Friday, June 18, 2010

A Meeting of Two Funerals

"We met a Niger Funeral."
- Samuel Sewall, 20 October 1721

In 1721, a virulent smallpox epidemic ravaged the city of Boston. Between April and December, 5,889 Bostonians contracted the disease and 844 died of it. The danger peaked in October, with 411 deaths.

The 1721 epidemic is most often remembered for sparking a controversy over inoculation. Most Bostonians agreed with Dr. William Douglass that inoculation was a dangerous innovation that threatened to spread disease and kill hundreds.* A few prominent citizens, including Cotton Mather and Dr. Zabdiel Boylston, supported inoculation based on information gathered from slaves (particularly Onesimus, a slave owned by Mather) who had undergone the procedure in Africa and from the Royal Society of London (which, in turn, got much of its information from Lady Mary Wortley Montagu's female informants in Turkey). For a wonderful narrative treatment of this controversy, see Jennifer Lee Carrell's The Speckled Monster.

For me, one of the most interesting things about the 1721 epidemic is that the records it generated allow us to get a glimpse of how white and black Bostonians interacted in the context of illness and death. Onesimus' pivotal role in convincing white elites to adopt African medical knowledge is well documented, but it is far from the only instance of confrontation/collaboration between free and enslaved Bostonians during the crisis.

Samuel Sewall's diary provides a window into the events of that deadly autumn. The diary does not usually pay much attention to the comings and goings of slaves, but in September and October of 1721, they are unusually conspicuous. On September 16, Sewall noted that Jane Hirst had been brought home from her boarding house when she fell ill, and that "Boston carried her in his arms." When she was moved to another house on October 15, "Scipio carried a Note for Thanks." Five days later, Sewall attended a quintuple-funeral at the "South-Burying place" (later Granary Burying Ground), where he and his well-heeled acquaintances "met a Niger funeral."

With so many deaths, it is unsurprising that Sewall's burial party should have encountered another at the burying ground. I find this short entry very suggestive — a cadre of elite, white Bostonians burying five of their dead comes face to face with a group of their black neighbors in a space that is shared by both, yet their rituals are separate. Did the two funeral parties regard one another with hostility? Respect? Indifference? How did they feel about sharing the space of the graveyard? How did they judge each other's performance?

*It should be noted that these fears were not without merit. As Elizabeth Fenn has noted, wealthy citizens were much more likely to choose/afford inoculation than their poorer neighbors. Those who underwent the procedure (including Abigail Adams in 1775) saw no need to quarantine themselves, despite the fact that they were contagious and posed a very real danger to the non-immune public. According to Fenn, variolation "was really as likely to start an epidemic as it was to stop one, unless it was administered under a very strict quarantine."


J. L. Bell said...

Sewall’s diary is the only source from eighteenth-century Boston where I’ve spotted what we’d now call the “n word” in use.

The separation of white and black funerals persists into the early emancipation period. The selectmen’s records show some concern about keeping the black undertakers under control in some way, but the town officials clearly don’t know what’s going on.

Robert J. said...

>Cotton Mather and Dr. Zabdiel Boylston

One of the children of the town physician in Fitchburg at the end of the 1700s was named Zabdiel Boylston Snow. Several members of the family migrated to Tuscaloosa, Alabama, of all places, so there may be a colony of Zabdiels in the medical community down there as well.