Tuesday, February 3, 2015

In Pursuit of the "Pest House"

When I started researching years ago, my sister gave me the hand-written family trees she had compiled from talking to family members. Some are in my mother's handwriting, and there was one page that stood out: it showed the name of a 2nd great-uncle (on my dad's side), with no wife and no children listed. The only note was "died in the pest house." I didn't like that term at all.

My uncle Alphonse's 1902 death registration on FamilySearch shows that he died of smallpox at the Municipal Hospital in the 13th ward of Pittsburgh, which is the Hill District neighborhood. He was only in his 20s. I wanted to learn more about where he was sent for the last 11 days of his life.

An 1889 map of the 13th ward from Historic Pittsburgh shows it clearly marked as "Pest House." It was located at Bedford Avenue and Francis Street in the Hill District. A block away, a cemetery is shown on the map, which seems to have been Lincoln Memorial Gardens (before it became the stadium for the Pittsburgh Crawfords baseball team).

Genealogy and the Pittsburgh Pest House
Pittsburgh Pest House, 1889, from the G.M. Hopkins Company Maps

A map in 1901 labels the location as a hospital, but the public and media didn't stop calling it the "pest house." Less than a year after my uncle died, The Pittsburgh Press reported that residents were protesting "against the continuation of the pest house in the hill district. It is claimed the institution is a menace to the health of the people living in the vicinity, and threatens the health of the entire city, by reason of the danger of a spread of disease." The city was building a new Municipal Hospital and, after a brief work stoppage, the construction resumed.

Genealogy and Newspaper Articles
The Pittsburgh Press, June 8, 1903

Construction was completed, since a map from 1904 shows the outline of a new, larger structure on the lot. There are also photographs on Historic Pittsburgh of the facility in 1914-15.

Genealogy and Pittsburgh Municipal Hospital
Pittsburgh Municipal Hospital, 1904, from the G.M. Hopkins Company Maps

Pest houses were eventually eliminated due to education and the advance of science. The Pittsburgh Municipal Hospital later became the site for public housing. Today, this area is the location of the Dwayne Cooper Garden of Hope, a community vegetable garden.

Note: The term "pest house" continued to be used in the media for decades after my uncle's death, as seen by these headlines found on Newspapers.com:
  • "Contract Is Given for New Pest House," New Castle Herald (New Castle, Pennsylvania), October 15, 1920
  • "Pastor, 50 Feet Off, Marries Pair on Pest House Porch," The Ogden Standard-Examiner (Ogden, Utah), June 4, 1926
  • "Plans Made to Care for Dump Dugout Residents at Old City Pest House," The Evening News (Harrisburg, Pennsylvania), March 17, 1932
  • "Resolution Asks for Vaccination; To Build Cabin for Pest House," Moberly Monitor-Index (Moberly, Missouri), February 16, 1938
  • "Death Claims August Machlinski, Pest House Keeper," The Sandusky Register (Sandusky, Ohio), May 30, 1940
  • "Pest House Sale Okayed by Council," The Kokomo Tribune (Kokomo, Indiana), April 12, 1955

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