Monday, January 12, 2009

Remembering Epidemics

Pete and I just finished listening to an episode of This American Life that featured a story about a measles epidemic in San Diego that was caused by some parents' decision not to vaccinate their kids. My goal here is not to wade into the vaccination wars directly (others have reviewed the episode in question). Rather, a thought came to me while listening to anti-vaccination parents blithely pooh-poohing measles: I wonder whether Americans' notoriously short historical memory is contributing to this trend.

Most people are vaguely aware that infectious diseases are routinely fatal in eras and areas that do not have access to modern medicine. Yet, we are rarely asked to contemplate what that meant for people living in the past and continues to mean for people around the world today. A visit to any early New England graveyard will provide some testimony to the perils of infectious disease in a community without access to vaccination, most often in the heartbreaking double, triple, and high order multiple gravestones dedicated to children who died during epidemics. Here are a few examples:

Charlestown, MA, December, 1741:
This stone commemorates five daughters of Francis and Frances Lee, four of whom died in the same month. Eleven-year-old Mary survived, but died in 1748.
Margaret, age 10, d. December 1741
Frances, age 7, age 10, d. December 1741
Elizabeth, age 5, age 10, d. December 1741
Sarah, age 3, age 10, d. December 1741

Lexington, MA, August, 1778:
Six children of Abiah and Sarah Childs (more info here):
Moses, age 3, d. 19 August 1778
Eunice, age 12, d. 23 August 1778
Benjamin, age 4, d. 24 August 1778
Sarah, age 13, d. 28 August 1778
Abigail, age 7, d. 29 August 1778
Abijah, age 11, d. 6 September 1778

Chelmsford, MA, October, 1778:
This may have been the same epidemic that claimed the Childs children in Lexington a month before.
Hannah Fletcher and her four children:
Hannah Fletcher, age 30, d. 26 September 1778
Rebeckah, age -, d. 24 September 1778
Jepthae, age 4, d. 26 September 1778
Mary, age 9, d. 3 October 1778
Sarah, age 6, d. 5 October 1778

The Lynd Family of Malden, MA:
The Lynd (or Lynds) family of Malden lost three children in an epidemic in 1753. Twenty-five years later, another epidemic claimed three more. Though the parents of both sets are named Joseph and Mary, the chronology makes it unlikely that all of these children are siblings. I think that an older Joseph and Mary are the parents of the first three and the Mary who died in 1778, while the second Joseph (father of the Mary and Joseph who died in 1778) is probably their son.
Mary, age 12, d. 12 July 1753
Elizabeth, age 3, d. 12 July 1753
Phebe, age 5, d. 13 July 1753
Mary, age 4, d. 17 July 1778
Joseph, age 14 months, d. 23 July 1778
Mary, age 23, 14 August 1778

Menotomy, MA, August-September, 1802:
In Menotomy, now Arlington, MA, epidemics killed large numbers of children every few years, usually in September. Gravestones indicate that particularly destructive diseases hit the community in 1795, 1802, and 1805. Some families lost several children in each successive epidemic.

Three daughters of Amos and Helen Whitmore:
Mary, age 11 months, 24 August 1802
Harriot, age 10, d. 9 September 1802
Nancy, age 8, d. 25 September 1802

Two children of Jacob and Rhoda Nason:
Lydia, age 20 months, d. 5 September 1802
Jacob, age 5, d. 8 September 1802

Three children of Ephraim and Deborah Cutter:
Samuel, age 2, d. 1 September 1802
Debby, age 11, d. 7 September 1802
Benjamin, age 1, d. 8 September 1802

A daughter of Joseph and Mehittable Locke:
Louisa, age 22 months, d. 6 September 1802


Robert J. said...

I think one of the most remarkable of all Puritan documents is Samuel Danforth's Letter Out of Grief on the death of his three children during an epidemic in Roxbury in 1659. People who are reflexively bigoted toward the Puritans would jump on it as cold; people with humane sympathy will find it absolutely piercing.

Caitlin GD Hopkins said...

The line that stays with me is, "The holy fire is not to be fetched for you, out of such a flint as I am, without smiting."

Lori Stokes said...

I have often cried over the graves in Menotomy; it was dysentery epidemics in both 1802 and 1805. It is somehow heart-wrenching that Deborah Cutter's little daughter was named Debby.

So often Puritan gravestones for children say something like "God called you home; He thought 'twas best" and it makes you want to cry your eyes out. For those people, with no way to fight disease, there could be some comfort in knowing their child was finally safe from suffering in the hands of God.

Robert J. said...

Also, I believe all six of the 1802 Menotomy stones are examples of the early urn styles of the Dwight workshop. The second and sixth show partial rows of "Dwight drops" along the tympanum, a stylistic element carried over from Dwight's earliest stones carved more than two decades before.