Social Distancing in the Time of Smallpox

Preventing disease through various governmental policies and procedures has existed for hundreds of years.   With respect to COVID-19, states, cities, counties, and the federal government have taken various positions, from mandating stay-at-home orders and strict guidelines to more lax “recommendations” and encouragements to “reopen.”  Coincidentally, the Early State Records collection has various documents detailing with approaches to stopping the spread of sickness, particularly when a disease did not have a ready cure.   To minimize the spread of “pestilence,” colonies, states, and even cities relied on quarantines, preventing ships from debarking in ports, and levying harsh punishments and fines to accomplish this goal.  Exposed persons were generally not the focus of these public health provisions; preventing outbreaks was always the main focus.   

For example, some state and colonial governments relied on a penalty-based statutes to prevent and quarantine smallpox outbreaks, a common threat during colonial and earlier times.  In 1691, the New Hampshire Province passed an act to quarantine smallpox victims fleeing to the country to avoid the disease. If these victims subsequently died, the province ordered that they be buried near the place of their death rather than be returned to Boston’s cemeteries.  A rather significant penalty of five pounds was assessed for violators.[1] (LLMC 09701, volume 1, Chapter 169, page 466). 

Ships arriving from foreign lands and other colonies were intensely scrutinized by port authorities and other city officials.  Statutes were extremely strict and exacting in preventing disembarkation of passengers and goods when there was a threat of contagion.  For example, the General Assembly of colonial Virginia passed a 1722 act requiring ships to quarantine when coming from location experiencing the plague.  Somewhat similar to isolating in place that some states currently require, the act mandated that those ships quarantine for a specified period, as directed by the governor and mayor and councils.  No persons nor goods could come ashore or board other ships; forfeiture of the ship to the Crown could be the outcome for some violations.  Escaped individuals would be forced back to the ship, and penalties of up to twenty pounds could be assessed.  Even the officials from Virginia were in danger of penalties should they fail to properly perform their duties.  Significantly, custom or other similar officers who allowed a passenger or sailor to leave the ship during quarantine could be assessed a fine up to 100 pounds.  Even after the quarantine ended and all were allowed to leave the ship, goods from that vessel were first opened and “aired,” presumably to let all residual germs out (LLMC 22402, Chapter I, pages 67-69).[2]

Even river vessels could be subject to quarantine.  For example, a 1751 North Carolina law, from a 1754 collection of acts, dealt with regulating the pilotage at Cape Fear and included a section which mandated various quarantine steps in order to prevent any “contagious, pestilential, or malignant distemper.”  Similar to other laws, this required the pilot to report instances of the disease, and to follow all rules and regulations as provided by the authorities, on pain of serious penalties (LLMC #22102, page 336-337).[3]

Notably, Governor Andrew Jackson of the Florida passed a series of relevant ordinances in 1821 (LLMC #20032) which allowed cities to determine many of the necessary quarantine steps required by ships.  For example, after the appointment of a mayor and aldermen to form a Council to lead St. Augustine, a second ordinance provided for the preservation of health in the city by mandating that vessels arriving in port between June 1st and October 31st each year be quarantined for at least twenty-four hours, or more, as dictated by the city’s Board of Health.  Quarantine limits were also to be established by the Board, and those passing those boundaries without proper authorization could be fined or jailed.   Subsequently, the Florida legislature specified the establishment of a Board of Health in both Pensacola and St. Augustine.  As part of this law, a Code of Public Health delineated duties, records, and other relevant information in order to prevent contagious diseases.  (LLMC #20028, The Floridian, April 26, 1822, volume 8). Thus, similar to many states today, the cities took the lead in deciding what protections were necessary. 

Two good examples of city control in Early State Records can be found in incorporation papers for LeCompton, Territory of Kansas (LLMC #00415t) and Boston (LLMC #23974).  Under the statutory provisions incorporating LeCompton (Chapter 83, pp.891-903), section 9 on the mayor’s powers and duties, included  having jurisdiction for five miles beyond the corporate limits of the city in order to enforce any health or quarantine ordinances and regulations.  This public health power was also found in an 1822 act establishing the town of Boston as a city.  In section 17 (LLMC # 23974, p.13), the state transferred the power of the Board of Health for the Town of Boston, relative to the quarantine of vessels or other relevant subjects to the City of Boston.  Also preserved was the power of the City Council to appoint the Health Commissioners and other subordinate officers in order to protect the health of the city.  These cities then became the frontlines in dealing with any  potential disease or quarantine.. 

Finally the sufferers of smallpox were given a vaccine.  In a memorial contained in an extract from the proceeding of the Pennsylvania Senate on January 20, 1810 (LLMC #24596), Dr. James Smith from Baltimore extoled the Kine-Pock vaccine and its ability to prevent smallpox.  A subsequent committee report on that memorial reviewed the history of the vaccine, first discovered in 1796, and its adoption in various states.  Interestingly, the committee noted that the vaccine’s value had at times been challenged by “blind and obstinate prejudices, with a numerous and kindred train of false facts, foolish suggestions, and impossible events” (p.7).[4]

Some things never change, given the false facts, foolish suggestions and impossible events that surround the Covid-19 pandemic and its possible prevention and cure.  One can only hope that the efficacy of an effective vaccine is found quickly before this “plague” becomes uncontrollable.  Or, in the words of the Pennsylvania committee members in LLMC 24596, we can looking forward to the day when “we have but little fear and pay little attention to it…. though it is universally acknowledged to be the most destructive plague that affects mankind.”  In the interim, LLMC researchers can review Early State Records within the comforts of their homes and studies, and catch up on all those “to do” lists.

Stay safe.

Early State Records is one of LLMC’s most substantial initiatives, thanks to the patronage of several libraries which are listed *here* as well as a grant award from the Council on Library and Information Resources (CLIR).  LLMC is digitizing 2000+ reels from the Library of Congress’ microfilm collection, containing the records, treatises, newspaper accounts and other legal or related documents from pre-colonial through early statehood of the 48 states as well as Native American tribes.  Applying advanced digitization post-processing and value-added metadata  to these primary and secondary sources which were held in numerous state, federal and foreign libraries, historical societies, archives and legislatures, LLMC’s LLMC Digital online service will make many hidden documents, such as the manuscripts, available to researchers and society as a whole. 

Written by Joyce Savio Herleth, Saint Louis University School of Law 

[1] Based on Measuring calculations, five pounds in 1691 would translate to over 800 pounds today.

[2] See New York acts LLMC #20656, at pages 84-85 of the appendix, which also provided quarantine measures to prevent infectious diseases from spreading from ships.

[3] See also LLMC #22103 for the 1764 subsequent collection of North Carolina laws; pages 375-377.

[4] Interestingly the committee also briefly discussed yellow-fever, a disease now known to be caused by infected mosquitos.  The committee lamented that quarantine did no good in preventing that disease; in fact, vector control ultimately proved successful. See page 8-9, LLMC 24596.