In early fall of 1713, reports began making the rounds that measles was spreading in New England. Puritan minister Cotton Mather first noted that he feared a measles epidemic in his diary on October 18: “The Measles coming into the Town, it is likely to be a Time of Sickness.” How right he was.
Colonial New Englanders of the time did not track measles as carefully as they did other diseases, since it was not as fatal as plague or smallpox.
Still, measles was a major killer. It was especially hard on young children, infants and pregnant women. And complications from measles, like pneumonia, were also lethal. While some in the community had developed immunity, many had not, which lead measles to be much more pernicious than in Europe. It had been especially true among Native Americans in the 1600s, as measles touched them for the first time.
Mather noted on October 19 that it was time to begin ministering to his followers. They must take special care to warn their children to prepare themselves for death, he wrote.
The Measles Epidemic
About that same day, Cotton’s son Increase contracted the disease as it spread like wildfire. With the measles epidemic taking hold, “calamity is begun upon the town,” Mather wrote. It was also a very personal calamity on Mather’s family.
When Increase contracted the measles, his stepmother Elizabeth was pregnant with twins. Soon after measles came into the household, Elizabeth gave birth to a boy and a girl. But over the next three weeks, all three would die of the measles.
In Mather’s home, 11 in total would contract the measles. Five would die, including a maid.
Mather had preached on the topic of death many times, and he held that “the dying of a child is like the tearing off of a limb.”
And the loss of his children, wife and maid weighed heavily on him. On November 23 he wrote: “My poor family is now left without any infant in it, or any under seven years of age.”
Mather was an early and outspoken advocate for smallpox inoculation. But there was no vaccination for measles (and wouldn’t be for centuries). Still, Mather tried to help. He had observed that poor patients with measles fared worse than wealthy ones.
He mounted a collection of special offerings for donations to the poor on a day of prayer on December 17.
In addition, he collected up the best advice available on how to treat measles patients and published it, for those who lacked the access to a doctor.
With thanks to The Past Is Never Dead—Measles Epidemic, Boston, Massachusetts, 1713 by David Morens.
Images: Cotton Mather tomb by By Swampyank at English Wikipedia – Own work, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=18003659.
This story last updated in 2022.