Starting from Scratch: Combating “the Itch”

"Stop Doctor I have a little account to settle with you," drawing c. 1780. (Library of Congress)

Although it may not have been fatal, scabies brought more patients to British Army hospitals during the Seven Years’ War than any other condition, according to British Army surgeon Donald Monro. Its cause was known to be “Little Insects Lodged in the Skin, which Many Authors Affirm They Have Seen in the Pustules by the Help of a Microscope.” One German surgeon of the Seven Years War reported that half the soldiers of a regiment at any given time were infected. Few individuals escaped from the disease, “neither officer, nor physician, nor surgeon,” a sentiment echoed by an observer of Napoleon’s Italian campaign in 1796-1797. Caused by the bites of tiny mites, little red pustules appeared on the body. In severe cases almost the entire torso was covered in a green hairy crust resembling moss. The recommended treatment for the Itch was sulfur applied in either an ointment or a soft soap.[1]

Benjamin Franklin’s mother-in-law was selling cures as early as 1731. She:

continues to make and sell her well known Ointment for the ITCH , with which she has cured abundance of People in and about this City for many Years past. It is always effectual for that purpose, and never fails to perform the Cure speedily. It also kills or drives away all Sorts of Lice in once or twice using. It has no offensive Smell; but rather a pleasant one; and may be used without the least Apprehension of Danger, even to a sucking Infant, being perfectly innocent and safe. Price 2 s. a Gallypot containing an Ounce; which is sufficient to remove the most inveterate Itch , and render the Skin clear and smooth.

There was also Hodgsons “excellent tincture for the itch;” Dr. Pike’s “Ointment for the Itch;” and Doctor Hill’s “much celebrated essence of water dock, and tincture of valerian; the former is said to cure the scurvy, itch , leprosy, and all disorders of the skin proceeding from an impure state of the blood; the latter to remove all kinds of fits lowness of spirits, giddiness, headachs, melancholy, and all hysterick and hypochondriack affections.”[2]

Agnes Gordon of Boston was selling a “SMELLING MIXTURE—An infallible Cure for the Itch, or any other breaking out” in 1766, and still marketing the product in 1782. Her product was in competition with “Baron SCHOMBERG’S Grand Prophylactic Linament . . .  acts not only as a preventative, but as a curative in most venerial complaints, where external applications are necessary, and it is likewise a neat and efficacious remedy for the ITCH, or and kind of cutaneous eruptions.”[3]

Self treatment for the itch could be fatal. Two young men on Long Island “unfortunately Poisoned themselves by taking a Quantity of Ratsbane, inwardly instead of Brimstone for the Itch, the one of them expird in about Ten, and the other in about Thirteen Hours after they had taken it.” In Massachusetts “A grand daughter and a young woman her acquaintance, together with the maid servant, having accidentally caught the itch, innocently procured a preparation of mercury, as a remedy to expel it, which it seems they heated over a pan of coals, and put into a bowl, with which they dressed themselves . . .  these three unfortunate young women were found dead; the maid servant on the floor, and the other two sitting on the bed, with their heads leaning against each other, one of them having a candlestick in her hand, and the poisonous bowl lying by them.” At Danbury in December 1779, James Thacher recorded that “A soldier having anointed himself for the itch, with mercurial ointment, was found dead this morning; and another suffered the same fate, in consequence of drinking six gills of rum.”[4]

At Fort Montgomery on April 20, 1776, an officer of the 24th Massachusetts Regiment recorded a mutiny over conditions:

My own detachment of Men came on the parrade & Embodied with their Arms & Bayonets Fix’t & sent for me to them, going up I soon found a Mutiny among them they refusing to go on Guard or Fatigue they said they had not a Second Shirt that they were Louzy & had most of them got the Itch, there case was deplorable it’s true but they took a very wrong Method to get relief, As we were ordered here on Command, here we must Stay I knew not well what to do, the other Troops here not being Arm’d & these all joyning together with the Train I was obliged to lay down the Consequence of their behaviour & threten them to return their conduct to the General, they then the most of them being afraid began to comply, and at last returned to their duty, Some of them behaved verry Insultingly and one Doughlass in particular[5]

In October 1776, William Winds of the 1st New Jersey Regiment wrote to General Horatio Gates:

Give me leave also to inform your Honour, that our Men are in a most wretched Condition for Want of Clothing and Blankets to screen them from the Inclemency of the nearly approaching Season; and what I presume adds greater Weight to this Reason is, that our Men are very severely afflicted with the Disease called the Itch, supposed to be communicated to them in the Inoculation for the Small-pox in June last. This Disorder, Sir, rages in an uncommon Degree among our People; and as their Habitations expose them so much to the Weather, the Doctor deems it highly dangerous to attempt their Cure.

