Drunken Sailor Creates Smallpox Scare in Georgetown

This isn’t the measles scare of today’s California. This was an article that we dug up in The Washington Post from May 3rd, 1881. For some historical context, a week before Billy the Kid escaped from jail in Lincoln County, New Mexico, and two months later, in July, President James Garfield would be assassinated by crazed Charles Guiteau (read about what Guiteau was doing in D.C. leading up to the assassination).

Washington Post headline
Washington Post headline

Below is an excerpt from the article.

A sensation was produced in this city and Georgetown yesterday afternoon, when it became known that a small-pox patient had been roaming the streets, horse-cars, saloons, barber shops, etc., nearly all day. The fact is that in the morning an Alexandria ferryboat brought, as one of her passengers, a sailor named William D. Blankingship, late of the schooner William McGee, lying at the wharf of that city. He was in the first stage of small-pox, and no hospital existing in Alexandria for such cases, he was cooly shipped over here alone. The first business he seems to have attended to on landing was to get drunk, or so nearly so as to forget that he was on a hunt for a hospital. he took the cars to Pennsylvania avenue, and thence to Georgetown, where he visited a barber’s shop and got shaved. He also took on some more whiskey. The next point at which he was heard of was at the Navy Yard, where he was shown the Marine hospital and went there. They had no accommodations for such a patient, and promptly sent him to the Health office. There his condition was critically examined.

I’m pretty sure this isn’t how the situation would be dealt with today. At least, I sure hope not. The story continues.

His temperature was found to be 105, but his freedom or otherwise from delirium could scarcely be ascertained, owing to his intoxicated condition. The case altogether appeared a light one, and it is thought he may be out in a week or two. But the infection he may have spread is not likely to fall on such unproductive soil in many cases, and a crop of cases may be looked for where the walking source of contagion came in contact with persons unsuspecting his condition.

Georgetown waterfront
Georgetown waterfront

About Tom

Tom founded Ghosts of DC on January 4th, 2012 as a blog to uncover the lost and untold history of Washington, D.C. He has lived in the city for over a decade and loves exploring every corner of the District.

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  • ET

    That is a Great! picture I just wish I could get closer to see more.

  • [email protected]

    I SOOOOOOOOOO enjoy these pictures as well as the various captions. I was born in Washington DC, but moved to Arlington, VA, shortly thereafter. HOWEVER, I spent 33 years with the Federal Government working in DC, the last 28 of which were with NASA in SW Washington.

  • [email protected]

    Do you all happen to have any pictures of SW DC BEFORE the current Federal Buildings (HEW, NASA, FAA, DOE, and the Air and Space Museum, etc.,were built?

  • elvenb

    Any idea on the date of the photograph? Due to lack of evidence of any steam-powered boats, assuming they did make to Georgetown, I would guess that it is way before the 1880s.