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The fever ‘next door’: In 1906, typhoid spread through Baltimore’s Woodberry neighborhood

The distinctive dark stone used to build workers' cottages was quarried from the Jones Falls. The cottage style of housing helped to distinguish the Baltimore-area mill town from those in England, according to Nathan Dennies. Photo dated March 30, 1951. (Baltimore Sun archives)
The distinctive dark stone used to build workers' cottages was quarried from the Jones Falls. The cottage style of housing helped to distinguish the Baltimore-area mill town from those in England, according to Nathan Dennies. Photo dated March 30, 1951. (Baltimore Sun archives)(Kalita)

The arrival of the coronavirus pandemic to Maryland has brought with it discussions of government and personal responsibility. At times, politicians express anger at those who gather in bars in defiance of social distancing guidelines. Others blame politicians for not doing enough.

Those same discussions were happening in the spring 1906, when typhoid fever swept through North Baltimore’s Woodberry neighborhood.

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Back then, the area bordering Hampden was a thriving industrial center, home to multiple factories that manufactured cloth for ship sails. At the Poole & Hunt Foundry, workers made parts for railroad cars and even the iron columns for the U.S. Capitol.

It was also filthy.

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With no centralized sewage system or even paved gutters, residents who lived there dumped wastewater wherever they could. A horrified account in The Baltimore Sun described “a gutter of filth and slimy green, of which the overflow from closets is the chief constituent.”

Such conditions were breeding grounds for typhoid. A bacterial disease caused by salmonella, typhoid spreads mostly through the waste of infected individuals. In the early 1900s, it killed 10 to 20% of sufferers. Symptoms include fever, nausea, diarrhea, and in severe cases, rose colored spots on the abdomen.

(Others showed no symptoms. It was around this time that the Irish born cook Mary Mallon, an asymptomatic carrier nicknamed “Typhoid Mary,” is said to have unwittingly infected dozens of people in the New York City area with the disease.)

In the spring of 1906, whole families became sick. Children died. A streetcar conductor went broke paying medical bills for his ill wife.

In March, state health officials blamed the outbreak on contaminated milk from dairies nearby.

Others blamed residents who refused to keep the area clean. A Sun account described an exchange between a doctor and a resident. He urged her to clean a filthy gutter and sprinkle it with lime. It wasn’t the tenant’s place to do so, she told him.

“Get sick and die then,” the doctor replied.

But The Sun also pointed fingers at the city. A headline told of “atrocious municipal neglect.” Municipal cleaners hadn’t gone through any alley in Hampden-Woodberry for at least two years, the article stated. “The city government is responsible for the frightfully unsanitary conditions which have spread the epidemic," an unnamed Sun author wrote.

Then, as now The Sun published health advice for readers, urging them to boil drinking water, and to keep their homes in “first-class sanitary condition” to keep the disease from spreading to the rest of the city. The authors added, “it is of the utmost importance to keep up courage. Don’t be depressed by the fact that fever is next door.”

In all, 190 people would die of typhoid in Baltimore that year, according to a report published by the U.S. Department of Commerce and Labor.

Typhoid wasn’t the deadliest disease to strike residents that year. Another 1,500 died of tuberculosis, another bacterial infection that typically affects the lungs.

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