The Marblehead smallpox riot

The Marblehead smallpox riot, January 1774

From The History and Traditions of Marblehead” by Samuel Roads. Featured image by Charles Green.

During the year 1773, the attention of the inhabitants of Marblehead was for a time occupied in considering their danger from another source than the oppressive acts of the British Parliament. In June the wife of Mr. William Matthews was taken sick, and was treated for “poison.” Her husband having recently arrived home from a fishing voyage to the Grand Banks, it was supposed that she had been poisoned by washing his clothing with some soap which he had procured on board a French fishing vessel.

Marblehead Neck
Marblehead Neck

In a short time other members of her family were afflicted, and in less than a month nearly all who had taken care of them were prostrate with the “poison.” The kind-hearted neighbors of these unfortunates took their turn in watching with, and caring for them, when to their consternation and alarm the disease which had thus far baffled all their skill was pronounced to be the smallpox in its most malignant form. A very small number, comparatively, of the inhabitants had ever had the disease, and their excitement was increased when it was known that an old lady who had died with it had been visited by more than one hundred and fifty persons.

The town — as an old gentleman expressed it in his journal, — was now in an “uproar.” The selectmen ordered all houses where the disease had appeared to be closed and guarded, and “all the dogs in town to be killed immediately.” Many of those who were sick were removed to a house at the Ferry, and in less than two months twenty-three persons died there. Eight others, who died during two weeks of July and August, were buried at the Neck in the plain just above what was then known as ” Black Jack’s Cove.”

Tuckers Wharf Marblehead
The Ferry at Tucker’s Wharf

In August a town meeting was held, and Azor Orne, Jonathan Glover, John Glover, and Elbridge Gerry petitioned the town to build a hospital on Cat Island for the treatment of smallpox patients by inoculation, “or allow certain individuals to build it at their own expense.” The town voted not to build the hospital, but gave the desired permission to the petitioners to undertake it as a private enterprise, provided “that the consent of the town of Salem could be obtained,” and that the hospital should be so regulated that the inhabitants of Marblehead would “be in no danger of infection therefrom.”

Cat Island Marblehead
Children’s Island, off of Marblehead, was the location of a children’s tuberculosis sanitarium at the beginning of the 20th Century. In the 18th Century it was called Cat Island, and was the location of the Smallpox hospital.

The consent of the selectmen of Salem was readily obtained, and early in September preparations were made for the erection of the building. The work had barely commenced, however, before the people of Marblehead began to manifest great uneasiness, through fear that by means of the hospital the dread disease might take the form of a pestilence among them. The opposition at length became so great that a town meeting was held on the 19th of September, and the vote whereby permission was granted for the erection of the building was rescinded.

The report had been freely circulated that the proprietors desired to establish the hospital for their own personal gain, and “to make money by means of the dangerous experiment.” To allay the indignation created by these rumors, and to show their own disinterestedness, the proprietors proposed to sell the materials for the building to the town, at their actual cost. The citizens, unreasonable now in their opposition, not only refused to purchase the materials, but demanded that the work be abandoned.

Marblehead smallpox riot
Inside a Colonial smallpox hospital

Indignant at the injustice of this action, the proprietors continued their work in spite of all opposition, and in a short time the hospital, a large two-story building, was completed. Dr. Hall Jackson, an eminent physician of Portsmouth, N. H., who had attained a distinguished reputation for his success in treating the smallpox, was appointed superintendent, and on the 16th of October entered upon his duties and began the work of inoculation. A large number of patients, numbering several hundreds, were successfully treated, but unfortunately a few who had taken the disease more severely than the others, died while at the hospital.

The opposition to the enterprise, which from the beginning had been very great, now took the form of the most bitter and angry hostility. The boatmen had landed patients at places nearer the town than those appointed by the selectmen, and for this the excited citizens demolished their boats. Four men, who were detected in the act of stealing clothing from the hospital, were tarred and feathered, and, after being placed in a cart and exhibited through all the principal streets of the town, were carried to Salem, accompanied by a procession of men and boys, marching to the music of five drums and a fife.

Marblehead smallpox riot
Colonial Marblehead

The fears of the inhabitants were still further increased when, a short time after this affair, it was announced that “twenty-two cases of small-pox” had broken out in the town. The storm of indignation which for months had been brewing, and manifesting itself at intervals, now burst upon the proprietors of the hospital in all its fury. Threats of lynching them were openly made, and the angry populace demanded that the doors of the detested “Castle Pox” — as the hospital was ironically called — should be closed forever.

The Proprietors momentarily expected to be mobbed, and it is said that one of them, Col. Jonathan Glover, placed two small artillery pieces in one of the rooms of his house, fronting the street, intending to give the crowd a warm reception from the windows, should they attempt to molest him.

At length, unable longer to resist the importunate petitions of their fellow citizens, the proprietors closed the hospital, and promised that no more patients should be received. For a time the excitement was somewhat allayed, but the injudicious remarks of one of the proprietors “excited the suspicion of the citizens that the promise would not be kept,” and the opposition broke out afresh.

Marblehead smallpox riot

On the night of January 26, 1774, a party of men closely disguised visited the island, and before they left it the hospital and a barn adjoining were in flames. The buildings and all their contents were completely destroyed. Naturally indignant at this outrage, the proprietors determined to secure the speedy punishment of the incendiaries. John Watts and John Gulliard were arrested as being implicated in the affair, and were confined in Salem jail.

As soon as the news of the arrest became generally known in Marblehead, the cause of the prisoners was earnestly espoused by the inhabitants, and measures were adopted to rescue them from the hands of the authorities. A large number of men at once marched to Salem, and in a short time the jail was completely surrounded. At a given signal the doors were broken open, the jailer and his assistants were overpowered, and the prisoners were rescued and conducted in triumph to their homes.

A few days after, the sheriff organized a force of five hundred citizens, intending to march to Marblehead and recapture his prisoners. A mob equally as large at once organized in Marblehead to resist them. Fearing the disastrous consequences to life and property which a conflict would endanger, the proprietors decided to abandon the prosecution, and the sheriff abandoned his purpose.

Some time after this affair a man named Clark, one of the persons who had previously been tarred and feathered, went to Cat Island and brought a quantity of clothing into the town. He was at once ordered to take the bundle to the ferry for examination. On his return to the town he was surrounded by an angry crowd, who threatened to inflict summary punishment upon him. The selectmen appeared upon the scene, however, and he was released. At about eleven o’clock that night his house was visited by a delegation of twenty citizens, and he was taken from his bed, conducted to the public whipping-post in front of the town house, and was there unmercifully beaten.

One of the perpetrators of the outrage was subsequently arrested, but the others were not detected. The town having been disinfected of the disease, and the hospital, the great cause of all the contention, having been removed, peace was once more restored to the community.

Further reading:

1 thought on “The Marblehead smallpox riot, January 1774”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s