“In Scarlet Fever’s Grip” – This 1910 epidemic crippled Lykens and closed schools and businesses

It’s an eerie coincidence.

On March 16, 1910, health officials in the Dauphin County mining community of Lykens took drastic steps to squelch a scarlet fever epidemic that had already killed 11 people, 9 of them schoolchildren. Officials closed schools, churches, and businesses throughout the community, throwing the place into almost a complete lockdown. Neighboring towns, including Elizabethville and Tower City, in neighboring Schuylkill County, also reported cases of scarlet fever.

Measles_and_Scarlet_Fever_(3796080398)_cs (1)
A 1908 medical illustration showing the red rashes that gave scarlet fever its name. (Wikimedia Commons)

The coincidence? The school closure announcement in Lykens occurred exactly 110 years before Governor Tom Wolf closed Pennsylvania schools during the COVID-19 pandemic – to the day.

Of course, scarlet fever today is not the deadly mass killer that it once was (though it still can be extremely dangerous). Antibiotics have rendered the illness mostly treatable (it’s caused by extreme cases of strep throat.) But in 1910, the disease proved catastrophic in Lykens and in neighboring Wiconisco.

The Harrisburg Star-Independent sent a reporter to file stories on the epidemic after it had already killed almost a dozen people in Lykens. This is the first story they published on March 17, 1910.

Lykens Scarlet Fever Headline

Lykens Fast in Scarlet Fever’s Grip

All Churches, Schools, and Amusement Places Close

Eleven Deaths

Eight New Cases of Dread Disease in 24 Hours

Enforce Rules

In Desperate Attempt to Check Further Spread of Epidemic Authorities Take Drastic Action and Order Rigid Precautions Enforced – Whole Lykens Valley is Alarmed – Many Families Visited – Other Towns Also Order Their Schools Closed

From a Staff Correspondent

Lykens, March 17. – An epidemic of scarlet fever that has had terrible results in the last two weeks has thoroughly alarmed Lykens and neighboring towns.

In the last two weeks the disease has resulted in eleven deaths out of twenty-eight cases. There were three deaths yesterday and another last night.

Four funerals of the victims of the disease were held yesterday and seven new cases were reported.

Today, at noon, another cases had been reported, also one of measles.

The authorities last night took radical action to check the ravages of the disease.

Orders were issued closing all schools, churches, and places of amusement until further notice, upon the stamping out of the epidemic.  

Rigid quarantine rules are being enforced, and in carrying out the plan of preventing public gatherings, groups of persons are not even allowed upon the streets.

Other Towns Close Schools

There are other cases at Wiconisco, where similar precautions have been taken, and Elizabethville closed its schools yesterday upon the discovery of one case, supposed to have been contracted in this town [Lykens.]

So far the industries and mines have not been affected to such extent as to cause their being shut down.

A number of Lykens families have lost two children by death, and at the home of John Krobath, on Pine street, the family has been diminished by three.

The disease acts with extreme rapidity. Children and adults are both affected, and of the deaths here two were of adults.

One little boy was seized with the disease and died at the end of the second day.

Disease is Disputed

Some persons think that the disease is not scarlet fever because of its quickness, but the health officer for the district so names it.

The epidemic began two weeks ago. Since then in the two towns of Lykens and Wiconisco there have been a total of 16 deaths. Of these, 11 were in Lykens, including two grown persons.

It is not known where the disease originated. So far it has affected chiefly the families of miners and foreigners.

Parents are not taking any chances with the disease. Yesterday one mother and her children went away from Lykens to remain near York while the disease is being stamped out. The town is in a state of alarm, also of depression. The frequent funerals of the last few days have added to the gloominess of the town, but every effort is being made to combat the disease and to overcome it.

Tower City, March 17. – There are three cases of scarlet fever here but the disease is of a milder character than that which is epidemic at Lykens. The schools have not been closed.

At Elizabethville

Elizabethville, March 17. – The public schools did not open today and will remain closed for the rest of the week for the purpose of fumigating all the rooms. One case of scarlet fever was reported yesterday by Dr. Martyn and Dr. Stroup. The home of H.M. Otto has been quarantined, his daughter Ruth being very ill. It is supposed that she brought the disease from Lykens, where there are many cases.

This is just the beginning of this story. It took many twists and turns as public health officials in Lykens battled the disease and also a part of the population in Lykens and Wiconisco that refused to obey the strict quarantine measures put in place to slow the disease’s spread. The result – more deaths were to come in the week’s that followed the closures of schools and businesses.

This is the first I became aware of this story that grabbed headlines across the Keystone State in 1910. There are lessons embedded in this story that have value for us today as our nation and our communities face a new and monumentally larger public health crisis. More to come!

I hope you’ll follow along.


Featured Image: Lykens in the early 20th century 

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