It’s believed that the last case of smallpox in the United States was in 1949, and that the last naturally occurring case in the world was in Somalia in 1977. One hundred years earlier, with the construction of a rural “Pestilence House” in 1848 and ending on the recommendation of Doctor Horatio Newton in 1873, Provincetown treated smallpox with fear and quarantine. What remains of this history is a cellar impression and small cemetery in a ravine northwest of Duck Pond in the dunes of the National Seashore.
Fourteen people were buried there between 1853 and 1873. There are signs of 9 markers, only four of which are intact. The small stone markers do not carry names, only numbers.
It is a lonely place.
I hiked out there this morning with my friends, Padric and Michael. Someone else had been there recently. Each grave had a branch of white carnations. I left coins for each of the dead. All I could imagine, standing there, was the fear and isolation that must have pervaded their final days. Small offerings feel inadequate, but also necessary.
There are plans, I think, to put this place on the National Register of Historic Places, and to place a marker to these souls in town, at the Winthrop Street Burial Ground.