On Portsmouth’s ‘Pest Island,’ an 18th Century Quarantine Turned Into A Party

Aug 23, 2017

A map from 1782, when the island known today as Shapleigh was the site of a hospital, or 'pest house,' used for quarantining the sick.
Credit Library of Congress

Islands can be calm, quiet, isolated places where you can remove yourself from the stress of mainland life. Or, they can serve a more transactional purpose: a place to put people you don’t want to have around. Think Alcatraz, or Elba, where Napoleon was exiled.

Well, off the coast of Portsmouth, there are islands that were also used to remove and isolate certain individuals. Individuals who sometimes figured out novel ways to entertain themselves. 

In this next installment of NHPR's summer series ‘Surrounded’ we visit Pest Island, where quarantines occasionally turned into good times. 

(Editor’s note: we recommend listening to this story.)

In Portsmouth in the late 18th century, epidemics were the norm, and smallpox was among the worst.

“Oh, smallpox was a terror,” explains Rebecca Noel, associate professor of history at Plymouth State University. “It was one of the great terrors that parents could have for their children, that adults could have.”

No matter how bad you think smallpox must have been, spend a few minutes with Noel, and she’ll have you imagining something even worse.

For the first 10 to 14 days, a smallpox patient would be asymptomatic.

“And then you start to feel really sick, terrible headaches, back aches, vomiting, misery.”

Then come the pustules--the pox--which start forming all over your body, from the inside of your mouth to the soles of your feet.

“The scabs can be so intense that you can stick to your mattress and not be able to turn over,” says Noel. “It is a really horrible disease.”

A horrible disease, and one that had no completely effective treatments in the 18th century. If you got it, you just had to gut it out, and hope for survival.

But as R. Stuart Wallace, historian with NHTI in Concord explains, there was an inoculation.

“These inoculations were basically a means of giving you a small case of smallpox, in the hopes that you would get through it okay, after two, three, four weeks, and then, having been seasoned, you’d never get it again.”

To perform these inoculations, doctors would take a small amount of fluid from inside a smallpox pustule. They would then make an incision on a healthy person, and insert the fluid.

Since people can only catch smallpox once, a slight case of the virus, intentionally acquired through an inoculation, was often a worthwhile risk for the chance of immunity.

“The only snag was a small case of smallpox still got you very sick, and in some cases, it could kill you,” says Wallace.

The public health snag was that after getting inoculated, patients were contagious. To alleviate the risk to the general population, people receiving inoculation were often sent to something called a Pest House.  

“A Pest House is really just a fancy name for a small hospital building,” says Noel.

Towns had to be strategic, though, about where to locate their Pest Houses. Ideally, it would be in a location where residents couldn’t make accidental contact with those inside. It also helped to be able to manage who was coming and going, and to control how supplies were delivered.

The sun setting over Pest Island, in Portsmouth.
Credit Todd Bookman

“And so it really helps to have it on an island,” explains Noel.

A Pest Island. Off of Portsmouth, in the late 18th century, different little specks of land would be used at different times for just this purpose.

Groups of patients known as ‘classes’ would stay on the island, completely isolated, for the next four weeks while they received their inoculation.

And while this may sound fairly terrible (the quarantine, the isolation, the mild case of smallpox), Rebecca Noel says there is something else to keep in mind. In the late 18th century, young men and young women rarely had opportunities to be in an isolated environment away from the prying eyes of parents and pastors.

On Pest Island, they were relatively free, many for the first time. And, remember, after getting the inoculation, people were symptom-free for 10-14 days.

“So they would have a couple of fun weeks, where they would party and talk to each other,” she says.

“In other words, rampant promiscuous sex,” says Stuart Wallace with a laugh.

While it’s hard to know exactly what went down on Pest Island in the 1790s, Charles Brewster, a well-known 19th century historian, describes a scene of great liberation.

“That little green island in the Piscataqua, whose still life at the present day is disturbed only by its few inhabitants, was for the time, a scene of great animation,” he writes. “The flower of the youth and beauty of Portsmouth were congregated there...and remembered the affair as little else than a holiday festival of the gayest description.”

Brewster writes about how one evening the flower of youth on Pest Island threw a “candy party.” They had somehow gotten their hands on a vat of molasses. The residents would play pranks on each other; they went out for evening strolls. All in all, a pretty wild scene for the era.

But the laughs were likely only had during the first part of your stay.

“Because once you get sick, it’s kind of miserable,” says Noel.

The scene today on Pest Island, where parties occasionally still pop up.
Credit Todd Bookman/NHPR

By the turn of the 19th century, both the misery and the merriment would draw to an end. A true vaccine for smallpox was introduced, one that didn’t require a quarantine. The smallpox parties of Portsmouth were over.

But Pest Island? That’s actually still a place.

Though a number of different islands carried the name during the centuries, today’s Pest Island is just west of Newcastle in the Piscataqua River.

It’s about 10 acres, depending on the tide. There are no houses, no residents, just scraggly brush and a seawood-covered shoreline. But up in a clearing, you will find a campsite. There’s a recently used fire pit, seats arranged in a circle, and a stray beer can.

Pest Island is still clearly a place where people come to isolate themselves, and throw a little party.