Nina Sankovitch
Published in

Nina Sankovitch

Fighting Illness and the British in Colonial Boston

In December of 1774, Edmund Quincy, merchant and justice of the peace in Boston, wrote to his daughter Katy (sister to Dorothy and future sister-in-law to John Hancock) about “the most threatening evil among us…small pox.” Edmund urged Katy to get herself inoculated. Quoting scripture, he advised her to take care of her “Vineyard…and [follow] the Truth of Righteousness.”

Inoculations against smallpox had been going on in the colonies since the early 1700s, started in large part through the efforts of Cotton Mather, better known today for his role in fomenting the hysteria leading to the Salem Witch Trials rather than for his efforts at stemming smallpox.

Mather had initially learned about the treatment from a slave named Onesimus, who explained to him how the process had been used in Africa as a safeguard against smallpox. Dr. Zabdiel Boylston assisted Mather in his vaccination campaign by demonstrating the safety of the treatment. Dr. Boylston inoculated first his own son, and then a slave, and then moved on to successfully treat colonists throughout Massachusetts.

John Adams had himself inoculated in the spring of 1764. Following his dosing with the live virus, he had to self-quarantine, isolating himself in a room in Boston for three weeks. The forced separation from his beloved Abigail Smith made him miserable. He wrote her long letters in his isolation, expressing his feelings verbosely: “the dear Partner of all my Joys and sorrows, in whose Affections, and Friendship I glory, more than in all other Emoluments under Heaven, comes into my Mind very often and makes me sigh…”

His letters to Abigail had to be fumigated before she could receive them and even then, Abigail’s parents hesitated at allowing her to handle them (although their hesitation might have been more directed at John himself, and not the smallpox disease with which he had volunteered to dose himself). When John was finally released from the quarantine, he jumped on a horse and galloped his way back to Abigail. In the fall, they were married (Abigail’s father-in-law performed the ceremony, using a text from St. Matthew, John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say he hath the Devil — but at least he would never have smallpox).

There was some initial hesitation in the colonies to undergo the smallpox inoculation, perhaps due to the sharing of anecdotal evidence as to its potential ill effects; for example, Oxenbridge Thacher, a prominent New England lawyer, was widely believed to have fallen ill and died due to the inoculation he received.

But in 1775, when a smallpox epidemic once again threatened the town of Boston and its environs, the patriots who had been focusing so intently on the oppressions of the British now had to face up to the realities of smallpox. It was a disease that took no political side but attacked both redcoats and patriots with the same intensity, leaving its victims at best scarred for life, and at worst, dead. Americans finally began to take seriously all options available to protect themselves against the disease.

The 1775 epidemic began amidst the British troops stationed in Boston but then quickly spread to the civilian population. The selectmen of Boston, still meeting regularly despite Parliament’s prohibition against it, did what they could to contain the illness. Stricken colonists, along with British soldiers, were sent to a special smallpox hospital to recuperate or die. For those who refused to move from their homes, a fence was erected around their dwelling to enforce a quarantine and special flags were prominently displayed to indicate the contamination within.

By early February 1775, Boston’s town clerk William Cooper announced that “after Strict Enquiry no person is found to have small pox in this town.” It seemed as if the scourge had been routed. Relieved, the townspeople shifted their vigilance elsewhere, their fear of contagion forgotten in the daily drama of confrontations, stand-offs, and hostilities between themselves and the British forces, as well as with Loyalists and Crown Officers.

Relief over smallpox containment was short-lived. Already by early March 1775, cases of smallpox were once again being reported both in private homes and in the British barracks. The disease also appeared in surrounding villages. The town selectmen, led by John Hancock, now not only supervised the removal of smallpox sufferers to special buildings and imposed quarantines; they also required that all affected homes were to be treated by a thorough smoking out of the interiors in an effort to disinfect and cleanse.

Both colonial leaders and Royal Governor Gage were intent on keeping the number of cases down — and they worked, if not together, in tandem to contain the illness. While working to contain smallpox in Boston, however, the British were also planning an attack against the rebel colonists holding secret meetings in Concord. Late on the evening of April 18th, Paul Revere took his fated ride to warn of the attack, and the next day the Battle of Lexington and Concord unspooled, leaving scores dead and wounded, and handing the British a solid — and unexpected — defeat.

The English forces retreated to Boston and began to fortify themselves there, instituting a blockade of the city and shutting down colonial access to its port. Colonists wishing to leave Boston were given permission to do so, conditional upon the giving up of weapons and the leaving behind of homes filled with goods.

