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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Friday, July 17, 2009

“Neither...would own that they had received the Infection by Inoculation.”

Even though Boston’s selectmen reacted quickly to the news on 22 Nov 1774 that children in two soldiers’ families had come down with the smallpox, they weren’t quick enough. The published records aren’t clear, but it looks like on 26 November there was more bad news:

Dr. [Charles] Jarvis informed the Selectmen that a Child at Magrath in Marshalls Lane the Soldiers House where the other Children were sent from had undoubted Symptoms of the Small Pox—upon which the Child was carried to the Hospital at New Boston by its Father
The next day another child in the same house—now referred to as “Mrs. Megros in Marshalls Lane”—fell ill. This child belonged to Lt. Dennett-Milton Woodward of the 59th. That was the same regiment that the soldiers were in.

The disease began to run its course in the first infected children, Dr. Jarvis also reported. They had a standard response, as in this example from 17 December:
Dr. Jarvis who has the care of the Hospital at West Boston haveg. reported to the Selectmen that three of the Children sent there with the Small Pox vizt. two of one Burkins, and one of Magrath Are now recovered, and that in his Opinion they might be permitted to leave the Hospital with safety to the Inhabitants.

Orders were accordingly given to Mr. William Darrington Keeper of said Hospital to permit their leaving it so soon as he had well smoked and cleansed them, and fresh Suits of Clothing were provided for them.
However, that evening the selectmen heard more disturbing news:
Information being given by Dr. Latham that the Small Pox was broke out in Dr. [Trotter] Hills House in Hanover Street, and at Capt. Figgs opposite the White Horse [tavern] South End—Dr. Jarvis was directed to examine into the Circumstances of these Families & Report their state.

Dr. Jarvis Reported, that he had visited these Familys, & found that Dr. Hills Wife & three Children were nearly passed thro’ the Small Pox and that several of Capt. Figgs Children had the Disorder—but that neither the Capt. nor Dr. would own that they had received the Infection by Inoculation.
It’s obvious that Jarvis and the town officials thought that Hill, an army surgeon, had inoculated his children and perhaps those of Capt.-Lt. James Figge. (The captain’s name is transcribed in the published town records as “Trig.” However, in the newspapers and lists of army officers it appears as some variation on “Figge.”)

Such inoculation carried the risk of spreading the disease, and was therefore supposed to take place only under controlled conditions. Even then, many people distrusted the process; earlier in 1774, Marbleheaders had rioted and destroyed a smallpox hospital that was about to open in their harbor because they feared its patients would spread the disease. And now Boston’s highest officials suspected Dr. Hill had decided to carry out the procedure on his own authority, ignoring local rules—a metaphor for everything the Patriots resented about the government in London.

TOMORROW: The selectmen look for a response.

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