Pox house once isolated ailing residents from community

NEW MATAMORAS-In the 19th century those unfortunate enough to have contracted smallpox may have ended up in a “pox house,” sometimes referred to as a “pest house.”

One of those facilities and an accompanying graveyard was once located on the outskirts of the village of New Matamoras.

“When someone would get the smallpox, which was a very deadly disease at that time, they didn’t want it to spread through the community, so anyone who had the illness would be sent to an isolated location-the pox house. If they got well they could return, but smallpox was often a death sentence,” said John Miller, president of the New Matamoras Historical Society.

The exact dates of when the pox house was built and how long it remained on the hillside are not known, but Miller estimated it would have been there in the mid-to-late-1800s and possibly into the turn of the century.

He noted that a small cemetery was reportedly located near the pox house where victims would have been buried.

“I’ve been told that some sort of flagstone marker was placed on each grave, but without engravings,” Miller said. “Unfortunately the property was later used by a logging operation that didn’t know about the cemetery and plowed through the stones and graveyard.”

Mary Ann and Arthur Hall are current owners of the property on which the pox house was located, high on a knoll above their home along Brownsville Road.

Three large wooden crosses now stand atop the hill just a few yards from where the pox house apparently once stood. The crosses were originally erected for Easter Sunday sunrise services conducted on the Hall property.

“There used to be a large rock where I was told the house had stood, but the rock was removed when they installed a gas line there,” Mary Ann said. “The cemetery was located about 500 feet behind the house.”

New Matamoras resident Jim Webber walked around the site Wednesday but could find no remnants of the pox house or the graveyard.

“The house was probably fairly small, maybe a log house,” he said. “I was told that at the time those who’d had smallpox and survived were the ones who would provide care for the sick there.”

Anyone who survived smallpox had developed immunity to the disease and was no longer in danger of becoming sick.

Building a pox house was apparently a common way to handle those stricken with the disease. A December 2007 article by the late Parkersburg News and Sentinel columnist Joan Pritchard refers to a similar structure built in Marietta during 1790.

“In January, a boat on its way to Kentucky put on shore a sick man and his family,” she wrote. “Their name was Welsh, and Mr. Welsh was taken to the house of James Owen, who lived in a log house on the corner where the court house now stands.

“Welsh’s disease proved to be smallpox, and a meeting of the inhabitants immediately called for the building of a house for the man. It was built near the college grounds, and unfortunately Welsh lived only a few days,” Pritchard wrote.

She added that James Owens’ wife was also afflicted with the disease, but recovered and lived for many years afterward. Pritchard said smallpox inoculations were available at the time and many area residents were inoculated by Dr. Jabez True and Dr. Thomas Farley.

“Out of the more than 100 people who were inoculated only two died, and these were elderly women,” Pritchard wrote. “Six others who came down with the disease also died.”

Vaccines developed in the 20th Century essentially put an end to smallpox epidemics. The disease was declared eradicated by the World Health Organization in 1979, although some cases have been reported since that time.