Archive for the ‘Epidemics’ Category

“I give my Hand … “

Dolley Payne Todd Madison is the topic for the third episode in the C-SPAN series First Ladies which airs today, March 11, at 9pm ET. Dolley Payne, a Quaker, was married to lawyer John Todd, Jr. in 1790. Sadly she lost her husband and baby William in the yellow fever epidemic that struck Philadelphia in 1793. Left with a son, John Payne Todd, Dolley, age 26, was courted by James Madison, age 43. Her aunt Catharine T. Coles assured her that Madison

thinks so much of you in the day that he has Lost his Tongue, at Night he Dreames of you & Starts in his Sleep a Calling on you to relieve his Flame for he Burns to such an excess that he will be shortly consumed … he has consented to every thing that I have wrote about him with Sparkling Eyes.

On September 16, 1794, Dolley told her friend Elizabeth Collins Lee in Virginia of her impending marriage.

As a proof my dearest Eliza of that confidence & friendship which has never been interrupted between us I have stolen from the family to commune with you—to tell you in short, that in the cource of this day I give my Hand to the Man who of all other’s I most admire—You will not be at a loss to know who this is as I have been long ago gratify’d In haveing your approbation—In this Union I have everything that is soothing and greatful in prospect—& my little Payne will have a generous & tender protector.
A Settlement of all my real property with a considerable Adition of Money is made upon him with Mr. M—’s approbation. …
But how shall I express the anxiety I feel to see you? That friend whose goodness, at many interresting periods I have greatfully experienced would now rejoice us by the sight of her. …
Adeiu! Adeiu.
Dolley Payne ToddEvening.
Dolley Madisson! Alass!

Quoted material appears on page 190 of In the Words of Women. The portrait is by Gilbert Stuart (1804) and is part of The White House Historical Association (White House Collection).

posted March 11th, 2013 by Janet, comments (0), CATEGORIES: Children,Courtship,Death,Epidemics,Marriage

“I fear the Small Pox will Spread universilly … “

Some parents today do not want their children to receive certain vaccinations fearing they may cause conditions like autism. In eighteenth-century America there was controversy over smallpox inoculations. It’s true that there were at times debilitating effects. Abigail Adams explained the lapse in correspondence with her friend Mercy Otis Warren in 1777: “My eyes ever since the smallpox have been great sufferers. Writing puts them to great pain.” Warren replied that she too had problems: “weakness … feebleness of my limbs, and pains … sufficient to damp the vigor of thought and check … literary employments.”

Attitudes toward inoculation were mixed: some religious leaders considered it “a distrust of God’s overruling care;” some communities supported it, others passed laws against it. Mary Bartlett reported to her husband (a doctor who was in Philadelphia having just signed the Declaration of Independence) that hospitals were being set up in New Hampshire to inoculate people.

Kingstown July 13th 1776P. S. I fear the Small Pox will Spread universilly as boston is Shut up with it & People flocking in for innoculation; the Select men of portsmouth have Petitiond to the Committy of Safty now Setting in Exeter; for leave to fix an innoculating hospital in their metropolis for the Small Pox and liberty is accordingly granted and the inhabitance of Exeter intend to Petition for the Same libirty.

Mary Silliman described to her parents how her husband dealt with people intent upon preventing inoculation.

[Fairfield, Connecticut] April 11, 1777You know Mr. [Gold Selleck] Silliman is state attorney … he has frequently pressing desires sent him from the neighbouring Towns that he should do something about stoping Inoculation. Then he has to send Guards to collect the infected to one place and order to let none come in or go out with out liberty. But at Stratford they have been so unruly and dispers’d the Guard, he has been oblig’d at the desire of about 80 respectable inhabitants to issue out positive orders to desist and as the civil law could have no affect they should be punnish’d by Martial. This has had its desired effect. None that we know of has transgress’d since.

As the War shifted to the South, British promises of freedom attracted thousands of runaway slaves, both male and female, who performed many useful services. This population, however, soon became a liability to the British because of their susceptibility to smallpox. Thousands contracted the disease and were cruelly quarantined and left to die. Thomas Jefferson believed that of the 30,000 Virginia slaves that had joined the British “about 27,000 died of the small pox and camp fever.”

