Pest Island is southwest of the northwestern corner of New Castle, east of downtown Portsmouth. Colonial Portsmouth’s merchant fleet traveled to distant ports and encountered many contagions, the worst of which was smallpox. The first recorded cases on the Seacoast occurred in 1692 and were thought to have been contracted from cotton imported from the West Indies. At that time, no one locally knew the proper way of treating patients with smallpox, resulting in the death of most people who contracted the disease. In 1735-1736, an unknown contagion that became known as throat-distemper ravaged the area. Especially virulent in children, the merciless disease killed ninety-nine people over a fourteen-month period, eighty-one of whom were under the age of ten. By the mid-1700s, patients with smallpox or other contagions were usually quarantined in rented houses in rural areas away from the most populated parts of Portsmouth until they were cured or killed.
Wentworth by the Sea with Pest Island on the Right
According to Nathaniel Adams’ 1825 book, Annals of Portsmouth, in 1749, Portsmouth “purchased a small island in the river, just below the town, on which they built a house, with suitable accommodations for a hospital. A family resides in the house to attend upon the sick that are brought there. It is called the pest-house.” The original site was probably Shapley’s Island rather than Pest Island.
Courtesy of Bing Maps
In 1764, an epidemic of smallpox in Boston threatened to spread to Portsmouth, which had constant contact with its sister city by sea and by land. To prevent this from happening, every person and ship traveling from Boston, as well as their baggage and cargo, were ‘smoked’, a method believed to reduce the chances of spreading the disease to others. A native of Portsmouth, Dr. Hall Jackson, lived in Boston at that time and gained a reputation for successfully treating smallpox victims through inoculations. In 1778, the town used Dr. Hall's methods to organize a program for inoculating all smallpox patients. A committee identified three islands that were suitable for a quarantine hospital: Pest, Henzell’s, and Salter’s. A system was put in place whereby a person needed permission to visit the island and was required to pay for their care in advance, including eight dollars for the attending physician. Once inoculated, the patient had to remain on the island for at least twenty-one days and could not leave until a doctor certified a clean bill of health. One out of every ten patients who received treatment was to be a pauper whose care was provided for free. The program inoculated four hundred and twelve patients at a total cost of about sixty-five hundred dollars. In 1782, about a year before the Revolutionary War ended, Portsmouth granted four local physicians – Ammi R. Cutter, Joshua Bracket, Hall Jackson, and John Jackson – permission to establish a private hospital on Henzell’s Island, provided that there would be no cost to the town. The bridges that connect the South End of Portsmouth with New Castle (Route 1B) were constructed in 1822. At that time, the Shapley's Island ‘pest-house’ had to be relocated to Pest Island. According to Sarah Haven Foster's Portsmouth Guide Book, the hospital still remained on Pest Island when she published in 1876.
Pest Island Looking South from Riverside Cemetery in New Castle