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, May 21, 2020

Looking Back on the Bloody Flux of 1775

In a time of pandemic, one’s thoughts turn naturally toward outbreaks of the past.

In April 1942, Dr. Ernest Caulfield presented a paper on “Some Common Diseases of Colonial Children” to the Colonial Society of Massachusetts. It can be read here.

Caulfield wrote about the seven diseases now known as measles, diphtheria, scarlet fever, whooping cough, mumps, chicken pox, and dysentery. (Some of those names were used in the seventeenth and eighteenth century, but people had other terms as well.)

Today an American can encounter most of those diseases only through the vaccinations that prevent them. But dysentery is carried by the shigella bacteria spread through feces, so caring for a sick person without being able to be sanitary leaves one vulnerable to infection.

A few years back, Boston 1775 friend Judy Cataldo noticed a pattern of deaths in late 1775 in Needham, which led her to evidence of a dysentery epidemic behind the Continental siege lines. Caulfield found a hint of that in the printed newspapers, but only a hint:
It was characteristic of dysentery years for the disease to break out in the southern and middle colonies before it broke out in New England. But also contributing greatly to the magnitude of the New England epidemic were the British troops in Boston and the American troops in Cambridge.

The first reports of the disease appeared in the newspapers during July: “We hear the camp distemper rages in the regular army in Boston, as also among the distressed inhabitants who are confined in that town by order of Tom. Gage, in open violation of his most solemn engagement. It is to be hoped he will meet the fate of Pharoah of old, whose example he so exactly follows.” In August a letter sent through the lines mentioned that two members of the Cotton family and two of the Wiswall family were dead of the flux. It was also learned that three thousand British troops were sick.

Apparently by the end of August the disease had appeared in many inland towns, for there was published on the front page of the Massachusetts Spy a whole column of medical news entitled “A Cure for the Bloody Flux.”
It looks like the Patriot printers were happy to share news of an epidemic within British-held Boston, down the details of which families were sick. But they didn’t report in the same way on the epidemic in New England towns. Isaiah Thomas provided some medical advice in his Spy but not statistics on local deaths.

Similarly, we now know, during the First World War the fighting countries censured news of an epidemic affecting their populations. Only neutral Spain reported deaths accurately, so we ended up giving that disease the unfair name of the Spanish influenza.

For evidence of the full scope of the dysentery epidemic of 1775, one has to look at church records, graveyards, and doctors’ diaries. Both Caulfield and Cataldo wrote about waves of deaths, especially among young children, in the early years of the war. “Altogether it was one of the most fatal periods for children in colonial history,” Caulfield stated.

Last month Judy Cataldo spoke with the hosts of the Hub History podcast about that 1775 epidemic, deadly yet overshadowed by the war. Here’s the link to that episode, with extracts from the diary of Abigail Adams as she reacted to deaths around her.

And here’s Judy’s website with more resources. Among those is a link to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention webpage about stopping shigella. The section on prevention says, “The best defense against shigellosis is thorough, frequent handwashing…”

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