When Justice Nathaniel Ropes of Salem came down with smallpox in early 1774, as reported yesterday, Essex County was already in an uproar over the disease and its treatment.
As Andrew Wehrman described here, in late January a crowd from neighboring Marblehead burned down the smallpox hospital on Cat Island (now Children’s Island, shown here via the Marblehead Reporter).
Salem’s selectmen had given their approval to that hospital in the summer of 1773. Then they approved creating a smaller hospital in Salem, according to these quotes from Joseph B. Felt’s Annals of Salem (1827):
Nov. 1 . Small pox of so mortal a kind had prevailed here, that 16 out of 28, who were seized with it and sent to the Pest house, died. The town grant leave to some of the inhabitants to build a hospital in the S. E. part of great pasture for the purpose of inoculating. . . .The Marblehead hospital went up in flames on 26 Jan 1774. Almost a month later, on 25 February, authorities jailed two men, John Watts and John Gulliard, on suspicion of setting that fire. Felt’s Annals report what happened that night:
[Dec.] 9th. First class of 132 enter the Hospital for inoculation. James Latham, called the Suttonian Doctor, inoculated them. . . .
Jan. 7th . Second class of 137 enter the Hospital for inoculation.
In the evening 4 or 500 persons from Marblehead rescued the two men and carry them back. Military companies are ordered out to prevent this, but to no effect.Salem’s town meeting then voted to stop inoculation at their own hospital, promising to reimburse the proprietors.
March 1st. By order of the High Sheriff, his deputy in Salem assembles several hundreds of the people here with arms, for recovering the two prisoners and seizing the principals concerned in their rescue. In the mean while, 6 or 800 were prepared at Marblehead to resist this force. The proprietors of the consumed hospital, fearful that if these two bodies came in collision, lives would be lost, agree to give up the prosecution of their claims for satisfaction. Such an agreement being made known here, the sheriff releases the men, whom he had summoned to enforce the law.
Two days later, those investors sat down with Dr. Latham to ask some pointed questions about his methods. Rumors said that “his patients had not done so well as those of American physicians.” Did that mean they might still be infectious?
Given all that, it’s no wonder that Felt’s Annals concludes its entry for 9 March with: “Great excitement here against inoculation for small pox.”
And just around that time, the people of Salem must have heard that Justice Ropes had the disease—perhaps even as a result of being inoculated at one hospital or the other. He was already known as a supporter and appointee of the unpopular royal government, and of course he was a rich man.
The common people of Salem might have perceived Ropes as having gotten a form of inoculation they couldn’t afford, then having brought the disease into their town. Such feelings could have been enough to spur a crowd to surround the judge’s house, breaking his windows and decorations—a time-honored way for a New England community to express disapproval of a wealthy citizen.
In any event, the very next item in Felt’s annals after the “Great excitement” over inoculation was Nathaniel Ropes’s death. As I noted yesterday, his family believed that the mobbing had hastened his death. I’m not sure how susceptible a man with late-stage terminal smallpox would be to psychological stress, but that couldn’t have been an easy night for his family.