Curt Brown
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A 1902 cartoon depicted a man, bound hand and foot, in the grasp of a club-wielding cop while a physician pricks his bared arm with a vaccination shot.

The drawing was featured in a pamphlet pumped out by the Anti-Compulsory Vaccination League, the Minneapolis Journal reported. The group denounced smallpox vaccines "as an imposition and a crime on personal rights when forcibly applied."

The Minneapolis Anti-Vaccination League was formed 120 years ago this month, opposing mandated inoculations for schoolchildren. Substitute today's headline virus — COVID-19 for smallpox — and the vitriol sounds awfully familiar.

Smallpox, which scientists say dates back at least 3,000 years, came with fever and horrible skin rashes and killed three of 10 who contracted it. An English doctor began concocting a vaccine for it in 1796 — a vaccine that was considered highly effective by the early 1900s — but in Minnesota the vaccine debate raged with the fevers.

The Anti-Vaccination League rose after a Minnesota smallpox outbreak of more than 1,160 cases in 1899 and 1900 resulted in 28 deaths and infections in 114 locations and 48 counties.

The long-forgotten local group surfaced recently when a 118-year-old newspaper clipping from the St. Paul Globe with the headline "ENEMY OF VACCINE SUCCUMBS TO SMALLPOX" popped up on and then Twitter.

The story chronicled the death in April 1903 of Charles Stevens, secretary of the Minneapolis Anti-Vaccination League. The cause of death was smallpox.

Reddit linked Stevens to Herman Cain, the 2012 Republican presidential candidate who died last year of COVID shortly after attending a rally for President Donald Trump without a mask.

The Minneapolis Journal reported that state health officials pointed to Stevens' death as "a signal instance of the fallacy of the anti-vaccination position." Newspapers reported that Stevens' allies, many of whom insisted smallpox wasn't contagious, had failed to display "the hardihood" to visit his Pillsbury Avenue home once his diagnosis became known.

"Not a member of the local Anti-Vaccination Society called at his home to offer either comfort or relief," an editorial in the 1903 St. Paul Medical Journal said. A state health official noted that one of Stevens' children had contracted smallpox from him.

A month after Stevens' death, the Minneapolis Tribune reported his family was having trouble collecting on a $1,000 insurance policy.

"Rather than submit to vaccination, he agreed to waive the smallpox clause in the policy," the article said. "It was not long after, however, that he was stricken with the plague in its most malignant form and died."

After Stevens' death popped up on the internet, journalist Jay Boller scoured newspaper archives to compile a timeline of the Anti-Compulsory Vaccination League. It's posted on, a website of local news and culture (

Boller found the first mention of an "anti-vaccination league" in an 1885 Tribune wire story about a meeting in New York attended by "a number of medical men."

While guitarist Eric Clapton and quarterback Kirk Cousins have made headlines this year for opposing COVID vaccines, Boller said that back in the 1800s "the famous anti-vaxxers" included abolitionist Frederick Douglass, writer Leo Tolstoy and playwright George Bernard Shaw, who called vaccinations "a peculiarly filthy piece of witchcraft."

Lessons from Stevens' death initially went unlearned, setting the stage for the worst smallpox outbreak in Minnesota history when more than 500 people died in 1924-25. The state's last smallpox death was recorded in 1941, and by 1980 the World Health Assembly declared that smallpox had been globally eradicated.

Back then, as now, schools became a battleground in the push-and-pull about mandating masks and vaccines.

"Schools are probably the means of causing the spread of infectious diseases to a greater extent than any other one agent," the state health board reported in 1899.

In Minneapolis, state health officials required students and teachers to get vaccinated. But a 1903 law, pushed by Stevens and the anti-vaxxers, made it illegal to bar unvaccinated kids from school unless an epidemic was declared. Even then, loopholes existed where anti-vax doctors could "furnish certificates by wholesale," allowing certain children to go to school unvaccinated, the Tribune reported after Stevens' death.

The dispute over vaccines, the Tribune said in 1903, "will be settled by the state of public opinion at the moment. … The truth is none of us care much for vaccination, except as a choice of evils."

Stevens' anti-vax group eventually morphed into the Minnesota Health League, which went beyond opposing vaccines to "stand against the medical profession" while promoting "mental hygiene, pure air and ventilation, exercise and personal liberty."

Curt Brown's tales about Minnesota's history appear each Sunday. Readers can send him ideas and suggestions at His latest book looks at 1918 Minnesota, when flu, war and fires converged: