The year that smallpox almost cancelled Christmas in Charlottetown.
As the holiday season approached in 1885, Prince Edward Island residents were not preoccupied with its usual hustle and bustle. On the contrary-a widespread fear of being stricken with smallpox had taken hold.
On November 13th, Charlottetown's Daily Examiner reported that "the city was last evening thrown into a fever of excitement over the announcement by Dr. Jenkins that several cases of smallpox existed in our midst." There were in fact seven cases, all in proximity to the Thompson family on Long Street who had been ill for several weeks. James, 30, had died, although there were conflicting reports whether smallpox was diagnosed as the cause. Within days more cases were discovered. The old Insane Asylum was secured as a hospital, with all expenses to be met by local government. It had decreed that they were "not to spare money in their efforts to prevent the spread of the epidemic."
It was not the usual lead up to Christmas. Churches in the affected areas closed. Sunday School students would have been in the early stages of preparing holiday pageants and plays, choirs rehearsing their carols and cantatas. Schools closed in Charlottetown and in outlying villages like Crapaud, Victoria and Tyron. In communities where the schools remained open, it was suggested by Dr. Warburton that all the students be vaccinated and then be given "three weeks holiday." There was little opportunity to prepare the usual program of Christmas recitations and seasonal songs.
The closures freed up time to travel, but those who did so experienced delays-at the very least. Travellers from Charlottetown were subject to inspection when leaving the city, and those arriving in Summerside had to prove by certificate that they were disease-free and vaccinated, or be prepared to become vaccinated. In one instance, an elderly lady from Charlottetown travelling to Boston missed her boat in Summerside, and found that none of the hotels in the town would admit her, even though she was vaccinated and had certificates showing she had not been in the infected areas, marked with yellow flags. Baldwin Station and Tignish prohibited the landing of any person from Charlottetown, certificate or not. One observer pointed out that Mrs. Oulton, travelling from Alberton to Kensington, was unnecessarily detained by a "'flunkey' of the Board" because she was a suspected smallpox carrier. After some delay, her release was secured by her husband.
And the steamer Bonavista, arriving in Charlottetown from Montreal-thought to be the origin of the epidemic-was prohibited from landing until thoroughly inspected, and then placed in quarantine for as many as 30 days.
Naturally, such instances, along with rumours of random outbreaks of the disease, slowed down visits to merchants in what was typically a busy buying season. Across the province, some businesses closed completely-and the newspapers of the day gave conflicting reports on business conditions. The Summerside Journal noted on November 12th that "hotels and stores wear a dreary, deserted look;" a report in the Moncton Times on November 20th said, "business is almost entirely suspended in the infected districts." However, on November 25th, the Charlottetown Examiner said that rumours the stores in town were closed had not "the slightest foundation," and that "stores are quietly doing business as usual."
Probably the truth was somewhere in the middle. Shop advertisements of the day pronounced a "Grand Discount Sale," "Clearing out the Whole Stock" and "Old Reliable Santa Claus still to the front as usual." Some advertisements actually mentioned the smallpox epidemic. Druggist R.W. McCarthy promoted soaps, disinfectants and fresh vaccine, while Beer and Goff offered $15 to $50 in cash to any customer who bought their tea there and developed smallpox within 30 days.
Reid Bros. in Charlottetown openly admitted hard times, advertising "Starvation Prices during the Smallpox Epidemic," and promised "extraordinary prices during the panic now upon us."
With Christmas just a month away, a delegation of merchants consulted with the medical officer of Charlottetown to see what steps they could take in order to remain open at a critical time in the business year. They were told to fumigate their stores nightly with sulphuric acid gas. Reid Bros. chose to follow the doctor's advice, explaining in their advertisements that they were fumigating all goods to ensure the consumer's safety.
By December 10th, 88 smallpox cases had been admitted to the Charlottetown hospital and 34 people had died from the virus. By mid December, although there were still new cases being reported and the schools remained closed, the churches began to reopen and shops picked up business. The disease was on the wane.
On Christmas Eve the Examiner wrote, "the market yesterday was one of the old-fashioned kind and had a smack about it of the Christmas times of yore."
At the Charlottetown Hospital the news was that "all the patients...are doing well. A great many of them were gathering spruce yesterday, and today they are engaged in decorating the dining room for a sumptuous Christmas dinner, which has been provided for them by our charitably disposed citizens."
There were "generous donations of toys, games... for the amusement of the youthful patients...who danced and sang for glee."
While many Islanders had missed the seasonal pleasures that year, such reports were as good a Christmas present as they could wish for.
"Merry Christmas," the Examiner's editor wished his readers. "What a pleasant sound the words strike on the ear."