Two days after the Battle of Trenton, John Greenwood determined not to reenlist because, “I had the itch then so bad that my breeches stuck to my thighs, all the skin being off, and there were hundreds of vermin upon me, owing to a whole month’s march and having been obliged, for the sake of keeping warm, to lie down at night among the soldiers who were huddled close together like hogs.” After leaving the army Greenwood bought a horse, but “riding him was out of the question, for we were quite sensitive in those parts which were to come in contact with his back.” When he “arrived at my father’s house in Boston the first thing done was to bake my clothes and then to anoint me all over with brimstone.” [6]

While serving with Arnold’s fleet on Lake Champlain, Bayze Wells reported that on September 16 he and another officer “Bathd for the Itch with Brimstone tallow and tar mix together and Lay in our Cloaths. On September 18 he recorded he “Bathd for the Itch the third time.”[7]

Without sulfur, other remedies were tried, like this one by prisoners of war at Quebec. “Having had but one shirt at the time of our capture it was soon destroyed by the wearing, and the repeated washings it required . . .  Rising early, the prime object was to make a strong ley of wood-ashes, of which we had plenty, into which the linnen was plunged and concocted for an hour or more, under a hope of putting an end to certain vagrants, of a genera with which most of us are acquainted.”[8]

Another cure, used at Fort Schuyler in New York in September 1776, was mercurial ointment. Captain Joseph Bloomfield found the cure worse than the problem:

Unwell with a Pain in all my Bones owing to a Cold I have caught after the use of too much Mercurial Ointment for the Itch, a troublesome Pestilence prevalent throughout the whole Camp amongst both Officers & Soldiers.” Twelve days later he recorded that he was still unwell from the “Quick-silver Oinmt. for the Itch . . . & My exposing myself on my March . . .  by wadeing through the Mohawk-River . . .  The Glands about my Face & Throat are so swollen that I can take no other Nourishment than spoon-Victuals.[9]

American prisoners in Plymouth, England in 1777 took “a large spoonful of sulphur mixed with honey and cream tartar, morning and evening, and in the evening use the ointment.”[10]

A soldier’s note bookentry for 1778 or 1779 contains “A Receipt to cure the most inveterate itch.”

Take four ounces of crude brimstone two drachms of Sal-ammoniac, finely powdered and with a sufficient quantity of hogs-lard work it up into an ointment this rubbed in well on the parts affected, will be attended with the desired success, though the disorder be never so inveterate and for case safety and expedition gives place to no application whatever that can be made use of to remove that troublesome complaint.[11]

It should be noted that once cured the itch could be caught repeatedly unless a high degree of sanitation was followed. On November 16, 1777, Simeon Perkins of Liverpool, Nova Scotia recorded his cure: “I am curing the itch by an ointment of tarr, brimstone, and mutton tallow. 1 pint tar, 1 lb. brimstone, 1 lb. mutton tallow, put into a piece of canvass and hung in the corner to drain out, with which we oint our bodies at night, sleep in my tarry cloaths. Next night oint again, and wash and put on clean cloaths.” In August 1779 he “begin to cure myself & Family of that Louthsome Distemper, the Itch. we Oint with Brimstone, melted in Fresh Butter. I roast by the Fire one Hour, & go to Bed with the Ointment on me.” But had to do it again the next day. The third day he was “very Sore, having many small ulcers come out upon me, suppose in Consiquence of the Itch.”[12]

Col. Philip Van Cortlandt marched Gen. Enoch Poor’s Brigade to Fish Kill on route to join Washington in Pennsylvania. There he “delayed a few days for the men to cure the Itch in the Barracks at that place with hogs fat and Brimstone.” General Israel Putnam reported, “as soon as this operation is over they will march Immediately.” In mid November, some of Gen. Ebenezer Learned’s Brigade was also delayed in part due to the itch. Lt. Col. Ezra Badlam was left at Goshen with 273 men “Which are Chiefly Bare Footed, in Deed almost Naked. I have Since Colonel Bailey Marched, Taken up Several Rooms in order [to] Cure a Considerable Part of My Detachment Which are Rotten With the Itch; if I Could only Geet Shoes for the Men I could March on.”[13]

