previous next
[p. 17]

High School Department.

An early Scourge in Medford.

Stafford Hammond, 1902.
[Prepared in connection with work in American History.]

few of the many ills which the early settlers of Medford fell heir to caused such devastation among them as the smallpox. The ravages which this disease committed among the settlers can hardly be conceived by the present generation. It was more dreaded than the raids of the savage Pequot or Tarrantine, and no disease excited so quick and sharp alarm among them.

The smallpox at intervals had raged among the Indians in this section of the country since the early part of the seventeenth century, and in 1633 it carried off as one of its victims the Indian chief, Sagamore John, who lived with his tribe near Mystic lake. His death was a great blow to the early settlers, for he had granted much land to them, and had protected them from hostile Indian attacks.

The first entry1 in the Town Records as to the prevvalence of smallpox in Medford is dated 1721. The warrant for a town meeting called all freeholders to assemble for a consideration of the preventing of the spread of smallpox. The occasion for issuing this warrant seems to have been that some member of the family of Samuel Polley had the smallpox. In the meeting it was voted that the road be turned and absolutely closed from the house of Jacob Pierce to that of Samuel Polley, so long as it was needed, and a sufficient guard be kept at the Polley house. At this same meeting it was also voted that the town should furnish a house to receive any persons who were taken with the smallpox and to keep them there until they recovered. Thus the early Medford settlers had solved the best way of attacking the disease, that of absolute isolation. [p. 18]

In 17522 another epidemic made its appearance. Although this was slight, yet it was attended with the usual horrors of this loathsome disease. On May 11, 1752, the freeholders voted that the Selectmen be empowered to provide some suitable house or houses for the reception of all persons who were taken with the smallpox, or those who were suspected.

It appeared again in 1760, in the town, and the only record that we have of it is in the Treasurer's report. The report states that on Feb. 19, 1760, £ 5, i shilling and 8 pence was raised to Mr. William Tufts and another townsman, for watching at the smallpox house. The treasurer also adds, ‘to myself and horse to Charlestown for the Doctor for Thomas Linch 2s/8.’ Another part of the report also states that money was paid to certain persons who furnished Captain Willis and other persons with blankets and other furnishings during their illness. One of the victims of this epidemic was the schoolmaster, William Whitmore, who died March 10, 1760, and because of his death the schools were closed till the July following.

The smallpox, after having been for four years in abeyance, renewed its visitation in 1764.3 The warrant, which was issued ‘in his Majesty's name,’ April 13, 1764, called all the freeholders together for a consideration of the raging epidemic. At the meeting it was voted that a gate should be erected across the main road, and a smoke house be built near the Medford great bridge (which is now Cradock bridge). This house was erected on the west side of Main street, and about forty rods from Colonel Royall's house. It was also voted that another should be erected at the West End, and suitable guards be kept at the town's expense. The Selectmen were to take full responsibility for the erection of the fences and houses, and were to provide a guard of such persons as they saw fit. The idea of erecting a gate across the main road was a good one, [p. 19] because it prevented travellers from Boston and vicinnity, which was the base of smallpox epidemics in Massachusetts, from entering Medford without being unceremoniously stopped and fumigated at the smoke house. In the Treasurer's report one item states that Mr. Timothy Waite was paid £ 1 16 shillings 4 1/2 pence, ‘for Work & some Nails for the Smoke House & some work at the School House.’ Another item states that 6 shillings were paid Doctor Rand ‘for a Night to Capt. Blodget when taken with ye Small Pox.’ Also another item states that £ 14, 8 shillings were paid Captain Eben Morrow ‘for Tending the Smoke House from ye 16th of April to the Ninth day of June 1764 both days included @ 6s per day.’

Another town meeting was held May 24, 1778,4 to see what the town would do concerning an inoculating hospital. Previous to this a hospital of this kind had been situated at Point Shirley for the use of all people in Boston and vicinity. Inoculation had been introduced in Boston in June, 1721, by the Rev. Cotton Mather, who, hearing of the great success it had had in Europe and the Orient, interested himself in it, and thus introduced it in Boston. It met with violent opposition hardly second in bitterness to that of the witchcraft period; but he faced the fury of the mob, and did noble service in its defence in spite of threats of personal violence. Inoculation was beginning to reap success about 1778, so Medford people desired to have a hospital of their own. When the British troops were besieged in Boston, smallpox broke out among them, and after they evacuated the town it raged among the inhabitants, and thus spread to Medford. The townsmen decided to attack this epidemic by inoculation. It was voted that the town should provide a house for the reception of any person who was taken with smallpox in the ‘Natural Way.’ It was also voted that if the Selectmen should find any person who had been attending a [p. 20] sick person, they should give that person liberty to go to the smallpox house and be inoculated under the proper restrictions.

The epidemic again visited Medford in 1788.5 The freeholders were called together for a consideration of what the town should do concerning the removal of the William Cutter family, who had the smallpox, and what the town should do concerning the establishment of an inoculating hospital for two months. It was ‘voated’ to remove all persons who were subject to the smallpox to a suitable house, subject to the will of the Selectmen. It was voted that if any person ‘chanced to have the smallpox’ he might obtain permission to be inoculated in such a house as might be obtained for that purpose. This order also provided that if a person desired to be inoculated he must pay the expenses of this house for two months. Under these severe regulations it was not likely that many persons were inoculated.

A petition from Governor Brooks and others relative to further inoculation was discussed at a town meeting in 1789 It was decided that any person could be inoculated if he desired to pay the expenses. It was also voted that the Selectmen could put a stop to inoculation if they thought it expedient.

Another epidemic made its appearance in 17926 At a meeting of the townsmen in September of that year it was voted to take all possible measures to prevent the spread of the existing epidemic, and to provide houses for those who were taken with the disease. The town meeting voted to provide a house, and decided to prosecute to the fullest extent any person who inoculated or was inoculated. This method of treatment failed in Medford as elsewhere, and no further measures of this sort were taken until the introduction of vaccination.

It will be seen that Medford has had her full share of the burden of the smallpox which caused such devastation in early Massachusetts.

1 Town Records, Volume II., pages 58, 66.

2 Town Records, Volume III., page 80.

3 Town Records, Volume III., page 131.

4 Town Records, Volume III., page 239.

5 Town Records Volume IV., page 65.

6 Town Records, Volume III., page 99.

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 United States License.

An XML version of this text is available for download, with the additional restriction that you offer Perseus any modifications you make. Perseus provides credit for all accepted changes, storing new additions in a versioning system.

hide Places (automatically extracted)

View a map of the most frequently mentioned places in this document.

Sort places alphabetically, as they appear on the page, by frequency
Click on a place to search for it in this document.
Massachusetts (Massachusetts, United States) (2)
Point Shirley (Massachusetts, United States) (1)
hide People (automatically extracted)
hide Dates (automatically extracted)
hide Display Preferences
Greek Display:
Arabic Display:
View by Default:
Browse Bar: