On April 14, 1721, Judge Samuel Sewall was handed a letter from a Capt. Tuthill, informing him that the ship Swan Anna had arrived in Boston after a nine-week voyage from London. “No contagious sickness aboard,” the letter said.
“The ship was ordered to come up,” wrote Sewall in his diary.
Eight days later, the British naval vessel HMS Seahorse arrived. One sailor had a full-blown contagious illness and another was coming down with it.
Smallpox. The Speckled Monster.
Judge Samuel Sewall Confronts Smallpox
How it slipped notice is unrecorded by Sewall. But by June, Sewall was describing how the city had to cope with its worst public health crisis of the 18th century. Boston’s population had reached about 10,600, but 900 fled the disease, about 6,000 came down with it and 844 died from it. Three-quarters of all people who died in Boston in 1721 died from smallpox.
The Boston smallpox epidemic of 1721 was a historic event for another reason: People were successfully inoculated against the disease for the first time in the western world. The Rev. Cotton Mather created a controversy when he urged the procedure, but it reduced the death rate from probably as much as 25 percent to only 8 percent.
In 1721, Judge Samuel Sewall was 63 years old, wealthy and twice a widower. He belonged to the Puritan theocracy that governed Massachusetts Bay Colony. Today people know him for his role as a judge in the Salem witch trials, for which he later apologized.
The smallpox epidemic killed many of Judge Samuel Sewall’s friends and neighbors. The worst month of the epidemic was October, when 411 died of it, nearly half of the total death toll. During that horrible month in October, Samuel Sewall recorded in his diary that he attended more than a dozen funerals:
Octobr 2. Samuel Lynde esqr dyes of Swelling through stoppage of Urine.
5. Mr. Lynde buried. Bearers, Sewall, Townsend; Bromfield, Dr. Clark; Fitch, Timo Clark esqr.
Lord’s Day, 15 … At Noon notice was given, that we’re desired to return at 1/2 past one that might be time for the many Funerals…Went to the Funeral of Mr. Colson’s daughter; and Hannah —, Mr. Adams the Master’s Maid, used to tend his daughter, Mary, was of our Comunion.
16. Mrs. Martha Cotes, Mistress of our Charity School, was buried; Bearers, Sewall, Bromfield; T. Clark, D. Oliver; Deacon Powning, D. Green. Had a great Character as to devotion and Piety.
17. Went to the Funeral of neighbor Holbrook.
18th. Madam Checkley dyes of the Small Pox.
19. Neighbour Vivien dyes. Stormy-day. Mr. Cooper preaches from Job. 14.12. a very good Discourse. …
Then on Oct. 20, Sewall went to five funerals. It had snowed considerably the night before, but he followed his neighbor Elizabeth Vivien to the grave. Then as a pallbearer he helped bury Mrs. Checkley. “Mr. Lotta’s daughter was buried at the same time: and a daughter of Mrs. Melvil, and another daughter, is Five in all,” he concluded.
As a result of the smallpox outbreak, Puritan ministers shortened Thanksgiving services. After attending one, Sewall then wrote:
26. Thanksgiving; But one Sermon in most Congregations by reason of the Distress of the Small Pox. Began at eleven a-clock. Note. I think so great an Alteration should not have been made; without the Knowledge and Agreement of the Councillours and other Justices in Town, met together for that purpose!
And then still more funerals.
27. Friday. Commissioners Meeting. I waited, after it, till five a-clock, to have accompanied Mr. Wm Rawson to the funeral of his son Edward; and then went away to the burial of my Tenant Hoar, Mr. Brown’s Sister. Mr. Loring’s Son, a student of the College, was buried that night, and many more.
29. At night went to the Funeral of Fr. Homes’s Son.
By February the next year, the smallpox epidemic finally abated.
This story was updated in 2022.