On his way to join Washington’s army in November, William Weeks of New Hampshire commented that: “Our Officers & Men . . .  have the Itch very badly. Soon . . .  I hope cured of the Itch.” Two days before the Army arrived at Valley Forge, William Bradford Jr. wrote “Tho they say the Devil is in Camp I can find no Brimstone—the truth is a certain Disorder has been so prevalent, that all has been used, & I believe it would require a Shower of it, like that on Sodom—totally to eradicate it.”[14]

Col. Henry B. Livingston of the 4th New York Regiment lamented on December 24 that he had only eighteen men fit for duty due to lack of clothing “and to add to this miserable tale we are becoming exceedingly lousy; I am not myself exempted from this misfortune.” The next day Maj. Gen. Johann De Kalb wrote to France that: “Our soldiers are also infected with the itch without the hospitals or anyone troubling themselves. I have just been shown one of them all covered with scabs. I ordered my seven regiments to hastily construct huts proportionate to the number of the unfortunates in order to separate them from the rest of the troops and have them treated to stop the infection.”[15]

Militia Capt. Henry Pawling, a prisoner of war on Long Island, recorded his ordeal in 1778:

Jan, 9th. Capt. Godwin, Capt. Gilleland, Lieut. Dodge, Ensign Swartwout, Q. M., carpenter and myself undertook to kill the itch with hog fat, fire and brimstone. In the afternoon a despatch was sent off a mile and a half for spirits; they returned about sunset with a jug and two bottles full of good old whiskey. Mrs. Ramson, that motherly soul, supplied us with a kitchen tub, pot and soap to clean up and a negro to wait on us. We conven’d about 8 o’clock with each a blanket and proceeded on our dirty frolick about ten o’clock in high spirits, about eleven some began to be unruly and about half after eleven one was void of strength, the kind company plunged him in a tub of water, was well cleaned, his clothes put on and he was laid aside. About 12 another kicked up, was washed, his clothes put on and laid aside, about half past twelve another gave up the ghost, he was washed and taken care of, the last one was full of fight. Providence, who always favored us, ordered three of the company to take care of the other three. About one o’clock the frolick broke up, the room cleaned up, new straw brought, the blanket spread and down we lay until morning when we all repaired to our quarters except one who remained yet sleeping. The affection we had for the one left called us back again to see whether he was dead or alive. About 10 o’clock we went in to see him; he was called upon and he lifted up his eyes like the wicked man in torment, cry’d out for a little water to cool his tongue, the spirits being all drank; a stiff grog was made and given him, he was left until the afternoon to recover his senses, which took him until night.

Jonathan Todd of the 7th Connecticut Regiment at Valley Forge was much more to the point on January 17: “Ointed for the Itch and got Drunk.”[16]

Accurate rolls of the strength of the Continental Army were constantly affected by clothing shortages and the prevalence of the itch. Major General William Heath wrote to Washington from Peeks-Kill on January 10, 1777 that “There are here a number of Recruits belonging to the State of Massachusetts Bay—they are almost naked, & so infected with the Itch, as to be unfit for Service—their Officers are importuning of me that the men may return home, cleanse & recruit themselves; this I am confident would promote the Service, as it respects these Individuals; but I find that they have grown uneasy, on Account of those belonging to Connecticut, being gone home.”In March 1778, Rufus Putnam at Albany sent Washington a return of Nixon’s Brigade with the caveat that: “I think it my duty to Inform you that altho many are Returned Sick yet their are Really but few, for want of Cloathing and being under the opperation of Curing the Itch, many are Returned sick who are otherwise well.”[17]

The itch did not respect rank. Major Samuel Ward of Rhode Island wrote on April 29, 1778, that: “I am peculiurly unfortunate in one respect—I have catched the Itch again but will not cure till I come home as there us twenty chances to one of my catching it again on the road.” Colonel Israel Angell recorded in his diary for January 8, 1779 that “in the Evening Ointed for the Itch which I had bin so unfortunate as to catch but where was unknown to me thus Ended the Day with the Devil of a Stink.”[18]

