Scarlet Fever — A Persistent Worry

Part of this story concerns a topic that has been gently brewing in my mind for over two years. It was given a toe nudge by recent reporting about the proliferation (globally) of cases of scarlet fever.

I wouldn’t have been able to tell you what “iGAS” stands for until a couple weeks ago when I came across an online Wired article that seeks to draw attention to the disturbing uptick in scarlet fever cases. (“The UK Is Enduring an Onslaught of Scarlet Fever. Is the US Next?”) The article itself links to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s website, where you read a simple message and try not to hyperventilate: “Increase in invasive Group A Strep infections.” Short in length, the message goes on to warn, “iGAS infections include necrotizing fasciitis and streptococcal toxic shock syndrome.” It is highly contagious, and often fatal. Sometimes the bacterial toxins associated with the infection move so fast that by the time the sufferer seeks medical relief (in the form of antibiotics), it’s too late. Very scary stuff. I find myself reflecting uncomfortably on those occasions as a child when I suffered with strep throat, but, jeesh, these new bacterial strains are a whole ‘nother thing.

The Wired article presents both a historical view of scarlet fever, even looping in old familiar stories in which the disease afflicts beloved characters (Beth March of Little WomenMary Ingalls in the Little House series, also Boy of The Velveteen Rabbit), as well as the disease’s latter-day machinations. Making much of the fact that scarlet fever never went away, its gradual scaling up the last decade or so (in number of documented cases worldwide) is cause for concern.

It is equally concerning that there’s no systematic method of documentation, nor any reliable means to share. Here in the United States, only ten states participate in a “surveillance” program run by the CDC. (See “Active Bacterial Core Surveillance.”) Further limiting the program’s reach and effectiveness is the fact that unless the person stricken with illness is admitted to a hospital, the data is not collected. 

The obvious controversy is that data collection may be seen to infringe on individual privacy rights. That’s a legitimate worry. How, then, do we discern trends and patterns, a contagion’s migratory behaviors, and still preserve our rights to privacy? On a micro level, when a doctor (or a nurse) enters into a patient’s chart their diagnosis, along with the list of patient symptoms, in my mind, a breach has already occurred, regardless of how “trusting” the relationship may be that a patient has with their physician. . . and nurses. . . and technicians. . . and front-end staff. . . and — gosh — any hackers who might illegally access patient records. I imagine that if a patient had an objection to their doctor’s inputting of data — weight, height, blood pressure, complaints, diagnosis, whether they feel safe at home — they probably wouldn’t even be visiting the doctor’s office in the first place. No clinician would agree, either, to see a patient who won’t allow data to be gathered. Is there a way, then, that relevant data (surrounding contagions) can be harnessed by a central databank without violating personal privacy? Not surprisingly, I haven’t any answers.

Invisible Killers of the 19th Century

Eliza (Buswell) Coffin must have gasped in horror when one of her children came to her complaining of a sore throat that first week of January back in 1863. It was less about the throat than the angry rash on eight-year-old Caleb’s skin that gave flight to her blossoming dread. At the time, her husband, Samuel Coffin — the well-known boatbuilder of Rings Island — was off doing his part to save the Union in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. (He would endure his own private anguish a couple months later when his younger brother with whom he had enlisted — John — died there of “congestive chills”, likely malaria.) In a matter of two weeks, Eliza stood helplessly by as one by one three of her five children died, all from scarlet fever.

Mid-19th century was, of course, still a time of antiquated thinking, at least in terms of people’s understanding of human health; in particular, their understanding of disease. Louis Pasteur’s “Germ Theory” was just beginning to excite curiosity among the medical establishment, but any observable progress wouldn’t happen for several decades. And antibiotics, the miracle treatment, wouldn’t become available until the 1940’s. Thus, when one looks at town reporting of deaths from that time, it might startle to see how many people died of bacterial diseases, such as diphtheria, consumption, typhus, dysentery, scarlet fever, chronic diarrhea, and cholera (and — with similar symptoms affecting only young children — cholera infantum). Of course, there’s the occasional “dropped on his head” mention, but from our enlightened 21st century perch, we’re left to wonder why it took so long for scientists to draw the connection between illness and “invasive bodies” that can only be detected by means of a microscope (something that had been invented at least as early as the 1600’s.) So little did doctors understand the causes behind illness that they naturally made judgments based entirely on symptoms. “Cause of death”, therefore, always must be treated with a grain of salt when perusing death records from throughout the 19th century. (Perhaps not as baffling was the lengthy delay on the part of the public to accept scientific wisdom; we need look no further than our own communities today to witness the skepticism with which new scientific findings are treated. Because we are unable, for example, to see how all the recent variants of the COVID virus are spreading, mutating, and jumping species, many of us remain unconvinced of their lethality, even their very presence.)

