centennial year.
One hundred and twenty-two years ago, the mention of this dreaded word was enough to inspire widespread panic. At that time, the average person knew little of how diseases were transmitted. Superstitions were commonplace, especially where health was concerned. Such superstitions fed fear, which is the most powerful of the primitive human emotions.
Beginning in 1898 and continuing to some degree until 1902, a smallpox epidemic spread across the United States. St. Paul (the featured image of the town dates from around 1900) and the surrounding area did not escape this outbreak. Ten years earlier, when there was no rail service in the region, a smallpox epidemic probably would not have occurred. Local opportunities for exposure to infected persons would have been very limited. But…everything comes at a price and rail travel helped facilitate the spread of this and other viral diseases.
Rumors flew, fueling citizens’ belief that smallpox was raging in St. Paul and would quickly spread to neighboring Russell County. J. O. Dickenson and M. O. Osborne, Justices of the Peace at Castlewood, deputized men to guard the old Rosser Bridge which at that time connected St. Paul to Russell County. This took place in early February of 1898. The deputies were authorized to prevent people from crossing the bridge and to arrest anyone who disregarded their order to stop. Obviously the use of force was permitted, and by March of 1898, deputies were also blocking other public and private roads between Russell and Wise counties.
People couldn’t go to their places of employment; they couldn’t take their corn to Bickley Mills to have it ground; they couldn’t go home to their families; travelers were left stranded. Can you imagine the uproar if this happened today? It‘s a wonder no one was shot – and people had definitely been shot for less reason.
Fortunately cooler heads prevailed and citizens sought relief in the courts to secure an injunction barring the deputies from impeding traffic in and out of St. Paul. Those whose signatures were appended to the bill requesting the injunction included: John M. Hillman, Dr. James N. Greear, James D. Cleek, E. J. Bickley, B. F. Morgan, T. P. Morgan, Charles C. Bolton, J. N. Kincanon, S. C. Claytor, W. L. Banner, Stephen Broadwater, W. C. Craig, Benjamin F. Bickley, and Charles Humphrey. All these men either lived in Wise County or had business interests there.
The following affidavit by Dr. Greear was also submitted with the bill for the court’s consideration:
For those who might find Dr. Greear’s handwriting difficult to read, here is a transcription:
St. Paul, Wise County, Va.
March 8th 1898
I hereby certify that I am a regularly practicing physician at St. Paul, Va. My practice is in Wise and Russell Counties and in conjunction with the local Board of Health I have taken every precaution necessary to prevent the spread of smallpox contagion from this point to the adjacent communities. We have had in St. Paul and adjoining country sixteen cases of smallpox and variola, all convalescent except one. I have been in constant communication with the local Board of Health in regard to the best rules and regulations to prevent the spread of the disease. The cases have all been placed under strict quarantine and guarded. The public health does not demand any other restrictions and establishing a county quarantine is wholly unnecessary.
J. N. Greear, M. D.
Those who signed the bill of complaint also affirmed the quarantine. They stated that infected persons had been confined at a pest house which was under guard. There, smallpox victims could be cared for and could recuperate. In 2020, that doesn’t sound so bad. But in 1898, it didn’t sound good at all. People believed, with considerable justification, that confinement to a pest house was the equivalent of a death sentence. County deputies had the authority to take people to the pest house against their will – at gunpoint, if need be.
During the epidemic, smallpox inoculations were mandatory in Wise County. Deputies could physically restrain people for forcible inoculation if they did not voluntarily comply. Those who refused were not just being stubborn or unmindful of their neighbors’ health and safety. Their concerns regarding inoculation were very well founded.
At the time of the epidemic there were no uniform national standards for the manufacture of vaccines. The Pure Food and Drug Act was still several years in the future. In some cases, people actually contracted smallpox after being inoculated because of vaccines containing active viruses. A public outcry followed. In its wake, charges were brought against authorities for unreasonable actions and disregarding people’s rights. Some of these cases were eventually taken all the way to the Supreme Court. After 1902, laws were changed to safeguard the public health in a legal and more reasonable way.
Meanwhile on the home front, Judge John P. Sheffey issued an injunction barring anyone from blocking either the Rosser Bridge or the roads leading into St. Paul. This is what he wrote:
Marion, Va. March 9th 1898:
Injunction granted according to the prayer of the bill until further order. But this injunction is not to take effect until bond in the penalty of $500 shall have been executed by complaintants or someone for them with good security before the Clerk of the Circuit Court of Russell County, with condition to payable costs which may be awarded against complaintants and all damages incurred in case this injunction shall be disregarded.
John P. Sheffey
Judge of the Circuit Court of Russell County
In 2020, smallpox is considered to have been eliminated worldwide. Inoculation has brought it under control. However, a stock of live viruses are maintained by our government, ostensibly to be used for the manufacture of vaccines should there ever be another outbreak.
In recent years there have been increasing concerns that smallpox might be used either by the United States or by other countries as a biological weapon of war. Though smallpox is only fatal in a small percentage of cases, the symptoms are horrific and cause great suffering. The disease begins with a raging fever, headaches, vomiting, and severe back pain. Next come the characteristic pustules on the victims’ faces and bodies. These begin as flat red spots and over a two week period they change into hard bumps which later form scabs. Those who recover are scarred for life. Hopefully, we will never see another outbreak of smallpox.
NOTES: St. Paul’s original Rosser Bridge was named for General Thomas Rosser, who was the driving force behind the original St. Paul – Minneapolis land development scheme in Wise and Russell Counties. The photo of the Rosser Bridge (replaced by the Bickley Bridge in the 1930’s) included with this article was probably taken shortly after the March 1st Clinch River flood of 1902.
The single-lane Rosser Bridge was rather spindly and weak-looking to begin with, and in the photo we can see that its wooden deck had been severely damaged by high water. The flood of 1902 was just 3 feet lower than the flood of 1957, making it the fifth highest known flood of the Clinch River at St. Paul.
The remains of the Rosser Bridge can be seen at the entrance to the A. R. Matthews Memorial Park in St. Paul.