Though many things had improved at Valley Forge by May 1778, some things had not, as Anthony Wayne lamented:

For God sake give us (if you can’t give us anything else) give us Linnen, that we may be Enabled to Rescue our poor Worthy fellows from the Vermin which are now Devouring them—and which has Emaciated & Reduced Numbers exactly to Answer the Description of Shakespears Apothecary— some hundreds we thought prudent to Desposite some Six feet under ground—who died of a Disorder Called the Mease’s i.e. for want of Clothing—the whole Army at present are sick of the same Disorder—but the Pennsa. Line seem to be the most Infected—a pointed and Speedy exertion of Congress—or Employing an Other Doctrmay yet remove the Disorder—which Once done I pledge my Reputation we shall remove the Enemy—for I would much Rather Risque my life, Honor & the fate of America on our present force— properly Uniformed—than on Double their Numbers Covered with rags & Crawling with Vermin.[19]

Perhaps in jest, Lt. Col. Robert Troup wrote from Philadelphia to Alexander Hamilton and James McHenry, to “Be cautious of handling this Letter. There has been a general shaking of Hands with the Members of Congress& I may have catched the Itch.”In a post war reminiscence a soldier of the 5th Massachusetts wrote: “I have heard of an officer dining with genl Washington. While at the generals table a Lous appeared on one of sd officers ruffels, on that the officer put it back in his bosom with orders not to leave head quarters again.”[20]

Two years after Valley Forge the Itch still thrived. At Morristown in December 1780, General Steuben inspected the New York Brigade and found “the most shocking picture of misery I have ever seen, scarce a man having where withal to cover his nakedness in this severe season and a great number very bad with the Itch.”[21]

In 1782 William Heath reported to Washington from the Highlands in New York: “The troops are recovering from the smallpox. I apprehend between twenty and thirty have died in the course of inoculation—but a considerable part of them by a putrid fever, supposed to be principally owing to a habit rendered almost putrid by the itch.” A few months later the inspector general reported continuing problems in his inspection report for May. “The Regimental Surgeons complain of the Want of Medicine; evin the Article of Ointment for the Itch is denyed them, tho a Disorder prevalent among young recruits.”[22]

Winding down the war did not mean the end of the problem. On January 5, 1783, John Cochran at Newburgh, wrote to Henry Knox at West Point, disappointed that Knox could not supply any brimstone. He asked Knox to supply him an order for one thousand pounds of brimstone, from Springfield Massachusetts. Knox complied the next day with a letter to Springfield ordering “one thousand weight” of brimstone to the order of Doctor Cochran.[23]

One wonders if the soldiers of the Continental Army would have been amused or insulted by Washington’s diary entry of September 16, 1768: “Anointed all my Hounds (as well old Dogs as Puppies) which appeard to have the Mange with Hogs Lard & Brimstone.”[24]

 

[1]Guy Williams, Age of Agony(Chicago: Academy Chicago Publishers, 1986), 200-201, cited in Lawrence R. Schmidt, “Old Barracks Museum: Historic Furnishing Report,” Draft (Trenton: NJ: Old Barracks Museum, 1991), 87; Mary C. Gillett, The Army Medical Department, 1775-1818(Washington, D.C.: Center of Military History, United States Army, 1981), 6.

[2]ThePennsylvania Gazette,August 26, 1731;The Boston-Gazette, And The Country Journal, April 7, 1766; The Pennsylvania Ledger, March 25, 1775.

[3]The Boston-Gazette, And The Country Journal, April 7, 1766; January 28, 1782.

[4]The New-York Weekly Journal, February 2, 1746; The Pennsylvania Evening Post, March 16, 1775; James Thacher, Military Journal of the American Revolution, From the Commencement to the Disbanding of the American Army(1862; reprint, New York: The New York Times & Arno Press, 1969), 180.

[5]Lawrence B. Romaine, ed., From Cambridge to Champlain, March 18 to May 5, 1776: A Manuscript Diary (Middleboro, Mass.: privately printed and published, 1957), 24-25.

[6]William Winds to Horatio Gates, October 9, 1776, Peter Force, American Archives Fifth Series (Washington: M. St. Clair Clarke and Peter Force, 1851), 2: 964-65; The Revolutionary Services of John Greenwood of Boston and New York, 1775-1783ed. Isaac Greenwood (New York: De Vinne Press, 1922), 44-45, 47.

