I’ve been thinking of this post for about 3 weeks now, but it seems even stranger to be writing now, in the midst of the increasingly serious COVID-19 pandemic. It was hardly a blip on my radar 3 weeks ago.
On the last day of February, which this year happened to be a Saturday and a Leap Day (Feb. 29), my family headed out for some errands and lunch. My 2-year-old son started acting slightly pathetic while we were in the restaurant; lying down on the bench and not wanting to eat. I thought he was just being picky (as usual) and that he was just tired (as it was getting close to nap-time anyway).
But when we got him home, we realized he had a fever. It was nothing overly concerning, as far as the actual temperature (maybe 101? I forget now), so we gave him some Tylenol and put him down for his nap. He seemed okay after that.
The next morning when he woke up, he had this fine, bumpy, reddish-pink rash on his tummy, back, and to a lesser extent on his cheeks.
I googled (yes Dr. Google) a some things (measles, even “rubella” having no idea what that even was); sent pictures to family members in the medical profession (“kids get weird rashes,” one of my nurse-sisters said); and speculated that perhaps I had failed to “find” a place where he had wet the bed (he sometimes takes off his diaper in bed — the joys of toddlers!) and maybe that was irritating his skin (so I washed all his sheets—again—and gave him a bath).
The next morning, the rash seemed better, and he didn’t have a fever, so I sent him to school (daycare). Well, he hadn’t even been there two hours, and I get a phone call from the school, saying he needs to be picked up ASAP: “We think it looks like scarlet fever.”
Scarlet fever? Is that still even a thing? Isn’t that like from the 1800’s and earlier?
It seemed like it was SO “not a thing” that it didn’t even occur to me to Google that one, the day before.
Well, spoiler alert: It was scarlet fever. Well, it was strep, plus the associated fever and red, sandpaper-y rash (which strep can sometimes cause), thus making it not just strep but “scarlet fever.”
Scarlet Fever! It’s Not Just For The 1800’s Anymore!
Apparently, scarlet fever has been making a comeback. (Weird.)
Thankfully, these days it is easy to treat with antibiotics, something that wasn’t invented until the 20th century. Consequently, all things considered, it wasn’t that big of a deal for my son. I’m sure he didn’t feel very good, but he took the medicine (with a little chocolate bribery), and he got better. And now he’s fine.
But I just kept thinking of another mother and her babies, almost two hundred years ago, who weren’t so lucky.
As you may recall, one of the last big projects I worked on at the Dayton Metro Library before I started working at Wright State University was to process the Forrer-Peirce-Wood Papers. And I wrote about the FPW Papers here quite a lot.
One member of that large, extended family, represented in the collection was Mary Howard, sister of Sarah (Howard) Forrer (whose husband was Samuel Forrer). I wrote a biographical sketch of Mary for the collection and posted it on this blog, identifying Mary as “the bearer of many sorrows.”
Well, most of those sorrows involved disease: specifically cholera and scarlet fever. (Some involved the Civil War; see A Tale of Two Howards.)
In the summer of 1833, Mary (Howard) Little was a 24-year-old wife and mother of 3 (with another on the way). By the summer of 1834, she was a 25-year-old childless widow.
In July-August 1833, a cholera epidemic struck central Ohio and the Howard and Little families. In the span of a few weeks, Mary lost her husband Harvey Little, her two older children (ages 5 and 4), both her parents, and a younger sister, all to cholera. Mary was left with a 2-year-old and the new baby, who would be born in February and named Harvey Little Jr. after his deceased father.
Scarlet fever dealt two more blows to Mary in the spring of 1834. Around April 30th, the older of her two remaining children died from it; and on May 7th, the baby, less than 4 months old, succumbed as well.
This letter from Mary’s brother John Howard to his and Mary’s brother-in-law Samuel Forrer (husband of their sister Sarah) describes Mary’s situation on May 7, 1834, the day her fourth and final child died:
The letter reads as follows:
Columbus, O. 5th Mo. (May) 7th 1834
At the request of Sister Mary, I write to inform thee of the death of Little Harvey, of the scarlet fever. Wm. Hance informed thee that he had been taken. He died this afternoon at about 5 o’clock, after having suffered considerably during the last two days. Medicine seemed to have no effect on him.– Although this is a very severe blow to Sister Mary, she
sustains bears it with remarkable fortitude. She is considerably fatigued with nursing, though in other respects (tolerably?) well. She sends her love to you, and says she would like to see you & that Sara promised her she would come, if she could make it convenient. She has, for the last few days, been at Wm. Hance’s, at his very earnest request, and also that of his wife; they have both been, and still are, very kind and affectionate. I came here last evening and intend to stay until I see Sister Mary well settled somewhere.
Affectionately, John Howard
(To) Samuel Forrer
Poor Mary. I can’t even. “…after having suffered considerably during the last two days. Medicine seemed to have no effect on him…”
It’s the kind of thing that makes you really stop and feel grateful for all that’s been achieved in modern medicine since then, even if there is still more to learn.
And now, here we all sit, “sheltering in place” per the governor’s order, wondering “who’s next” for COVID-19 and whether that person and the medical professionals around them will have what it takes to fight it off.
Special thanks to Jamie McQuinn and Martha Ballinger in the Local History Room, Dayton Metro Library, for quickly providing me with the scan of the above letter, from the collection, and permission to use it.
And special thanks to Jamie (my former supervisor there) also for the following good-natured tease in his initial response, which gave me a chuckle and a smile: “Just when you thought you could quit those Forrer-Peirce-Woods, they suck you back in again…”
Bibliography & More Info:
- Mary (Howard) Little Affleck biographical sketch (on my blog) – if you’d like to know what happened to Mary after the horrendous year 1834.
- John Howard to Samuel Forrer, 1834 May 7, Box 36, File 8, MS-018, Forrer-Peirce-Wood Papers, Dayton Metro Library, Dayton, Ohio.
- MS-018, Forrer-Peirce-Wood Collection, Dayton Metro Library, Dayton, Ohio.
- Mary (Howard) Little Affleck individual genealogical record on WeRelate (populated mainly by me- user BellaNox).
- Forrer-Peirce-Wood Family Photo Album on Flickr (including image of Mary’s Little signature and Affleck signature).