In 1735, a young child in Kingston, N.H., 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.
The Throat Distemper
Travel patterns in New England made it relatively simple for epidemiologists to track the spread of the throat distemper. Ernest Caulfield described its path 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 throat distemper – 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 1735. A neighbor family also reported losing all eight 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 parents pressed ministers into performing many early baptisms. They did it “By Reason of Dangerous Sickness” to stay ahead of the undertakers.
Rowley, Mass., would lose one-eighth of its population to the throat distemper. Nearby Byfield would lose one seventh.
In Newbury, Dr. John Fitch actively tried to stop the disease. He contracted it and died. The march of the throat distemper continued through Beverly, Marblehead, Lynn and into Boston as doctors and towns searched for cures.
They also quarantined victims of the throat distemper. 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 and painful. When the throat distemper raged in Boston, a notice in the Boston Gazette offered treatment advice:
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. … 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.
Boston vs. New Hampshire
In Boston, it seemed, patients responded better to treatment. In other towns, treatment rarely succeeded. 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 the 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 could even float across streams. They crackled when carriage wheels crushed them and caused the wheels to grow slippery.
A prayer and sermon seemed to extinguish the caterpillars, but doubts persisted that they also caused the throat distemper.
In Haverhill, Mass., a pamphlet explained that children’s wailing and coughing showed God or supernatural beings spoke through them. In 1738 the throat distemper epidemic entered its third year and a 17-page poem about it appeared in pamphlet form. AWAKENING CALLS TO EARLY PIETY suggested the disease resulted from impious behavior.
Piety and Throat Distemper
A second pamphlet, Early Piety Encouraged, tried to tamp down fears 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 Massachusetts. 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, Conn., lost 26 from a population of 200.
The outbreak of 1735, which lasted until 1740, was probably not the first case of diphtheria in the New England colonies. But it was the most contagious. Residents of Massachusetts and Connecticut, where the throat distemper was known to exist earlier, suffered lower mortality rates as they had some resistance to the disease.
Maine and New Hampshire, on the other hand, 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 were 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.