Epidemics – Before there was Zoom

Among the treasures passed along to me by Cousin K was an American Revolution Bicentennial publication by Whiteside County, IA Genealogists.  This was a compilation of stories from many of the older residents recounting life and experiences in their youth.  Great Aunt E  was a member of the group of genealogist who compiled and published this bicentennial.  One of the stories was the recollection of Mary Aleck (my great-grandmother).  I republish it here to share with the rest of the family who may or may not have heard this story.  It is interesting to keep in mind our recent ordeal with COVID-19 and its comparison to scarlet fever.

It Took Courage

Example of public notifications for infectious disease in communities. Clipped from Newspapers.com.

Mary I. Aleck, Age 73.  From I Remember When (Whiteside County Genealogists, 1976). See my note at the end.

I was born and raised on a farm about ten miles from a small town in western Iowa [Dunlap, Harrison County].

During the winter of 1899, I and my three sisters had the whooping cough.  One day a neighbor girl came over and showed us the breaking out on her arms, saying, “Look at my! My arms are all broken out.”  She wasn’t sick at the time.  It turned out that she had scarlet fever and all of us took it from her and were terribly sick.

In order to prevent its spreading throughout the community, when someone got scarlet fever, the family was quarantined.  Nobody could leave the farm and nobody could come in.  I don’t remember how or what doctor quarantined us.

My one sister got so bad [Nellie Pearl Gage (1894-1899)] — she never coughed another bit after she took the scarlet fever.  A cousin went to town to get a doctor.  In those days you had to take the team and buggy into town to tell the doctor you wanted him and then the doctor would have to take the team and buggy to come out.  This involved a period of several hours.  The doctor didn’t get there until after my sister had passed away. Note: the cousin must have been a Gage/Nichols relation as Luella’s younger brother was not married yet and her half-siblings were babes. And Edwards siblings did not come to Iowa. Edward came to Iowa following one of his female cousins to who married a Nichols boy.

Headstone of Nellie Gage who died of scarlet fever in 1899 at the age of 5. Find-A-Grave profile 65480312, photo by Alvin Poole (modified)

I remember the undertaker came out with a white hearse and came in with a little white casket.  I watched him put my sister in it and taker her away.  Of course, because we were quarantined, we couldn’t go to the burial.  Later on, after we got out of quarantine, we had a funeral service in the church.  The burial, casket and all the funeral expenses cost $25.00.  I still have the receipt from the undertaker.

My baby sister, Bessie, had to have her throat lanced at least one time — the scarlet fever settled in her throat.

Everyone was a afraid of catching the scarlet fever.  While we were all so very sick and after my one sister died, most of the neighbors wouldn’t even drive by our house.  Our house was quite a long ways from the road too.  We did have two neighbors who would bring us things we needed to the front gate and leave them there for us to pick up.

Some of the infectious disease protocols in Iowa. Clipped from Muscatine News-Tribune 17 Jun 1899, Sat · Page 2 on Newspapers.com

Alone day and night, my folks [Luella DeJean and Edward Gage] had to care for four desperately sick children.  Alone they had to cope with the death of a child, all the time fearing for the lives of those remaining.  In addition, they had to tend to the many necessary chores about the farm.  I can’t help but think of what a tense hard time it must have been for my folks with never a soul to assist or comfort them in any way.

I hate to be a party pooper, but I feel I need to disclose this for posterity. There are a few inconsistent facts in this story. Mary was born in 1902, after the events of this story. Even if she had been born a few years earlier, she would have been too young to remember this many details. Bessie was older than Mary not younger. The only four daughters living in 1899 in order are Myrle, Nellie, Allie, and Bessie. The context implies that the narrator was Mary’s oldest sister, Myrle.


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