Dakota Datebook

Bismarck Pesthouse

Tuesday, March 11, 2014


During the winter of 1920-21, about fifty cases of smallpox were reported and treated in the city of Bismarck. Most of them were mild, and many patients came from outside of the city, according to a report in the Bismarck Tribune. In fact, it was reported that Dr. C. E. Stackhouse, the city health officer, felt that smallpox had “about run its course” for the winter.


Certainly, residents of the city were pleased to hear this–and not just because they didn’t want to get sick!  On this date in 1921, eight men and women who had been sick with smallpox came forward to complain about the conditions of the city’s detention hospital, otherwise known as the city pesthouse. The pesthouse was located on Thompson, near what was then the northern city limits, and its purpose was to house those infected with diseases that could spread easily. The former patients had been sick between mid-February and the beginning of March, and in that short time had a number of troubling complaints.


The first complaint was particularly damning for a hospital setting – labeling the facility as “absolutely unsanitary and not fit for human habitation.” There was no water in the house, and the walls were dirty. The place was heated by a hot air furnace, which, the ex-patients stated, only carried disease around the building. The rooms were too small and were overpacked, and although the patients were confined to their room, they also had no privacy.


Moreover, no one knew for sure where their money was going. They claimed they heard “many contradictory statements” from people connected with the place concerning their money and their care. Some were held for several days past the point of contagion while others were not, and some claimed they were charged $5 just for entering, while others were not.


This critique of the system was presented to the city commission and published in the Bismarck Tribune. At the end of their comments, the ex-patients stated, “Those of us who are residents of Bismarck are vitally interested in this case, and we certainly expect to see some action taken in the matter so that our citizens may be protected and the Detention Hospital will not be a menace to our city. The rest of us feel that for common decency and common humanity, this deplorable condition should be corrected.”


Dakota Datebook written by Sarah Walker



The Bismarck Tribune, March 11, 1921

Keiter’s Bismarck City Directory, p.128 of 1916-7; p.18 of 1919-20



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Dakota Datebook is a project of Prairie Public, in partnership with the State Historical Society of North Dakota, with funding from the North Dakota Humanities Council.

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