Old Powder Magazine Lecture – Pox in Colonial Boston


Tony Williams lives in Williamsburg, VA and is an American Historian.  He has just released his newest book on small pox in 1721 in Boston. At that time, Boston was the largest city in the colonies at just over 11,000 people.

In Late April 1721, the British Warship, the Seahorse leaves Barbados to escort a group of merchant vessels to Boston. One of the black jacks (sailors of African descent) acquires the Pox from infected materials brought on the ship.  He is beginning to show symptoms of a “cold” upon arrival in Boston and leaves the ship.  He visits the city.  Soon however it is evident he is ill not with a cold but with the Pox.  He is quarantined – a red flag is placed outside the house he is staying in stating “God haver mercy on this house.”

from Wikimedia.

By mid-May there are eight cases – one from each area of the city.  The city fathers become very fearful. The Rev. Cotton Mather (a powerful clergyman, scientist, and Member of the British Royal Society) sends out letters to all the physicians to begin “inoculation” of the people. He has learned about it from a Royal Society article about Greece and Turkey and from one of his slaves.

No doctors respond.  They think he is crazy.

The process is distasteful.  An opening is made into a blood vessel in the arm.  Into this insertion puss from the boils of the Pox victim is smeared. How can this keep people from dying from the Pox.  You are infecting them with it.

He sends out a second letter.  Finally one doctor agrees.  This doctor tests it on his six year-old son and two slaves.  They live.  Soon others come to be inoculated.

Many of the townsfolk become outraged that this practice is going on.  They petition the town authorities to shut the program down.

Here is the gist of the debate.

ROUND 1:  (Calvinist Theology   v.  Natural Law Approach)

ANTI (all the town doctors and much of the population):  This is the will of God and you can’t mess with it.  Pox is a judgement from God and we doctors shouldn’t try to stop it – if we do, God will send something worse.

PRO (all the clergy and one doctor):  Ok then why should we go to doctors ever.  Isn’t any illness then an act of God.  Rather God gave us reason so we can solve the mysteries of life.

ROUND 2:  (Those people are liars   v.  what are you crazy)

ANTI:  You learned about this from your slave.  Slaves can’t be trusted they are all lazy and liars and sneaky.  You can’t believe anything they say.

PRO:  The slave is alive and he knows how to keep others alive.  You mean you won’t listen to him because he is a slave?  Not to mention the Royal Society’s Journal backs up his story.

ROUND 3 (Can’t trust a Muslim  v.  God gives knowledge to all)

ANTI:  Well!  Those Muslims in Turkey are heathens and the devil is doing this.

PRO:  God has given the Native Americans special knowledge that has helped us survive in the wilderness. He could give the Turks special knowledge too.

Into the mix of charges and counter charges a Newspaper erupts – The New England Current.  It is firmly and viciously on the side of the ANTI folks.  The brothers who founded this paper are James and Ben Franklin.

The town fathers order Dr. Boylston to stop inoculations.  He quietly ignores them.

Boston’s death count

July – 11,  August – 26, Sept – 101,  October – 410,  in November the deaths begin to decrease.  All told of the 11,000 inhabitants, 1000 flee early on, 6000 remaining get it, a little over 1000 of these die.

242 people are inoculated and of these six die (they may already have had the disease).

Cotton Mather’s home is attacked by a bomb – which does not explode.

The final effect is that the power of the clergy and the “City upon the Hill” Covenant going back to John Winthrope is broken.  From now on, the city becomes much more secular and increasingly less Puritan.



Filed under American History, AV, Geography and World Studies, Going outs (Field Trips), JV

5 responses to “Old Powder Magazine Lecture – Pox in Colonial Boston

  1. Tony Williams

    Thanks for the excellent review of the lecture. I had a great time at the Powder Magazine in Charleston and had a lovely time meeting everyone who attended the lecture. I hope to see you again in the fall!

  2. EV


    We enjoyed ourselves immensely. The boys are settling into your books. I’m sure they will have their own thoughts in the next week or so.

    American history has not been as interesting to them as many other cultures (in Montessori Education you begin by building cultures upon cultures through time – showing the newer cultures informed by past cultures). As a daughter of an American history teacher, I’ve been waiting for them to become interested in the complexity of the American experience. Thank you for bringing context to this event.


  3. Leah

    Loved it. I love any any America History event written synopsis in which I actuall hear boxing ring bells. The added visual of cartoonish “Secularism” with it’s boxing gloved hand held high while being declared winner was a bonus. Who knew reading history could be such a sensual experience? Sorry to have missed the “real thing.”

    • EV

      Make sure to remind me to give you the books (after the boys are done). You will enjoy them. The aspect of religion and those accursed Anglicans will not be lost on you. Their pointy Papist bell towers littering the views of the heavens and all.


  4. Tony Williams

    Thanks again. I’ll be back on October 13 to discuss my forthcoming book about 50 of the most important colonial & Revolutionary events called “America’s Beginnings: The Dramatic Events that Shaped the American Character” published by Colonial Williamsburg.

    Best ~ Tony

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