Wednesday, February 4, 2015

"Business in Brushland has been at a standstill..." - Bovina's Diphtheria Epidemic

130 years ago today, on February 4, 1885, nine-year old Harvey McNair, the son of Peter and Elizabeth McNair, died of diphtheria. His death would be the last in a string of children’s deaths from the disease in Bovina that started the previous August.  On August 2, 1884, Jesse Palmer, the five year old son of Charles and Mary Ann Palmer, died four days after contracting diphtheria. Between the deaths of these two children would be the deaths of nine others. The epidemic would practically shut down the Brushland hamlet (now Bovina Center) and be reported in a number of papers around New York State. There likely were other diphtheria epidemics in Bovina, but the one in 1884/85 is the best documented. As well as the newspaper reports, records for the newly created Bovina Board of Health exist, giving us more information as to how Bovina handled this serious illness.

Diphtheria is a now rare upper respiratory illness that was much more common in the age before antibiotics and vaccinations. It was particularly hard on children and was a common cause of infant mortality.

The death of Jesse Palmer in August was followed in the next five weeks by those of brothers Frederick and Ralph McPherson, sons of A.F. and Julia McPherson, and Harvey Strangeway, son of Andrew and Maggie Strangeway. The death of Frederick McPherson and the illness of other children in Brushland caused the Board of Health to step in. The McPherson and Strangeway families, along with that of T.E. Hastings, were quarantined as soon as the illness was reported. The board required that all persons visiting in these homes, including the physician, to “change their clothing [and] wash and disinfect themselves before coming in contact with other persons.” Hastings store (now Russell’s Store) also was quarantined until August 11. The quarantine was lifted when no other children in the family became ill. The board also resolved that “all children under 10 years of age are hereby forbidden to appear and play upon the streets of the village of Brushland during the continuance of this epidemic.”

At the August 13 board meeting, the board passed fourteen resolutions identifying specific homes that had been designated as “nuisances,” all in Brushland. Many of the resolutions related to cleaning out privies or outhouses. They also issued this notice for the local newspapers to try and allay fears:
Delaware Republican, August 1884
The quarantine on the McPherson and Strangeway families was lifted at the board’s September 15 meeting. Ironically, the day the quarantine was lifted Harvey Strangeway became ill with the disease and died within 24 hours.

Harvey’s death was the last from the disease in 1884, but the illness continued to show up during the fall. The McPherson family was quarantined two more times before the end of the year when family members become ill. After having lost two children to the illness, the family must have felt some relief when the other members with it recovered and the quarantine was lifted after only a few days.

The Board of Health continued to monitor the epidemic and take steps to stop its spread. Follow-up visits were made to several homeowners who were cited for having unclean privies or outhouses to ensure that these were resolved. Within a month of these citations, all the homeowners were reported as being in compliance. In December, the board posted notices “requesting parents, as far as possible, to prevent their children from meeting and playing with other children for the present, to prevent the spreading of the disease.”  The board also requested that the school in Brushland be closed for the present.

The epidemic was reported in local papers and made it into papers outside the region too.
Stamford Mirror, August 19, 1884 (likely a report from the Andes Recorder)
Evening Republic (Buffalo), September 15, 1884
Sidney (NY) Record, October 2, 1884
In early January 1885, the epidemic strengthened again. John Telford, the four year old son of the late Dr. William and his widow, Agnes Telford, became ill in early January and died in a few days. In the following two weeks, five more Bovina children would die of diphtheria. Jacob and Margaret Dietrich lost two children three days apart, daughters Mary, age one and Emma, age eleven.  James and Maggie Liddle also lost two children. Their four year old daughter Ida died on January 11, while their almost two year old son William died on January 17. Thomas and Mary McNee lost their three year old daughter on January 14. Two weeks later saw the death of the aforementioned Harvey McNair on February 4 - the last death in the epidemic that took the lives of eleven Bovina children.

The Bovina Town Board on February 14 met in special session to organize as a new board of health. An extensive set of resolutions concerning sanitation and disease control were passed, printed and distributed. By the end of March 1885, life started to return to normal in Bovina. The March 24, 1885 Stamford Mirror reported that the “writing school has commenced in [the Mountain Brook school house], after a lapse of several weeks, on account of the prevalence of Diphtheria.”  And though children continued to get sick and occasionally die of the disease into the 20th century, this appears to be the last such epidemic in the town’s history.

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