But how to handle the scourge of smallpox that continued to plague Boston? Could the British have actually used the disease as a weapon, deliberately sending infected colonists out to surrounding towns and villages, and effectively spreading a disease that could decimate the colonial militias gathering in Cambridge to confront the British? Instead British and American leaders worked together to create a safe plan for the evacuation of those wanting out of Boston, a plan that included a crude but seemingly effective decontamination process.

Josiah Quincy III, son of patriot pamphleteer, lawyer, and diplomat Josiah Quincy Jr., (and himself a future United States congressman, mayor of Boston, president of Harvard, and then the namesake of Quincy market), described, years later, how he and his mother, along with cousins and aunts, left Boston in May 1775, traveling by carriage to cross the Boston Neck, the thin strip of land that connected Boston to the mainland. Every person in their party was required, one by one, to enter a wooden shed, or what he called a “sentry box”:

“ On each side of the box was a small platform, round which each of [us] . . . was compelled to walk, and remain until our clothes were thoroughly fumigated with the fumes of brimstone cast upon a body of coals in the centre of the box…. [t]his operation was required to prevent infection.”

Thoroughly fumigated, Josiah and his mother Abigail Quincy, and the rest of their party, were allowed to travel on, to leave Boston and get as far away as they could.

Over the ensuing months, smallpox and other communicable illnesses (such as dysentery) took hundreds of lives in the colonies, not only among the soldiers in Boston — the illnesses spreading quickly due to the squalid conditions into which the blockaded town quickly descended — but also among soldiers and civilians on the mainland. The diseases the moved outwards, going from village to village and leaving death and despair in their wake.

In the fall of 1775, Abigail Adams wrote to her husband John in Philadelphia that “18 have been buried since you left us. . . . [There have been] 4, 3 and 2 funerals in a day for many days. . . . Mrs. Randle Randall has one child that is not expected to live out the night, Mrs. Belcher has another, Joseph Bracket another. . . . Mr. Wibird lies bad. Major Miller is dangerous. Revd. Mr. Gay is not expected to live. . . . So sickly and so Mortal a time the oldest Man does not remember.”

Writing again two weeks later, Abigail described the ongoing tragedies: “Some poor parents are mourning the loss of 3, 4 and 5 children, and some families are wholly striped of every Member.”

Abigail turned her home into a hospital and nursed her patients as best she could: “such is the distress of the neighborhood that I can scarcely find a well person to assist me in looking after the sick.” The only help she had was from her mother Elizabeth Quincy Smith, who traveled every day from Weymouth to help her daughter and care for the household. And then Abigail’s mother herself fell ill. On October 1, 1775, she died. Abigail wrote to John how fervently she prayed that “Almighty God restrain the pestilence which walketh in darkness and wasteth…and which has laid in the dust one of the dearest of parents.”

The fall of 1775 was a terrible one in so many ways, and for many of the colonists, the concerns of a pending war with England took backseat to the illnesses suffered at home. As Abigail wrote to John, “the desolation of War is not so distressing as the Havoc made by this pestilence.” And yet it could not have been easy to care for, minister to, and then bury, so many neighbors afflicted by such a continuum of scourges.

Maybe it was because of the hands-on and intimate experiences that so many colonists had with smallpox and other diseases, that when the opportunity once again came to inoculate oneself against such illnesses, the colonists eagerly signed up for their vaccinations. In the spring of 1776, when Boston was once again firmly in American hands, the leaders of Massachusetts organized large-scale inoculations against smallpox. Treatment centers were set up in the town and colonists came from all across Massachusetts to be treated. Abigail Adams arrived with a group of thirty fellow villagers from Braintree, bringing her children with her. Each and every one of them took the dosage of live virus, and retreated to isolated rooms, a family to a room, to live through a quarantine in which they experienced various symptoms, even breaking out in spots and rashes, but then recovered into full immunity.

On July 18th, 1776, Abigail made her way to King Street. She had recovered from the inoculation, although she still felt a bit ill; but nothing would keep her from joining the crowds in front of the state house. They were there awaiting the official announcement and then proclamation of the Declaration of Independence, signed just two weeks earlier in Washington DC. Abigail was so very happy: for now she could enjoy independence from England, and freedom from smallpox.

But for Katy Quincy, who had received her father’s warning to inoculate herself back in December of 1774, it was too late. She was afflicted with the disease sometime during 1775 and although she survived, she was forever scarred by the severe facial pockmarking left in its wake.

This post is an adapted excerpt from American Rebels: How the Hancock, Adams, and Quincy Families Fanned the Flames of Revolution, and all quotes are footnoted therein. Please contact Nina with any questions.




Because being witness to all types of human experience is not only important to understanding the world, but also to understanding myself.

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Nina Sankovitch

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