The Revolutionary War disrupted the finances and ambitions of all the founding fathers, but none more than Dr. Joseph Warren and his plans for Stafford Springs, Conn.
Today we remember Warren as one of the first martyrs in the Revolutionary War. He volunteered for militia duty and died in battle at Bunker Hill. But in his day, Warren was a progressive man of medicine who spent his life mastering the causes and cures of disease.
When Joseph Warren died in 1775, his plans and ambitions died with him. They included his unlikely pursuit of establishing a spa for people seeking cures in the waters of Stafford Springs.
The curative powers of Stafford Springs were well known by the 1770s. American Indians had visited the springs and taking the waters there since before recorded time. They then introduced the colonial settlers to the springs. Ever since, people sought better health at the Stafford Springs, if they had the means to travel to them.
The benefits of the waters, for the most part, came from the minds of their visitors. Lacking more modern medicines, however, the placebo effect provided a powerful substitute.
Reports of Stafford Springs’ healing powers fascinated Warren. He had lampooned the peddlers of adulterated mineral waters in an article for the Boston Gazette in 1766:
The story is told of a number of people who hired a man to go to Stafford, Connecticut to bring back mineral water. He filled a 30-gallon cask, sold the water all the way back to Massachusetts at one dollar per gallon, and by refilling it at each brook along the route, managed to dispose of 160 gallons . . . the people, believing it genuine, soon found the salutary effects thereof.
Soon, the paper reported, Warren planned a visit to Stafford Springs to verify the claims made by people who had traveled there for a cure. On that visit, Warren purchased two acres of land near the springs, with an eye toward developing it as a spa.
Adams in Stafford Springs
Perhaps the best documented visit to the waters of Stafford back then came from John Adams in June of 1771. Adams often worried about his health, perhaps to the point of hypochondria. He was advised (perhaps by Dr. Warren) that a trip to Stafford Springs was in order. And he recorded the trip in his diary.
Tuesday, June 4, 1771
Rode over to the spring. One Childs had built a little house, within a few Yards of the spring, and there some of the lame and infirm people keep. The spring arises at the foot of a steep high hill, between a cluster of rocks very near the side of a river. The water is very clear, limpid and transparent, the rocks and stones and earth at the bottom are tinged with a reddish yellow color, and so is the little wooden gutter that is placed at the mouth of the spring to carry the water off–-indeed the water communicates that color, which resembles that of the rust of iron, to whatever object it washes.
Mrs. Child furnished me with a glass mug, broken to pieces and painted together again, and with that I drank pretty plentifully of the water. It has the taste of fair water with an infusion of some preparation of steel in it, which I have taken heretofore . . . They have built a shed over a little reservoir made of wood, about 3 feet deep and into that have conveyed the water from the spring, and there people bathe, wash and plunge, for which Childs has 8 (pennies) a time. I plunged in twice— but the second time was superfluous and did me more hurt than good, it is very cold indeed.
A Lounger and Loiterer
While staying at the Stafford Springs, Adams visited an old acquaintance, John Green. Green told him of his misfortune in business, which left him poor, though he intended to continue striving for success. The tale brought a caustic observation from Adams, who had little use for his host. He wrote in his diary:
This news I was not at all surprised to hear, for I thought 15 years ago that John Green would turn out so. He was a boaster of his vices—a great affecter of licentiousness—and at last got in Love, like a fool, with a girl much too good for him . . . Activity and Industry, care, and economy are not the characteristics of this family. Green was to set out upon a journey to Providence today to get stores and stock for trade, but he lounged and loitered away, hour after hour, ‘til 9 o’clock before he mounted.
The cow, whose tits stretch with milk, is un-milked ‘til 9 o’clock. My Horse would stand by hour after hour if I did not put him out myself, though I call upon the father and the sons to put him out.
Saturated With Something
Adams also made his own expedition to try to determine the quality of the water, recording in his diary:
I rode up the mountain, at the foot of which this spring oozes. The hill is high and the prospect from it extensive, but few cultivated spots appear; the horizon is chiefly wilderness. The mountain seems to be a body of oar, iron oar I suppose, and the water filtrating through that mountain of minerals imbibes its salubrious quality. What particles it is impregnated with I can’t tell—but it is saturated with something. The bottom and sides of the cistern are painted a deep yellow, and a plentiful dust or flour remains after the water is drawn off. They say that this yellow sediment is the best thing for scrophulous humours, or any other breakings out, eruptions, sores, ulcers, cankers, etc.
Adams’ diary of June 5th provided further support for the powers of the springs. Dr. William McKinstry of Taunton, Mass., arrived. Ironically, McKinstry would be run out Taunton in 1774 for his Tory leanings.
McKinstry gave Adams a quick diagnosis of his condition: “Persons in your way are subject to a certain weak muscle and lax fibre, which occasions glooms to plague you. But the spring will brace you.”
Halt, Lame, Vapoury
“Thirty people have been there today, they say. The halt, the lame, the vapoury, hypochondriac, scrophulous, etc. all resort here,” McKinstry said, according to Adams.
This honest Man whose name is Frost, hearing that I was bound to the Spring, and unacquainted with the way, very obligingly waited for me, to show me the way as far as he went, which was several miles . . . I found that Frost was a great partisan of the mineral spring. He said he had been weakly, and the spring had done him more good in a few days than all the doctors had done in 30 years and he went on and told of a great number of marvelous instances of cures wrought there by washing and drinking while he was there.
Stafford Springs Gets Mixed Reviews
Adams sought other opinions of Stafford Springs later in his travels. He noted mixed opinions of their healing powers.
Oated at Silas Hodges’s in Brimfield, near the Baptist meeting house. There I find they have not so much faith in the spring.
In Stafford, he found a man named David Orcutt, an advocate for the springs.
He was miserable many years with rheumatism, and by means of the spring was now a comfortable man.
As for Adams’ own opinion of the value of the spring, he seems a bit more circumspect. In his autobiography, he wrote:
I spent a few days in drinking the waters and made an excursion, through Somers and Windsor, down to Hartford and the journey was of use to me, whether the waters were or not.
After Warren died at Bunker Hill, the Rev. Dr. John Willard and his brother Joseph, Harvard president, bought his land in Stafford. Willard then established the spa that Warren had envisioned. It operated successfully for nearly 100 years.
The mineral waters themselves were popular into the 1900s, when the Campo Brothers owned and bottled them.
Thou Dearest Source of Bliss
As for the spa Warren envisioned, it passed into memory. Edward Everett Hale eulogized it in his Tarry at home travels. He recalled another of the spa’s famous visitors, Yale President Timothy Dwight:
As I go over the Railway to-day I am almost sorry to see that Stafford Springs is becoming a great manufacturing town. But the dear old hotel where the invalids of a century ago repaired in their own carriages with their own spans of horses and their own negro drivers is still extant, and, if you will ask at the right place, they will show you the sign-board which used to be displayed over the bath-house with this verse of Dr. Dwight’s: —
“O health, thou dearest source of bliss to man,
I woo thee here, here at this far-famed Spring.
Oh, may I ere long welcome thy return!
Irradiate my countenance with thy beams,
And plant thy roses on my pallid cheeks!”
To tell the whole truth, I never think of Dr. Dwight as the theologian encountering Voltaire and Volney in the lists of battle, but as a dear old poet with the roses of Stafford Springs beaming on his cheeks once pallid.
This story was updated in 2022.