The Baby Plague, 1916

In 1909, scientists established that infantile paralysis, also known as poliomyelitis, was caused by a virus, but they still had no idea how it traveled from person to person. So when the disease flared up in New York City in June of 1916, on an epidemic scale, people didn’t know what to do.

By August 1st, cases were being diagnosed in Syracuse and before the end of the month the village of Skaneateles had the highest percentage of polio cases in Central New York. In reaction, the Skaneateles Village Board and its health officers met and declared the most drastic quarantine of any upstate community.

To begin, all children under 16 were quarantined in their homes. Twelve houses on State Street were quarantined completely following the death of 7-year-old Nelson Weston. He had played with other children on the street and the quarantine affected every home of every child who came in contact with him.

The Syracuse Journal reported that in Skaneateles, “There will be no services in any of the churches Sunday. The moving picture houses have been closed and all public gatherings forbidden.”

And the Journal continued, “One of the provisions of the ordinance adopted this morning was that all dogs and cats must be kept off the village streets. If they are found wandering on the village thoroughfares, they will be shot.”

On the roads leading into Skaneateles, guards were posted to turn back any cars with children. The feeling was mutual: A Syracuse newspaper reported, “With Skaneateles only eight miles away, the authorities are keeping a constant vigilance on the roads leading to the city from that direction.”

Adult motorists who dared to drive through Skaneateles were seen holding handkerchiefs over their noses and mouths.

Headlines like “Baby Plague Situation More Grave” did nothing to calm the public.

The early fatalities in Skaneateles were children, but on Tuesday, August 29th, Mary Bruce Hewlett, wife of the Rev. George R. Hewlett, rector of St. James’ Church, was taken ill, and the following day was diagnosed with infantile paralysis, the fifth verified case in Skaneateles.

It is the way with polio that the older the victim, the more severe the disease. Mrs. Hewlett was 28. A frantic search was made on Wednesday evening for a blood donor who had survived the disease in childhood. The doctors found Byron Lee, a young farmer living on East Lake Road who had the disease 25 years earlier, at the age of 5; he gave a pint of blood for Mrs. Hewlett.

Mrs. Hewlett rallied briefly on Thursday morning, but then fell worse and died at 6 p.m. That night her body was sealed in a coffin and shipped to Rochester for cremation. Until September 9th, the Rev. Hewlett remained quarantined in his house, before he was allowed to leave for Chicago and be with his family.

Among the children in the village, polio took the life of Harvey Grout, a 10-year-old son of Dr. and Mrs. J.G. Grout. Mrs. Grout had taken her children to her father’s farm near Borodino when the first case of polio was identified in Syracuse. The family said the boy had not left his grandfather’s home for weeks, and they had no idea how he could have contracted the disease. Days later, Harvey’s brother, 8-year-old Leland Grout, was taken ill and died also.

In addition to Nelson Weston and the Grout brothers, others who died were Lester Hoag, 11, and Ernest Newell, 22. Among the survivors were Bertha Frankel, 6, Clara Kingston, 8, and Latrobe Roosevelt, 8 (the son of Henry Latrobe Roosevelt who in 1920 inherited Roosevelt Hall).

As the danger passed, the Skaneateles quarantine was lifted on September 13th.

In a grim paradox, it was improvements in sanitation that worsened the polio epidemic of 1916. In less hygienic times, more babies were exposed to the virus and became naturally immune via early, mild infections. But with greater emphasis on bathing and cleanliness, fewer babies were exposed to the virus. When exposed to polio as older children, they were susceptible to the more severe form of the infection. But no one knew much about polio in 1916, and the unknown nature of the disease caused a panic in Skaneateles that is, fortunately, difficult to imagine today.

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