By Rudi Keller
COLUMBIA — A scarlet fever epidemic touched the home of U.S. Rep. James Rollins, striking three of his four youngest children, his wife, Mary Rollins, wrote in a letter she filled with family news and closed with an account of her sorrow at their separation.
Flora, 9, Frank, 6, and Edward, 2, all became sick as Mary Rollins was returning home from the East, she wrote.
James and Mary Rollins had 10 children. After accompanying her husband to Washington for the opening of the congressional session, she had returned, leaving her oldest daughter, Laura, 19, and sons George Bingham, 12, and Curtis, 10, with their father.
“Eddie was the first victim, and was a very sick child indeed. He was scarcely out of my arms for 10 days,” she wrote. “He is much reduced and very pale.”
She wrote she was thankful that her children would survive the dangerous illness, a major cause of child death in the 19th century. It is caused by a streptococcus bacteria easily controlled by antibiotics today.
“I ought to be thankful to have them in their present condition even while all the children in the country are dying,” Mary Rollins wrote. “Messrs. Hollis and Morgan have both lost their oldest children to this dreadful disease since I reached home and I have heard of many others dying both in town and country.”
Among the slaves kept as house servants, sickness also was rampant, she wrote. Three of the women working in the kitchen had 10 sick children between them, she wrote.
In business and family news, Mary Rollins reported to her husband that a man named Brown, who was apparently a business manager, had been home drunk from Columbia on Christmas and was taking liberties with his authority. “Brown is perfectly trifling, and contemptible, and if you leave him here long enough will steal everything on earth you have.”
In other news, she reported that the sale of household and farming goods owned by John Rollins, brother of James Rollins, had been completed and he was moving to Nathaniel Wilson’s home. The property had been auctioned to pay his debts.
When she parted from her husband and waited to go to the railroad station, she broke down, Mary Rollins wrote. “The first thing I did was to sit down and take a hearty cry in which I was soon joined by Bing and Curt. I never felt so perfectly desolate on Earth. It seemed I would die but this relief not being granted me, and the long hour of agony being over, we started for the cars, my dear little boys accompanying me.”