Cincinnati Trembled at the City Pest House

Contagious citizens were confined to a loathsome quarantine home in the 1800s, which moved from the West End to Clifton Heights to Westwood.

Throughout the 1800s, perhaps the most terrifying phrase uttered in Cincinnati was “pest house.” In those days of primitive, pre-antibiotic medicine, consignment to the pest house was essentially a death sentence. Sick people transferred to it suffered from contagious and incurable diseases like smallpox, yellow fever, and even the plague.

Few patients survived a trip to the pest house, so families hid contagious cases and battled health officers attempting to cart loved ones away.

From Frank Leslie's Illustrated Weekly, (September 1894). Digitized by Library of Congress.

Cincinnati’s first pest house was located in the West End, just a stone’s throw from the Commercial Hospital on the western side of the Miami & Erie Canal. As that part of the city filled up with housing, a NIMBY (Not In My Back Yard) movement arose, forcing administrators to locate a new “branch” hospital on the hillside slope near Clifton Avenue. The Cincinnati Commercial Tribune [February 6, 1864] rejoiced:

“The great inconvenience of having to use a small building in the rear of the Commercial Hospital, corner of Fourteenth street and Central avenue, has, for a long time, been experienced, and we are glad to see that the nuisance is in a fair way of being abated. A large building on Ross [Roh’s] Hill has been fitted up, at a cost of about $1,000, and lately put in use as a pest house, there being now twenty-seven cases of small-pox there. The old pest house also contains the same number of cases.”

The Roh’s Hill pest house occupied a plot of land occupied today by the northern half of Rohs and Chickasaw streets. The property included a main building of brick, three frame houses, a wash house, and a stable at the time it was acquired by the hospital. There was also, on the southern part of the property, a vineyard, which the hospital leased to a local winery that seemed unconcerned about the adjacent contagion.

In addition to smallpox, the pest house soon filled with patients suffering measles, scabies, cholera, malaria, typhus, influenza, and tuberculosis. Even though the Roh’s Hill branch hospital was located on a five-acre tract of land in a lightly inhabited section of the city, neighbors complained about the proximity of patients suffering loathsome diseases. Responding to complaints, City Council authorized its Committee on Health to find an even more isolated site for the pest house. According to The Daily Gazette [October 29, 1869] that search produced nothing but outrage:

“But while they find plenty of owners that are ready to sell land for the purpose, they find that the people of the vicinity do not desire this institution located among them. Indeed, whenever they go even to view a tract,  they carry a panic, and the neighborhood rise up and charge them with all sorts of conspiracies, and threaten to burn down their concern if they bring it among them.”

That anxiety can only have been exacerbated when Sgt. Benjamin Hook of the Corryville station house made a grisly discovery. Passing the pest house on Roh’s Hill, he noticed a bright object protruding from a pile of ashes. According to The Enquirer [July 25, 1872]:

“Sticking his cane into the heap he soon pushed enough of it away to show that the object that had attracted his attention was the coffin of an infant child. Upon drawing it out he also found that it contained the form of a female child about six months old, beautifully dressed, that had apparently been dead only a day or two.”

Everyone in Cincinnati knew what went on in the pest house, but didn’t want to think about it.

From Illustrated Police News (December 1877). Image extracted from PDF by Greg Hand.

At the coroner’s inquest, it came out that the infant had been buried, forgotten, in the ash pile since February. The Roh’s Hill pest house regularly stashed corpses in the ash pile while waiting for the ground to thaw sufficiently for burial or for enough bodies to accumulate to constitute a decent-sized wagon load for the trip to the Potter’s Field graveyard in Price Hill. The Enquirer [July 26, 1872] expressed the intensity of the community’s horror.

“Aside from the inhumanity of the thing, it was sufficient to imperil the health of the community. Persons walking or driving past the premises were at any time liable to inhale the noxious vapors arising from these corpses and to be inoculated with the terrible scourge.”

During the decade that the Roh’s Hill pest house was in operation, Cincinnati’s population surged by 20 percent and many affluent residents sought cleaner air and spacious lawns in the hillside districts. The branch hospital was a blight on an increasingly attractive (and lucrative) neighborhood. Although homeowners were frightened away, real estate speculators smelled opportunity. The Enquirer [May 17, 1879] was incensed:

“The proposed removal of the Pest-house from Roh’s Hill is a job designed to benefit a few crafty property-holders, who urge it for their own personal gain, and not with an eye single for the public good. These parties purchased ground on the hill and in its vicinity at extremely low prices on account of the proximity of the Pest-house, and now that they may benefit themselves they propose to remove the institution to the western hills, where its presence will greatly depreciate property extremely valuable to the owners.”

The speculators fired up the neighbors, who prevailed upon City Council and the Commercial Hospital board to condemn the Roh’s Hill pest house. The hospital at first tried to sell the buildings for scrap, but public belief that bricks and lumber from the hospital harbored contagious diseases quashed that idea. On June 27, 1879, the pest house was put to the torch.

Two weeks before burning the pestiferous institution, City Hospital trustees filed a plat creating the Roh’s Hill subdivision. According to that plat, now on file at the Hamilton County Recorder’s office, one of the “crafty property-holders” angling for removal of the pest house was Jacob Elsas, secretary of the hospital board. In a case of Victorian insider trading, he swept in to purchase the southern third of the pest house property.

The old Roh’s Hill pest house still had secrets to divulge. A year after the structure was burned to the ground, in May 1880, the bleached bones of an unknown man were found in a gully south of the pest house site. A crew from the morgue, sent to investigate, presumed that the bones were those of a long-dead smallpox victim. According to The Daily Gazette [May 13, 1880]:

“Coroner [Anthony Lawless] Carrick, upon learning the nature of the find, ordered [Undertaker John B.] Habig to bury the bones, and deemed an inquest unnecessary unless some unexplained murder a dozen years ago should be brought to light.”

With Roh’s Hill demolished, the city needed a new pest house for its contagious and incurable patients and found it in the 50-acre Gurley farm located between Price Hill and Westwood. As “pest house” had become a disagreeable term, the new quarantine hospital was named the Hamilton County Tuberculosis Sanatorium and, later, Dunham Hospital. It is now Dunham Recreation Center.

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