Monday, March 7, 2022

Scarlet fever: Keene’s struggles to contain an outbreak harkens to today

keene scarlet feverScarlet fever is something we don’t have to think about any more.  However, more than 100 years ago, this childhood killer struck fear into the hearts of parents everywhere, including the little town of Keene.

On March 4, 1912, in the face of a frightening scarlet fever outbreak, the Keene Town Board of Health took emergency action.   The Board ordered “that the church, school houses, library, neighborhood house and Keene Valley Club House shall be closed until further notice.”

Today, in the midst of our Covid-19 turmoil, the disputes over vaccines, masks, and other government-scientific recommendations, it is hard to imagine a citizen board of health exercising that kind of power—to declare the church and the schools and the library closed.  Boom.   “Mo(tion) carried,” says the official one-page document, hand-written in pencil.

town of keene scarlet fever order

This document, along with many other fascinating clues to our community’s past, resides in the Town of Keene Archives.

History often seems like a mirage out there in the bigger, wider world, not particularly connected with us.  These records help us see that the big stories are made up of local parts, lives that people lived in towns like ours.

We don’t know whether there were protestors at that Board of Health meeting almost 110 years ago.  Did everybody obey?  Did parents object about the schools?  Did church goers and the minister cry out against a government intrusion on religious freedom?  Unfortunately, the records don’t provide that context.  No doubt the current town board members are happy not to have that responsibility today!

elmer grimshaw

Elmer Grimshaw

The Keene records also show that the Board of Health ordered specific households to quarantine when cases in their families were documented, or even suspected.  On February 15, Town Health Officer H.W. Rand reported cases of the fever at the home of W.P. Hare, so the family house and store were both quarantined.  The board hired Elmer Grimshaw to act as official quarantine officer and he was instructed to “obtain a list of all school children that have been exposed to the above disease and notify their parents to keep them at home until danger of infection is passed.”  Grimshaw, who was also a well-known guide with a reputation for enjoying colorful and lengthy conversations, was paid $2.50 a day.

A couple of weeks later, the board responded to another report from Dr. Rand by shutting down George Beers’ blacksmith shop.    The Hare’s house burned down and the family moved, but the board directed they remain in quarantine, and offered public support for the family in distress.

From other records, we know that scarlet fever was indeed a serious threat in those days before antibiotics.  New York State reported 805 deaths in 1912; almost all of those who died were children below the age of 10.  It was a childhood scourge.  So we can see why the town was scrambling the protect its children.  Other communities around New York closed schools and issued quarantine orders during this period.  (The Elizabethtown Post of Feb. 29, 1912 reported that schools in both Keene and Ausable Forks were closed because of scarlet fever.  More than 200 cases were reported in Syracuse.)  Today the disease is easily treated, and the death rate is less than 1%.

By early April of 1912, the crisis in Keene was over.  Here’s the cryptic report from the Board of Health meeting on April 8:

“Health Officer Rand reports that all cases of scarlet fever are now closed and that all quarantines have been raised.  It is duly moved & adopted that the report of Health Officer Rand be accepted.”

We can’t find any evidence of scarlet fever deaths in Keene during 1912.  Maybe the tough action by the town worked.

Keene Valley Archivist Margaret Hawthorn provided essential research assistance for this article.

The Archives are currently held for safe-keeping, at the Keene Valley Library, while the Keene Public Library is closed for repairs.

The good news is that these records are open for public access during regular KV Archives hours:  Tuesday and Thursday, from 9-4, plus Wednesday and Saturday mornings.  (Call 518-576-4335 to double check.)    Volunteers are working with the staff to develop an expanded catalog of materials in the collection.  And more volunteers are welcome.

 In addition to Town Board and Board of Health minutes, there are hundreds of old photographs, tax records, articles and family histories, maps, reports, old death records, cemetery records. 

Photo at top: This photo (undated) shows (l to r) Keene Town Doctor H.W. Rand, Board of Health Member Levi S. Lamb, Wash Walton, and Board of Health member Monroe Holt.  All images shown here are courtesy of the Keene Valley Archives collection.

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Peter Slocum lives in Keene and is a trustee of the Essex County Historical Association and a volunteer at the North Star Underground Railroad Museum in Ausable Chasm.      

9 Responses

  1. Henrietta Jordan says:

    Peter, thanks for this history. It is truly instructive.
    In Keene’s Norton Cemetery just before the right turn that goes up the hill, are the leaning gravestones of the Ducharme children. Among them is teenager Fred Ducharme. He was the last person in Essex County to die in the flu pandemic of 1918-19. I have long thought that investigating the local history of that scourge would be an interesting project–but you are the historian! Another Ducharme, Hubie Ducharme (Fred’s younger brother, I believe), was cognitively disabled, but in the 1950s, he had a very important job: setting off the noon whistle. I seem to remember that Jimmy Goodwin first came to Keene with his family to escape the flu pandemic, but my copy of his book, “And Gladly Guide” has gone missing, so I can’t verify that. I think it’s fair to say, though, that public health issues (including, importantly, tuberculosis) have shaped much of the history of the North Country.

  2. Wildplaces says:

    Great relevant, historical research, Peter! The next step would be an annales school-type study of the county records, if they exist.
    Thank you for sharing!

  3. Beth Rowland says:

    Fascinating piece, Peter—thanks!

  4. Ann Zagari says:

    Wonderful historical piece, Peter! It never ceases to amaze me that we humans have not learned from our past. I doubt there was much protest against the strict rules set forth by the brave Keene town leaders,

    • Peter Slocum says:

      Thanks for that Marion. I guess a lot of people forget (or are too young to know) that we used to have those real community-wide threats. Of course, the fact that those experiences have faded into the past — thanks to vaccines and other public health steps, and good medicine — means that we don’t always value the collective action that is needed to protect our friends and families. It’s not part of our social memory.

    • Peter Slocum says:

      Thanks Ann. I too, wondered about that question of protests against the 1912 actions, and went looking for any hints of that in old newspapers. I didn’t find any. Of course that doesn’t mean my search was 100% perfect. And it doesn’t mean that some folks didn’t directly complain to town officials at the store, tavern or in church.
      It is also interesting to realize that this scarlet fever scare was BEFORE the deadly worldwide “Spanish flu” of 1918-19, when the dangers of a community wide pandemic was very obvious for all to see.

    • Andre says:

      Human beings are much more spoiled and selfish in this society now

  5. Marion Weaver says:

    I was a young child and part-timer in the Adirondacks in ~ 1944, living the rest of the time in NE Ohio. That year, in Ohio, I contracted measles — a serious, very communicable disease with no vaccine. Side effects could include blindness – and death. Fortunately I avoided them. Measles was so serious that our house was quarantined. Public health really could and did act for the good of the public.

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