“Boston . . . busily employd in communicating the Infection”

Having returned to Cambridge from Concord, HANNAH WINTHROP wrote to her friend MERCY OTIS WARREN in July 1776. She described the condition of her home, the reopening of Harvard, and life in Boston after the British evacuation (pictured) on March 17.

Last Saturday afternoon we went into Boston the first time since our removal from Concord . . . . Our Barrack or Wigwam, or whatever name you may please to give it, when you see it unornamented with broken chairs & unleggd tables with the shatterd Etcetteras, is intirely at your service. . . . we breath as sweet an air as ever Cam [bridge], afforded, the peacefull shades & meandring river conspire to give us delight. The Sons of Harvard who are collected here seem to be as well Settled & as happy as if they had not known an interruption, with zeal they are attending the Philosophic Lectures.

What an unexpected Blessing! the change from the din of arms & the shrill Clarion of war. Come my Friend taste & see if your too much dejected spirits will not revive in this Salubrious Soil. . . .

As to Political matters, Consonant to my natural ingenuity they appear rather gloomy, but the Settlement of these important points I hope an opportunity for, when you make me happy & indulge me with Laying our Political heads together.

The reigning Subject is the Small Pox. Boston has given up its Fears of an invasion & is busily employd in
communicating the Infection. Straw beds & cribs are daily carted into the Town. That ever prevailing Passion of following the Fashion is as Predominant at this time as ever. Men Women & children eagerly Crouding to innoculate is I think as modish, as running away from the Troops of a barbarous George was the last Year. . . .

But ah my Friend I have not mentioned the Loss I have met with which lies near my heart the death of
my dear Friend the good Madam Hancock, A powerfull attachment to this life broken off, you who knew her worth can Lament with me her departure. Ah the incertainty of all Terristrial happiness. . . .
Yours in Affection
Hannah Winthrop

The British forces, threatened by cannon mounted on Dorchester Heights, left Boston in March 1776 for Nova Scotia. Many Loyalists departed as well; some blacks and Native Americans joined them. Those inhabitants who remained faced the scourge of smallpox. The disease had once again become widespread in 1775. George Washington, concerned for his troops, had advised them not to associate with Bostonians leaving the city during the siege. When the British evacuated they left behind their soldiers infected with the disease, which further fueled the outbreak. Washington sent an occupying force of 1,000 troops who had already had smallpox and were therefore immune. Many fearful residents sought to be inoculated, a precaution strongly recommended by Benjamin Franklin, in spite of possibly serious complications. Hannah Winthrop, rather scornfully, termed this surge of interest “modish.” In 1777, Washington ordered that new recruits who had not had smallpox be inoculated. It was one of the most important decisions he made as commander of the Continental Army.

The correspondence between Hannah Winthrop and Mercy Otis Warren is at the Massachusetts Historical Society. The letter in this post can be read in its entirety HERE. The illustration of the British evacuation is a German woodcut c. 1776. It is at the Library of Congress. The title page of Zabdiel Boylston’s An Historical Account of the Small-pox Inoculated in New England is from Wikimedia Commons.


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