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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Thursday, July 16, 2009

Boston’s Selectmen Fight the Smallpox

On 22 Nov 1774, the Boston selectmen learned that smallpox had broken out in town. Frightening as this disease was, the selectmen had procedures for limiting epidemics among the inhabitants. This outbreak became complicated, however, because it involved military families, and thus competing lines of authority.

The initial report came from the surgeon of the 59th Regiment of Foot, Dr. Trotter Hill. There were two families involved, headed by soldiers named McGrath (though spellings varied widely) and Burkins. The regiment was one of several that had arrived in Massachusetts in the preceding months.

The selectmen responded quickly:

The five Children with the Small Pox in the House of one Magraw a Soldier of the 59th Regiment [under] Collo. [Otho] Hammelton were removed this morning to the Hospital at at [sic] New Boston under the care of Mr. [William] Dorrington, the Parents of the Children consenting to the same.

Voted, that Dr. [Charles] Jarvis have the care of the Children as their Physician.

The Mother of three of the Small Pox Children, and the Father of two of them, were permitted to go into the Hospital, to attend their Children.

Agreed with Mr. Joseph Vose to supply the Hospital with Mutton for three Weeks, at 3 Coppers p. pound.
That afternoon a smaller set of selectmen continued to deal with the health crisis. They posted “a Guard...to prevent the Soldiers going into the Infected Rooms” of the house. They ordered Dorrington as keeper of the hospital to “prevent any Persons from coming in and going out of your House, unless they have our Permission,” and to “conduct in such a manner as to give satisfaction to the Sick and their Friends, at the same time that you guard against needless expences.”

Hiring William Barrett to deliver supplies to the hospital, the selectmen said he “must keep an Account of in a small Book for our Inspection.” They also ordered Barrett to treat the house where the infected families had lived to keep the disease from spreading:
You must Smoke and cleanse the Rooms of the House the Sick were taken from well with Rossom [rosin] and Brimstone, and the Bedding and other things to prevent the Infection being communicated and if you should observe that the Guard permits any Person going in without our permission, give us immediate notice there of
Smoking clothing, linen, and other goods was the standard way to prevent the spread of smallpox. I’m not sure it had any effect on the virus—perhaps the heat, dryness, or simple passage of time was helpful. More likely, the effort let people think they were doing something.

TOMORROW: The situation grows worse.

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