Archive for the ‘Wilkinson, Eliza’ Category

“My face is finely ornamented”

Childhood diseases like mumps, measles, and whooping cough were serious but commonplace during the eighteenth century. Epidemics, occurring seemingly at random, were much more alarming. One of the most feared diseases was smallpox because of its relatively high mortality rate and the severe scarring that marked survivors. This acute contagious disease was especially devastating in America because its inhabitants were less likely to be immune to it than Europeans who had been exposed to it. Even with the isolation of individuals and the quarantine of ships, smallpox flared up every few years, especially in urban areas. Native Americans were particularly vulnerable. It has been claimed that the British, aware of the contagious nature of the disease, weaponized it by deliberately distributing blankets that had been used by smallpox victims to the Indian population.

The term used to describe protection against smallpox in early eighteenth century America was variolation. This involved the use of the smallpox virus and was known in fifteenth century China and later in India. In the Middle East and Africa two methods were in use. In one called “buying the smallpox,” the mother of an unprotected child would visit the house of a child who had the disease, tie a cotton cloth around the infected child’s arm and haggle over the cost of each pistule. After agreeing on a price the mother would tie the infected cloth around her own child’s arm. A second method involved taking some fluid from a smallpox pistule, called “hitting the smallpox,” and introducing it into a cut in a patient’s arm thereby inducing, hopefully, a mild case of the disease. The term vaccination refers to the development of a method of prevention in the late 1700s, particularly by Edward Jenner, involving a vaccine derived from cowpox. A safer alternative, it replaced variolation.

Lucy Flucker Knox, wife of General Henry Knox. decided that she and their daughter Lucy would be inoculated using the technique of variolation. From Brookline, Massachusetts, she wrote on April 31, 1777 to her husband:

Join with me my love in humble gratitude to him who hath preserved your Lucy and her sweet baby; and thus far carried them thro the small pox—no persons was ever more highly favored than I have been since it came out—but before for three days I suffered exceedingly—I have more than two hundred of them twenty in my face which is four times as many as you bid me have but believe some of them will leave a mark—Lucy has but one—and has not had an ill hour with it—both hers and mine have turned and are drying away. …

I have no glass but from the feel of my face I am almost glad you do not see it. I don’t believe I should yet get one kiss and yet the Dr. tells me it is very becoming.

Eliza Yonge Wilkinson of Mount Royal, Yonge’s Island, South Carolina, was thankful that she was not too badly scarred by smallpox. She wrote on May 19, 1781:

I have just got the better of the small-pox, thanks be to God for the same. My face is finely ornamented, and my nose honored with thirteen spots. I must add, that I am pleased they will not pit, for as much as I revere the number*, I would not choose to have so conspicuous a mark. I intend, in a few days, to introduce my spotted face in Charlestown.
* Wilkinson is, of course, referring to the thirteen states.

Smallpox has been eradicated through the process of compulsory vaccination. The last case of the disease occurred in the world in 1978. The United States stopped vaccinating the general population in 1972, but continued to vaccinate military personnel until it was officially stopped in 1990.

The letters appear on page 177 of In the Words of Women. Refer to this ARTICLE for the history of variolation and vaccination.The image of Lucy flicker Knox is from the Montpelier, the General Henry Knox Museum.

posted April 13th, 2020 by Janet, comments (0), CATEGORIES: Epidemics,Inoculation,Knox, General Henry,Knox, Lucy Flucker,Smallpox,Vaccination,Variolation,Wilkinson, Eliza

“Poor wives are made to Honour and obey”

Women during the eighteenth century were subject to the authority of men, whether father, brother, or husband. Blackstone’s Commentaries on the Laws of England, a text used in the training of American lawyers, had this to say about the relation of men and women in marriage. “By marriage, the husband and wife are one person in law, that is, the very being or legal existence of the woman is suspended during the marriage, or at least is incorporated and consolidated in that of the husband, under whose wing, protection, and cover, she performs everything.” The wife was a feme covert. Things were beginning to change in America given the war and the assumption of many responsibilities hitherto considered outside the sphere of women. Society, however, was still basically patriarchical and a husband was considered to have the right of reasonable chastisement. ELIZA WILKINSON, a young South Carolina woman, wrote this poem after having seen a woman experience physical violence at the hands of her husband.

Poor wives are made to Honour and obey,
Must yield unto a husband’s lordly way.
Whether you live in Peace, or horrid strife,
You must stay with him, aye, and that for life.
If he proves kind, then happy you will be,
If otherways——O! dreadful misery!——
Kind husbands now-adays you scarcely find
The lover’s seldom in the husband’s mind.
The imperious Mortal makes his wife his slave.
He will, he won’t, yet knows not what he’d have.
While she—poor trembling Soul! in vain doth try
To please him: marks the motion of his eye;
He still storms on, while from his eyes flash fire.
She trembles more —is ready to expire.
Wou’d any stander by but hand a glass [mirror]
He’d start! amaz’d! to see his frightfull face.
O shamefull sight, he cou’d not then dispute.
But that he made himself a very brute.
Guard me good Heaven whene’er I change my state!
That this may never be my wretched fate.——

Wilkinson is implying that marriage is basically a crap shoot and is warning young women to be cautious when contemplating it: “Guard me good Heaven whene’er I change my state!” The lucky ones will have a peaceful and happy marriage; the unlucky ones may suffer both psychological and physical abuse with only a slight likelihood of legal relief as divorce was difficult.

Frey, Sylvia and Marian J. Morton, A Documentary History of Women in Pre-Industrial America (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1986), pages 207-08.

posted May 23rd, 2016 by Janet, comments (0), CATEGORIES: Marriage,Wilkinson, Eliza

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