The Deadly Truth About Smallpox As Seen On 1883

In 2020 and 2021, the world was once again made aware of just how serious viral illnesses can be. As of December 2021, COVID-19 had claimed over 5 million lives worldwide, according to the World Health Organization, including nearly 800,000 in the United States.

A century ago, a considerably worse viral illness plagued not only the U.S., but the world. Smallpox has been effectively eradicated from the planet now. Yet, a century and a half ago, as Newsweek reports, it was a very real threat that lingered just below the surface of daily life, whether you were rich or poor, king or knave. Indeed, periodic outbreaks of the illness broke out from time to time in the Old West, a fact that will be informing at least part of the plot of "1883," the long-awaited prequel to the Paramount+ hit "Yellowstone," one of the most popular shows on streaming and cable. And indeed, it appears that the show will not shy away from the unabridged brutality of life in the era of smallpox.

Smallpox killed you slowly, and surviving wasn't much better

Inasmuch as it was a part of everyday life in those days and in that era, smallpox will play a role in "1883," and indeed, the first episode of the show, available via YouTube, doesn't shy away from that reality. In an early scene, main character Shea (Sam Elliott) is shown grief-stricken at the deaths of his wife and daughter and, in his madness, burns down their home. The cameras even show the young girl covered in the painful boils that the disease produces.

As Newsweek notes, contracting smallpox wasn't necessarily a certain death sentence, but it wasn't a game you wanted to play, either. Death rates varied depending on location and century, but in some cases it was as high as 60%, and 80% for children. The illness produced painful boils that covered the victim's body, and according to Vox, most patients died within about 16 days of contracting the illness. Those who survived were often blinded or left with permanent scars.