I admit to a morbid fascination with death. Plagues and poxes unnerve me, but they do also electrify my curiosity. When I do my genealogical research, I can find plenty to capture my interest just by reading death certificates. One great-great-grandfather, Patrick McKenna, whose peripatetic journey took him from County Monaghan, Ireland to the textile mills of Glasgow, Scotland, then to various mill cities of New England; survived into his 70’s after decades of factory employment. (Spotty record, that one had — he couldn’t manage to hold onto any job for long. Rather a tragic figure.) It appears he died at the Tewksbury Almshouse, with cause of death determined to be “pthisis”, aka consumption, more commonly known these days as tuberculosis. Another great-great-grandfather, James Loughnane, died much younger (in his 30’s) from — yet again — consumption. He, too, had been a mill worker whose (short) life story read a lot like Patrick’s. 

The Buswells of Mudnock Road

Closer to home — literally — my interest at the moment has turned to Eliza (Buswell) Coffin because of a study I freely undertook a couple years ago on a house that I see from several windows of my own home. I’m not a creepy stalker, but my interest was instantly sparked when I heard someone make passing reference to an ancient intra-family feud, simultaneously gesturing toward the “William Buswell” home. (Actually, one of two “William Buswell” homes that sit only yards apart on Mudnock Road.)

If you stand on Mudnock Road at the top of (and facing) Niko Way, the home that sits on the right corner, at 34 Mudnock Road, is the newer Buswell home, built in 1780. (Its twin was built 50 years earlier and gives the appearance of having been more loved — or at least cared for — through the years.) The “newer” Buswell home stands on the original 2-acre homestead lot of Isaac Buswell (laid out in 1639 as part of the First Division of Settlers). The federal-style “double house” has a brick wall running right down the center of it that serves as a physical signpost of the acrimonious relationship that developed between two brothers, Walker and Jacob Buswell, soon after the hammers and saws ceased their racket. (It is quite possible that Walker was the one to erect the dividing wall, as, in addition to being a yeoman/farmer, he was a bricklayer.)

“Deacon John” Buswell, seven years before he died in 1783, thought he was doing a good deed. He had ample personal property and real estate holdings, but lots of children — nine, in fact. (The Buswells appear to have been prolific reproducers.) He outlined carefully in his will who should inherit what. His language was clear: along with his lot of marsh in the meadow and half of this and half of that lot (he really did have a finger in every pie), Walker should have the “easterly part of my homestead. . . my shoemaker’s shop. . . and my hog house.” To Jacob, The Deacon bequeathed the westerly side of the homestead and his (other) dwelling house, as well as the other half of this and the other half of that lot.

It has been my opinion — after reading and re-reading his document — that, as careful and thorough as The Deacon had been, as aware as he was of his own substantial holdings, he misjudged the character of the two sons who were expected to “play nice together” and share. For over thirty years, the two brothers occupied the home, Walker and his family on the east end, Jacob and his family on the west end. They both lived into their 80’s; Walker died in 1817, Jacob in 1822. The record provides us with no evidence that fraternal harmony ultimately prevailed. Going forward, the language of their titled properties became complex and is clear about “passing” and “re-passing” rights where it concerns access to the well, the barn, the shoe shop, etc. Meanwhile, their brother Caleb — jauntily sporting the “wearing appearill” left to him by Dad — went merrily about his way, tending the Chester, New Hampshire farm bequeathed to him (and raising a brood of ten — all sons).

Walker, for all the headaches that co-ownership posed, inexplicably died intestate. . . and with debt to be settled. His interest in the easterly half of the home was bought out at auction by his 20-year-old grandson, John Walker Buswell. Then, in 1825, John Walker paid Caleb Pike Jr. $700 for property that included the westerly side of the house; the home, going forward, would be known as the “J.W. Buswell Home”. In that way, any embryonic references to the “Otis Pike Home” became moot.

Eliza was one of five girls born to John Walker and Nancy (Walton) Buswell, their fifth child (of eight.) Her choice of husband was likely based on sound reasoning. After all, the Coffins of Rings Island were solid people. Long-time ship builders in a ship-building village. There were lots of Coffins on Rings Island. The Mudnock Road Buswells — yeomen, mostly — were, likewise, solid people. There were lots of Buswells on Mudnock Road. The union of the two powerhouse families held great promise.

Epidemics, with their seemingly mysterious origins and movements, have beleaguered and bewildered communities since time immemorial. It should be here noted, however, that 1863 was an especially bad year for Salisbury in terms of mortality. The number of deaths — 89 — was more than double the deaths recorded the year before for our small town. Thirty-seven of the reported deaths (or 42%) were of children and infants (ages 0-17). Of that number, seven were victims of scarlet fever. As noted, three of the seven were Eliza and Samuel’s small children.

