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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Saturday, July 18, 2009

“Where the Small Pox has been for sometime past”

In December 1774, Boston selectmen learned that children in three British officers’ families were recovering from the smallpox—possibly after receiving the disease by inoculation. They wanted to respond quickly. But they heard the news on on a Saturday evening, and weren’t supposed to do business on Sunday.

The selectmen therefore gathered on “Sabbath Evening” and drafted an advertisement for those weekly newspapers that appeared on Monday. Here’s the text from the Boston Evening-Post:

The Publick are here by informed, that there are now but three People in the Hospital at New Boston infected with the Small Pox, who will probably be dismissed from thence this Week; that on Saturday information was given that the Wife of Mr. [Trotter] Hill, Surgeon of the 59th Regiment and three of their Children in a House in Hanover Street, near the head of Cold Lane, also two Children of Lieut. [John] Clark’s of said Regiment, under the same Roof, have the Distemper together, with three Children of Capt. [James] Figg’s of the 59th Regiment, in a House down a Yard opposite the White Horse [tavern], South End:—

As it has been suggested that the eleven Children received the Infection by Inoculation, the Inhabitants may be assured, that such Measures will be pursued with the Delinquents, for the present and future safety of the Town and Country as the Laws of the Land require.
But the selectmen didn’t have a lot of legal options. According to their 19 December discussion:
The Selectmen deliberated on the expediency of removing the Persons infected, from Capt. Clarkes in Hanover Street and Capt. Figs House opposite the White Horse who refused their consent for a removal, and considering the doubtfulness of the Law as to impowering the Selectmen to remove any Person contrary to their consent—therefore Voted that Fences be put up in the Street near the Infected Houses, and that a Flag be hung out in each House to give notice of the Distemper.
The selectmen apparently went to Gen. Thomas Gage and ask that the military use its own resources to look after its sick dependents. The following week they could announce:
No Inhabitant [i.e., local] has hitherto taken the Distemper, & by the care of his Excellency the Governor a Transport is provided for the reception of any Persons Belonging to the Army who should hereafter appear to have the Symptoms of that Disorder
And indeed on 27 December, when the selectmen heard about another case in the officers’ households, the patient didn’t end up in the province hospital:
Information was given Yesterday by Dr. [Charles] Jarvis that a Maid Servant in Lieut. Clarkes House in Hannover where the Small Pox has been for sometime past, was broke out with the Small Pox; She was by consent of the master and the Order of Collo. Hammilton put on hoard the Hospital Ship in the Harbour.
The same day, Dr. Charles Jarvis reported that the “Davis McGraws & Jacksons Children” were well enough to go home safely. But another person didn’t leave the hospital in such fortunate circumstances:
One George Baldwin a Soldier sent to the Hospital from the Barracks in King Street, died on the 13th. Inst [i.e., of this month], when Mr. [William] Barrett had orders to bury him in the Night, carrying his Corps over the Hill to the Burying Ground at the bottom of the Common.
On 4 January, the outbreak appeared to be over. The selectmen stated:
Information having been given that the Hospital at New Boston is now sufficiently smoked & cleansed Mr. Will. Darrington the Keeper had leave for himself & Family to go abroad as usual & Orders were given him accordingly.
But only one week later “a Lad of one Kings a Rigger at the North End” came down with the disease, and he and his mother moved into the hospital. The disease had reached the civilian population, and would continue to spread slowly but steadily through 1775 and 1776. This was an early stage of the continent-wide smallpox epidemic that Elizabeth Fenn discusses in Pox Americana.

TOMORROW: Back to the arrest of William Dorrington. (Remember that?)

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