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smallpox1.jpg (22903 bytes)A Final Note

New Light on Smallpox Island

John Dunphy




A while back I was browsing through that historic first issue of Springhouse, published back in the Autumn of 1983 and destined to become a corector's item in the years to come. By the turn of the century, a Volume 1, Number 1 in mint condition may well garner enough money to put a child through college .... well, perhaps, depending upon the college.

But, all kidding aside, those early issues were in a class by themselves-a bit rough in spots, to be sure, but rich with a charm all their own, a charm as unique and enchanting as southern Illinois itself. Every issue was an adventure within whose pages readers never quite knew what they would find. Our magazine has come a long way over the past seven years and, sentimentalist though I am, I'll readily admit that Springhouse has consistently changed for the better and well deserves its reputation as one of America's best regional periodicals. But, as one who has been with the magazine from the very beginning, I still fondly remember those salad days when Springhouse's survival seemed tenuous at best while its articles featured some of the most creative speffing one could find anywhere.

And so I enjoy leafing through back issues. The previously-mentioned Volume I, Number 1 carried my "The Spectre of Smallpox Island," a recounting of an old legend centered around the Confederate POWs who died of smallpox while incarcerated in the Alton penitentiary during the Civil War. I remember having been just about ready to give myself a mental pat on the back, deciding that the article wasn't half-bad for someone who hadn't been writing professionally very long, when I reached the next-to-last paragraph which identified Ellis Island as the notorious Smallpox Island.

I was wrong.

At the time I wrote "The Spectre of Smallpox Island," I was reasonably certain that Ellis Island was indeed the Mississippi River Island referred to in old accounts as Sunflower Island, Mosquito Island, and Willow Bug Island-the island which, during the smallpox epidemic, became chillingly known as Smallpox Island. In an article entitled "A Tale of Two Islands," published in the May-June 1983 issue of Illinois, I had also identified Ellis Island as Sunflower Island, the site of the celebrated duel between Abraham Lincoln and James Shields in 1842. And, again, I was mistaken.

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Why had I believed that Ellis Island was Sunflower/Smallpox Island? Well, for one thing, it seems to be the only island in that stretch of the Mississippi-today, at least. While gathering folklore material from our community's older residents, those familiar with the legends had identified Ellis as Sunflower/Smallpox Island while assuring me that much of the island had been destroyed during the construction of Lock and Dam Number 26 in the 1930s. Finally, several old pre-dam maps I consulted showed but one island across from Alton:Elhs.

Now I know, however, there was another island across from Alton; in fact, a portion of it still exists although, to the casual observer, it appears to be just more of Ellis Island. As one writer described it:

The portion of the Tow Head [yet another name for Sunflower/Smallpox Island] acquired by the Corps of Engineers in fee simple, parcel S-2-A, now holds the south abutment of lock and dam 26; it is believed to be the same portion of the Tow Head employing the greatest use over the years; the area that held the smallpox hospital .... Today a picnic area shaded by taR cottonwoods hes on either side of the levee ... A walk east along the levee on land covering the sluice that once separated the islands [i.e., Sunflower and Ellis] leads to the railroad. The track is heavily fined with wild grape, trumpet vine and elderberry-the only sounds, the rushing of the water's flow, songs of birds, buzzing of bees.

The work from which I'm quoting is entitled Alton Military Penitentiary in the Civil War: Smallpox and Burial on the Alton Harbor Islands by Jann Cox, a study conducted under contract to the St. Louis District of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and dated 1988. Hayner Public Library here in Alton has two copies in its Illinois Room collection; if your public library doens't have a copy, then ask it to order a copy! This treatise is absolutely indispensable for anyone interested in southern Illinois history and dispels many misconceptions about the old Alton prison.

Cox notes that much which had been written on the subject prior to her study was "for the most part, a repetition of legend and imaginative extrapolation not substantiated by primary findings." She frankly concedes that tracking down primary material about the Alton prison was no easy task. "The reclusivity and location of primary material at wide-spread locations, lack of indexing, and variance of 19th century record keeping practices complicated research activities. " But Cox persevered and ultimately transcribed all primary data into a database automated system she designed so that this mass of material could be "manipulated electronically. The result provided new information, revealed relationships, and contributed verification from multiple sources for the conclusions found in this report."

Among those conclusions is the placing of the notorious smallpox hospital on the Tow Head, a tiny island just upstream from Ellis Island. But how could so many people (including this author!) have confused the two islands? Cox provides a good clue on page 29 when she observes that Tow Head "had been silting in at a fairly rapid pace since 1930. Review of the 1934 map shows practically the entire area west of the railroad bridge to be filled in-the separation of Ellis and McPike [yet another name for Sunflower/Smallpox/Tow Head; confusing, isn't it?] hardly noticeable. In fact, road maps refer to both areas as Ellis Island."

So it would seem that, as the geographic distinction between the two islands became increasingly blurred, many southwestern Illinoisans came to think of them as comprising just one island: Ellis Island. And, consequently, more than a few began to confuse Ellis with the celebrated Smallpox Island of Civil War fame.

Cox more than convinces this reader that Sunflower Island, not Ellis Island, was the site of the isolation hospital-as well as the location of a graveyard in which those who perished were interred. But she doesn't stop there. Cox's painstaking research effectively refutes one of the most gruesome myths about the Smallpox Island facility: the widely-helf belief that no one who was sent there from the prison ever returned alive.

I particularly recall the Centennial Edition of the Alton Telegraph playing some role in perpetuating this notion, melodramatically referring to a prisoner's removal to Smallpox Island as "a living burial. " But, as Cox demonstrates, inmates did recover in the island hospital .... in fact, some even managed to escape!

