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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Wednesday, October 08, 2008

Adams Household “Dangerously Sick with a Dysentery”

Last August, guest blogger Judy Cataldo wrote about the epidemic of dysentery, or “bloody flux,” behind the American lines during the siege of Boston. One family that was affected was the Adamses of north Braintree.

On 10 Aug 1775, Abigail Adams wrote to her husband John in Philadelphia:

Tis with a sad Heart I take my pen to write to you because I must be the bearer of what will greatly afflict and distress you. Yet I wish you to be prepaired for the Event. Your Brother Elihu lies very dangerously sick with a Dysentery. He has been very bad for more than a week, his life is despaired of. Er’e I close this Letter I fear I shall write you that he is no more.

We are all in great distress. Your Mother is with him in great anguish. I hear this morning that he is sensible of his Danger, and calmly resigned to the will of Heaven; which is a great Satisfaction to his mourning Friend's. I cannot write more at present than to assure you of the Health of your own family.

On 8 September, the disease had reached Abigail’s own household:
You may remember Isaac [Copeland, a farmhand] was unwell when you went from home. His Disorder increasd till a voilent Dysentery was the consequence of his complaints, there was no resting place in the House for his terible Groans. He continued in this state near a week when his Disorder abated, and we have now hopes of his recovery.

Two days after he was sick, I was seaz’d with the same disorder in a voilent manner. . . . The next person in the same week was Susy [a housemaid]. She we carried home, hope she will not be very bad. Our Little Tommy [Thomas Boylston Adams, born 15 Sept 1772] was the next, and he lies very ill now—there is no abatement at present of his disorder. I hope he is not dangerous. Yesterday Patty was seazd and took a puke. Our House is an hospital in every part, and what with my own weakness and distress of mind for my family I have been unhappy enough.

And such is the distress of the neighbourhood that I can scarcly find a well person to assist me in looking after the sick. . . . So sickly and so Mortal a time the oldest Man does not remember.
Patty, apparently another servant, died in early October. On 22 October things were looking better enough for Abigail to write:
Your Mother...is always anxious for you, and is so apprehensive least a fleet should be sent to Bombard Philadelphia that she has not much comfort. Brothers family are well except young Crosby who had the dysentery very bad, and has left him Bereaved of his reason. Isaac is so far recoverd as to return after six weeks and Susy is returnd to me again. Our neighbours are now all getting well.
John Adams answered on 4 November:
My Duty to my Mother. I wish she would not be concerned about me. She ought to consider that a Dissentery can kill as surely as a Cannon. This Town is as secure from the Cannon and Men of War as the Moon is.
John also devoted rather little time to his mother in his autobiography.

All these quotations can be found on the Massachusetts Historical Society’s Adams Electronic Archive.

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