By allowing ads to appear on this site, you support the local businesses who, in turn, support great journalism.
Great Bend’s smallpox outbreak of 1882
Out of the Morgue
otm_vlc_ 19th century smallpox victim.jpg
A smallpox victim from the 1880s.

 This week, we take a break from our usual format.  Courtesy of the Barton County Historical Society, we offer a feature by historian Karen Neuforth that is both eye-opening and timely.  

As of a week ago, the Centers for Disease Control listed 465 measles cases reported so far in 2019.  That was a big jump from the overall 372 reported cases in 2018.  The only other year so far this decade with more was 2014, when 667 cases.  Most years hover between 50 and 220. In the past, most cases have been imported by travellers from other countries and passed to pockets of various communities where vaccination was spotty, or was not a practice for religious reasons.  However, as the anti-vaccination movement has grown, so have the numbers of people affected when an outbreak occurs.  

In 1882, Great Bend was hit with an outbreak of smallpox. With some rudimentary vaccines for the disease available at the time, childhood vaccination was still decades away.  As a result, the community experienced a tragedy one would hope would never need to be relived again.  Read on.:


On Nov. 12, 1882, a young man named George Gillmore arrived in town aboard an AT &SF train from New Mexico.

Although not mentioned in the local newspapers, Gillmore was simply returning home. In 1880, the federal census showed Gillmore and others living with an older man named John Howell in Beaver Twp. Now, two years later, Howell was living in a shanty in the northeast part of Great Bend and that is where Gillmore headed after leaving the train.

When Gillmore returned home, he was sick with a fever and Dr. Lightfoot was soon called in. According to the newspaper accounts, Lightfoot diagnosed Gillmore’s illness as “mountain fever” and, having already made plans to move to Albuquerque, the good doctor did so, having sold his practice to Dr. Dunn of Ellinwood. However, Gillmore’s illness continued to worsen and Dr. White was called in to attend to him on Nov. 21.

Dr. White’s immediate diagnosis was of a far more dangerous nature than mountain fever: smallpox. As was the law, Dr. White notified the authorities and quarantined the shack where Gillmore and Howell lived. During all of this,

Howell, then aged about 72 years, nursed Gillmore night and day. On Nov. 24, Gillmore died and the city council instructed Dr. White to bury him, which was done with the assistance of Howell, “on Friday night after dark.” According to the newspapers, “Gillmore was buried in a street some 300 feet north of the old ice house in the northeast part of town.”

John Howell became ill about Dec.1, but was already in quarantine. The school board immediately recommended that all children be vaccinated. There were two meetings of Great Bend’s citizens, which urged the city authorities to take immediate steps, to organize a board of health, and to see that this dread disease was kept under control. However, the city council failed to act in a timely manner and it wasn’t until two weeks had passed and four or five new cases of smallpox had appeared that the authorities took serious action.

Meanwhile, word of the burgeoning epidemic had spread to the surrounding countryside and neighboring cities. People from Great Bend were not welcomed on nearby farms and country folks were staying away from Great Bend. Soon, the entire city was virtually quarantined by its neighbors. One newspaper reported that the Ellinwood city council, “Ordered, That a sign board with the words, ‘Quarantine: no travelers from Great Bend allowed to pass through Ellinwood,’painted thereon in conspicuous letters, be placed at the forks of the road near the farm of Theo. Stueber, and that a guard or watchman be stationed thereat to see that no one disregard this order.” Similar actions were taken by other neighboring cities, including a ban on mail from Great Bend in the city of Larned. That, of course, hurt business and soon the businessmen of Great Bend were up in arms and the newspaper editors were accusing our neighbors of enacting the quarantine just to steal Great Bend’s mercantile business. Within the city, there were also accusations and disagreements. The Arkansas Valley Democrat of Dec. 9, printed a letter to the editor from Dr. White, who had repeatedly exposed himself to the dangers of the disease and been employed by the city council to deal with the situation.


Dear Sir: I notice in your last issue, that the City Council declared the grave of Gillmore, the smallpox victim, a nuisance because of the burial being inside the city limits, & notified Dr. White to remove it to some other locality.

