In Southern New Hampshire in 1735, a young child in Kingston came down with a cold and all of New England would get sick. The Great Throat Distemper of 1735 to 1740 was one of the greatest epidemics ever to terrify New England.
The disease, which modern physicians recognize as diphtheria, first showed up in in the spring of 1735. The symptoms started out looking like a cold that produced a very sore throat. But they then escalated to lost appetite and fever. The bacteria then attacked the throat, nose and lungs – poisoning the tissue and killing it off. The coating of dead tissue eventually interfered with breathing and killed the sufferer.
Travel patterns in New England made it relatively simple for epidemiologists to track the spread of the disease. Ernest Caulfield described the path of the disease in his The "Throat Distemper” of 1735-1740.
Most of the old towns between Casco Bay and Boston were connected by a road which ran roughly parallel to the coast and far enough inland to avoid the many small inlets, marsh lands, and sandy dunes. A few weeks after the Kingston outbreak the disease invaded Kittery and Hampton Falls, two important trading centers along this road. From Kittery the infection was carried northward into Maine and from Hampton Falls southward across disputed territory into the Province of Massachusetts Bay. Amesbury and Salisbury were soon involved, and by September the epidemic had crossed the Merrimac River and like an invading army concentrated its forces at Newbury before it started down the old Bay Path towards Boston.
The disease – which mostly affected children and killed often within three days – sparked fear as it spread.
In Ipswich, all eight children in the household of Mark and Hephzibah How died during the month of November f 1735. A neighbor family also reported it lost all eight of its children. As many as four children were buried in a single grave, a fact that was noted in newspapers as far away as New York.
Church records showed that ministers were pressed into performing many early Baptisms "By Reason of Dangerous Sickness" to stay ahead of the undertakers.
Rowley, Mass. would lose one-eighth of its population nearby Byfield, one seventh. In Newbury, Dr. John Fitch became active in trying to stop the disease. He contracted it and died. The march would continue through Beverly, Marblehead, Lynn and into Boston as doctors and towns searched for cures.
The town of Exeter, N.H. seized the house where a young man had died of the disease and quarantined his brother until he too died.
Physicians had trouble agreeing on a diagnosis for the disease, calling it cynanche, angina, canker, bladders, rattles, or throat distemper. Scarlet fever was also present during 1735, and children were dying of both. More commonly the illness was called "the strangling angel of children."
In 1735, a vaccine for diphtheria was more than a hundred years in the future. Treatment of the disease was crude. When the disease was raging in Boston, a notice in the Boston Gazette offered treatment advice:
What is used is as follows. First be sure that a vein be opened under the tongue, and if that can't be done, open a vein in the arm, which must be first done, as all other means will be ineffectual. Then take borax or honey to bathe or annoint the mouth and throat, and lay on the Throat a plaister Vngiuntum Dialthae. To drink a decoction of Devil's bitt or Robbin's Plantain, with some Sal Prunelle dissolved therein, as often as the patient will drink. If the body be costive use a clyster agreeable to the nature of the Distemper. I have known many other things used, especially a root called Physick Root, filarie or five-leaved physick; also a root that I know no name for, only Canker Root. But be sure and let blood, and that under the tongue. We have many times made Blisters under the arms, but that has proved sometimes dangerous.
In Boston, it seemed, patients were responding better to treatment. In other towns, treatment was rarely successful. Whole families of children – six and seven or more at a time – died. Caulfield suggests that Boston, in fact, first experienced a rarely mild epidemic of scarlet fever, which was susceptible to treatment. Other towns, however, were experiencing diphtheria invading from New Hampshire.
In Newbury, Mass. people theorized that the disease was connected to an explosion in the population of caterpillars in the summer of 1735. The noxious caterpillars covered the roads and houses, they were capable of floating across streams and when carriages passed over them they crackled and the wheels grew slippery from crushing them. A prayer and sermon seemed to extinguish the caterpillars, but doubts persisted that they were also linked to the disease.
In Haverhill, Mass. an account was published that exclaimed that the waling and coughing of children as they tried to breathe were evidence that God or supernatural beings were speaking through them. In 1738, as the epidemic was in its third year, a 17-page poem published in pamphlet form, AWAKENING CALLS TO EARLY PIETY, suggested the disease was a result of impious behavior.
A second pamphlet, Early Piety Encouraged, tried to tamp down fears people had of catching the disease from sick neighbors or friends: Let me tell you, it is an inordinate and sinful Fear that you have of the Distemper, if it keep you from - going nigh your Neighbors, to tend up them, to watch with them, or in any other Respect to be helpful to them.
Gradually the disease progressed into Connecticut and sporadically to Western, Mass. Death counts were not as well documented, but throat distemper is noted in some towns. Coventry, Conn., then with 800 people, lost 54 to the disease in 1737. East Haven, population 200, lost 26.
The outbreak of 1735 that lasted until 1740 was probably not the first case of diphtheria in the New England colonies. But it was the most contagious. Residents of colonies where the disease was known to exist earlier, Massachusetts and Connecticut, suffered lower mortality rates as the population had some resistance to the disease whereas Maine and New Hampshire were easier targets. The outbreak coincided with outbreaks of diphtheria across the world.
Across New England some 5,000 people died of diphtheria between 1735 and 1740. More than 75 percent where children. Overall, it killed 22 of every 1,000 people. In New Hampshire, where it struck first and worst, 75 out of every 1,000 people died of it.