I’ll be home for Christmas " maybe
December 26, 2007
“Students may not be allowed to come home for Christmas,” proclaimed the Aspen Democrat a century ago. The paper was reporting rumors, but they were grounded in Colorado’s fears of scarlet fever. The spreading contagion plagued the state throughout 1907. Aspen had two major outbreaks, one at the end of summer and the other at the close of the year. Aspen’s paper guessed that, unlike other communities, its reporting of all known cases would result in the misconception that the whole city of Aspen was under quarantine. Colleges would forbid students to come home to such a threat.
Scarlet fever’s symptoms include sore throat, high fevers, scaling rashes and the telltale sign: a strawberry-colored tongue. Children are its primary victims. The streptococcus germs wreaked havoc on Aspen’s population in the days before modern antibiotics. Many 2- to 10-year-old children died.
In late summer, 10 to 12 households had been infected. As scarlet fever spread throughout the state, the Legislature passed laws to control the contagion. No one was allowed to enter or exit quarantined houses. Cats and dogs, banned from their owner’s houses, were tied up so they would not spread disease through the neighborhood. Even nurses who had seen patients were not allowed to leave until a doctor certified that they had been fumigated and were not infected. Before any clothing could be hung on the line to dry it had to be washed in an antiseptic solution.
Aspen took the crisis seriously and appointed medical and police officers to enforce the laws. Dr. Twining was appointed health officer. He later served as mayor of Aspen. Eventually, as a state legislator, he was responsible for acquiring the funding that converted Independence Pass from a wagon road to a highway suitable for automobiles.
There was much discussion about the opening of the school at the end of summer. Children had been kept at home and prevented from gathering in groups. A favorite activity, an annual Sunday school train trip to Redstone, was canceled, in part, because the train would have come from Leadville where even more scarlet fever had been reported. School did open under frequent fumigation and many restrictions. These conditions were accompanied by a milk scare. Chicago’s doctors suspected that scarlet fever had been spread by bad milk there.
The disease challenged personal relationships. In late July a delivery boy spotted scales on a child from the Vetic family. When Dr. Twining paid the family a visit, Mrs. Vetic told him none of her children were sick. He had a feeling that some of the children were hiding so he told her he would be back the next day and she had to have all of her children present. When he returned he discovered that three boys had scarlet fever.
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A neighbor reported open doors on two quarantined houses on Main Street, and family members sitting on the porch. Dogs from those houses had been spotted running through the neighborhood. Aspen’s newspaper editor fumed, “this indifference, it may be said, criminal carelessness, must be stopped.”
The state of medicine was quite primitive then and little was known about the causes and spread of disease. Old taboos and family recipes held sway. One Aspen mother, Mrs. Cooper, passed on a remedy her doctor had prescribed. “Take one teaspoon of water, add two drops of carbolic acid, mix thoroughly and give to child.” An alternative was, “burn a little sulfur on the kitchen stove after shutting the windows and doors. Children should inhale until it makes them cough.”
It was recognized that disease spread from person to person, so quarantine was the most common response to contagion. Funerals for young children had to be held outdoors. A French doctor suggested that physicians were to blame for the spread of disease and recommended that doctors change clothing between house calls. There was a big scare when a man on a ranch near Basalt came down with smallpox. He was taken to the “Pest House,” a special quarantine house that the city maintained near Red Butte.
Twining was kept busy as the fever revived in November and December. He traveled to Lenado because school students there complained of sore throats. He discovered one scarlet fever case.
Most Aspen children survived to face the influenza epidemic a decade later that attacked young men and killed nearly 30 percent of Aspen’s population.