A smallpox epidemic once tore through a tiny Utah town in Sevier County. A lack of services and miscommunications complicate the story of small town and disease in Utah.
In 1900, the village of Koosharem in found itself in the throes of a major smallpox outbreak that had state health officials concerned. According to the Salt Lake Herald, authorities at first thought the disease might have been the chicken pox. But as it became clear that the outbreak was much more serious, debate over what needed to be done intensified, and a quarantine was eventually declared. People were told they now had to stay at home, and outsiders were prohibited from entering the town.
According to the Herald, the citizens of Koosharem didn't like being told to stay put. The paper reported that townspeople continued to mingle at dances, church meetings, and funerals. A few weeks into the outbreak more than twenty citizens had come down with the pox, frightening people in surrounding towns. One man, an Arthur Montague from Greenwich, wrote to health officials, claiming the disease was being spread to neighboring towns by travelers and peddlers. If something wasn’t done quickly, fumed Montague, all of the surrounding countryside would be crawling with smallpox.
When the outbreak began, there was no local board of health to manage it and there weren’t any doctors in town to provide immediate care, though a few physicians later made the trip to Koosharem to help tend to the sick. The fact that the tiny town lay on the disputed border between Piute and Sevier Counties also didn’t help matters.
So was the smallpox epidemic really as bad as people made it out to be? The leading citizens of the Koosharem claimed their neighbors and the papers had blown things out of proportion. For the Koosharemites, it was a clear case of unwarranted mass hysteria. Every case of smallpox, they declared, had been quarantined, schools had been closed, and public meetings had been banned. If that’s true, then their efforts helped the epidemic burn itself out. By the end of April, the pox had left Koosharem behind. According to authorities, a total of 45 people had come down with the disease.
See news reports about the smallpox outbreak in the following editions of the Salt Lake Herald: February 24, 1900; March 9, 1900; March 11, 1900; March 12, 1900; March 17, 1900; March 22, 1900; March 23, 1900; March 26, 1900; and April 25, 1900.