Smallpox at Delavan

In April of 1903 a tramp was taken in by a gang of laborers on the Missouri Pacific at Delavan.    The result of this act of charity was the death of many of the gang and an epidemic spread of ‘black’ smallpox through several counties along the Missouri Pacific.

The railroad gang had moved on to Bushton in Rice County before the disease became violent.  I do not have a complete list of casualties but the Council Grove Republican listed nine deaths and many sick within a few days after being exposed.  Among some of the deaths were listed three men in Bushton, a man named Isenhour in Geneseo and two brothers named Maupin.  Mrs. Isenhour, a Dr. Stredder, and a child of the Maupins had taken ill.  Two former residents of Council Grove who had moved to Bushton also died of the pox; a Mrs. Whelpley and a baby of John Davis.

As usual there was debate as to exactly what the disease was and how many dead because of it.  The papers reported that the numbers of dead and diseased were likely exaggerated, even though the cases were severe.   Doctors didn’t quite agree on what it was.  A doctor from Lyons insisted it was not small pox; however he did not give an alternative diagnosis.  Rumor also went around that it was the bubonic plague.  Of course that turned out to be false.

Vaccinations were available at the time and everyone who had not got one was encouraged to get one.  Towns were in a panic over the smallpox and many had proclaimed quarantines.  Salina had quarantined against Geneseo, Frederick and Bushton.  Guards were placed at all the Missouri Pacific depots in Rice and Ellsworth counties.  It appears that quarantine was also put on Delavan as well.  Even if there had not been one I’m sure the letter from the Republican’s editor would have prevented anyone coming from or going to Delavan.  It read as follows:

“Considerable alarm over the above report is being felt over the city (Council Grove) and the people are beginning to think that we should do something in the matter, as it (is) becoming quite serious, the Republican does not wish to be sensational or create a scare it is time something was done for should the disease break out in this town, it will be the deadliest it ever was until it is over with.  The Editor has lived in the south where there was such cases and a rigid quaranteen (sic), even to a shotgun protection was put on and it killed the town until it was over.  Do we want such a state of affairs here?  We hope not.  The above article is very explanatory and it does not need much comment only that another victim died yesterday, Mr. Varner, and there are several others very sick.”

This Mr. Varner was my great-great grandfather who lived in Delavan and was thought to be one of the Missouri Pacific workers; family history doesn’t prove that he was or not.  The whole Varner household was taken sick with the small pox namely John who died, his wife Clara and son Orville and daughter Pearl, all who recovered.  The best way to show you the terror and the heartache of such a malady is to give you a section of the Delavan news from the C G Republican.

“We had hoped that last week’s account of our small pox trouble would be the last to chronicle.  The taking of the disease by Mr. Varner’s family closely followed the interment of the last of the railroad gang and now comes the saddest to us of the events in the death of Mr. John Varner, husband and father of the family that died Saturday night and was buried Sunday.   Saddest to us because of their long residence here, the children a boy and a girl having been born here and grown to almost manhood and womanhood among us. The mother and children all sick with the dread disease unable to give the usual parting salutations to a loved one, with no friends who dare come to them in this hour of extreme sorrow, made the Easter morning full of gloom to this stricken family, leaving them so far as earthly considerations are concerned but little encouragement yet in the sight of the light of divine truth a glimmering light in a trustful faith of the resurrection morn which this day commemorates.  We are glad to note that the living ones of the family are hopefully better.  No new cases.  The sick ones are being as tenderly cared for as is possible under the circumstances.”

You will notice that burial was soon as possible for fear of the body spreading more disease.  John Varner is buried in the Delavan Cemetery in what was once the south east corner of the cemetery.  Of course the cemetery has grown since then and the grave is not in the extreme corner anymore.                       John’s son Orville grew to manhood and married Jennie May Scott also of Delavan and they later moved to what is now our family farm in Osage county where my parents live.  Orville and Jennie had ten children and a few that died at birth.  One of their daughters Ellen died of diphtheria in 1922 about the age of 5.  It was a very similar story with the neighbors near the farm; everyone was terrified and nobody came to visit the Varners.  Ellen was taken to the Delavan Cemetery and buried next to her grandfather who she had never seen.  Two diseased bodies laid to rest in the corner of the cemetery out of fear by the living, but with the hope of an incorruptible resurrection.

The smallpox had run its course and those who were to live kept on living and mourned the ones who did not make it.  The next column in the Delavan news read: “The ordeal seems to be past and we can now truthfully say we have no smallpox at Delavan, as was expressed in giving to the public warning of its existence.  Mr. Varner’s family is now well and there are no new cases.  We think we can confidently say to the people come back, get your mail, do your trading and help make our village what it should be a true trading post.”

