1858 Scarlet Fever Epidemic


Scarlet fever, nee scarlatina, killed 2,089 people, almost all younger than 16 years old, in Massachusetts between December 1858 and December 1859. According to the 1860 Census, the population of the state was about 1.2 million, of whom about 350,000 were under 16. Some of the children were employed, but the labor force exceeded 450,000, so the shock was more emotional than economic.

Indeed, the Boston stock market was in bull mode throughout 1859. While most bank and some insurance stocks remained range-bound, some insurers, including American, Boston, Boylston, City and Commercial were up strongly. The Boston and Lowell Railroad increased from $89 to $98 per share over the year, and the Boston and Providence and Boston and Worcester railroads were likewise steadily but modestly up.

The biggest gains were in manufacturing. Amoskeag was up from $890 to $1,000 per share over the year, Appleton from $950 to $1,000, Bates from $85 to $106, Boott from $470 to $725, Boston and Roxbury Mill Dam from $29 to $50 and Boston Duck from $375 to $500. If the death of young workers, or potential workers, put an upward strain on wages in 1859, it was clearly swamped by other effects.

How could life go on while thousands of children died and thousands more lay stricken? A better question might be, how could it not? More people per 1,000 died at each age then, especially the younger ages. Death was a simple fact of life that people suffered through with lots of prayer and sex for reproductive purposes. Families that lost children usually tried to have more of them.

The government’s role in the scarlet fever epidemic, like the yellow fever and cholera epidemics, was limited by constitutions, precedent and expectation. Every family was left to its own devices. Medical treatment was palliative at best. Those obviously ill were quarantined, but healthy people continued business as usual. No hope for a miracle cure was held, and any attempt to shut down Boston or other commercial centers to stop the spread would have been met with derision and then open rebellion. Even in small towns like Deerfield, local factories remained open, making cutlery in Deerfield’s case.

The frequently occurring epidemics of 18th- and 19th-century America, like the ones sketched above, had limited economic and financial effects. In part, this was because they were localized epidemics over in a few months, not pandemics affecting every place and everyone. Most securities holders—individuals such as President Washington and institutions such as the Bank of New York—were wealthy enough to relocate, leaving most of the suffering and death to the laboring classes and the poor. In 1793, if securities prices fell or were unavailable in Philadelphia, an investor could sell in New York, which had no epidemic and where markets remained open. Such cross-market arbitrages prevented crashes in a city hit by an epidemic.

In short, the decentralized nature of securities trading systems, along with different attitudes toward death and limits on governmental powers, minimized the financial and economic fallout of public-health crises. All early American investors had to fear was the epidemic itself, not lost liquidity or government-mandated shutdowns of large sectors of the economy.

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