Scarlet Fever – a Fearful Disease

Before antibiotics, diseases were serious – sore throats and scarlet rash (or scarlet fever) were often fatal. It is hard sometimes to read these old letters – I find myself growing fond of my ancestors, their siblings, their friends, and the friends’ families, and grieve for their losses.

In December 1870, Joan Murray (a friend to both Mary Howard Affleck and her sister, Sarah Howard Forrer) wrote to Sarah, apologizing for a delay in replying to a letter. Her delay was understandable – the death of Joan’s grandaughter Bessie – “scarcely nine years old – a quiet, sensitive womanly child”

“- Mary has not written you of our stricken household by the fell disease scarlet fever – about the middle of Aug, dear little Bessie was taken sick with every appearance as I thought of this disease. The Dr would not call it this until three others were taken sick – Bessie was apparently recovering – but took cold and her joints were swollen and painful so as to make her unable to walk for three weeks, then recovered from that affliction and we all looked upon her as slowly improving but a short breath and some cough lingered about her. … – congestion of the heart was the immediate cause (induced by the disease leaving her limbs) of her leaving the dear ones here below….

….In looking over some old letters last evening I came across one of yours written directly after the death of your brother John’s three children – how many households have been made desolate by that same disease”

This same disease was the cause of death for Mary’s little sister, Jane, at age 3, and the deaths of her two sons in 1834.


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