Typhoid erupts among prisoners in filthy Seattle jail on January 5, 1901.

  • By Greg Lange
  • Posted 8/29/1999
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 1648

The headline said it all: "CRUELTY PURE AND SIMPLE."  On January 5, 1901, William Hysnick, a prisoner in the Seattle City Jail, is diagnosed with typhoid fever and sent to the County hospital.  As many as a dozen prisoners come down with the disease.  The typhoid outbreak is caused by the "filthy" condition of the jail that the Seattle Health Department has ignored.

Hysnick's Cries and Groans

Hysnick was sick for a week. During the night he "disturbed the prisoners by cries and groans." On January 3, guards ignored his complaints and ordered him outside to work in the chain gang. He "tramped about in the snow all day" (The Seattle Star, January 5, 1901) working on the city's streets. The following day, his illness became apparent to Dr. Carroll, assistant city physician, who excused the prisoner from serving on the chain gang for the day. He remained in his cell.

On January 5, Hysnick had a temperature of 103, and Dr. Carroll diagnosed him with a "violent form" of typhoid fever and sent him to the County hospital in a "precarious" condition. When Hysnick's cell mates learned that he had typhoid "a small sized panic ensued in the working cell. The prisoners shouted: 'Take me out of here; don't let us die like dogs'" (The Seattle Star, January 5, 1901). It soon became apparent that as many as a dozen inmates had the dreaded disease.

The typhoid outbreak resulted from the fact that little or "no sanitary arrangements exist[ed]" (Seattle Post-Intelligencer, January 6, 1901) in the jail. Even the guards strongly voiced their concerns and stated that jail sanitary conditions had to improve or they would resign. On numerous occasions the Health Department had been informed of the problem but took "no notice of the matter" (The Seattle Star, January 5, 1901).

City Jail a Foul Dungeon

Seattle acquired the King County courthouse and jail in 1890. It was located between 3rd and 4th avenues and Yesler Way and Jefferson Street (in 1999 the site of City Hall Park). The city remodeled the wooden building, enlarged the jail located in the basement, and converted the upper level into a town hall and municipal courtroom. Nearly all the former King County courthouse built in 1882 remained, and it showed its age. The city jail was reputed to be "one of the foulest dungeons in the United States and a "veritable hotbed of disease" (Seattle Post-Intelligencer, January 2, 1901) not only for prisoners, but for residents in the community, who catch diseases from inmates.

An Overpowering Stench

By coincidence, a reporter from the Seattle Post-Intelligencer had investigated the condition of the city jail a few days before the typhoid outbreak. Before the reporter entered the jail, it was aired to get rid of the "overpowering" stench (Seattle Post-Intelligencer, January 2, 1901). The first room inspected was the unlighted 18 by 16 foot receiving cell, which contained 18 men. It had two grated windows for ventilation so small that they could easily be covered by a sheet of writing paper. Jailor John Corbett described the jail's receiving cell as in "a filthy state, and unfit for hogs" (The Seattle Star, January 4, 1901).

The same size as the receiving cell and next to it was the cell for the chain gang prisoners sentenced to work on streets and roads. It was described as follows:

"Here from twenty to thirty-five prisoners eat, sleep and wash their clothing during the whole year round. The floor which is used by the men both as a dining table and a bed, reeks with filth, except for a few hours immediately following the morning scrubbing with soap and water -- in an attempt to combat its disease breeding conditions" (Seattle Post-Intelligencer, January 2, 1901).

The last room inspected was the women's cell. Apparently no women occupied it at the time of the inspection. The reporter stated that:

"apart from two cloth hammocks suspended against a damp vermin-infested wall, the room is destitute of furniture. During the time that the snow was thawing yesterday afternoon a large stream of water poured from the roof of the jail into this cell and, accumulating upon the floor, ran in small streams over a large portion of the surface. A single grated window, 6 x 12 inches in diameter, affords what ventilation there is" (Seattle Post-Intelligencer, January 2, 1901).

There were calls for a new jail, but one Seattle newspaper, The Argus, objected that with "a luxurious resort of this nature the thugs will be willing to allow the police to capture them, in order that they may try the new boarding house."


Mary McWilliams, Seattle Water Department History: 1854-1954, Operational Data and Memoranda. (Seattle: City of Seattle, 1955), 29-30; The Argus, (Seattle), January 5, 1901, p. 1; The Seattle Star, January 4, 1901, p. 4; January 5, 1901, p. 1; Seattle Post Intelligencer, January 2, 1901, p. 11; January 6, 1901, p. 12.

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