As the bleak winter of 1862 dragged on into 1863, the isolated, ramshackle town of Los Angeles was visited by a terrifying scourge — smallpox.
With its telltale fever and disfiguring skin rash, the highly infectious disease jumped from adobe to adobe, killing more than 100 people and sickening hundreds of others. If those numbers don’t sound like much, remember L.A. had only 4,000 or so souls at the time and the outbreak wiped out half of its indigenous residents.
“The city’s smallpox wagon, dubbed the ‘black Maria,’ was a frequent and disheartening sight as it rolled through the streets carrying victims to the city hospital, or ‘pesthouse,'” writes John W. Robinson in Los Angeles in Civil War Days 1860-1865.
This smallpox outbreak would be the deadliest in American Los Angeles but it wasn’t the only one. Historian Kristine Gunnell says L.A. would go on to weather several more smallpox epidemics during the 19th century — including 1868 to 1869, 1877, 1884 and 1887. While that first outbreak was devastating, the last one was seen as more of an annoyance, a PR headache for the booming City of Angels, which was trying to brand itself as a land of sunshine and health.
How Los Angeles and its denizens coped with these epidemics may seem hauntingly familiar to Angelenos today — a case study in fear, misinformation, denial, rumors and rivalry.