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Smallpox Epidemic of 1784

By Marge Smith & Susan Shepard, |  Winter 2019

Researching our current exhibit on medicine in Sharon, we came upon a section of Hillside Cemetery that had grave-stones that all bore the same inscription, “Died of the Small-Pox.” As we investigated who these people were, we discovered the story of two harrowing, yet transformative, months in Sharon’s history: the smallpox epidemic of 1784. This outbreak came at the tail end of a ten-year epidemic exacerbated by troops moving from town to town during the War for Independence. A few years before, in 1777, Sharon lost 30 residents to the disease. But 1784 was to be different. Townspeople would courageously face the disfiguring and often fatal disease with a new science: inoculation.

Smallpox is one of the most contagious diseases in human history. It can be spread by any contact, even through contaminated clothing. The townspeople of 1784 Sharon knew this, thus explaining why the stones, dating from November 1784 to January 1785, were all situated at what was at the time the far edge of the cemetery. Neighboring Cornwall was even more fearful of contagion, they had a remote cemetery just for smallpox victims. News of the success of smallpox inoculation among George Washington’s army undoubtedly reached Sharon by 1784. Yet, mirroring Washington’s own initial skepticism, many of the people of Sharon were wary of the treatment at first. Smallpox inoculation was done with a live virus — risky and controversial because it caused a mild case of the actual disease (hopefully only mild) and the inoculated remained contagious. It took the dramatic events of that winter to convince the residents to take a leap of faith.

“In Memory of Mrs. Jemima Elmer wife of Mr. David Elmer who Died of the Small-Pox Dec 11, 1784 AE 54”
“In Memory of Mr. Amos Marchant who Died December 19 in the 62d year of his life”
“In Memory of Mr. Perez Gay who Died of the Small-Pox Dec 15, 1784”

It all started in upper Sharon. In the Connecticut Courant we find the following notice: “On the 20th of November last departed this life the wife of Mr. JOSEPH MERCHANT.” Mrs. Marchant had just returned from visiting friends in Massachusetts when she fell ill—very ill. She had a rash and high fever. Without the telltale pustules, the first doctor who saw her concluded it couldn’t be smallpox and the family went about their business and friends called to give com-fort and aid to the household. She quickly worsened and a young doctor new to the town, Dr. Samuel Rockwell, was called in. Mrs. Marchant died within 30 minutes of his arrival.

The next day a troubled Rockwell consulted the experienced Dr. Simeon Smith about the case. He described the symptoms, particularly the flat spotted rash, and Dr. Smith concluded it was smallpox. “Upon this Doc-tor Smith rode up in person [to the Marchant house] and made particular enquiry of those who had been with her in the time of her sickness, and was fully satisfied it was small pox,” it was written in a newspaper report. Dr. Smith told the household of the danger and warned them to prepare. But “they however paid very little attention, and made no suitable preparation against that terrible disease.”

Her funeral was held that Sunday, with an unusually large crowd, including the family and friends already exposed to the disease. Smallpox germs were on the mourning family’s clothes and Mrs. Marchant’s casket was open at the gravesite. Dr. Smith knew what was coming and immediately began preparations with town officials.

Within weeks 40 people were infected. “This spread an alarm through the town, and as great numbers had been exposed, the [civil] authority and select-men gave authority for inoculation in all those places where there was any suspicion that the people had been endangered. A few days later the town assembled and granted liberty to inoculate in almost every part of the town…” states a December 16th report. Dr. Smith and Dr. Jo-seph Hamilton went about the processes of inoculation and quarantine. Many feared inoculation would make them come down with the disease, some even accused the doctors of spreading it so to profit on the sick. Yet Smith and Hamilton convinced most that inoculation was the town’s only chance to stave off the epidemic.

“Such a scene of distress and mortality had never before been experienced in the town, and the terrors which the pestilence excited were long remembered.”
– C. F. Sedgwick, General History of the Town of Sharon

By mid-December, about 1,200 people had been inoculated. Only 18 of those inoculated died. The doctors’ claims had been proven. In late January Sharon Selectmen reported that: “The people, in general, appear to be impressed with a sense of the divine goodness, in providing a remedy to battle the rage and virulence of a disorder, that has proved so destructive to the human species.”

We’ve identified 18 existing gravestones or records of smallpox victims from the epidemic of 1784, and an additional 5 very likely small pox because of deaths of other family members near the same date. Sedgwick tells us a “large number of children” died; not unexpected as infants and toddlers rarely survived. Those in their prime were struck down too. Perez Gay, age 49, a neighbor of Mrs. Marchant, died of small-pox on December 15th. Miss Elenor Jennings died December 22nd at 33. The Bates, John, 82, and Anna, 62, died a day apart, December 28th and 29th. Capt. Samuel Doty, a Sharon founding father, died at 70. The town lost too many that winter, yet could have lost so many more if not for inoculation.

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