Drunken Sailor Creates Smallpox Scare in Georgetown

Georgetown waterfront

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).

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

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