Not only did disease take away family and friends, but it also crippled a community economically.

The three survivors later in life. Pearl, Clara and Orville.

Addenda-  Henry Kingman, founder of Delevan, wrote a book about his life in 1917.  Near the end he mentions a little bit about the town of Delevan, and more of the Varner history.  Kingman was running for County commissioner and a hostile attack was made upon him in the paper because of $25 he had accepted from the County.  I will give the entire account of his defense which was printed in the Council Grove Guard.  Kingman also won reelection as commissioner by a greater number than he did the first election.

“Here are the circumstances all of which are proven by records anyone may see in the County Clerk’s office.  In March 1903 some extra crew section men broke out with small-pox in the car they used as a sleeping place on the Missouri Pacific side track at Delevan, this county.  The disease was of the most virulent type.  Of nine railroad men who had it, seven died either at Delevan or after going to their home.  In and around Delevan seven had it and four died.  The patients were kept at the home of a man by the name of Varner.  His family caught the disease and the father in the home died.  Three others died in this house.  It became a neighborhood scare and scourge.  No one could be secured to nurse the sick, to go near them with food or care for them.  Mr. Kingman, being the county health officer in that part of the county it fell to him to give at least some attention and gradually the main part of the care fell to him.  A man who had had the disease and was therefore considered immune, helped, and with Kingman, were the main ones attending the cases.  One man who died in the car was not buried until after some delay because no one would do it.  Kingman finally did it alone, risking his health and the health of his family.  Kingman and one other man buried five small pox patients.  During Mr. Varner’s illness Kingman took time and pains to render assistance to the family, every time risking much to do so.  After it was all over and the community felt that the scourge had passed, it was a neighborhood request that the Varner house, bedding and clothing, be destroyed by fire to destroy all disease germs and prevent a possible outbreak of the dread disease germs at some future period.  A committee from the township waited on the county commissioners at a special session and the request to burn the house was granted as a measure of public safety.  The commissioners paid Mrs. Varner $300 for the house and $150 for the furniture and clothing, after proper appraisement by a committee of disinterested citizens had been given the county board.  The burning was done only after the recommendation of Dr. Painter, county health officer, and John Maloy, county attorney, that it was strictly a legal transaction and warranted by the facts.  These recommendations are on file in the county clerk’s office.  Now the contention of the Kingman opposers (sic).   The county board ordered Kingman to burn the house, paid him $25 for his services in the small pox matter in his neighborhood, and Kingman’s acceptance of it has become an issue in this campaign.  Behold what some people will do in the name of politics.  Does any one who reads this want the job of looking after seven small pox patients and burying five of them for $25?  It was no pay.  It could not be considered as pay.  The small pox trouble extended through part of four months.  Five hundred dollars could not be considered as pay if risk and all other features are considered.  It was more of a present than pay.  Both of the other commissioners, when considering the matter, said they would not have rendered the same service for $100, and one of them said he would not have done  it at any price.’

“If there is anything in this at all, it is that Kingman deserves re-election more than he otherwise would, and people who use this against him are showing lame ideas of good citizenship, to say the least.  Authority for the burning of the house was the written opinion of County Attorney Maloy, which closed with these words, “I would therefore advise you to procure appraisement  and estimate of the said building and such of its contents as ought not be preserved and at once condemn and order building and contents destroyed by fire.”  Maloy was right, therefore Kingman and the remaining commissioners were right.  The epidemic was well controlled and there is no telling how many Morris County homes were protected by the good management.”

One question that comes to mind is why the sick were kept at the Varner’s.  The Varner home was close to the track, so it is probable that the sick were simply taken to the nearest house and the family cared for them.

“ARTHUR POOLE, clerk, was born at Crewe, in the county of Cheshire, England, August 10, 1856. He came to Kansas in 1870 with his parents, locating on a farm three miles north of Parkersville. For several years he remained on the farm with his father. During the past five years he has been employed as a clerk in the store of A. J. Eastman at Parkersville. He was married at Parkersville May 19, 1881, to Miss Florence Rouse, daughter of David and Margaret Rouse.” From Cutler’s History of the State of Kansas 1883.  I believe Arthur is of some close relation to Clara Poole Varner.

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One thought on “Smallpox at Delavan

  1. As a great-great granddaughter of Henry Kingman, I’ve grown up hearing this story. Every year on Memorial Day it would be repeated to my cousins and I while we roamed the Delavan cemetery. It was interesting to hear the official story. Thanks, Jamie (Miller) Peterson

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