By Jude Seminara
In May 1735, the coastal settlement of Kingston, NH, suffered an epidemic of throat distemper, now known to be diphtheria, which, over the course of the next five years, would claim the lives of approximately 2000 colonists (a thousand in New Hampshire and between 950 and 1600 in Massachusetts Bay), the vast majority of which were under the age of 20 years old.
The first victim was a child in Kingston who died in three days from the “throat ail,” which then rapidly spread among the towns of coastal New Hampshire, Maine, and northern Essex County. The following year, amid what was probably a diphtheria epidemic, another distemper (possibly diphtheria scarlet fever is a likely culprit as well) outbreak occurred in Boston. The two illnesses made their way south and north respectively along the routes of travel and commerce, converging on eastern Essex County where they lingered. The New Hampshire outbreak, over the course of the next three years, afflicted most if not all of the coastal settlements along the Bay Path to Boston. At the time, the rapid onset and quick death that accompanied the disease despite efforts to quarantine, led people to believe that the illness was a result of “some occult quality in the air,” or God’s vengeance for mankind’s sins. Ministers’ sermons, and broadsides of verse exhorted humanity to repent doe their sins lest God send his angel “to visit you with sickness/which you cannot withstand.” Speculation went so far as to blame the distemper on an invasion of caterpillars, which ate the trees bare and whose remains littered the countryside decomposing in the sun and poisoning the air. Historians are fairly certain that the affliction was diphtheria.
Diphtheria is a bacterial infection. It was spread by both contact and in the air, and the life of an early-18th century child was ideally suited to contract this disease, as children sat together in church, at school, and were even attendees of their schoolmates’ funerals. The dominant characteristic of diphtheria are swollen glands in the throat, a croup-like barking cough, and a windpipe-blocking mass of infectious matter near the tonsils, which lent it the name “putrid sore throat.” Children were most often affected, and would frequently and quickly die in suffocating agony. The highly contagious infection often killed all of the children of a household in short order.
Medical care was archaic by modern standards. Most physicians still ascribed to the four humors theory, and treated illness by bloodletting, blistering, or administering an emetic or laxative. Needless to say, bleeding, vomiting, and diarrhea often killed as many patients as the illnesses the physicians were treating.
In 1738, the “strangling angel” visited the Fifth Parish of Gloucester at the Farms near Little Good Harbor, and at Sandy Bay in present-day Rockport. Given the minimal impact on the rest of Gloucester, and the disproportionally high death toll in Sandy Bay, it is possible that the disease was transmitted by a healthy carrier.
More than any other on the Cape, the extended Pool family of Sandy Bay was hardest hit by the distemper. Fourteen children in five Pool households were killed in the spring and early summer of the year. Some households lost multiple children per day following a short infection. Based on the dates of death of victims of the distemper, 1738 (March, and again in June) was the peak year for Cape Ann. Some evidence indicates that the distemper was in Gloucester as early as 1736, and it likely lingered after 1738.
First to die, within 23 days, were the four children of Caleb and Martha Pool: Martha, age 3; Josiah, age 5; John, age 9; and Anna, age 13 months. The homes of Jonathan and Hannah Pool (Miriam, age 8; Hannah, age 13; Jonathan, age 2; and Mary, age 10), John and Jemima Pool (Jemima, age 6 months; Sarah, age 4; John, age 8; Job, age 2), Ebenezer and Elizabeth Pool (Moses, age 2), and Joshua and Deliverance Pool (Mark, age 3) were visited by tragedy throughout the early summer of 1738. Jonathan Pool and Mary Pool died on the same day. Also killed in the epidemic were Rachel Baker, almost 3; Daniel Barber, age 4; William Holman, age 16; Abigail Jumper, age 2 1/2; Hannah Riggs, age 4; Anna (age 4) and Moses (age 3) Witham; and Benjamin and Thomas Harris. According to Historian John Babson, the distemper lingered in Sandy Bay for two years, “and took from the settlers…’thirty one of their pleasant children by death.’ There were then in the place twenty-seven families.” Elsewhere in Gloucester, as a search of the Vital Records will illustrate, there was nearly no impact of the diphtheria outbreak that ravaged Sandy Bay. Several children died in the summer of 1738, but the records do not indicate a cause of death.
The throat distemper would visit Cape Ann again in outbreaks in 1833, 1841, 1846, 1847, 1848, and 1849, but not on the scale of or with the death toll that accompanied it in the 1738 epidemic.
Caulfield, Ernest. The Throat Distemper of 1735-1740
Caulfield, Ernest. The Pursuit of a Pestilence
Caulfield, Ernest. History of the Terrible Epidemic
Babson, John. History of Gloucester
Gloucester Vital Records to 1849