10 of the Craziest Things That You Never Knew About Quarantines

If you're worried about catching a super-virus, you can always be extra careful about washing your hands. But sometimes that's not enough. Sometimes you just need to get all those sick people away from you. This idea has fueled many successful — and unsuccessful — quarantines over the years. Here are the strangest, sickest, and silliest things that have been done in the name of quaratines.

10. Seeking out people to quarantine was a profession

Since the plague was a fact of life for hundreds of years in Europe, Asia, and the Middle East, quarantines weren't special emergency measures but everyday events. Since no one volunteers for quarantine, those with the plague had to be found out. People, usually old women without any other income, would search dead bodies, wherever they happened to be gathered, and look for plague victims. When they found them, they'd announce it to a local official, get paid a few pence a body, and the family that the body belonged to would get boarded up in their house.


9. Typhoid Mary spent the last 24 years of her life in quarantine

Mary Mallon was an asymptomatic carrier of the typhoid pathogen. Although she was never sick during her life, it's possible she was a carrier since birth and that her mother suffered from typhoid. She came to New York at the turn of the century, and had infected multiple people in every household she cooked for with typhoid before she was found to be a carrier and quarantined for three years. After that time she was released, on the condition that she not work as a cook anymore. Instead she took an alias, Mary Brown, and cooked for a women's hospital, infecting over twenty people and, it is thought, causing one death. She was discovered and returned to quarantine for the rest of her life. She died in 1938.

8. A quarantine was once lifted by the courts because it was racist

And lifted justifiably, too. In 1900, the Chinese owner of a lumberyard died in Chinatown in San Francisco. When the cause of death was determined to be bubonic plague, the entire neighborhood was closed off, trapping 25,000 residents inside. Just for good measure, San Francisco closed all 'non-white owned' businesses. A judge eventually lifted the quarantine, finding it to be unfair.


7. There were hooker quarantines

During World War I, thirty thousand prostitutes were incarcerated. They weren't locked up because their trade was illegal and they'd been caught plying it. They were locked up because they were known to be hookers, and the United States wanted their soldiers to be venereal disease free. Despite being clearly unfair, this quarantine was not lifted.


6. Apollo 11 Astronauts were quarantined

The Apollo 11 crew were quarantined for three days after they came back from the Moon, presumably to make sure they didn't bring back Moon Measles. Better safe than sorry, I guess.


5. Venice's quarantine island has 1500 bodies in a mass grave

One of the reasons people didn't want to undergo quarantine was the places that the quarantines were conducted in. Mary Mallon, though unfortunate, got a cottage, a job, and plenty of company. Victims of the bubonic plague in Venice got an island where they were basically just dumped on to wait to die. Venice, being a sea port, was hit by every nasty thing that ever infected a human being, but the plague was the worst. Eventually, they dumped anyone remotely sick on the island, and then returned to bury the dead when the last of them dropped. Supposedly bones still wash up on the shores of this island.


4. Venetians came up with the word 'quarantine'

Since no one really likes forcing plague victims onto an island to die, Venice attempted to stop plague from coming ashore at all. Vessels that pulled into port had to fly a yellow-and-black checked flag and stay off the mainland for forty days. The word 'quarantine' comes from the word for forty; 'quaranta.'


3. We never get tired of making islands scary

Another island, Gruinard Island off the coast of Scotland, was so thoroughly bombed with anthrax as part of an experiment in biological warfare during World War II that it was quarantined until 1990. The experiment killed a lot of sheep, and found out that anthrax spores were hard to get rid of. Nothing else came of the experiments, except for disgruntled people who has been forced to sell their island to the British government.


2. Leper colonies under quarantine had their own currency

No, not cigarettes and the willingness to shank another leper. Leper colonies were massive communities. Europe had 19,000 colonies at one point. Although the colonies did get charity funds, many functioned like any other self-supporting town. Getting currency, however, was a problem. No one wanted money going into leper colonies, because no one would trust it when it came back out. As a way to do business, colonies minted special leper colony coins.


1. The last federally mandated quarantine in the US was in 2007

That might seem scary, but it was technically only one person. Although we may have beaten leprosy, smallpox, and polio, tuberculosis never seems to go away. A man about to go on his honeymoon was diagnosed with tuberculosis. Despite that, he got on a plane and flew around Europe for some time before learning that he had multi-drug resistant tuberculosis, at which point he got on another plane and flew to Montreal. At that point, he was isolated for three days, and eventually brought to Atlanta for further testing and strict isolation while officials scrambled to contact all the other passengers on his flights. There has been no outbreak, but should there ever be one - try to keep from being sent to an island.


Via It Thing, PBS twice, National Geographic, and the NY Times.

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