Now, that is as much as to say: Dr. White is keeping and maintaining a nuisance within the limits of Great Bend City. I, Dr. White, deny the charge as a base calumny!

The facts are, the City Council entered into a contract with me to see that the said Gillmore should be buried in the grave of their own digging, for a stated amount of money, which I carried out to the very letter. Now if there is any illegality in the burial of said Gillmore, it rests with the City Council. Why they should charge me in keeping and maintaining a City nuisance is something incomprehensible to me. 

Yours Truly,

Dr. White.

The Marshal, by authority he claims, of City Council, did serve notice on Dr. White as we stated, and he yesterday, had that “notice” officially signed, in his pocket. Now if there is any “base calumny” about it, it lies between the Dr., the Marshal and the Council to settle it between themselves; we can prove every word we said as truth.

At a city council meeting Dec. 14, it was reported that “Competent nurses are being provided, and all necessary steps are being used to heal the sick and prevent further sickness.” Schools were closed, church services were cancelled and public assemblies forbidden. Even the Christmas Masquerade Ball was called off.

On Dec. 15, the Inland Tribune reported three deaths up to that point: Gillmore, Howell, and Chris Clink, a carpenter who left a wife and several small children. On the day before, the Great Bend Register had mourned, “The saddest burials in the Bend in many a day or night were the burials of John Howell and Christian Klink Sunday night. Dr. Vanpelt and a colored man in the darkness of the night, all by themselves, took the bodies of the dead men to the Potter’s field in the cemetery and consigned them to their last, long resting place. True it is the most terrible feature of the devil’s own disease, the smallpox, is that our friends must all desert us when most we need their kindly human aid and sympathy.”

Among those listed as ill, Dec. 14-15 were Mrs. Louise Alefs, a daughter of C.B. Morgan, Sam Maher, a daughter of Milo P. Parker, and a child of A. Weiss. A couple of pages later, the Tribune reported the death of Mrs. Alefs, who left a husband and two small children, both of whom were themselves ill.

Just to add to Great Bend’s misery, rumors and exaggerations were published across the nation. The Register of Dec. 21 printed this from the Milwaukee Bee, “The disease was brought to the Bend by a colored man from N.M. He died there, and the men who buried him were drunk, and did not bury him deep enough. The dogs dug the body up, according to the report, and scattered portions of it about town.”

By the time the epidemic had run its course, the following people had died:

George Gillmore, Nov. 24, 1882, aged 22 years

John Howell, Dec. 10, 1882, aged 72 years

Christian Clink, Dec. 10, 1882, aged 35 years

Louise D. Alefs, Dec. 14, 1882, aged 38 years

Jessie E. Parker, Dec. 16, 1882, aged 14 years

Katie M. Alefs, Dec. 23, 1882, aged 4 years

John P. Alefs, Dec. 25, 1882, aged 2 years

Gracie E. Parker, Dec. 25, 1882, aged 6 years

Frankie M. Morgan, Dec. 27, 1882, aged 5 years

Mary Clink, Dec. 27, 1882, aged 13 years

W. Stauffer, Dec. 29, 1882, aged 5 years

Stauffer Child, date unknown

Tom Brown, Jan. 4, 1883, aged 17 years 

Two Armstrong Children, prior to Jan. 11, 1883 

Charles Legg, about Jan. 11, 1883, aged 3 months

Finally, Great Bend’s church bells once more rang out, inviting parishioners to worship on Sunday, Jan. 7. These were the first services held in four weeks. By Jan. 18, the Register reported that opening the schools was under consideration and on Jan. 25, it stated that “No case of smallpox in Great Bend and none in the country that we hear of.”

In the early 1960s, Great Bend was once again reminded of this tragic time when trenching along the west side of Great Bend Cemetery turned up forgotten burials. Among these were probably some of the unfortunate victims of this epidemic, whose “last, long resting place” in Potter’s Field had been forgotten.

Karen Neuforth

BCHS Research Coordinator

otm_vlc_antivax poster 1880s.jpg
In 1880’s England, vaccinations were not universally accepted. Here, and illustration from a publication of the London Society for the Abolition of Compulsory Vaccination, Mid-1880’s.