Every city experiences growing pains along the way, and Davenport, Iowa is no different. As population and businesses grew during the nineteenth century the city began to adapt. Davenport’s city council realized early on that two medical facilities to treat different medical needs were required as the town expanded: a hospital and a pest house.
It was not unusual during the nineteenth, and even early twentieth, century for hospitals to only treat patients suffering from non-communicable diseases: broken bones, diarrhea, rheumatism and the like.
The pest house, or pestilence house, was built for those with contagious diseases such as cholera, smallpox or measles. Frequently found on hospital properties or near a cemetery, these buildings were not built for long standing use, but to get through epidemics. In Davenport, pest houses seem to have had shorter existences than usual.
City council research indicates that a city hospital was available in Davenport by the early 1850s. City council minutes of June 6, 1855 reference the matter of fencing in the city hospital grounds. It looks as though these were rented properties and buildings until 1858 when the city built and opened a City Hospital on Locust Street, north of downtown.
If you ever wondered how many people took advantage of hospitals in the mid-nineteenth century the answer seems to be not many, at least not in Davenport. With barely a handful of patients per month and the cost of running the building nearly $1,000 for the same time period, the city council made the decision to close and sell the hospital in 1859. By 1860, the building was still for sale and contained only a caretaker to watch over the structure and grounds.
Finding patients seems to be only one problem. Neighbors were not likely to appreciate living near a hospital or pest house. Fear of disease must have been overwhelming at a time when no control was possible over sick individuals coming into the area and when many diseases had no known cure.
It appears that by March 1860 that one or more individuals felt compelled to act as talk began to grow of using the pest house again in Davenport. On March 15, 1860 an empty building described as “the old City Hospital” was burnt down by supposed arson on West Second Street near the City Cemetery.* On March 17th another structure in the same area was also destroyed by fire that was also determined to be arson. This empty house sat one mile from City Cemetery near the river. The rumor was the house was to be sold to the city for the new pest house after the first site burnt down. The Davenport Daily Gazette even wrote that several fire companies started out to the second fire, but turned around and went home when they realized which building was aflame.**
Then, on the evening of March 20, 1860 fire struck the closed City Hospital on Locust Street. Arson was the verdict. The Davenport Daily Gazette reported that the city had recently discussed turning the building into the new pest house. The paper also mentioned the two previous fires that had occurred only days before in buildings used, or rumored about to be used, as the pest house. The Daily Democrat briefly reported in its May 22, 1860 edition on the fire, but without mention of arson. They did note that the city alderman had insured the building for $1,000 on that very afternoon. The paper jokingly said while they knew the city needed money; they doubted the alderman had burned it down!
We have not been able to uncover reports of any individuals arrested for the various fires. Could the last fire have been an insurance fire as the Daily Democrat insinuated tongue-in-cheek? Or should we look back to May 25, 1857 when the Davenport Daily Gazette reported that an arson fire destroyed a building on the corner of Warren and Seventh Streets. That building had just been rented to the City for use as a hospital.
Currently, we will have to put this story down to another local History Mystery. We will keep our eyes open for more evidence that may present itself. We hope you do too!
(Posted by Amy D.)
*Davenport Daily Gazette, March 17, 1860. Page 1.
** Davenport Daily Gazette, March 20, 1860. Page 1.