Robert Kirby: Compared to measures taken in past pandemics, having to wear a mask is a breeze

Robert Kirby

Given Utah’s history with illnesses, you’d think we would be used to drastic measures to prevent contaminating one another by now.

Maybe we’ve become too lenient. Before COVID-19, it had been a long time since we resorted to uncomfortable methods to keep an outbreak from turning into an actual plague.

And when I say “uncomfortable,” I don’t mean getting offended because someone lectured or banned you from a business for failing to wear a mask. I mean being arrested, locked up, and or chained to a bed.

Since the arrival of the Mormon pioneers, Utah has faced quarantines for smallpox, diphtheria, typhoid, measles and cholera, to name a few.

The quarantines weren’t always just for humans. They also included animals — and they were even more strictly enforced. For example, in the late 1800s and early 1900s, there were occasional dog and cat quarantines.

Rabies was such a scary thing that dogs running loose in the city were sometimes gunned down. If a neighbor ratted out a violator, the police might show up at the errant dog’s home and shoot it in the yard.

The scariest threat (at least for me) would have been getting dragged to the city pesthouse.

The pesthouse was where people infected with something horrific were confined. In 1903, during a smallpox outbreak, the city pesthouse was located about three-fourths of a mile from the state penitentiary located in Sugar House.

“Any observant visitor who has witnessed the conditions prevailing in the two institutions,” Godwin’s Weekly reported on Feb. 28, 1903, “would prefer the institution of criminology to the domicile provided for the care of victims of the dreaded smallpox.”

Fashioned from adobe and old wood, the city pesthouse had once been a woolen mill. It was now a leaky, ramshackle affair, surrounded by trash and heaps of old bricks. Anyone coming down with smallpox was taken there.

There was an attendant but no real doctor. Essentially the “inmates” were left to fend for themselves, or were reliant on the generosity of anyone who dared approached. Few did. Even among those who survived, none wanted the disfiguring pockmarks left in the wake of the disease.

James Pitt, a ZCMI employee, came down with a rash that a doctor diagnosed as smallpox. Pitt was hustled off to the pesthouse.

Unfortunately for James, what he really had was chickenpox.

Released a few weeks later, he was sent home.

He then showed signs of smallpox. Back to the pesthouse he went.

“Although James Pitt, who is said to have had smallpox twice in the course of a month, is to be pitied,” the Deseret News wrote on Sep. 11, 1903, “it is to be hoped that after all he will not be seriously pitted.”

On the bright side, conditions at the city pesthouse were deemed so awful that the pesthouse was burned down on Aug. 27, 1903, and a new one built on the city’s north bench.

Just in time for an outbreak of typhoid fever.

Robert Kirby is The Salt Lake Tribune’s humor columnist. Follow Kirby on Facebook.

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