Quarantine, Southern Style: Outbreak in Hattiesburg, MS

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Yellow fever quarantine regulations, 1897. From the Hattiesburg Municipal Records, McCain Library and Archives, University of Southern Mississippi.

Can criminals be quarantined? Absolutely. But can the quarantined be criminals? Sometimes, dear readers, even rectangles are squares. This week on Crime Capsule, as even more of our country falls under “Stay Home” orders and further restrictions on travel, gatherings, and social interactions due to the coronavirus, we wanted to bring you a story of solidarity from America’s past.

Travel with us to a small lumber town in the heart of the southern Mississippi pine forest, a town that has just been born. In his book Hattiesburg, Mississippi: A History of the Hub City, author and historian Benjamin Morris offers the first narrative history of one of the Magnolia State’s most beloved cities, a town that despite its humble beginnings as a railroad depot would grow to become a regional capital for education, medicine, commerce, and the armed forces.

A black and white photo of a train
Gulf and Ship Island locomotive and tender (undated). Hattiesburg Historical Photographs Collection, McCain Library and Archives, University of Southern Mississippi. Courtesy of Kenneth G. McCarty Jr. Image sourced from Hattiesburg, Mississippi: A History of the Hub City.

In the late 1800s, however, those achievements were decades away, as Hattiesburg struggled to get its feet off the ground. Officially incorporated only in 1884, whose busy rail lines daily brought workers and investors seeking to profit off the burgeoning timber industry, the young town had suffered waves of deadly diseases. Yellow fever had first arrived in 1888, then smallpox in 1890, leading to the creation of a Pest House (a not-so-sanitary sanitarium) for the infected. Then, in 1897, came the worst outbreak yet—of yellow fever once again. Morris narrates what happened:

“Mayor T.J. Mixon called a special meeting of the board of aldermen ‘for the purpose of requiring all landlords, tenants, leaseholders, etc. to immediately have a thorough cleansing of said premises of all privies, sewers, cesspools, or other places that might form a possible source of infection.’ The town was put on quarantine: all trains were instructed to pass through at fifteen miles per hour without stopping, mail service was suspended, public highways were staffed with guard patrols, all businesses (except drugstores) were ordered to close at 5:30 p.m., any public gatherings of any nature were prohibited and a nine o’clock–curfew was put in place.”

A long shot black and white photo of the South Mississippi infirmary
South Mississippi Infirmary. Forrest Lamar Cooper Postcard Collection, courtesy of the Mississippi Department of Archives and History. Image sourced from Hattiesburg, Mississippi: A History of the Hub City.

The measures seemed to be effective at curtailing the outbreak, at least until smallpox returned once more the following year. Again, strict measures to limit the spread were put into place. Morris:

“A letter dated September 28, 1898, again from Mayor Mixon, calls for a special meeting of the board of aldermen, toward ‘passing an ordinance requiring all persons to be vaccinated who live in an infected locality.’ Guards were hired to man detention camps and were paid around $1.50 per day; according to receipts issued by A.C. Duckworth, the city jailor, at least some of the infected seem to have been housed in the city jail.”

Quarantine yourself in America’s past with a great book

As serious as our current outbreak is, consider how much worse it could be were all transport to cease, all mail service to stop, every business save pharmacies to be closed, and for infected citizens to suffer through their illness in the city jail—surely, amid this crisis, there are a few things for which we can still be thankful! Of course, part of the reason Hattiesburg had suffered such outbreaks is because of its rudimentary sanitation systems, common to frontier towns in the southern wilds. Recognizing this, in subsequent years city leadership worked diligently to pave roads, drain ditches, and standardize public utilities—moves that would, in time, speed the growth of the robust medical sector in the “Hub City.”

Of course, infected or not, Mississippians have always found creative ways to end up on the wrong side of the law, and one of Morris’ most entertaining accounts from his research comes from examining the city’s arrest affidavits collected in the 1890s. To read them all—and boy are they juicy—you’ll have to dive into his book yourself, but we’ll leave you with just one: the first-known speeding ticket ever issued in Hattiesburg, citing one Bob Moore on August 24, 1898, who “did unlawfully drive a horse at a reckless gait and against the peace and dignity of the state of Mississippi.”

140 years later, we can only wonder—how fast was the police horse who caught him?

Arrest affidavit
Arrest affidavit, Bob Moore, August 24, 1898. From the Hattiesburg Municipal Records, McCain Library and Archives, University of Southern Mississippi. Image sourced from Hattiesburg, Mississippi: A History of the Hub City.

Interested in more cases about law enforcement from America’s past? Check out our archive of stories here. Love tales of misfit Southerners, good ol’ boys who get up to no good? Dive into our recent series on the Dixie Mafia, both in Texas and in Mississippi/Alabama. Visiting us for the first time and want to learn more about what we do? Check out our welcome page and sign up for the Crime Capsule email newsletter. See you behind bars!