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Departure by Train – Did contagious disease spread from Haynesville in 1922?

Microscopic image of smallpox virus

By Wesley Harris (Claiborne Parish Library Historian)

With the emphasis COVID received in recent years, one might think it was the first and only pandemic to strike America. Quite a number of diseases have terrorized the country, some inflicting tremendous injury on Louisiana. Thousands of Louisianans died in the yellow fever epidemic in the 1870s. Worldwide, the great influenza pandemic of 1918 infected 500 million and killed 50 million. Even smaller outbreaks of disease brought panic to our state.

1922 was a big year for Haynesville. The oil boom was at its height. With the influx of oil revenue, the Claiborne Parish town received new water and sewer systems, paved streets, improved telephone service, and two new schools. The Louisiana & North West Railroad was running three trains through Haynesville each day to handle traffic to and from the oil field. The economy had never been better.

Certainly, problems existed with masses of new arrivals to work in the oil fields. Several costly fires engulfed the downtown area and a rise in crime, including some ghastly murders, shook up the small town. Nothing caused more alarm than reports Haynesville was overrun with a terrible disease.

In early summer 1922, a rumor began to spread throughout Louisiana—Haynesville was suffering a massive smallpox epidemic and it was spreading.

Smallpox was a serious contagious disease caused by a virus. People who contracted smallpox developed a fever and a distinctive, progressive skin rash. In the early 1900s, it was greatly feared. Even though vaccinations against smallpox had been used since the 1500s, many Louisiana residents of the 1920s were not immunized.

Most people with smallpox recovered, but about three of every ten people with the disease died. Many smallpox survivors retained permanent scars over large areas of their body, especially their faces. Some were left blind.

In March, the Natchitoches Times reported the state epidemiologist had revealed smallpox had spread along railroad lines from Shreveport to Alexandria. Many oil executives maintained their offices and residences in Shreveport and commuted by train regularly to the fields near Haynesville.

In June, the Mansfield Enterprise reported, “Nearly every outbreak in [DeSoto] Parish has originated at Haynesville and we particularly caution everyone to take extra care not to expose themselves to anyone coming from that section until they are sure of themselves.”

The Guardian-Journal of Homer responded, “The Mansfield Enterprise attributes the outbreak of the disease in DeSoto Parish to Haynesville as the source of infection. Any yet, strange to say, the Haynesville papers and citizens of that community do not admit that smallpox exists there.

“We do not know whether it is true that there has even been a case of smallpox at Haynesville or not. But either the Mansfield paper is in error, or the existence of the disease is suppressed.”

The Guardian-Journal editor opined, “most assuredly a town and its officials would not refuse to publish the existence of such a dangerous disease for the reason that by so doing the town might lose a few dollars trade.”

Despite the rumors, the physicians of Haynesville denied an epidemic was occurring. A Shreveport Times article noted the Haynesville board of health “are much wrought up over” the reports in north Louisiana papers and the suggestion the board was suppressing information. The article included an official statement from the board president, Dr. J. D. Baucum.

“Like other communities,” Baucum said, “we have in the past few months had some scattered cases of the disease, but this board was cognizant of the matter and the cases were so few in number there was no reason for publication of the fact.

“We are glad to announce officially that Haynesville is free from all contagious and infectious diseases and that our little city is one of the healthiest in the state. We have nothing to conceal. Should we be unfortunate enough to have an outbreak of any contagious or infectious disease we will tell the world.”

Despite the denials by the Haynesville board, the president of the state board of health issued a report in July calling specific attention to 114 cases of smallpox in the Claiborne Parish town. The July 25 Shreveport Journal said Dr. Oscar Dowling “blamed the lack of compulsory vaccination law for this condition and said a recent survey of the United States showed those states which had such a law had a good deal less smallpox.”

According to the Journal, Dowling said, “persons, especially in the regions near Shreveport and Haynesville, should be vaccinated. Children should be vaccinated at one year and again between 10 and 12 years. An additional warning was issued to persons going to the oil fields to be inoculated against typhoid fever, which increases there because adequate sanitation cannot be maintained as rapidly as community growth in boom territory.”

The next day, the Haynesville board of health again denied 114 cases existed in the town. The Shreveport Times of July 27 reported the board’s insistence that “no cases of smallpox have been reported in Haynesville in several weeks, and there are very few, if any, cases in the city or oil fields.”

After protestations from the Haynesville health board, Dr. Dowling of the state board issued a clarification. The 114 number consisted of cases for the entire calendar year, many of them submitted late by physicians in seven different parishes who had concluded Haynesville was the source of the illness they were treating. There were not currently 114 cases inside Haynesville.

The controversy may have been one of the reasons Baucum joined the state board of health before later moving his medical practice to Longview, Texas.

Thanks to the success of vaccinations, smallpox was eradicated, and no cases of naturally occurring smallpox have materialized since 1977. The last natural outbreak of smallpox in the United States occurred in 1949.