Disease

Great Sorrows, the Deadly “Throat Distemper” of 1735-36

A Lamentation

“What mourning Sighs, and loud Outcries,
comes from the Eastern Towns
Of Children crying, and others dying,
which makes a doleful Sound.”

Old North Burying Ground Ipswich: Samuel York, age 15, died Nov. 27, 1735. Son of Samuel Yorke and Mary. Photo by John Glassford
Old North Burying Ground Ipswich: Samuel York, age 15, died Nov. 27, 1735. Son of Samuel Yorke and Mary. Photo by John Glassford

Deadly epidemics of “throat distemper” raged in New England during the 18th Century. In 1736, while scarlet fever was spreading out from Boston, a diphtheria epidemic was descending from the north, spreading along the Old Bay Road into Essex County at the same time from opposite directions. The epidemic that ensued in Ipswich was similar to what was occuring in New Hampshire and other northern towns.

The contagion struck first in New Hampshire, killing almost 1% of the population. The epidemic spread south through the Massachusetts Bay Colony, and eventually into Connecticut. By the time it had run its course, 5000 people had died, with more than 75% of the deaths being children. In Hampton Falls, as of July 16, 1736, there had been 210 deaths, 160 under the age of ten. The epidemic affected Kensington a decade later, where 250 child victims of “throat distemper” died between 1744 and 1779.

Ipswich Old North Burying Ground: "Here lyes the body of Mary Peabody, deceased September 2, 1736 in ye tenth year of her aging
Ipswich Old North Burying Ground: “Here lyes the body of Mary Peabody, deceased September 2, 1736 in ye tenth year of her aging”

Ernest Caulfield described the path of the disease as it traveled south into Massachusetts in “A History of the Terrible Epidemic, Vulgarly called the Throat Distemper, as it Occurred in his Majesty’s New England Colonies between 1735 and 1740:

“It has long been known that there was an epidemic of some disease in Kingston, New Hampshire in 1735, but this was merely a small part of a greater epidemic which involved most of the inhabited regions of New England, and caused great loss of life wherever it appeared. In some of the towns nearly half of the children died, and at times it was feared that the disease would actually destroy the colonies.

“This deadly “Plague in the Throat” was not like any disease with which they were familiar. They knew that whooping-cough and measles could spread among children, but never had any such mortality accompanied a childhood epidemic.

“Late in the summer of 1735, the disease invaded Maine, which at that time was the northern part of Massachusetts, carried by countless travelers in many directions. Most of the old towns between Casco Bay and Boston were connected by the Bay Road which ran roughly parallel to the coast. A few weeks after the Kingston outbreak, the disease invaded Kittery and Hampton Falls, two important trading centers. From Kittery the infection was carried from Hampton Falls southward into the Province of Massachusetts Bay. Amesbury and Salisbury were soon involved, and by September the epidemic had crossed the Merrimack River, and like an invading army, concentrated its forces at Newbury before it started down the old Bay Path towards Boston.

Inscription on a tombstone at the Rowley Cemetery
HERE LIES Ye BODYES OF Ye SONS OF MR DANIEL JOHNSON
FRANCIS JOHNSON DIED AUGUST Ye 18 1737 IN Ye 11th YEAR OF HIS AGE
JUDAH DIED SEPTEMBER Ye 14th 1736 IN Ye 7th YEAR OF HIS AGE
OBADIAH DIED JUNE Ye 9th 1736 IN Ye 3 YEAR OF HIS AGE
ISAIAH DIED SEPTEM Ye 24 1736 AGED A 11 MONTHS AND 7 DAYS

Newbury, Byfield, and Rowley

“Byfield, a parish of about eighty-five families in the southwest part of Newbury, also became involved in the autumn of 1735, and within a year there were over a hundred deaths, which was said to have been more than a seventh of the total population. For a time it seemed that Rowley, a few miles south of Newbury on the Bay Path, would escape a serious epidemic. There were occasional multiple deaths during the winter of 1735-36, mostly in that part of the town that was close to Byfield, and by spring it was supposed that the distemper had abated throughout the eastward.”

“This was only an apparent calm, for on the first day of summer, two-year-old John Plumer, of the second parish, died, “the first child that died in this parish of ye sore sickness of which great numbers have died in Neighbour Parishes,” and for the next six or eight months the epidemic spread with its usual violence. In the second parish, where there had been less than eight deaths annually, forty-six children died, and it has been estimated that in Rowley and neighboring parishes, two hundred, or one-eighth of the total population, died during the first year of the sickness.

“There is good reason to believe that the disease in Newbury, Byfield, and Rowley was diphtheria, or the same that was present in New Hampshire. The very high death-rate and the frequency of multiple deaths are the two outstanding characteristics that differentiate it from scarlet fever, at least from the type of scarlet fever that was prevalent at that time.

"Here lies ye bodies of John and James Abbe, sons of Mr. Joseph and Mrs. Tamzon Abbee. John died July ye 12th 1736 in ye 8th year of his age. James died August ye 30, 1736 in ye 2nd year of his age."
Old North Burying Ground in Ipswich: “Here lies ye bodies of John and James Abbe, sons of Mr. Joseph and Mrs. Tamzon Abbee. John died July ye 12th 1736 in ye 8th year of his age. James died August ye 30, 1736 in ye 2nd year of his age.” Photo by John Glassford

The epidemics in Ipswich

In Ipswich, the history of the epidemic is complicated. In April 1736, the Boston News-Letter reported: ‘Tis said the Distemper is abated at the Eastward; ’tis also said, that several have lately died of a Scarlet Fever at Ipswich and other Places.”

