Diphtheria case closed Bangor Opera house

Posted May 09, 2010, at 6:26 p.m.
Last modified Jan. 30, 2011, at 11:26 a.m.

Forget cancer and heart disease, the dread diseases of today. A century ago the horrors of typhoid, smallpox, diphtheria, scarlet fever, tuberculosis and other infectious illnesses were enough to keep people worrying. Going to the theater or to a dance, riding the trolley, even talking to strangers demanded caution.

Bangor had weathered a smallpox outbreak in 1903 and a typhoid epidemic in 1904. In the fall of 1909, some schools were closed because of a scarlet fever scare, while an outbreak of typhoid led to the closing of a public well. The battle against TB, also known as the Great White Plague, was ongoing with laws against spitting in public places, tighter regulations on sweeping the bridge between Bangor and Brewer, and greater efforts at public education and treatment.

The city kept a tally of these and other illnesses in its annual report. The Board of Health reported that between March 1910 and March 1911 there had been one case of smallpox, 13 cases of mild diphtheria with one death, 17 very mild cases of scarlet fever and 20 cases of typhoid fever with six deaths. Twenty-one houses had been fumigated for tuberculosis.

The smallpox case that year was of particular interest to the board possibly because it illustrated the threat posed by the thousands of transient workers who passed through Bangor. A young man from Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, had come to the city on May 24, sick with the disease. He was taken from the Eastern Eating House on Exchange Street to the city’s pest house, located at the poor farm. The place was fumigated and the people vaccinated, “and we are glad to say that there was no further spread of the disease.”

A case of diphtheria that year aroused even more attention in the city’s two daily newspapers after the Bangor Opera House was closed. The popular Kirk Brown theatrical company was in town to perform. Brown and his actors had been playing to capacity houses.

“One of the women in the company, Mrs. Henry Crosby, had been suffering from a bad throat for several days but believing it to be tonsillitis continued with her work, appearing Friday afternoon at the matinee performance,” reported the Bangor Daily Commercial on Saturday, April 30. “In the evening she called a physician to attend to her at the Hallock House on Main Street, where she has been staying this week, and Dr. D.W. Bunker responded.”

On Saturday morning, Bunker consulted with Dr. B.L. Bryant. The two doctors decided Mrs. Crosby (stage name Mabel Dillingham) had diphtheria and notified the Board of Health. The theater’s manager, Frank Owen, was ordered not to open the house that afternoon for the company’s performance of “St. Elmo.” About $600 was refunded to ticket holders.

On Sunday the entire company was examined by Bangor doctors and declared disease-free. Then the group headed for its next stops at Saint John, New Brunswick, and Halifax, Nova Scotia, while Mrs. Crosby remained quarantined at the Hallock House, cared for by her sister.

This was the latest blow to the opera house, which was facing increasing competition from the city’s new movie and vaudeville houses. The theater had planned to close for the season after the Kirk Brown run, but Owen decided to keep it open until June when the company planned to return to complete its run.

Meanwhile, Mrs. Crosby’s illness helped prompt a call in the health board’s annual report for a public hospital “so that if we had a case of diphtheria or scarlet fever break out in a boarding house or hotel, it could be taken to the hospital and taken care of. This is an important matter.”

“The city should either provide a hospital or make some arrangement with the [Eastern Maine General] Hospital to have contagious cases taken care of there. This year we have had some cases of diphtheria and scarlet fever that had to be moved and it was almost impossible to get a place to take care of them. The Pest House is all right for smallpox, for which it was designed, but we need something different for these other diseases.” Why Eastern Maine General Hospital, which recently had expanded, could not handle these cases is left unexplained.

An illustrated collection of Wayne E. Reilly’s columns titled “Remembering Bangor: The Queen City Before the Great Fire” is available at bookstores.

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