Among the unavoidable trials of life in the 1800s were the recurring waves of infectious diseases that frequently troubled cities, towns, and rural settlements. These epidemics and pandemics were made even more disturbing due to the general scientific ignorance of the times.
And although inoculation for the prevention of smallpox1 was practiced in Europe and North America at various times during the eighteenth century, the concept of “germ theory” would not gain widespread acceptance until the second half of the nineteenth century, and routine vaccination to prevent common illnesses would not be in general use until the decades after World War II. Disease was an omnipresent part of life in early America.
Fever ravages Stanstead
In the winter of 1811, a particularly virulent outbreak occurred in the vicinity of Stanstead, Lower Canada, as reported on page 3 of the Bridgeport, Connecticut, Republican Farmer of Wednesday, February 27, 1811:
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Echoes of earlier epidemics…
This Stanstead outbreak occurred in early 1811. Jonathan M. Clark was born nearby the next year, on November 28, 1812. It’s very likely that his family or their neighbors were touched by this virulent epidemic.
Mentioned in the news item are the towns of Barnet and Pecham [sic, Peacham]. These were located about 60 miles due south of Stanstead in Caledonia county, Vermont. This would have been a cause for worry for anyone living in the northeast United States. Stanstead may have been a new settlement in the distant wilds of Lower Canada, but Caledonia county was in a more developed and well-traveled part of New England. An epidemic there could easily spread elsewhere.
What was the malady?
If the spreading disease was indeed “spotted fever,” that would be distressing, as the term spotted fever was used in the 1800s to refer to what we would now call typhus. And the comparison with the late-eighteenth century outbreaks of yellow fever in New York and Philadelphia would have given the 1811 reader serious concern, as these were well-known, major public health disasters of the early Federal era.2
Jonathan M. Clark lived in a time before germ theory, sanitary waste disposal and widespread vaccination were understood or commonly practiced. Epidemics and pandemics were an unavoidable fact of life. Many people in the Americas suffered and died from diseases that we can now avoid or reduce by using sensible precautions and getting regular vaccinations.3
Our ancestors had to do their best as they suffered through the mysteries of wave after wave of epidemic disease. We (should) know better. Wash your hands, stay at home, and if you do go out, please keep your distance and wear a mask.
- Inoculation to prevent smallpox has an interesting history, beginning in China, perhaps as early as the eleventh century. During the American Revolutionary War, the Continental Army was losing many more men to disease in camp (90%) than to British gunfire (10%). In response, General George Washington ordered the mass inoculation of the army with variola—to prevent smallpox—beginning in February, 1777. “With few surgeons, fewer medical supplies, and no experience, Washington conducted the first mass inoculation of an army at the height of a war that immeasurably transformed the international system.” (source)
The positive effect on the health of Washington’s army was so pronounced, it led to the U.S. Army adopting a smallpox vaccination requirement for all new recruits that had not already contracted the disease itself. Since Jonathan M. Clark served in the army from 1833-1836, it is certain that he was immune to smallpox by 1833, probably by being vaccinated by an army surgeon at the beginning of his enlistment. (Of course, he could have had the disease prior to enlistment, but his enlistment papers do not note any of the characteristic pockmarks typical of smallpox survivors, and his face in his only existing photograph does not show signs of the disease either.)
- For more on the Philadelphia outbreaks, click here. For an interesting take on the New York yellow fever epidemics, click here. For an detailed long read on yellow fever in New York, click here.
- It should be noted that many of these pandemic diseases had a particularly brutal effect on the native peoples of the New World. Many indigenous populations were seriously reduced—some even wiped out—by waves of smallpox and other Old World diseases. This is an important story and deserves a proper examination in future posts.