The Ipswich Vital Records and Felt’s History of Ipswich, Essex, and Hamilton show two or more deaths in several families, including Abbe, Appleton, Baker, Bennet, Boardman, Brown, Burnham, Choate, Fuller, Gibson, Hart, Heard, Jackson, Jewett, Kimball, Knowlton, Lull, Neland, Pierce, Potter, Safford, Shatswell, Sherwin, Smith, Treadwell, Trucker, and Webber.

Michael Farley lost five children in April, 1736, four of them in one week. John Abbott, a neighbor, also lost eight children about the same time. On December 7, 1736, Mark How, and John Abbott his neighbor, had each lately lost eight children by this sickness. By January 23, 1735, Nathaniel Cross, of the Hamlet, had lost seven and all his children within about a month with the throat distemper. And on March 21, 1738, three of John Treadwell’s children were buried in one grave, and one more before, all within five days with the same disease.

Old North Burying Ground: "Here lies ye body of Abigail Hart, wife of Mr. Nathaniel Hart, who died August 1736 with four of her children: Henry, Abigail, Lydia William." Photo by John Glassford
Old North Burying Ground: “Here lies ye body of Abigail Hart, wife of Mr. Nathaniel Hart, who died August 1736 with four of her children: Henry, Abigail, Lydia William.” Photo by John Glassford

The Howe family at Linebrook lose all of their children

From the Publications of the Ipswich Historical Society we read, “In November 1736, a deadly distemper invaded the home of Mark and Hephzibah Howe in Linebrook. The pitiful record of their sore affliction remains on a page of an ancient account book that must have been wet with tears. Their house was left desolate, not a child surviving. All the children of Mark and Hephzibah Howe died and were buried in the old Leslie Road Burying Ground.” Town records state that they died of “cancre quinsy,” an eighteenth century term for laryngeal obstruction.”

  • November 5, 1736: Lucy died aged 9 years
  • November 15, 1736: Mary died aged 7 years
  • November 18, 1736: Hannah 13 years and Aaron 5 years died
  • November 21, 1736 Abijah 1 year died
  • November 21, 1736: Mark 2 years died Nov 24 They all died with the “cancre quinsey”
  • November 25, 1736: Moses died in ye 11 year of his age 28
  • November, 1736: Love died aged 12 years

Great sorrows in Ipswich Village

Thomas Franklin Waters wrote that Ipswich Village, just below Rowley on the Old Bay Road suffered greatly. “In the year of 1736, sorrow settled heavily upon the household of Nehemiah Jewett. No doubt the deadly throat distemper was the cause.

  • Patience, eighteen years old, died on May first
  • Mary the day after
  • Mehitable, twenty-five, her mother’s companion, the staff and stay of the family, followed on May 10th
  • Jane on the eleventh
  • On the second of June, twelve-year-old Joanna.”

On Paradise Road was the home of John Boardman and his wife Abigail Choate. On one black and awful day, November 3, 1736, three children died. Lucy, four, Mary seven, and Sarah, nine years old; and on the following day, baby Francis, fifteen months old, was taken. The older children, John, fifteen, Abigail, fourteen and Thomas, twelve, were spared.

Dr. Thomas Manning of Ipswich is credited with making vaccinations available to the general public. After successfully immunizing his family against smallpox in 1799, he distributed the vaccine without payment to other practitioners, purposefully breaking the monopoly held by Professor Benjamin Waterhouse of Harvard.

Since the introduction of effective diphtheria immunization in the 1920’s, the disease is now all but eliminated in the United States and other countries that vaccinate widely. As of today, there is no vaccine for scarlet fever, but the discovery of antibiotics made the disease treatable.

Featured image: Tombstone of the daughters of Dr. Thomas Berry: Elizabeth age 5 years, and Mary, age 18 months, who died in December 1735 of the “throat distemper.” Photo by John Glassford

Further reading:

Categories: Disease, Stories

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5 replies »

  1. How sad. I lost a daughter and five years ago and the pain is as severe as it was the day she died. How does someone go on after losing five, six, seven children. May god have mercy on them and grant them his peace.

    • How said to lose your wonderful daughter. My first wife and I lost a baby to crib death. Deb and I lost her 30 year old son to the opioid epidemic, but we have two grown daughters to share with each other.

  2. I don’t know how the parents went on after losing so many children. As I’m reading the above my heart hurts me.

  3. Nathaniel Cross was an ancestor of mine. I can’t imagine the pain of losing “all” your children. thank you for these historical insights.

  4. Just unimaginable how losing so many of one’s children with such virulent and cruel suffering while they were so ill was managed by the poor and bereft survivors. This type of commentary, though very sad, also helps us learn more about the day to day lives of our ancestors in Ipswich and neighboring towns in early 18th Century New England. And the miracle that we descendants are here at all to tell their story. Thank you.

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