One of the most enduring mysteries of the Old Burying Ground is a low, long gravestone, adorned not with the usual winged soul of the Revolutionary years, but with six tiny, very human figures. These carvings represent six of the seven children of Sarah and Abijah Childs, who died within three weeks of each other in the summer of 1778. These children were among many casualties in an unnamed epidemic that swept through Lexington that year. Such a marker is a testament to how little some things change over the years, as we work our way through humanity’s latest deadly disease.
One thing that makes the current situation easier to bear, from a historical perspective, is the amount of documentation we have: newspaper articles, blogs, photos, videos…the amount of information a 22nd century historian will have on the coronavirus is staggering. But in the 18th century? Studying disease can be a frustrating process, involving poring over town books and letters, with much internal groaning over our ancestors’ lack of death records. Most 18th century vital records do not list what someone died of and, course, even when records do exist, they are often speculation, or use archaic terms for a variety of diseases. The outbreak in Lexington has been argued by some historians to be dysentery, an offshoot of noted outbreaks in other towns, but the possibilities are endless. Measles, whooping cough, diphtheria…all were rampant at different periods of time, particularly among children.
The most popular possibility for any 18th century mystery epidemic is usually smallpox, being the most well-known and well-documented disease of the time period. But was it in evidence here? Boston did publicly notify of infections in town, mainly to ease the minds of the locals whenever rumors of illness started sweeping through the streets. It was not uncommon to see news reports specifying that a local case had been discovered, that the infected persons had been removed to the quarantine hospital on Rainsford Island, in the harbor, and that the town was currently free from disease. The spring of 1778 did see an outbreak in the city, and letters to the editor in Boston newspapers complained in mid-summer that the pox didn’t seem to be abating, despite reassurance from officials.
The largest outbreak of smallpox in the greater Boston area was in 1776, and we do know that it made its way to Lexington by the end of that year. In December, Betty Clarke, the 13-year-old daughter of Reverend Jonas Clarke, contracted smallpox, possibly during a visit to the city. As soon as Betty showed signs of pox, Reverend Clarke rushed to make an appointment with a local doctor to inoculate the whole family. Whether Clarke urged the rest of the town to do the same to prevent the outbreak from spreading is unknown, so we still can’t rule smallpox out for what was plaguing the town in 1778. But the practice of inoculation was widespread at the time.
The precursor to modern vaccines, inoculation, had been popularized in Boston a generation earlier during an outbreak in 1721. The process, involving depositing infected matter into the body of a healthy person to induce an immune response, had actually been in successful use in Asia and Africa for several centuries, while Western doctors looked on in distrust. It was actually the enslaved population of Boston who first told the locals about the practice. Onesimus, a man enslaved by Cotton Mather (of witch trials fame) told his master that a scar on his arm was from an operation he had had back in Africa, which made him immune to the pox. After corroborating this account with others, Mather began an extensive public campaign encouraging locals to adopt inoculation, but then, as now, it took the public a long time to get over fears of complications, or spreading the disease further. John Adams was inoculated before the Revolution, in 1764, and wrote of his experience:
“They took their Launcetts and with their Points divided the skin for about a Quarter of an Inch and just suffering the Blood to appear, buried a Thread about half a Quarter of an Inch long in the Channel. A little Lint was then laid over the scratch and a Piece of a Ragg pressed on, and then a Bandage bound over.”
The thread mentioned would have been soaked in fluid from a fresh pustule, allowing the virus to enter the bloodstream through the cut. Not something that would work in a modern hospital! The development of vaccines has clearly come a long way since the 18th century, no longer dealing in live viruses and mass cross-contamination. But at the time, this was (in America, at least) a revolutionary new technology that allowed people to believe they had a fighting chance against the most infamous disease in the world. While our experiences of dealing with medical mysteries have been frustratingly similar through the centuries, hopefully flu shots this winter, and COVID shots to come, won’t seem nearly as harrowing now. And in the future, we will hopefully have our stories preserved so that future historians won’t be quite so in the dark as they try to piece our long and complicated story.
If you would like to add your story of what it’s like to live in Lexington during the COVID-19 pandemic, please consider contributing to the COVID-19 History Project!
-Sarah McDonough, Programs Manager
Featuring the voices of Lexington Historical Society permanent staff and occasional guest authors.