Smoking the Smallpox Sufferers

The War Years (1775-1783)

January 9, 2020
by Katie Turner Getty Also by this Author


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At about midnight on September 29, 1792, Ashley Bowen and his young assistant, Tucker Huy, heard a carriage clatter up the Boston Road and arrive at the Marblehead gate. Upon learning the “coach-full of men” had come from Boston, Bowen brooked no complaints when he approached the carriage and informed the passengers, “You must be smoke[d].”[1]

Practiced in Boston and its environs during the American Revolution and in the decades following, the art of smoking was rooted in “the ancient records of physic”[2] as a purification method. According to Dr. James Lind’s 1774 Dissertation on Fevers and Infections, “a judicious and proper application of fire and smoke is the true means appropriated for the destruction and utter extinction of the most malignant sources of disease.”[3] In particular, smoking was thought to neutralize the great mortal terror of human history—smallpox.

As ineffectual as it might strike twenty-first century minds, smoking was believed to bestow salutary effects by cleansing individuals so that they could travel freely and interact with others without communicating disease. During the siege of Boston by Patriot forces in 1775-76, smoking was employed as a prophylactic measure to prevent people displaced by the war from spreading smallpox through the Massachusetts countryside and infecting the Continental Army.

One instance of smoking that occurred during the civilian exodus from Boston in the beginning of the siege was vividly recalled by Josiah Quincy, son of attorney Josiah Quincy, Jr. and his wife, Abigail (Phillips). Only three years old when his family fled besieged Boston, Quincy with his widowed mother and her sisters piled into a carriage and trundled down Boston Neck, the only land route out of Boston.[4]

The siege of Boston had begun in April 1775, when inflamed Massachusetts militiamen drove the British back into Boston from Lexington and Concord. Militia companies from the surrounding countryside poured into the Boston area, locking thousands of British troops on the Boston peninsula, then laid siege to the city. As spring turned to summer, disease ravaged the population trapped in Boston. People succumbed to illness, sickening due to food shortages, subsistence on salt provisions and the scarcity of supplies.

During the siege, Gen. Thomas Gage, senior British officer in Boston, permitted some of Boston’s inhabitants to leave the town. The process, however, was erratic and unpredictable. If and when allowed out, civilians crossed Boston Neck and entered the countryside in a state of uncertainty and carried few possessions. A common sight was “parents that are lucky enough to procure papers, with bundles in one hand & a string of children in the other, wandering out of the town (with only a Sufferance of one days provision) not knowing whither they’ll go.”[5]

Josiah Quincy recalled that “smoking entailed the use of a structure called a smokehouse about the size of a sentry box or perhaps a modern garden shed—intended not for meats or tools, but for people.” (From Bakewell, Electric Science: Its History, Phenomena, and Applications, 1853)

The carriage carrying Josiah and his mother and aunts in their flight from Boston did not simply pass uninterrupted through the lines and wheel into the countryside. Decades later, Josiah recounted what happened when he and his family reached the Roxbury lines. “At the line which separates Boston and Roxbury there were troops stationed, and a sentry-box on the east side of the street erected. At this point the carriage was stopped, all its inmates made to descend and enter the sentry-box successively. On each side of the box was a small platform, round which each of the inmates was compelled to walk, and remain until our clothes were thoroughly fumigated with the fumes of brimstone cast upon a body of coals in the centre of the box. This operation was required to prevent infection.”[6]

As Quincy recalled, smoking entailed the use of a structure called a smokehouse about the size of a sentry box or perhaps a modern garden shed—intended not for meats or tools, but for people. A fire of wood or charcoal would be lit inside the smokehouse and then topped with materials thought to possess disinfecting properties—particularly brimstone (sulphur). People entered the smokehouse and the door would be closed behind them. The smokehouse would then fill with sulphurous fumes from the fire which would fumigate the occupants and—at least in theory—destroy any traces of smallpox. Individuals would then emerge from the smokehouse and be declared safe to circulate through the countryside without communicating any lingering smallpox contagion from Boston.

Passing Through The Lines
That summer and fall, boatloads of fleeing civilians from Boston started landing unexpectedly at Winnisimmet Ferry in Chelsea, just across Boston Harbor. Their arrival startled the American soldiers stationed there serving under Lt. Col. Loammi Baldwin.[7] These soldiers, along with a committee dispatched by the Massachusetts Provincial Congress, managed the refugees landing at Winnsimmet in an effort to prevent any potential smallpox-carriers from passing through the lines.

Even more refugees came out of Boston in November and December 1775 when Gen. William Howe (now senior British officer in Boston after replacing General Gage) loaded hundreds of Bostonians onto transport ships and forced them to disembark on Point Shirley, a remote, beachy peninsula to the east beyond Chelsea. Some of these civilians were infected with smallpox.

