Reported Smallpox Lynching of 1894

Early in May 1894, newspapers across the country began to publish sensational articles, based on a report to Little Rock (Pulaski County) from Ouachita County, on the lynching of a man with smallpox near Miles Switch. As is often the case with false lynching reports, the news continued to circulate even after the Arkansas Gazette published a clarification on May 7.

Smallpox was common in the United States during the spring of 1894, with cases appearing in most states. Arkansas was one of the states affected; even though a vaccine had been developed in the late eighteenth century, the state did not require vaccination until 1897. According to an article published by the Gazette on May 2, 1894, twenty-nine smallpox patients had been admitted to the “pest house” in Texarkana (Miller County), all of them having been infected before smallpox had been detected in Texarkana. By May 1, thirteen of the patients were convalescent. Some of those who recovered were being kept on as nurses, and the others, “after being thoroughly disinfected,” were to be released. According to the Gazette, “The disease still clings to the ‘brother in black’ and it is thought will be confined almost exclusively to the colored population.”

Reports of the supposed lynching began to appear across the country on May 5, when the Omaha Daily Bee published a brief account of the events. A number of other papers published similar reports, including the New York Tribune and the Savannah Morning News. Based on a telegram sent to Little Rock, the stories asserted that on Monday, April 30, an African American man arrived in Ouachita County with “some kind of a breaking out, which was thought to be smallpox.” A doctor was summoned, but he did not appear to examine the patient.

The man was put in a locked cabin, which someone later set on fire with the patient inside. According to the Tribune, “One thing is sure, and is that the house occupied by the negro was burned to the ground, and he cannot now be found.” It was not known who set the fire. On May 7, the Rock Island Argus noted that the sick man was “a refugee from Texarkana, where smallpox is raging among the colored people.” His appearance in Ouachita County caused great excitement, which resulted in the deadly fire. According to the Argus, the African American man managed to shoot and kill one of his attackers before the cabin was burned, and the coroner was reviewing the case.

On May 7, the Arkansas Gazette debunked the news of the burning. They reported that when the sick man got off the train at Miles Switch, local residents told him he could not stay. He went into an old vacant house to rest, and while the cabin was set afire, he must have escaped, because he was later seen by one Mr. Miles, who had been employing him.

This was not the only rumor about smallpox that was circulating at the time. On May 8, the Gazette reported that a transfer agent on the Hot Springs Railroad named George Gray supposedly had smallpox. When a reporter went to check the story, he found Gray at work unloading luggage from a train. The Gazette opined: “Whoever started such an unfounded and foolish rumor did it out of pure ‘cussedness.’”

Despite the Gazette’s correction to the story, it continued to circulate, appearing in the Osceola Times and the Richmond Planet on May 12. On May 16, the Brownsville Daily Herald, however, expressed reservations about the story, asserting that it was “a base lie manufactured to tickle the palate of the northern Cockerills who will roll such a story…under their tongues.” On May 18, North Dakota’s Pioneer Express published the original story based on the telegram. By July, the account had also spread outside the United States, with three Australian papers and one from New Zealand decrying it in the strongest terms. The Free Press of Kilmore, Australia, called it “an instance of almost incredible barbarity,” and reported that a group of railroad workers had been the perpetrators.

For additional information:
“Burned a Negro Suffering with Smallpox.” New York Tribune, May 6, 1894, p. 1.

“Burned Sick Man to Death.” Omaha Daily Bee, May 5, 1894, p. 1.

“A Colored Man Roasted.” Richmond Planet, May 12, 1894, p. 3.

“Cremation as a Smallpox Cure.” Osceola Times, May 12, 1894, p. 3.

“A Horrible Tale from Arkansas.” Rock Island Argus (Illinois), May 7, 1894, p. 2.

“The Miles Station Burning.” Daily Arkansas Gazette, May 7, 1894, p. 1.

“Shocking Barbarity.” Kilmore Free Press (Australia), July 12, 1894, p, 1

“A Sick Negro Burned Alive.” Morning News (Savannah, Georgia), May 6, 1894, p. 1.

“Small-Pox Situation.” Daily Arkansas Gazette, May 2, 1894, p. 2.

“Smallpox Patients Burned.” Pioneer Express (Pembina, North Dakota), May 18, 1894, p. 1.

Untitled. Daily Herald (Brownsville, Texas), May 16, 1884, p. 2.

“A Wild Rumor.” Daily Arkansas Gazette, May 8, 1894, p. 1.

Nancy Snell Griffith
Davidson, North Carolina


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