[7]“Journal of Bayze Wells of Farmington, in the Canada Expedition, 1775-77,” Collections of the Connecticut Historical Society, vol. 7 (Hartford: The Society, 1899), 278, 279.

[8]John Joseph Henry, An Accurate and Interesting Account of the Hardships and Suffering of that Band of Heroes, Who Traversed the Wilderness in the Campaign Against Quebec in 1775(Lancaster: William Greer, 1812), reprinted in William H. Egle ed., Pennsylvania Archives, 2nd ser., (Harrisburg: E. K. Meyers, 1890), 15:179.

[9]Citizen Soldier; The Revolutionary War Journal of Joseph Bloomfielded. Mark E. Lender & James Kirby Martin (Newark: New Jersey Historical Society, 1982), 105, 107.

[10]Charles Herbert, A Relic of the Revolution(Boston, Charles H. Peirce, 1847; reprint, New York: Arno Press, 1968), 33.

[11]Unidentified Notebook, M 859, Record Group 93, roll 98, doc. no. 28365, frame 624, National Archives.

[12]Harold A. Innis, ed., The Diary of Simeon Perkins, 1766-1780 (Toronto: Champlain Society, 1948), 171; 248.

[13]Jacob Judd, ed. Philip Van Cortlandt’s Revolutionary War Correspondence and Memoirs (Tarrytown, 1976), 49; Israel Putnam to Washington, November 7,1777, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/03-12-02-0147; Lt. Col. Ezra Badlam to Governor George Clinton, November 15, 1777, Public Papers of George Clinton(New York: New York State, 1900), 2: 521.

[14]William Weeks to Major William Weeks, November 3, 1777, Hiram Bingham, Jr., ed., Five Straws Gathered from Revolutionary Fields(Cambridge, 1901), 20; William Bradford, Jr. to sister Rachel, Camp on Schuylkill, December 17, 1777, “Selections From the Wallace Papers,” Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography40 (1916): 336.

[15]Henry B. Livingston to Robert R. Livingston, December 24, 1777, R. R. Livingston/Bancroft Transcripts, New York Public Library; Baron de Kalb to the Comte de Broglie, December 12, 17 and 25, 1777, original letter in cipher, deciphered and translated, France, Archives des Affaires étrangeres, Etats Unis, Vol. 2, No. 153, in Benjamin F. Stevens ed., Facsimiles of Manuscripts in European Archives Relating to America, 1773-1783(London, 1889-1895), vol. 8, document 761.

[16]“Journal of Henry Pawling,” Olde Ulster: An Historical and Genealogical Magazine 2 (1906), 21-22; Jonathan Todd Journal, Connecticut State Library.

[17]William Heath to George Washington, January 10, 1777, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/03-08-02-0035; Rufus Putnam to Washington, March 12, 1778, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/03-14-02-0129.

[18]Samuel Ward to Phebe Ward, April 28 and 29, 1778, Ward Papers, Rhode Island Historical Society; Edward Field, ed., Diary of Colonel Israel Angell Commanding the Second Rhode Island Continental Regiment During the American Revolution, 1778-1781(Providence, RI: Preston and Rounds, 1899. reprint, New York: Arno Press, 1971), 39.

[19]Anthony Wayne to Richard Peters, May 13, 1778, Wayne Papers, Historical Society of Pennsylvania.

[20]Robert Troup to Alexander Hamilton and James McHenry, August 11, 1779, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Hamilton/01-02-02-0389;Henry Hallowell Journal in Howard Kendall Sanderson, Lynn in the Revolution(Boston: W. B. Clarke Company, 1909), 1: 163

[21]Russell Frank Weigley, Morristown: a History And Guide, Morristown National Historical Park, New Jersey(Washington, D.C.: Division of Publications, National Park Service, U.S. Dept. of the Interior, 1984), 62.

[22]William Heath to Washington, February 20, 1782, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/99-01-02-07849; Friedrich Wilhelm Ludolf Gerhard Augustin, Baron [von] Steuben, to Washington, May 1782, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/99-01-02-08578.

[23]John Cochran to Henry Knox, January 5, 1783, GLC02437.01802, Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History; Knox to William Hawes or person in charge at Springfield, January 6, 1783.

GLC02437.01806, Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History.

[24]https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/01-02-02-0003-0027-0003

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