This factual story of the smallpox epidemic in the Windsor, Ontario, Canada area in 1924; I write to jog memories of one horrible killer disease which has, apparently, been eradicated, thanks to diligence in applying the prevention available to us in the form of vaccination. In years gone by, folks like my mother, born 1859, died 1941 vaccinated themselves. The Boy Scout motto, “Be prepared”, is always in order, for as the little boy who opened the door and said “the kitten just leaked in”, so may an old or killer disease leak in.
As I remember, fifty-nine people in the Windsor area in this epidemic contracted smallpox, fifteen deaths resulted In two days at the end of February, 1924, five deaths occurred, three in Windsor, one in Amhertsburg and one in Detroit. All of the cases were apparently traceable to the death of one Windsor man, four of the victims being relatives of his. Noone who had not been vaccinated at some time, survived.
A news item from Britain at this time said, “Dr. Herman Joseph Anisley, a thirty-seven year old pathologist who carried out a post-mortem on one of the first victims, a Pakistani girl, died at an isolation hospital in Britain.” Another item, “A football game was postponed at Bradford because of the smallpox.”
Our boarder at that time whom I shall call Eddie (not his real name) was feeling “under the weather” and visited our family doctor who also happened to be the doctor for the City of Windsor. He gave him medication, presumably for influenza. Eddie came home, went to bed, sweat profusely, soaking the bedding. When spots developed, I called the doctor. He lost no time coming. His vist, however, was not of the bedside manner. With coat on, hands in pocket, from the head of the stairs and not in close range to Eddie, he exclaimed, “Oh, my God ,I don’t doctor smallpox!” Eddie held out his payment but the doctor, hands still in pockets, made a hasty retreat to the downstairs portion of our small house Having brought vaccine, he vaccinated my husband and I. We had both been vaccinated as children That doctor is now deceased but I record his professional non-treatment of Eddie in no derogatory manner, but simply a statement of fact as to the horror of smallpox.
Eddie’s face soon seemed to be just one big pox, it was so completely covered. He ate nothing. He requested only water I took him squeaky clean milk bottles full of tap water, having no ice. Replenishing them often, I found the empties so slimy from the pox on his hands, I had to watch lest they slip from my grasp. If our doctor could not or would not treat him, how could we be expected to have the knowledge to treat this disease? Eddie begged us not to send him to the “Pest House”, but the “Pest House” it was. The ambulance attends said they expected to go later that night to remove his body. Eddie was under the impression if one did not annoy or scratch the pock marks, one would not be scarred; being tall, handsome and single, he determined not to scar himself. Just after Eddie went to the “Pest House”, a fellow a few doors away, went also. He took one look at Eddie and asked if he would look like that. The reply was, “I’m afraid you wil.” “Then I don’t want to live,” he said – he didn’t! Eddie was a fighter; they gave him up three times, I was asked by staff member, later, if Eddie were crabby when he was not ill – he wasn’t.
In the meantime, my husband and I were quarantined of course, I think for about three weeks. We had no phone and anxiously awaited the newspaper each night to see if Eddie had died. When my husband developed three pock marks, I pictured myself alone, with him in the “Pest House”, perhaps I’d even be a widow at eighteen years of age and my family so far away Our house was as isolated as the “Pest House”! Talk about people avoiding you like the plague, they did! They wouldn’t enter the block unless they lived there or had business there. No one would touch our money or our empty milk bottles until the quarantine was lifted. I had just knit a sweater for a neighbour for which she reimbursed me. When the smallpox sign went up, she burned it fast. A pregnant friend had been visiting us just prior to Eddie’s spots. She spent anxious moments later, but the disease did not spread to anyone through our case, to my knowledge. The friend said, “Just to think that tray that Eddie returned, untouched, looked so tempting, I almost offered to eat it myself.” Well, my husband developed no more spots and wasn’t ill.
In due time, Dr. Fred Adams (now deceased) arrived re fumigation and releasing us to the outside world. Triple the customary amount of disinfectant was burned in Eddie’s rooms and our bed-sitting room. The fumes were so strong that night that we moved our bed to the kitchen but were still afraid of not waking up. Yet, Dr. Adams said, personally, he believed fresh air and sunshine would kill the germs more effectively than any other medium.
I don’t remember how long it was, whether days or weeks until I heard that unforgettable step on the verandah; I peaked and quickly thought of locking the door but Eddie had seen me. How horrid that would have been of me but I just froze, I guess. What a homecoming for a man who had virtually returned from the dead! How did Eddie react to my fear – with the same hearty laugh and then I was reassured. My reaction wasn’t a recoiling; it was merely one of shock. He was so thin, with his chin down in his collar like old Andy Gump. He really didn’t look like the same man. His face was badly scarred, but after all, they were only depressions.
Eddie’s laugh was short-lived. I soon learned that the scars had gone deeper than his face. Perhaps others reacted the way I had. He left our home shortly after. At the time he was stricken with the small pox he held a good job in Windsor, owned a car and real estate (I believe two houses). The next and only time I heard from him after was through a mutual friend who happened to see him on a Detroit street. After they chatted awhile, Eddie asked him for a quarter for a cup of coffee. I wonder now, if he is alive and if so, where? He had been a very likeable man.
As for me, I can’t look at a child with chickenpox without reliving that horrible trauma.
The little girl who had just learned her colour said in her payers, “God bless yellow and pink”. Today, the “Pest House” is the “Isolation Hospital”. We have many counselling services available. We have made tremendous strides in the medical field. Do we thank God enough for new life-saving services, medical procedures and the knowledge and perseverance of those whose discoveries they have been?
The above is written by my paternal Grandmother. It was given to me by my father and I share it with you and family. I have tried to keep the punctuation and spelling as Grandma had it. Feel free to comment, or add information. Grandma was someone that I admired. These stories were written by hand, through multiple drafts, and then she had someone type them for her. I wonder how her writing would have been in this day and age with the advantages of wordsmithing provided by software such as MicrosoftWord.