In 1730, the fishing village of Marblehead, Mass., did everything it could to ward off the dread and loathsome smallpox disease then raging in Boston – everything, that is, except smallpox inoculation.
Instead, they rioted against the practice. And then they did it again 43 years later.
A prominent Salem minister named Edward Holyoke was indirectly responsible for the first riot by proselytizing for smallpox inoculation. Decades later, his son, Dr. Edward Augustus Holyoke, began the successful inoculation of hundreds of patients in nearby Salem. But not before the Marbleheaders had another riot.
The Speckled Monster
Smallpox was the most feared disease in the American colonies. ‘The Speckled Monster’ killed as many as 30 percent of its victims, and often blinded and scarred survivors.
Boston’s smallpox epidemic of 1721 created the worst public health crisis of the 18th century. It caused three-fourths of all deaths in the town that year.
Rev. Cotton Mather believed smallpox inoculation was the way to prevent the disease. He practiced it, and he argued passionately for it. A physician, William Douglass, argued just as passionately against it. Douglass and most of the public believed inoculation would make the disease spread faster.
Inoculation involved deliberately infecting a person with smallpox in his bloodstream. That way he or she could suffer a mild form of the disease, which would stimulate the immune system to avoid infection later.
In May of 1730, word reached Marblehead that smallpox raged in Boston. The news agitated the townspeople almost to the point of frenzy. Citizens voted to build a fence with a locked gate across the road into town, and four men were stationed there with orders to restrain all strangers from Boston. The watch stayed on 24 hours a day for two months. African-Americans, Indians and slaves had a nine o’clock curfew.
In October, a young Marblehead woman named Hannah Waters came down with smallpox.
Edward Holyoke advocated for smallpox inoculation, as did his influential parishioners: Richard Dana, Justice of the Peace Stephen Minot, merchant John Tasker and trader Joseph Blaney.
The townspeople were skeptical. They believed God, not man, should decide who lived and died. They also knew there wasn’t enough money to inoculate everyone, only the wealthiest citizens. At Town Meeting on Oct. 12, 1720, they voted to ban the practice unless everyone in town received a smallpox inoculation.
Rumors spread that some people – like Stephen Minot – planned to openly defy the ban. Emotions ran high. A mob formed, and 50 armed men threatened to tear down the homes of Dana and Minot.
“A great mob raised in this town,” wrote Holyoke in his diary on December 10th.
The rioters had public sympathy on their side, and town officials charged only a handful with rioting.
But the disease spread from house to house, afflicting nearly every family in town. Businesses closed, the ferry to Salem stopped running and people fled Marblehead. All loose dogs were killed.
“The disease continued its fearful ravages till late in the summer of 1731, and gathered its victims with an unsparing hand,” wrote Samuel Roads in 1881. “Rich and poor, old and young, the learned and the unlettered were alike afflicted by this impartial agent of death.”
History Repeats Itself
Years later, Edward Holyoke’s son, Edward Augustus Holyoke, became a physician and an advocate of smallpox inoculation. He, too, went to Boston for inoculation and took careful notes on the procedure.
In June 1773, a smallpox epidemic again struck Marblehead. Two months later the town debated building a public inoculation hospital on one of the islands in the harbor.
The proposal failed, but the town did permit four prominent citizens to build a private hospital on Cat Island. They were John Glover, his brother Jonathan Glover, Azor Orne and Elbridge Gerry. They bought Cat Island on Sept. 2, 1773 and began building the hospital. Doctors inoculated three groups of patients during the last three months of the year. Most survived, but a few died.
The furious townspeople began rioting for several days. They blackened their faces, burned a small boat that brought supplies to the hospital and broke the windows of the proprietors’ homes.
In January, four Marbleheaders were caught stealing contaminated clothing from Cat Island, presumably to spread the epidemic and discredit the hospital.
The next day they were tarred and feathered, placed in a cart and exhibited through all the main streets of Marblehead. Then they were taken to Salem, followed by a procession of men and boys marching to the music of five drums and a fife.
Twenty-two cases of smallpox broke out, and the inflamed Marbleheaders threatened to lynch the hospital proprietors. John Glover, whose regiment later ferried George Washington across the Delaware, supposedly placed two small artillery pieces in the front rooms of his house.
The Riot Against Smallpox Inoculation
The owners agreed to close the hospital. But on Jan. 25, 1774, about 20 heavily disguised Marbleheaders sneaked onto the island and burned it down. Town officials arrested two suspects Feb. 25 on a fishing vessel in Marblehead Harbor, and taken to Salem jail.
“Jail Broke open,” noted Edward Augustus Holyoke’s wife in her diary.
A large number of Marbleheaders marched to Salem and surrounded the jail. At the signal they broke open the doors, overpowered the jailers, freed the prisoners and carried them home in triumph. Several days later the sheriff gathered 500 citizens to march to Marblehead and recapture his prisoners. The Marblheaders organized a mob equally as large. At that point, the hospital owners decided to abandon the prosecution and the sheriff disbanded his posse.
A few years later, Edward Augustus Holyoke took charge of the a smallpox hospital in Salem. Six hundred patients received the smallpox inoculation, and the disease never took hold in the town.
With thanks to The History and Traditions of Marblehead by Samuel Roads. This story about smallpox inoculation was updated in 2022.