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.

Subscribe thru Follow.it


Thursday, August 30, 2007

Epidemic Behind the American Lines

Today Boston 1775 welcomes Judith Cataldo as a guest blogger. She is researching an event occurring at the same time as the British and American military maneuvers in late August 1775: a summer epidemic of the “bloody flux,” or dysentery, in Middlesex County.

That outbreak may well have been related to the sudden concentration of men from all over New England in military camps around Boston. In his memoir, Lt. David Perry (1741-1826) wrote:

In the heat of Summer, the men were attacked with the Dysentery, and considerable numbers of them died. The people flocked in from the country, to see the camps and their friends, and took the disorder; and it spread all over the New-England states: it carried off a great many more in the country than in the camp, which seemed to dishearten the people very much.
Judy writes:

This was how I got interested in Rev War history. I was documenting the gravestone epitaphs in my home town cemetery, Needham, and found a higher number of stones for 1775 than for other years. In my travels of other graveyards I found the same pattern. Eventually, I tripped upon the Dedham Register, which had serialized a book documenting the town epitaphs with genealogical notes, and it mentioned an epidemic at that time.

Here’s the gravestone that started it all:
In memory of Mrs Esther wife of Mr Joseph Daniels who died Aug’st 1775 in ye 34th year of her age & 7 children of Mr Joseph Daniels & Esther his wife.

Martha Died August 31 in the 5th Year [she had been born 8/19/1770]

Sarah Died Sep’r 2nd in her 9th Year [born 4/9/1767]

Esther Died Sep’r 4th in her 12 Year

Anna Died Sep’r 7th in her 2th year [baptized 5/10/1773]

Josiah Died Sep’r 7th in the 6th year [born 4/9/1769]

Elizabeth Died Sept 12th in her 11th year 1775 [born 7/17/1765]

Joseph Died June 1st 1777 in his 16th year [born 2/24/1762]
The Rev. Samuel West, minister of Needham in 1775, mentioned this epidemic and the Daniels family in his autobiography:
The Dysentery soon prevailed in the American Army & Extended itself more of less through the country. Although it prevailed most in the Town near camp My parish partook largely of this calimity. We buried about 50 persons in the course of the season. Some families were dreadfully. One in particular a Mr Joseph Daniels buried an amiable wife & 6 promising children in about 6 weeks—we often buried 3 or 4 in a day. My time was wholly devoted to visiting the sick, attendance on the dying and dead.
Proportional to population, four deaths in Needham in 1775 would be about 200 people a day today.

Thanks for sharing that work, Judy!


Anonymous said...

There is a burial marker in Lexington that tells the story of another (related?) epidemic three years later. Abijah and Sarah Childs lost six children in less than three weeks. For more information and to see pics of the gravestone, check out the attached link.

J. L. Bell said...

Thanks for the comment! Here's a direct link to Rick Beyer's pictures of the Childs gravestone.

And thanks for your kind comments about Boston 1775!

pilgrimchick said...

That was a fascinating post. It's amazing how noticing paralells between people and experiences can lead to other, larger issues or events that do not have a great deal of "coverage" historically.

Anonymous said...

I just came from the old cemetary in Chelmsford Ma and discovered a large number of deaths of children and young people all who died during the last week of August and first 2 weeks of September 1775! I could not imagine what could have happened. This is why I love old cemetaries, so many lost stories! You can imagine how excited I was to find this blog and to learn about the highly probable reason for all this loss in such a short time! Thank you for this facinating glimpse into the past! -Jane