Today smallpox has been eradicated (existing only in a secure vault somewhere in a far off land, never to be released), but in the nineteenth century it was the plague. Highly infectious and in 30% of cases, fatal, it was no respecter of social station. It was spread by contact and despite vaccination being available (thank you Mr. Jenner), in the 1870s not everyone would have been routinely vaccinated as they are now.
The introduction of smallpox into a small closed community such as the township of Walhalla in Gippsland, Victoria, could have had devastating consequences. In researching THE POSTMISTRESS, I came across the following tragic tale, which I incorporated into my own story
In late 1868, smallpox came to Melbourne, resulting in the infection of 42 people and the death of at least 9. In February 1869 A young bride, 21 year old, Sarah Ann Hanks, recently married in Melbourne, returned to Walhalla with her new husband, a miner, Thomas Hanks. She and her husband stayed for a few days in one of the hotels in town but on 14 March, feeling unwell, the town’s resident doctor, Henry Hadden was sent for. Dr. Hadden had some first hand experience of smallpox and when the first tell tale signs (spots around the mouth) appeared, he acted fast. The town authorities were alerted and the hotel where the Hanks were staying was locked down.
The police located an empty house some way out of town where the patient could be placed in isolation, but her husband refused to co-operate. Instead he spirited Sarah out of the hotel to his own residence, a cottage just north of the township. On the advice of the doctors (Dr. Boone and Dr. Hadden), the town authorities erected an eight foot high palisade around the house, effectively isolating the inhabitants. In the meantime the doctors set about a radical vaccination programme to ensure everyone in the town was protected from the disease. Only Dr. Hadden was permitted to enter the infected house and despite the best care he could give the woman, she died in agony (her screams could be heard throughout the town) on the 23rd March.
The authorities faced a dilemma. The cemetery was to the south of the town and they could not in all good conscience, permit the carrying of her coffin through the major population centre so Sarah Ann Hanks was interred in a ten foot deep grave on top of the hill above her home. Her lonely grave can still be seen today near to the Walhalla Cricket Ground.
Her husband and his son had by this time contracted the disease. They were removed to the temporary hospital well out of town and the house and everything in it was burned to the ground. The surviving Hanks family did not succumb to the disease and left town shortly after being cleared.
From The Leader (Melbourne 3 April 1869): “A correspondent at Walhalla, writing on the 25th of March, relates some additional particulars connected with the death of Mrs Hanks from smallpox, near that township : — ' Drs.Boone and Hadden say that this case was one of thd worst they ever met with, and Dr. Boone was a medical inspector to a smallpox hospital in America. The building in which Mrs Hanks died, and that adjoining it, were burnt to theground, and Mr Hanks, his child and nurse, have been removed by the police to some empty buildings at the Britannia Ree , three miles from Walhalla, approaching the end of Stringer's Creek.'
Dr. Hadden, the hero of the hour, did not live long to enjoy his moment. On 29 May, returning from Melbourne to Walhalla, he was found dead on the coach between Buneep (Bunyip) and Shady Creek. No cause was established, but it is widely assumed he died of alcohol poisoning.
In an odd twist of life imitating art, at the time I began writing THE POSTMISTRESS, and the characters of Caleb and Doctor Bowen came to life, I hadn’t read the story of the smallpox scare. I had no idea that Walhalla’s real life doctors during that period were an alcoholic Irishman and a dissolute American… sometime fiction mirrors fact in the oddest ways!
For a detailed account of the Smallpox scare: A tale of Old Wallhalla - How we fought the smallpox in Wallhala by Henry Thomas Tisdall
Trove (for contemporary newspaper accounts of the smallpox scare) and Henry’s Hadden’s Eventful Life and Unusual Death
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