J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Monday, December 03, 2007

Smallpox at Point Shirley?

On 3 Dec 1775, Boston selectman Timothy Newell recorded the British authorities’ second removal of poor inhabitants from the besieged town to Winthrop:

A Transport Ship sailed for Point Shirley, with about three hundred Inhabitants.
The provincials weren’t entirely happy to see these refugees, however. Indeed, in fine eighteenth-century fashion, they immediately suspected that their enemy was up to something. Some of those people were sick, and the American authorities soon concluded that the British had deliberately sent out people infected with the smallpox virus to spread the disease among the besieging army.

On 5 December, Gen. George Washington wrote:
By recent information from Boston, General [William] Howe is going to send out a number of the inhabitants, in order as it is thought to make room for his expected reinforcements; there is one part of the information that I can hardly give Credit to, A Sailor says that a Number of these coming out have been inoculated with design of Spreading the Small pox through this Country and Camp.
On 6 December the Massachusetts Council made this vote:
Whereas, a Committee has been appointed by this Court to provide for, and remove such of the Inhabitants of Boston, as may be sent from thence to Point-Shirley, or other places, as also to make use of every precaution necessary to prevent a communication of the Small-Pox to other parts of this Colony, which appears to be the intention of our enemies.

Resolved, That the said Committee be, and hereby are directed and empowered to impress (if it should be found necessary) a sufficient number of Carriages for the removal of such of said inhabitants, and their effects, as shall have been sufficiently smoked and cleansed [processes meant to stop whatever spread the smallpox], to such towns as the Committee shall judge proper, giving them certificates that they are of the poor of Boston, and quite free from infection;

and it is recommended to the Committee that they retain at Point-Shirley such of said inhabitants as they shall apprehend may have been in the way of receiving the Small-Pox, for such a space of lime as may be necessary to determine whether they had the infection, taking care that they are supplied with such quantities of Provisions, Wood, &c., as they judge will be sufficient to keep them from suffering.

It is further recommended to said Committee to provide, if they see occasion, suitable houses as Hospitals for the reception of those persons who may be taken with the Small-Pox, or shall appear to have the symptoms of the distemper, as, also, to engage a Physician or Physicians to attend the sick, if required, and to place sufficient guards at the infected houses to prevent a promiscuous passing or repassing to and from said houses.
Fortunately, there was already a smallpox hospital at Point Shirley, from a big regional outbreak of 1764. In this period, “hospital” didn’t mean a specialized building with all the medical equipment we expect today. It was basically any large building which could contain beds for a lot of sick people away from everyone else—which was basically the best that medicine had to offer.

Writing from Malden on 10 December, Thomas Crafts, Jr., told William Cooper:
The small-pox has broke out in two families that came out of Boston in the first vessels. Two persons have it at Point Shirley, and one at Malden. I thought it my duty to acquaint you of it, as soon as possible. Beg you would lay it before the General Court, that they may take the best measures to prevent the spreading of that distemper at this alarming crisis of our publick affairs. As it is impossible to get wood carried to Point Shirley, the meeting house there being of no service and rotten, if we might not have orders to pull that down for their immediate supply of fires.
On 12 December the legislative committee designated to consider Crafts’s letter resolved:
That the Committee at said Point Shirley be, and they hereby are, directed to make use of any old decayed stores, barns, or fish-houses, as fuel for the relief of the sick and distressed, and if necessary, to take down any publick building there for the purpose aforesaid; said Committee to render an account of their proceedings to this Court.

And they are further directed to use their utmost endeavours to prevent the spreading of the small-pox, and make proper representation of the state of such persons as are put under their care, to this Court, whenever they find there is occasion therefor;

and that Captain [Jedidiah] Foster [shown above, courtesy of Quaboag Regional High School] and Captain Searl be a Committee to repair immediately to Point Shirley, and cause such buildings, as may be thought necessary to be taken down for fuel, to be appraised, and take any measures, and give any directions that shall appear to them necessary to aid the Committee now there in procuring wood and in preventing the spreading of the small-pox.
As winter approached, people were tearing down buildings both inside Boston and out for firewood.

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