In January 1764, a “speckled monster” struck Boston, forcing businesses to shutter and residents to isolate themselves in their homes or flee the city for months. Not until summer did the threat lift enough to allow Bostonians to resume some semblance of normalcy. So what was this “monster” that disrupted the lives, work and routines of thousands of Bostonians?
It was a virus.
Nicknamed the “speckled monster” due to the oozing eruptions that developed on the skin of sufferers, the smallpox virus reigned unchallenged for centuries. Evoking universal dread for its punishing mortality rate, smallpox also inflicted excruciating pain and sometimes lifelong disfigurement upon its unlucky victims.
Along with the rest of the world in 2020, Boston is battling a new “speckled monster,” COVID-19. But this is not the first time Bostonians have confronted the challenges wrought by viral contagion. The current struggle with coronavirus bears striking parallels to the Boston smallpox epidemic of 1764, when city officials and medical professionals worked to #flattenthecurve, eighteenth-century style.
To combat the spread of the smallpox virus in 1764, Boston selectmen required residents to report any ill members of their household. Officials also pinpointed the neighborhoods containing the highest numbers of cases, monitored the status of ill individuals, and tried to maneuver the afflicted into hospitals.
During the epidemic, trade and commerce ground to a halt. Many Boston business owners and shopkeepers fled to the more isolated and healthy countryside to work and sell wares—an early example of “remote work.”
Isolation and quarantine—until recently so alien to twenty-first century minds—were well-known to past generations. Both practices had long served as primary methods of controlling the spread of smallpox. Households containing a smallpox-stricken member were often marked with a flag to indicate quarantine and guarded to ensure that no one entered or exited. In 1764, the home of Paul Revere was flagged and guarded due to one of his children contracting the virus.
Similar to today’s moratorium on funeral services, the bodies of smallpox victims, too, were interred without ceremony. Gravediggers were instructed to remove the body from the house under cover of night. The body would then be spirited off to the cemetery for immediate late-night burial.
City officials also understood that if smallpox spread out of control before spring arrived, it would be difficult for Bostonians to procure any firewood during the hard winter months. The selectmen determined that “no more than four or six feet of wood” should be carried to any single household, to ensure an adequate supply for as many others as possible—similar, perhaps, to how some groceries and paper products are rationed today.
As the number of smallpox cases increased, government officials authorized inoculation hospitals to be established for the first time in remote locations around Boston. Inoculation was a voluntary procedure where a physician would make an incision in the skin of a healthy person and load it with matter taken from the pustules of an infected individual. The inoculee would then suffer through what would likely be a mild case of smallpox. If a person survived a battle with the speckled monster, they would never catch smallpox again as inoculation bestowed the parting gift of lifelong immunity.
As many modern-day medical professionals are sleeping at hospitals as they battle today’s coronavirus pandemic, the doctors of 1764 worked and slept at inoculation hospitals, too. About a decade before dying a hero at the Battle of Bunker Hill, Dr. Joseph Warren served as a physician at the inoculation hospital situated on Castle William where he worked “day and night” in concert with colleagues to conduct hundreds and possibly thousands of inoculations.
During the epidemic, Doctor Warren and a colleague inoculated future President John Adams and his brother, who had chosen to travel from Braintree to Boston for inoculation. During his convalescence at a private home, John corresponded with Abigail Smith, his future wife. Afraid of transmitting the disease to her via his letters, he urged her to disinfect them lest she somehow contract the disease from the paper.
For anyone spraying the mail with Lysol before bringing it into the house, know that the future First Lady, too, disinfected her mail. But instead of spraying with Lysol, John’s letters were fumigated by burning brimstone and riffling the pages through the sulphurous smoke. The smoke produced by the burning brimstone was thought to possess purifying properties which would kill any lingering smallpox contagion.
By early summer 1764 the number of smallpox cases had notably decreased. Just as today’s authorities are working toward an incremental “re-opening” as coronavirus hopefully trends downward, officials in 1764 navigated a gradual return to normalcy. Anticipating the return of residents who had fled the virus by relocating to the countryside, the selectmen implored Bostonians to cleanse and disinfect everything that might still retain traces of infection, so as not to jeopardize the health of any returning residents.
They also urged the inhabitants who had sheltered in the countryside to delay their return to Boston and not rush back into the city—probably in an effort to allow remaining smallpox cases to resolve, and reduce the risk of the virus resurging.
As the threat of the speckled monster dissipated later that summer, Boston heaved a collective sigh of relief. The pulse of the town flickered back to life and the familiar rhythms of business, trade and movement resumed. It would still be many years, however, until the speckled monster paid its final visit to Boston. Future generations would continue to fight it into the next two centuries, deploying as weapons their most sophisticated scientific knowledge and best public health practices.
At long last, the speckled monster that had once seemed undefeatable was conquered. Over two hundred years after the epidemic of 1764, smallpox was finally eradicated. We can hope that before long, coronavirus, too, will pay its final visit, and fade into history.
Record Commissioners of the City of Boston, containing the Selectman’s Minutes 1764-1768 (Boston: Rockwell and Churchill City Printers, 1889), archive.org/details/reportofrecordco2017bost/mode/2up
John Adams to Abigail Smith, April 13, 1764, Adams Family Papers: An Electronic Archive, Massachusetts Historical Society, www.masshist.org/digitaladams/.
Abigail Smith to John Adams, April 30, 1764, Adams Family Papers: An Electronic Archive, Massachusetts Historical Society, www.masshist.org/digitaladams/.