Tales From the Quarantine Files

Stephen L. Carter

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Just before Christmas of 1928, a divorced man named Ray Farrar stopped by his former wife’s Idaho home to drop off presents for the children. Shortly thereafter, he began showing symptoms of smallpox. Health authorities responded by requiring him to remain in the house for 15 days, together with his children and his ex-wife, identified in the newspapers only as Mrs. John Hall. And Mr. Hall — the new husband — was not allowed to enter.

This is the kind of story that used to make news during the epidemics of influenza and smallpox that ravaged the U.S. during the first half of the 20th century. Rather than reporting on the horrors, editors of the day chose to search for the human-interest angle, digging up cases that raised legal issues yet might be a fun read for a frightened public. I don’t mean in any way to downplay the serious threat posed by the novel coronavirus when I suggest that adding a few such tales to the contemporary news budget might usefully leaven the gloom-and-doom that’s dominated reporting.

The Farrar story, for instance, made headlines all over the country. The Philadelphia Inquirer and Boston Globe, among others, slapped it on the front page. And speaking of the Globe, in 1932, the paper reported with evident delight on the inability of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police to enforce quarantine orders against male members of an obscure religious sect in Saskatchewan. That’s a serious subject; opposition could doom efforts to control an outbreak.

Yet the editors managed to find the lighter side, even as they drove home the point. The officers, wrote the paper, were met by a barrier of female members — the Globe called them “amazons” and a “petticoat army” — and were unable to force their way through. When the Mounties charged, they were beaten back, and evidently lost equipment and even hats. But a few days later the orders were successfully enforced. As to the women, they were arrested and, after pleading guilty to obstructing the police, were lectured by the judge and sent on their way.

Just as today, the newspapers found quarantine breakers to write about; just as today, some were stupid and some were selfish and most were both. In 1935, a Wisconsin teenager went to the beach and swam, not once but twice, in violation of an order that he remain at home for five weeks. Somehow other swimmers discovered that he was among them. Panic ensued. (“Bathers Flee,” a New York paper headlined with evident glee.) Asked for an explanation, the boy shrugged: “It was too hot to stay indoors.” But, again, the lighthearted story ended on a somber note of warning. The teenager was confined to an “isolation hospital” and his parents faced criminal charges for letting him out of the house.

And, just like today, there was confusion about who was eligible for what — although, to be sure, the concern of the newspapers reflected the dreadful racial norms of the time. In 1921, for instance, a mother of two boys suffering from smallpox developed the disease and turned herself in at the quarantine hospital, just as she was supposed to do. But for reasons that are unclear, the doctors turned her away. The Baltimore Sun found the case “puzzling” because the woman was white — yes, that’s what the paper reported — and, just days earlier, “a white man” whose smallpox stemmed from the same school trip as the woman’s was admitted. Had she been a black woman, perhaps the Sun would have been less surprised at how she was treated.

Then there was the 1918 influenza pandemic. A Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, paper reported a decline in arrests after the quarantine closed the saloons. Why? Because “old offenders are sober.” At about the same time in Akron, Ohio, warrants were issued for members of a brass band that had put on an impromptu concert in a city park, as well as for what a local paper called “city dads and newspaper men” who had illegally attended. That the intent had apparently been to lift the city’s spirits was beside the point.

Finally, in another parallel with our day, consider the plight of the Aorangi, an Australian steamer (today we’d say “cruise ship”) that at the time of her maiden voyage in 1925 was the largest and fastest in the world. Five years later, the ship, along with passengers and crew, would be quarantined in Australia for 15 days after an outbreak of smallpox. Those forced to remain on board included the celebrity Joe Kirkwood Sr., Australia’s first truly great golfer. (The papers do not say how many passengers were quarantined, but the ship could carry up to 970.)

Not even our criticisms are new. A college professor who was on board the Aorangi complained to reporters that despite the “advanced civilisation” of the day, health authorities seemed ill-prepared to handle an entire ship full of passengers and crew who required screening.

Plus ça change.

Oh, and what happened to Mrs. John Hall of Idaho, the former wife of Ray Farrar, required to allow him to remain in the house? Her husband appealed the health department’s order to the city council. He lost. The quarantine remained in effect.

The editors of the day published these stories hoping to entertain their readers while at the same time making the point that the way to protect others was to follow the rules. We live, alas, in an era of less subtle news judgment, but the principle remains the same: The more we do what we’re supposed to, the safer the country will be.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Stephen L. Carter is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He is a professor of law at Yale University and was a clerk to U.S. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall. His novels include “The Emperor of Ocean Park,” and his latest nonfiction book is “Invisible: The Forgotten Story of the Black Woman Lawyer Who Took Down America's Most Powerful Mobster.”

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