Social distancing and long term isolation are inconvenient. Limiting our movements runs counter to our gregarious sense of liberty. The country faces a disease we know little about. And, as a people accustomed to certainty, we find the uncertainty unsettling. This moment is more difficult because we have no collective social memory of similar pandemics to guide us. The Spanish flu didn’t mark my family but a scarlet fever outbreak did. At times like these, there is value in looking to our forbearers for hope.
My great-grandmother, Ella Newell Searle, was a a pious, gentile woman from Rochester, New York, who married Herman Searle, a promising young man just out of the Army. When the depression of the 1870’s wiped out Herman’s fledgling business, he left Ella and two infant sons with her father in New York while he bought silver claims in Arizona Territory and organized a mining company. After five years, the family reunited in 1881 in Oro Blanco (now a ghost town). Their youngest son died of typhoid in 1882; my grandfather William was born there early in 1884. Little went right after that. Herman caught the tail of the silver boom just as its price began falling and the ore veins petered out. His and other mines failed. While Herman looked for work, Ella taught school as several friends died in the last Apache raids.
Two years of disappointments followed the family until Herman found work as the railway express agent in the copper-mining town of Bisbee. Thanks to the invention of alternating electrical current, copper ore was more valuable than silver or gold. The family arrived outside the boom-town at the end of track in Mule Pass Gulch in December 1888. Ella described it as “a wild place one mile high” at the bottom of a rocky gulch with a few flimsy shacks crouched along the railroad embankment.
Bisbee had no houses so, for nine months, the family lived and worked in a railroad car that inched toward the town as rail construction advanced. To improve their mobile living quarters, they lined the car with new cloth and hung pictures until Ella said, “it looks real cozy.”
A scarlet fever epidemic struck during the spring of 1889. This highly contagious disease was the leading cause of death in children until the rise of antibiotics in the twentieth century. Prevention, then and now, relied on frequent hand-washing, not sharing items and maintaining isolation from others. Three-year-old Willie, my grandfather, became one of the 253 cases among Bisbee’s 1,500 residents.
Ella and Willie were quarantined in the rail car and she dosed him with aconite and belladonna, homeopathic medicines to reduce his cough and fever. The Phelps-Dodge Company doctor gave him medicine for the throat. Ella kept him in bed for ten days, read Sunday School books to him and taught him to write letters and spell. He often drew locomotives on her blackboard. After two weeks, the doctor lifted their quarantine and Ella took to her bed with a terrible headache and sore throat. “I am weak yet and cannot be on my feet much,” she wrote Herman’s mother. “I hope George won’t get the Fever. I don’t know how I could take care of him in the car.”
No sooner had she posted the letter than sixteen-year-old “George was taken with the Scarlet Fever and had it quite hard.” He stayed in bed for a week before sitting up and “ached so bad that he could not sleep for a few nights.” Once he was on the mend, Ella knew it would be “hard keeping him quiet for two weeks more.” But George recovered, his quarantine was lifted and Ella stepped outside for the first time in seven weeks. Later, Herman told his parents they were “getting along very well” and had been “very fortunate” that it wasn’t more serious.
The Scarlet fever outbreak of 1889 in Mule Pass Gulch likely induced as much dread as the coronavirus does today. Doctors then knew little about scarlet fever, there were no treatments beyond home remedies, and death often followed. Although we aren’t as isolated as Ella was, and medical technology is vastly better today, we still face an unknown illness that has no cure as yet. At times like these, we, like Ella, are thrown back on ourselves with disciplined isolation as our best, perhaps our only solution.