New Hampshire Glossary: Smallpox

An example of small pox, from book, "The diagnosis of smallpox, "by T.F. Ricketts, 1910

An example of small pox, from book, “The diagnosis of smallpox, “by T.F. Ricketts, 1910

Before the introduction of inoculation, small-pox was the most fatal disease in Great Britain and the American colonies. It killed about one out of four of those who contracted it, and left many survivors blinded, scarred and weak for life. After inoculation became common practice, the disease killed only one in several hundred people.

Eventually as a preventative, and to limit deaths, New Hampshire townships were given the power to isolate individuals and families who had small-pox or those who had come in contact with the disease.  These people were placed in pox-houses (or sick-houses). Doing so often reduced the number of people who came in contact with them, and contracted the disease themselves.

Portrait of George Washington at Winterthur. Photograph by Janice Brown 2006

Portrait of George Washington at Winterthur. Photograph by Janice Brown 2006

In 1748 during the French & Indian Wars, at the Siege of Louisburg, General Amherst’s New Hampshire troops were “seized with small-pox…all but sixteen were rendered unfit for service by it.” In 1751 George Washington developed a severe case of smallpox, which left his skin scarred for life. Later,as Commander in Chief of the Continental Army in the 1770s, Washington insisted that no recruit could join the army until vaccinated against smallpox.

Smallpox may have first been purposefully used as a biological weapon, during the French and Indian Wars of 1754-1767 when British forces in North America distributed blankets that had been used by smallpox patients among them to Native Americans collaborating with the French.”

In March of 1764 the New-Hampshire Gazette published a lengthy article about “Instructions how to prepare those who are soonest likely to take the SMALL-POX in the Natural Way.” This method included recommendations for “Bleeding, one or twice,” avoiding meat and liquor, and drinking cool liquids.

Also on Jan 24, 1764, the New-Hampshire Gazette, of printed the following announcement: “WHEREAS the SMALL-POX is in many Families in Boston, and in different parts of the Town; and tho’ all by their Situation are not alike exposed, it is not easy to determine who are safe and out of Danger, and who may come here that have not already taken the Infection, or bring it in their Clothes: It is therefore concluded and determined by the Subscribers, Select-Men of the Town of Portsmouth, for the better security and safety of the Inhabitants of Said Town, to appoint one or more Persons at the Globe Tavern at the Plains in said Town, who shall stop and examine all Persons coming from Boston, and take such further measures with them, as they shall have Orders for, and that they shall judge safe and necessary; and if there should be any who refuse to submit to the Rule and Order aforesaid, shall be immediately taken up and confined.  And all Persons who shall come from Boston into this Town who have not had the Small Pox, are desired to keep retired such a proper Time as shall determine that have not taken the Infection; and the Inhabitants of the Town are desired to give NOTICE to the Subscribers of all Persons that shall come here from Boston.” — John Langdon, Andrew Clarkson, John Dennit, Samuel Penhallow, William Knight, Select-Men. Portsmouth.


From 1773 to 1797 Shapleigh’s Island, in Portsmouth was used as “The Pest Island,” for those who were inoculated and needed to be away from others for three to four weeks. The building there was known as the pest-house, or The Pest, [one source states that the island is still known as Pest Island, another source [Walk Portsmouth] states the island was what is now Shapleigh’s as stated above]. In 1782, the hospital moved to Henzell’s Island and provided small pox inoculations. Patients had to remain on the island for at least twenty-one days and could not leave until they received a clean bill of health from a physician.

The “History of New Hampshire, from Its First Discovery to the Year 1830,” (page 173) by Edwin David Sanborn, Channing Harris Cox states that in 1776, about one third of New Hampshire’s troops under General Thomas, and later General Sullivan had died of small-pox and putrid fever.

Colonial medical tools and paraphernalia. Photograph taken at Ann Whitall House, National Park NJ in 2006 by Janice Brown.

Colonial medical tools and paraphernalia. Photograph taken at Ann Whitall House, National Park NJ in 2006 by Janice Brown.

The “History of Littleton NH,” by George Clarence Furber, James Robert Jackson, Ezra S. Stearns, states: “In 1807 a small outbreak of the disease existed in Littleton NH, and a pest-house was set up near Leavitt’s pond, on the Charlton place, and another at the house of Joshua Lewis, not far from the Waterford Bridge. ” The buildings were later demolished.  At that time vaccination was the norm.

The “History of Manchester NH,” by C.E. Potter states, “In the spring of 1834 the small-pox again made its appearance in town and produced considerable excitement among the inhabitants. A town meeting was held upon the subject, April 28 1834, at which it was ‘Voted that the Selectmen proceed to stop the spreading of the small-pox, or take such measures as they think proper to prevent it, as soon as possible.’ The cases of the disease were in a family living in the brick house now owned by Mr. John Huse. Vaccination was recommended to the people of the town, and no other cases occurred.”

Stereograph, Civil War hospital scene, McClellan Hospital, Ward 12, Philadephia PA, circa 1863-1868; Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C

Stereograph, Civil War hospital scene, McClellan Hospital, Ward 12, Philadephia PA, circa 1863-1868; Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division,  Washington, D.C

During the Civil War, small pox killed many of both Union and Confederate troops. In March of 1862, from a diary of Henry F.W. Little of the Seventh NH Regiment, Company G,”After week’s voyage of the Tycoon, a case of small-pox was discovered in Company G.  Soon after that, another case appeared.  The surgeons on board, however, did not diagnose it as such.  After the barque had landed at Fort Jefferson, the surgeons there made it known that the disease was small-pox.  Between decks, more than four hundred men had been diagnosed with the desease (sic) ….”About March 12, the men were all ordered to be vaccinated as a preventative of small-pox, which was now beginning to show itself, especially among the men who had been exposed on the Tycoon, and a hospital was established over on Bird Key.”

In 1863 several cases were found at Dartmouth College. In 1861 and 1864 the New Hampshire legislature passed a law requiring exclusion from the schools of children not protected from small pox by vaccination. During this same time the New Hamphire newspapers posted advertising aimed at army volunteers for Holloway’s Pill & Ointments, a ‘reported’ help for small-pox.contagious diseases

In May and June of 1871, Nashua experienced 55 cases of small-pox. Seven of those people died. In 1873 small-pox was still a concern. In Massachusetts seventy towns were affected.  In NEW HAMPSHIRE: In February Oliver Benaca of Francestown died of small pox. In March, Mr. Stephen Green of Manchester and his son Frank both contracted the disease. Also a Miss Sargent of Hillsborough died of small pox…”it is believed she contracted the disease by picking rags in a paper mill.” In April a pest house was set up to care for nine small-pox patients. In May a 16-year old adopted daughter of Mr. Seavey died of small pox in New Boston. A month later “The Farmer’s Cabinet,” of Amherst NH advertised a new book, “Epidemic and Contagious Diseases,” reportedly with the “newest and best treatment for all cases” including that of Small Pox, with “twenty-four chromatic illustrations.”

There was even small-pox humor.  In 1873 the following was posted in “The Farmer’s Cabinet:” — A farmer on the road between Charlton and Worcester having been terribly annoyed by drummers, put up the sign, “No sewing machine wanted. Got one.” It was of no use however; the next one wanted to see the machine.  The farmer has now put out ‘Small pox’ and says it works first-rate.”

As late as 1876 small pox was still found in New Hampshire, when a case was discovered in Peterborough.

To learn more about this disease see the links below.

Janice

**ADDITIONAL READING**

Genealogue: “Not the Scabs She Would Have Picked“-

-Smallpox: Innoculation, Vaccination, Eradication

Smallpox disease overview (CDC)

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