For comments and letters by women, see In the Words of Women, pages 177 and 179. The religious objection to inoculation and Jefferson’s estimate can be found on pages 36 and 133 respectively in Pox Americana, the Great Smallpox Epidemic of 1775-82 by Elizabeth A Fenn (New York: Hill and Wang, 2001), an excellent book on the subject.

posted January 24th, 2013 by Janet, comments (0), CATEGORIES: Adams, Abigail,Epidemics,Inoculation,Slaves/slavery

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, deliberately tried to infect the Indian population by distributing blankets which had been used by smallpox victims.

A method of protection against the disease called inoculation had been developed in the eighteenth century. It involved deliberately inducing a mild case of smallpox in a person, thereby conferring immunity against re-infection. In spite of its success, there was concern about its safety; indeed it was banned in some states and communities. Early on, George Washington had decided against inoculating his troops, but when large numbers of soldiers came down with the disease, he changed his mind and required new recruits who had not had the disease to be inoculated.

Lucy Flucker Knox, wife of General Henry Knox. decided that she and their daughter Lucy would be inoculated. From Brookline, Massachusetts, she wrote on April 31, 1777:

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. The image is from the World Health Organization and can be found HERE.

posted January 21st, 2013 by Janet, comments (0), CATEGORIES: Epidemics,Health,Inoculation,Knox, Lucy Flucker,Medicine

“whole families dying, and no one to nurse the last”

Following on yesterday’s post, the yellow fever epidemic in Philadelphia (1793) was cause for concern in other parts of the country. Isabella Graham, writing from New York, gave a heartrending description of the situation in that stricken city to a friend.

A pestilential fever made its appearance in Philadelphia about two months ago. Between the 19th of August and the 5th of October, four thousand and sixty-four of its citizens died, besides many who quitted the city with infection on them, and died elsewhere. By yesterday’s accounts matters are no better: several of the physicians have been carried off by it, and some of them have fled. Doctor [Benjamin] Rush’s praise is in every mouth; he is still in the city, exerting himself to the utmost, and his prescriptions are universally followed. No neighbouring town will suffer any person to enter their gates till they have been fourteen days out of the city. The stages have been stopped, and even the horses shot, in some cases, where they have been bribed to force their way through. The most dismal stories have been related of whole families dying, and no one to nurse the last. It is not uncommon for people to be well, and in their graves in twelve hours. No friends attend the funerals; most of them are buried in the night, and every precaution taken to conceal the real amount of evil.

It appears that one attempt to prevent the spread of the disease was the imposition of a quarantine.

The excerpt is from In the Words of Women, Chapter 6, page 180.

posted May 10th, 2012 by Janet, comments (0), CATEGORIES: Death,Epidemics,Graham, Isabella,Health,Medicine,Philadelphia

“over 300 children lost father and mother”

Epidemics in the eighteenth century were regarded with apprehension and terror, understandable because there was little knowledge of their causes or treatment. In 1793, Philadelphia, the largest city in the nation, was in the grip of a yellow fever epidemic. The summer had been hot and dry, and there had been an influx of refugees from a revolution in the French colony of Sant Domingue (now Haiti), many of whom were already infected. Mosquitoes, which bred in stagnant pools of water, spread the disease. Christina Young Leech of Kingsessing, Pennsylvania, noted in her diary the effect of the epidemic on her family and on the city.

September 9th. My eldest son, William Leech, died at 7 o’clock in the morning of yellow fever, at the age of 37 years and two months, after a sickness of five days. Many people in the town died of this disease. …

There died in the town of Philadelphia, between the 1st of August, and November 9, 4031 people of yellow fever or pestilential fever; it bears a great resemblance to that dreadful disease, the plague. 17,000 inhabitants moved out of the City, and at Bush Hill was the Hospital; over 300 children lost father and mother, and were placed in one house to be cared for.

Modern scholars reckon the loss of life was closer to 5,000 people, a tenth of the city’s population of 50,000. The noted physician Dr. Benjamin Rush treated those stricken by bleeding and purges (induced vomiting and diarrhea), attempts to flush the disease out of the body. It was not discovered that yellow fever was spread by infected mosquitoes until 1881.

The excerpt is from In the Words of Women, Chapter 6, page 180. The image is from the Centers for Disease Control, James Gathany.

posted May 7th, 2012 by Janet, comments (0), CATEGORIES: Death,Epidemics,Health,Leech, Christina Young,Medicine

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