The Pox

Earthen scars of a fatal epidemic, almost a century ago

You'd never run across them unless you were looking for them, and even then you might not find them. But they're there, on this quiet East Knoxville knoll where oak and maple trees tower above. Pushing your way through the underbrush, now carpeted with slippery leaves, you might stumble into one of them.

Dozens of depressions in the leafy mud, some about three feet deep, some shallower. They look, you might say, like old graves. Except there are no headstones at all.

I wouldn't have found myself here on a weekday morning if not at the suggestion of Doc Edwards. A wiry, energetic man of middle age, Edwards is often recognized, when he goes out, because he's the psychic of Channel 12. His community-TV call-in show airs on Thursday nights. For a psychic, he's an especially humble one. "People call in with questions, and I try to answer them, sensibly, reasonably," he says. "Just as long as people don't get carried away by this psychic stuff."

When we arrived at this site just west of Prosser Road, not a mile north of the zoo, he was at first dismayed to find a nondescript suburban-style office building surrounded by a cleared area. "This wasn't here, a year ago," he said. But beyond that, in back, is a battered chain-link fence protecting a wooded area that looks like it hasn't changed much in the last few decades.

"I'm trying to watch where I step," he said as he crunched his way into the thicket. "I've never seen a copperhead I liked."

Edwards stumbled onto this site almost 20 years ago when he was inquiring into locations for a proposed Columbus House, a Catholic-charity home for abused kids. He gave up on it when he discovered it was an old graveyard.

Venturing back into the woods, he points to one depression at the base of an oak tree. Hardly a foot deep, it looks a little questionable. But then, a few yards further, we find three more, deeper ones, then too many to count.

Each looks wide enough for a coffin, but many don't look long enough. "Were these children?" he asks.

In the middle of the thicket, near the top of the hill, we come upon a knee-high marble marker, surrounded by bushes and invisible from any street or walkway: MEMORIAL FOR THOSE WHO DIED OF SMALLPOX 1903-1928.

"This pocked ground," Edwards says. "It looks just like the top of a head with pocks all over it. Isn't that strange?" And yes, now that he mentions it, it is.

Dozens of the holes align with each other, almost connecting like a long trench across the crest of the hill. Or, you might say, like a rash.

We emerge from the woods into a suburban development called Plantation Hills. Residents of this neighborhood donated the marker that stands on the top of the hill today. In 1983, there was a flurry of controversy about the site when the city attempted to sell this 7.6-acre plot to a developer who wanted to build an industrial facility here. Some neighbors spoke up; one recalled that there may have been as many as 200 people buried here.

Whether any are still buried here is unclear. None of the graves are marked. "Some people told me this was just a holding place, to keep the bodies away from the city," Edwards says.

One of the simpleminded conceptions about the past of our great-grandparents' era is that it was a "simpler time." Today, America's greatest anxiety is that we might return to a time like that: when fatal, contagious diseases such as cholera, typhoid, malaria, and polio tore through the city and country in repeated waves, killing men, women and children indiscriminately.

Smallpox was just one of them, an unpredictable guest that lingered in Knoxville for at least half a century. They tried to inoculate everybody. No simple hypodermic injection, a smallpox vaccination was a painful process involving slices in the skin in cross-hatch fashion, to which a virus solution was applied. First, they tried to fine those who refused it. In 1894, the city designated a "Czar of Cripple Creek," a doctor empowered to force residents of the urban slums to take the vaccine.

Even the vaccinated feared the disease that the authorities seemed unable to control. During the 1883 epidemic, the clothes of survivors were burned; their household dogs and cats were shot. During outbreaks in the 1890s, electric streetcars were fumigated with sulphur and formaldehyde as they entered fashionable neighborhoods. After a smallpox victim happened to venture into police headquarters on Market Square, the entire force was ordered to take a formaldehyde shower.

Victims were instantly famous. Their houses flew yellow warning flags. Sometimes victims looked outside to find a bright-yellow guard house, five feet square, in front of their houses; the 24-hour guard posted within prevented unauthorized entrances or exits. Some victims found themselves out in the river on tethered boats. When a little boy was diagnosed with smallpox, a doctor ordered him to walk to the quarantine following 20 feet behind a man who waved a yellow flag and shouted, "All keep away!"

For the victims who couldn't afford a personal guard, there was the pest house. A century ago, Knoxville maintained the pest house on the west side, for a while in the Fort Sanders area, but nobody wanted to be near it; even train passengers complained of the stench of illness. During the early days of a smallpox epidemic in 1903, neighbors persuaded City Council to move the quarantine to a more remote, less fashionable locale. They found this place on a hill in what was then the rural fringe of East Knoxville, beyond Chilhowee Park. Here they established what would be known for a quarter-century as the smallpox detention camp.

On the first day, six horsedrawn wagonloads of smallpox victims, some 50 patients in all, took a circuitous route around the downtown area to the north, via Washington Pike, to arrive at this lonely hill.

They found four buildings surrounded by a high fence, inside which were two bulldogs. Loosed every night, the dogs were there to keep out intruders, and to keep the patients from escaping.

That year and the next, Knoxville doctors diagnosed over 1,600 cases of smallpox. Many survived, with scars over their faces, but many did not. They were buried here, sometimes by the doctor on duty. One later recalled midnight burials "by the sickly yellow gleam of a lantern." He said the scene made his hair stand on end.

That season of 1903-4 was apparently the worst, but Knoxville saw around 3,000 cases of it in the following 20 years. Many complained that the detention camp was a horrible, unsanitary place; some sued over their treatment there. But doctors claimed high cure rates and, eventually, smallpox loosed its half-century grip on the city. Numbers had fallen off by the time of a smaller epidemic in 1923, when some remarked that the old camp seemed overlarge and lonely.

I don't know when it was finally closed, or if they burned the buildings, as they used to with the pest houses in town, when they'd lost their last guest. I don't know when they exhumed these victims, if they did.

But this is what's left: A peaceful, leafy forest dented by shallow pocks in the ground. It's almost like an inoculation scar. Like the one on my left shoulder, its protective effects have probably worn off.

© 2001 MetroPulse. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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