By this time, winter had settled over Massachusetts and smallpox was flaring in Boston. Gen. George Washington and the provincial congress scrambled to provide shelter and provisions to the displaced Bostonians at Point Shirley. Yet despite these efforts, illness raged among the refugees and some died right on the beach. As the tide of desperately-ill refugees threatened to spill into the countryside from Boston, General Washington grew even more concerned about smallpox permeating the Continental lines. “I have order’d Provision to them till they can be remov’d, but am under dreadful apprehension’s of their communicating the small Pox as it is Rief in Boston.”[8] General Washington knew that if smallpox broke out among his troops, the army could be decimated.

Earlier in the season, in an effort to keep the army and surrounding countryside as contagion-free as possible, the provincial congress had resolved, “And whereas . . . the Small-Pox is now in Boston . . . [The committee] are strictly enjoined to make use of every precaution, by smoking, cleansing, airing, and detaining persons or effects, as they may judge necessary to prevent a communication of that distemper to the Army and Inhabitants of this Colony.”[9] The refugees who came out at Winnisimmet Ferry and nearby Point Shirley were accordingly smoked.

To modern minds, the level of trust placed in the efficacy of smoking is unfathomable. Even the army—whose existence might have hinged upon being spared the ravages of smallpox—trusted smoking to eradicate any smallpox contagion that might cling to recent escapees from Boston.  In December, Capt. Richard Dodge, stationed at Chelsea under Lieutenant Colonel Baldwin, wrote to General Washington that eight men had escaped Boston by boat the previous night and landed at Winnisimmet Ferry where they were received by the main guard. Captain Dodge noted that one of the escaped men expressed eagerness to see Maj. Thomas Mifflin whom he had previously served under.  Major Mifflin, however, as quartermaster general of the Continental Army, was headquartered in the heart of the army at Cambridge. And yet, the committee dutifully cleansed the men “by Smooking them and Lett them pass,” trusting in the purifying power of the smoke despite smallpox prevailing in Boston.[10]

Since taking command at Cambridge in July 1775, General Washington had guarded against the ever-present threat that smallpox posed to the army, its potential for destruction never far from his mind. “If we escape the Small Pox in this Camp, & the Country round about, it will be miraculous.”[11]

A Hubbub
It is no surprise that getting shut in a smokehouse and nearly suffocated with brimstone fumes would elicit strong reactions from individuals. Josiah Quincy carried the vivid memory of his being smoked as a toddler at the Roxbury lines well into adulthood.

But not everyone reacted to their experience in a smokehouse with the equanimity evinced by three-year-old Josiah. The “coach-full of men” who arrived at the Marblehead gate on the night of September 29, 1792, certainly did not. Instead, these men from Boston interrupted Ashley Bowen’s streak of routine smoking and caused “a hubbub.”[12]

Sixty-four-year-old Bowen and his sixteen-year-old assistant, Tucker Huy, served as operators of the smokehouse at the gated entrance to the town of Marblehead, a fishing village about sixteen miles northeast of Boston. Due to an ongoing smallpox epidemic in Boston, the town selectmen had tasked Bowen with smoking any travelers who approached Marblehead on the Boston Road before permitting them through the town gate. Though the hubbub at the gate occurred several years after the end of the siege, it provides a glimpse of the smoking process—albeit, a smoking process gone awry.

In addition to working as a sailor, rigger, and smokehouse operator, Bowen was a prolific diarist and kept a journal for decades. In his diary, he diligently recorded the names of the dozens of individuals he smoked during his tenure at the smokehouse. Bowen, an active, hard-working man, attacked smoking with no less than his usual vigor. “Came from Boston Philip LeGrow and Dismore and were smoked. Ditto John Lewis, smoked. Ditto Mr. George Clark and Knapp both smoked. . . . This day came from Boston Stephen Blaney, smoked. Came from Boston a stranger, smoked. Ditto come from Boston two strangers, smoked.”[13] As during the siege, the smoking was intended to purify the travelers’ bodies and clothes and render them contagion-free—especially important in light of the mass inoculations which were occurring in Boston in September 1792.[14]

Having already been bluntly informed by Bowen upon their arrival that they “must be smoked,” a couple of the coach’s passengers acquiesced to entering the smokehouse but would not let Bowen shut the door. Then, upon double-checking the carriage, Bowen discovered two more passengers still sitting in it. He managed to get these two recalcitrant men to enter the smokehouse but they quickly re-emerged, exclaiming—no doubt due to the generous application of brimstone to the fire—“The old fellow hath an Hell! Let’s see how he likes it!” One of the men pulled Bowen by the arm and challenged him to “Come and smoke us!”[15]

At that moment, one of the other men dragged Tucker from the gate and broke open the lock. The coach-full of insufficiently-smoked men then rolled through the forced gate and on to Marblehead. Bowen grabbed his hat and started to race into town on foot but the carriage quickly overtook him and he returned to the smokehouse, only momentary defeated.[16] Bowen stormed into town at dawn the following morning, still fuming from the night before. He reported the transgressors to the Marblehead Selectmen. If Bowen knew what action, if any, the selectmen took against them, he did not record it in his journal.