"Situated close to the Missouri mainland," Cox writes, "the island provided the possibility for men with opportunity to cross the little island (not more than 1 000' in diameter) and some 900' of slough that was normary-less than 12' deep." Records show that on March 31, 1864, for example, one Captain Albert W. Cushman, lst Tennessee Cavalry, who had been captured in Tennessee just 16 days before, escaped from the island hospital with a Private Hiram T. Wethers of Company D of the 10th Missouri.

Interestingly enough, however, Cox confirms as historical fact something which I had always regarded as mythical. For years I had heard rumors of a second Smallpox Island in that stretch of the Mississippi, yet another island upon which smallpox patients from the Alton prison had been housed. I listened to these accounts with all due respect, as befits any historian-folklorist, and found some corroboration in secondary sources, but it just seemed too fantastic to believe. Two smallpox islands? And yet, as Cox's treatise proves from the primary sources it so effectively utilizes, there was a second Smallpox Island and this island was-yes, you guessed it-Ellis Island!

In early 1865, with the pox still raging among the mmates, tiny Sunflower Island was flooded by the rising river and a new location had to be found for the hospital. Throughout her work Cox makes much use of an altogether-fascinating first-hand account of life in the Alton prison during this period. Entitled A Camp and Prison Journal and published in 1867, it was written by Griffin Frost, a captain in the Confederate Army who smuggled his diaries from camp to camp during his imprisonment. As Frost's entry for March 31, 1865 notes, "The river is rising very rapidly and the prisoners have been busy to-day in removing the patients from the small pox hospital to one situated on a larger island, the small one having over-flowed. "

This "larger island" was indeed Ellis which then, for all intents and purposes, became the new Smallpox Island!

But Cox is quite insistent that, in all probability, no victims of the pox were buried on Ellis Island. "If there were burials on Ellis, " she writes, "they would be few, and would have been within the vicinity of the hospital after March 1865. " She adds, however, that "reports were found that 60 prisoners with non-zymotic diseases [that is to say, inmates who perished from disease other than smallpox] were buried somewhere on the Missouri mainland." Again, this is consistent with some material I have gathered over the years which asserts that a number of Confederate POWs from the Alton penitentiary were interred on Missouri soil although my . formants' accounts are quite hazy about the precise location.

Concerning the burials on Sunflower/SmaUpox Island, Cox candidly admits that "where they are, how many, and how they were buried has been extremely difficult to discover. We have established that men were buried in the vicinity of the smallpox hospital. Locating the hospital is an equally difficult task.

Very well, then, approximately how many were buried on this island? Again, the Centennial Edition Of the Alton Telegraph which apparently contributed much to the folklore of Smallpox Island estimated that as many as five thousand could have been interred there. I think Illinois historians will agree with me that Cox's figures are more realistic. "The names of 240 Confederate prisoners and citizen prisoners are recorded as having been buried on the Tow Head," she writes. "At this point, an unknown number of Federal soldiers and Federal prisoners are buried on the Tow Head. Given comparative Confederate statistics, they are, at most, less than 200 Federal soldiers."

I have deliberately saved the most intriguing (some readers would say macabre) section of Cox's treatise for last. While doing folklore fieldwork in this area, I have spoken to older residents who claim to have known people who saw the skeletons of these prisoners when the island was excavated during construction of Lock and Dam 26 in the 1930s. But I have never interviewed anyone who actually saw these skeletons with their own two eyes. Cox, however, had considerably better luck than this writer.

On July 22, 1935 a young reporter for the Alton Telegraph rented a rowboat and went out to the island to investigate a story that human bones had been uncovered during excavation work. What he found that day, as described in an interview with Cox, resembled a scene from a George Romero horror film.

Tying up to roots of a maple tree, the reporter stood up, the land just above his head. He was about 1/4 mile west of the Clark highway, the railroad bridge between. Two half skulls lay on the surface, more were entangled in the roots of the maple tree. As he dug into the bank, he exposed more and more bones. In recalling the event, he feels that bones extended to a level below his knees, the initial bones in the roots of the maple about shoulder height. The reporter's description would indicate that the bones were complete skeletons, placed together. There was no evidence of caskets. A flagstone was found nearby that may have been used at one time as a marker.

Springhouse readers with a taste for the grotesque may wish to consult this reporter's original account of his grisly discovery, published as "Island Yields Skeletons of Prison Dead" in the July 23, 1935 edition of the Alton Telegraph.

One would naturally wonder what effect the unearthing of these bones had on construction of the old lock and dam. And the answer is virtually nonel As Cox succinctly puts it: "The climate of the '30s was not a climate of reverence. The nation was recovering from a devastating depression. It was a time of a hard-nosed work ethic .... News from a cub reporter that bones had been found on the site brought little attention-and no slow-down for investigation or preservation. " Oh well, our older readers will certainly agree that the 1930s were indeed a hard, brutal time in our nation's history so we really shouldn't be terribly surprised by this lack of sentimentality on the part of the engineers and construction crew. They were doing a job which they had been commissioned to do-and the dam was vitally needed. Still, it seems a pity the remains couldn't have been recovered and reinterred in the Confederate cemetery in North Alton.

Cox's work has so much to recommend it that it should be required reading for all Illinois history buffs-not to mention Civil War afficionados, whether or not they live in the Prairie State. And, as for Smallpox Island, its history and folklore will continue to captivate this writer for many years to come.


This article was written before demolition began on the old Lock and Dam 26 this Spring. It will be interesting to see its effect on Ellis and Sunflower Islands.

Another good source on the old Alton penitentiary is Carla Totten's Alton Military Prison, a 1983 unpublished Master's thesis completed at Southern Illinois University - Edwardsville. Carla and I were classmates at Marquette High School and SIUE.






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