When Fake News About a Maine Epidemic Went Viral

On October 17 1897, the San Francisco Call published a sensational story about the northern Maine town of Fort Kent, some 3,500 miles distant:

“Two hundred and fifty cases of diphtheria and twenty five deaths are the appalling record up to the latest reports from Fort Kent…the disease has grown beyond control, and the strictest measures have become necessary. An armed cordon of guards has been ordered.”

It’s easy to see why the Call included the story, with its talk of disease run amok, quarantine enforced at gunpoint, and some cultural stereotypes for good measure. Unfortunately, the story doesn’t appear to have much basis in fact.

View of Fort Kent, ca 1900. Image: Maine Historical Society/Maine Memory Network

The Call probably reprinted the story from the east coast press. The article is datelined Boston. And indeed the history of the diphtheria outbreak in Fort Kent, and how it was covered in the media can be traced in the Boston newspapers.

On Oct 15, both the Boston Journal and Boston Herald ran articles which were almost identical to that which appeared in the Call 2 days later. However, the most sensational claim which appeared in the Call – the cordon of armed guards – appeared differently in the Boston press. The Journal made no mention of the guards, while the Herald said only that such measures were being considered:

“The doctors say that unless the state will provide a strong force of guards, the residents along the St John River will continue to move about at pleasure.”

And it there was one group in particular the guards were intended to police:

“The authorities sent large quantities of anti-toxine [sic] and disinfectants to the place, and ordered the strictest quarantine regulations to be enforced, but the French Canadians among whom the disease has been making the principle ravages, are not to be restrained. They are by nature restless, and have been wholly beyond the control of the physicians and the Board of Health. Not only have communities wholly disregarded house quarantine, but people from the infected sections have travelled up and down the river, spreading the disease.”

Both Boston papers included this slight against the area’s Acadians, as did the Call.

Critically, however, this wasn’t the only article on the subject to appear in the Boston press. Just two days later, on October 17, the Herald printed an important clarification:

“Diphtheria at Fort Kent: Reports Somewhat Exaggerated but Still the Situation is Very Serious.”

More headlines over the following days walked the initial story back still further. On October 19, small notice appeared under the heading “Nothing Serious Feared.” And on October 22, a full week after the first resorts were published, the Herald reported that “The outlook for controlling the disease is now believed to be more favorable.” According to the Herald, just one person had, in fact, been arrested.

Official accounts also show how much the first reports in the press were overblown. The Maine State Board of Health included a detailed account of the outbreak and its mitigation in the board’s 1898 annual report. The board’s account is much more straightforward. Doctor Wellington Johnson, who oversaw the state response, wrote that while local health officials had had trouble containing the diphtheria initially, it was brought under control quickly. Johnson confirmed that one person was arrested for refusing to quarantine; but made no mention of an armed cordon.

And while Johnson did mention that the disease was “being carried from place to place by those who were not disposed to obey quarantine laws and regulations,” he did not single out the Acadians for blame as the newspapers had initially done. In fact, Johnson praised the local Catholic clergy for helped him spread public health advice to the general population. At Fort Kent, the parish priest, F X Burque (Bourque?) lent his assistance to Dr Johnson, as did the town’s health officer, Dr F G Sirois who has until then been unsuccessfully trying to contain the epidemic almost single-handed. Another Acadian, Doctor J F Archambault, was called in to assist.

Ultimately, the outbreak was brought under control by Johnson, Sirois, and Archambault within a couple of weeks. Johnson credited several measures. The doctors were armed with anti-toxins which were remarkably successful. Of the first 75 cases in the area, 25 had resulted in death. But once the anti toxins were administered, only one of the remaining 75 cases ended with a death. Additionally, new local boards of health were organized in New Canada, Wallagrass, and Frenchville, with local residents instructed on the importance of disinfection and quarantine methods as well as ways to indenting and treat many other diseases.

It’s not clear why the initial press accounts of the outbreak were so fantastical.

Perhaps it was a case of misunderstanding as the news spread. Or perhaps a publisher just decided to add his own embellishments. Certainly there was a tradition of associating immigrants with public health scares, as I wrote in the case of smallpox in Maine in 1887. Public leaders have acted similarly today, trying to brand Coronavirus the “Chinese Virus”

But while we are able to reconstruct a more accurate version of the events in Fort Kent in 1897, it’s far less likely contemporary readers in California had the same ability. Instead, they were left with a distorted view of events that reinforced existing prejudices.

With thanks to Steve Collins for bringing the original Call article to my attention on Twitter (some nine months ago!)

James Myall

About James Myall

While I currently work for an Augusta-based non-profit, I spent four years as the Coordinator of the Franco-American Collection at the University of Southern Maine. In 2015, I co-authored "The Franco-Americans of Lewiston-Auburn," a general history of that population from 1850 to the present. I was also a consultant for the State Legislative Task Force on Franco-Americans in 2012. I live in Topsham with my wife and two young daughters.