A few days later, Bowen happened to meet up with a man named Swisher whom Bowen knew operated the smokehouse at Malden Bridge, located just outside Boston. Malden Bridge spanned the Mystic River and would have been the logical route for travelers from the Boston area to take to the North Shore.[17] Bowen’s indignation at the forcing of the Marblehead gate and nearly being dragged into the smokehouse must have still rankled in his mind. He asked Swisher about “the coach which came out of Boston last Saturday evening—if he had smoke[d] all of them.” Swisher recalled the carriage and told Bowen that he had smoked a few of the men, but some of them “were so obstinant that they would not come out of the coach.”[18]

In the end, the smoking was all for naught. From a modern perspective, it is unlikely if Bowen’s generous applications of brimstone or hot-footed pursuit of transgressors played any role in keeping the residents of Marblehead safe from smallpox. Likewise, the smoking of displaced persons at Winnisimmet Ferry, Point Shirley, and the Roxbury lines during the siege must have had no bearing on whether smallpox was communicated through the countryside.

Washington did receive his miracle—smallpox failed to make significant inroads against the Continental Army in the winter of 1775-76. But the efficacy of smoking is too doubtful to modern minds to be credited with saving the army or the inhabitants from the scourge of smallpox. The fumigation of people during the siege and in the years afterward likely had no salutary effects at all. To a modern-day observer, the health benefits bestowed by smoking are as hazy and nebulous as tendrils of smoke curling into the air from a brimstone fire, lingering for only a moment before dissipating in the winds of time.


[1]Ashley Bowen, ”The Journals of Ashley Bowen (1728-1813) of Marblehead,” ed. Philip Chadwick Foster Smith, Publications of the Colonial Society of MassachusettsVol. 45, Chapter XIX, (1973): 583-584,

[2]Encyclopaedia Britannica, 3rd ed., s.v. “medicine,”

[3]James Lind, An Essay On The Most Effectual Means of Preserving the Health of Seamen in the Royal Navy (London: D. Wilson and G. Nicol, in the Strand, 1774), 232,

[4]J. L. Bell, “Smoking Little Josiah,” Boston 1775 (blog),, accessed September 29, 2019. Also see Edmund Quincy, Life of Josiah Quincy of Massachusetts(Boston: Ticknor and Fields, 1868), 20-21.

[5]John Andrews, Letters of John Andrews, Esq., of Boston, 1772-1776, ed. Winthrop Sargent (Cambridge: Press of J. Wilson and Sons, 1866), 93,

[6]Quincy, Life of Josiah Quincy, 21.

[7]Loammi Baldwin to George Washington, July 29, 1775, Founders Online, National Archives,, accessed September 29, 2019.

[8]Washington to Joseph Reed, November 27, 1775, Founders Online, National Archives,, accessed September 29, 2019.

[9]Peter Force, ed., American Archives, Ser. 4, 3:1516, Digital Collections, Northern Illinois University.

[10]Richard Dodge to Washington, December 16, 1775,” Founders Online, National Archives,, accessed September 29, 2019.

[11]Washington to Reed, December 15, 1775,”Founders Online, National Archives,, accessed September 29, 2019.

[12]Bowen, Journals, 583.

[13]Ibid., 582.

[14]John B. Blake, Public Health in the Town of Boston 1630-1822 (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1959), 135-140. According to Blake, mass smallpox inoculations were occurring in Boston in September 1792. Blake calculates that by the end of that month, 8,114 Bostonians and 1,038 “outsiders” had been inoculated out of a population of 19,000 (138-139). The town of Marblehead was likely aware of the high number of smallpox sufferers in Boston as Bowen was asked by the Selectmen to take over the smokehouse on September 10. It is unclear whether the smokehouse was in operation all of the time or whether it operated only during epidemics.

[15]Bowen, Journals, 584.

[16]Ibid., 584.

[17]Ibid., 585.



    1. There was, in fact, a disease called the “Great Pox,” but this term was already falling into disuse in the English language by the latter part of the eighteenth century. We’ll leave it to readers to research the meaning of the term.

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