It is a belief held by some that families of earlier times became so accustomed to the beckoning finger of the grim reaper that they were inclined to adopt a dispassionate attitude toward death. If you read epitaphs from headstones for children who died in the 1800’s, you come away with a different perspective. While “heavy clod” and “arms of God” seem fitting for someone who died in their 86th year, and “mouldering bones” is perhaps apt for any adult who has passed on, the epitaphs for children are much more touching expressions that suggest real grief, even foundering defenselessness against baffling forces. As one example, in the Great Woods Cemetery in Bridgewater, next to the house I grew up in, one of the epitaphs for a child who died at age 6 reads: “Nature has but soft powerful bands, And reason she controls; While children with their little hands, Hang closest to our souls.” We see, then, that as much as 19th century New England families looked to their bibles for consolation and guidance, they grieved just as deeply as we do now upon the death of a loved one, especially a child.*

~

For two years the imagined grief of Eliza (Buswell) Coffin has resided as a slow simmer in the back of my mind. All the while (and after) I researched the Buswell home, the nearness of which reminds me of a mute, doddering forebear; I’ve wondered how she weathered her crisis in 1863. After losing three of their five children, Eliza and Samuel had two more. In one way or another, all the descendants wove their lives into the fabric of the river- and ocean-side communities of Rings Island and Newburyport. Thus, it’s impossible in current times to uncouple the Coffin name from the history of Rings Island.** 

After a bit of searching, I was able to discover a photo of Eliza. As much as I had been hoping to see an image of her as a young woman, this one, at least, is a close-up — a good one, at that — so one is able to see fine details.*** In the photo, which appears in a direct descendant’s published history (The Coffin Family of Rings Island by Cynthia C. Wildes, great-granddaughter of Eliza and Samuel), Eliza is an old woman. She appears to be looking slightly up and to the left of the camera; it causes her to have a far-away look. The lines on her face read like a city map, and I wonder if they’re caused by a vigorous life of hard work (outdoors?), or from a lifetime of internalizing painful experiences. Her white hair, vaguely wavy, is center-parted and carefully but simply coifed, tucked behind her ears and fastened snuggly. She appears serene and self-contained, but also exudes confidence — she is sure of her place in this world. Do I detect, though, a hint of sadness in her expression? Perhaps. Or, perhaps, I should read it simply as weariness. I decide to tuck this mental image in a quiet corner of my memory. I want to remember Eliza (Buswell) Coffin, even though I never met her — she was, after all, born nearly two hundred years ago, and lived in an era that persists in confounding me, try as I might to make sense of it. I want to remember her because of the connection I have made between her childhood home and the home I own, which, once upon a time, was part of the Buswell homestead lot. It’s more than conceivable that her little feet scampered across the same yard that is now my yard. Like most people who are interested in the past, I seek the common elements that bind me to events and people who lived before.

~

*One way that mothers could express their sense of loss was by keeping close to their heart (in an ornamental locket) a tuft of hair snipped from their departed child. Another common practice from Victorian times that today we view with curiosity (maybe even unease) was the fashioning of jewelry out of hair, and not necessarily from a dead person; just as often from a good (living-breathing) friend. In a National Geographic article by Becky Little, “Trendy Victorian-Era Jewelry Was Made From Hair”, Karen Bachman of the Morbid Anatomy Museum in Brooklyn, NY puts it this way, “Women of the 19th century would swap locks of hair as a love token the way young girls today might wear friendship bracelets.” The hair could be fashioned into earrings or pendants. The popularity of “hair art” owes to its enduring qualities — hair takes a long time to decay — and because, as Bachman points out, “it’s a very personal indicator of self.” 

~

**Lincoln Coffin, born in 1864, will make a cameo appearance in a separate story, one that caused a surprised “Oh!” in my research of the long-time residence of the Salisbury Historical Society on Second Street. (Keep an eye out for that as a future blog post.)

~

***I had been trying to secure permission to include the image as part of this story, but determining the person or concern that currently holds the copyright is a frustrating exercise.

Published by

joycemckenna

As a middle child with lots of siblings, one could say that I am the closest in age to all of them. (Don't overthink that.) Most comfortable in a peacemaker role, it remains paramount that we all just get along. I love the uniqueness of each one of us. Essentially, family is important to me. My passions are sewing, genealogy, and local history. I don't understand my two Havanese pups, but spend an inordinate amount of time trying to get one step ahead of them. My downfall is my sense of disorganization - I don't know where anything is. Once I put something "away", said object becomes a moving target. And because so many things are lost this way for eternity, I am often unfairly accused of having purposely thrown things away. I have no means of defense against such charges. My writing centers primarily on my large Irish American family, local history, recollections from my career as a public school educator, and my trials with the canine species. Satire seems to be my closest friend, and readers will note the tangential nature of many of my pieces.

2 thoughts on “Scarlet Fever — A Persistent Worry”

  1. When I was 7 years old, I had my own bout with Scarlet Fever and remember how incredibly hot I felt and so thirsty. Aunt Ginny came from Boston to see me and brought me a leather football. I don’t know what happened to it but I cannot forget the moment when I woke up and she was there.

    Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s