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Smallpox Parties on Pest Island

Making Whoppie in the Revolution /

We tend to think of the sexual revolution as something that happened in the Roaring Twenties or the Swinging Sixties. But the Revolutionary War? In his most ribald ramble ever, Brewster talks suggests what might have happened when young men and women were placed on an island together.




Shapley's Island -- Small Pox Parties -- Incidents and Pastimes.

ABOUT Charles Brewster 

BEFORE the introduction of vaccination for the kine pox, which was not discovered until just before the close of the last century, all who wished to be secure from taking the small pox in the natural way, were vaccinated for it, and withdrew for three or four weeks from intercourse with the world. We have before us a letter in the hand-writing of Doctor Hall Jackson, dated at the Essex Hospital, Dec. 17, 1773, at which time he was a small pox patient It was on his return that arrangements were made for "a general inoculation in Portsmouth." From that time up to 1797, Shapleigh's Island, in this
harbor, was used as the "Pest Island," and every few years parties went there to have the small pox.

BrewsterThese small-pox parties were frequently made social gatherings -- there were more who spent a summer month in this way than at the watering places; they had one advantage over the latter amusement, for as they could but once be of such a party, it remained a novelty through life.

We have before us a letter from Joseph Barrell, a merchant of Boston, dated July 8, 1776, addressed to Col. Joshua Wentworth, of Portsmouth, in which is this postscript: --

"Mr. Storer has invited Mrs. Martin to take the small pox at his house: if Mrs. Wentworth desires to get rid of her fears in the same way, we will accommodate her in the best way we can. I've several friends that I've invited, and none of them will be more welcome than Mrs. W."

What a subject for so courteous an invitation! We will adopt this for this Ramble the following interesting communication from Mr. Bowles on this subject.

There is a passage in the history of Portsmouth, at the close of the last century, to which I have never seen any allusion in print, that is, I think, worth preservation from being entirely forgotten; at least so far as it may be done in the columns of a newspaper. I refer to the time when in the months of May and June, 1797, the young ladies and young gentlemen went to Shapleigh's Island to receive vaccination for the small-pox. There are but few living, who, from personal recollection can recall the event, but others, of a later generation, still retain much that was related to them in former years, by those who were participants in it.

That little green isle in the Piscataqua, whose still life, at the present day, is disturbed only by its few inhabitants, and the travel to and from Newcastle was for the time a scene of great animation. The flower of the youth and beauty of Portsmouth were congregated there, and as nothing more unpleasant was experienced than the ordinary results from vaccination, a majority of them were perfetly well, and remembered the affair as little else than a holiday festival of the gayest description.

A gentleman of Portsmouth, still in the full vigor of life, with whom I conversed recently upon the subject, recollects the pleasure he enjoyed in watching their sports, by the aid of a spy-glass from the roof of his father's residence in Buck (now State) street.

One of the party then in her 17th year, often said to me, in her maturer years, that those were among the very happiest days of her whole life. There was about an equal proportion of both sexes, and as most of them had arrived at an age to understand that order of animal magnetism referred to in Genesis XXIX.:20, the little knight of the bow and arrows, with the benevolent idea, doubtless, of giving them something to occupy their time during a season of so much leisure, made himself particularly busy among them. A greater amount of that species of amusement known as "love-making," was, probably, never concentrated within a briefer space or more limited period. While some of it lasted out a lifetime, the larger proportion, tradition says, was of the ephemeral kind that some crusty bachelor, who probtbly never knew anything from experience of "the tender passion," has termed "puppy-love," and did not long survive the change from sea-air to the atmosphere of the metropolis; still, it was a very harmless pastime, and furnished a theme for many a pleasant thought and enlivening chat in after years.

The following reminiscences, that have survived through a period of more than three score years, will give some idea of a season that left so agreeable an impression of itself upon the young of a past generation.

Among the evening enjoyments, candy-parties were highly popular; occurring, by turns, at the different dwellings where the patients were quartered. A ludicrous affair happened at one of these saccharine gatherings, that was long remembered. A fresh supply of molasses had been procured from town, which unfortunately proved of an obstinate quality, still to be found, that cannot be induced to boil into candy. It came off the fire but little thicker than it went on, and was turned into a gallon punch bowl, which it nearly filled, and placed upon a bench in the yard to cool.

A brother of the young lady who placed it there, by way of a joke removed it a short distance to a position directly under the eaves of a shed, where it had remained scarcely a minute, being still in a liquid state, when the family cat, returning from an evening walk, leaped head foremost into the bowl, and the next instant came bounding into the house, presenting a spectacle at which even the most tender-hearted, who sympathized with her in the misfortune that had befallen her, could not help laughing. A benevolent young lady (who retained a soft spot in the heart for the unfortunate through a life-time of nearly fifty years,) procured some warm soap-suds and attempted to relieve her from so uncomfortable a predicament; but pussy preferred to be her own laundress, and had ample employment for a week or two thereafter, in efforts to restore her sable garment to its pristine sleek and glossy appearance.

"Dutch-dolls," then much in vogue, formed another of their pastimes. With the exception of its occasional revival among the Christmas festivities, of families who love to keep up the ancient customs, this grotesque invention of a past age is now but seldom seen. It was of English origin, in the younger days of the Prince of Wales and his friend Beau Brummel, and its name evidently emanated from the ever-existent propensity of the English race to caricature their Teutonic brethren. As it is possible there may be some who were never favored with an introduction to a "Dutch-Doll," a few words of explanation as to their construction may not be amiss. A round splint broom, or something equally convenient for the purpose, was enveloped in a dress, with a mask for the face, a wig, and surmounted by a bonnet or cap. This was elevated in the hands of a person who was partially concealed beneath the skirts of the dress, and wholly so by a sheet or second dress below it. The ordinary height of these gigantic "dolls" was eight to ten feet. Any one who will fancy the surprise it would give them to have their slumbers disturbed at midnight, or in the small hours of the morning, and discover by the moonlight, such an object looking into the window of their second-story, sleeping-room, can form an idea of what some of the young ladies experienced during their sojourn on the island. The young gentlemen all acknowledged to have seen "Dolly" during her nocturnal ramble, but the particular individual
who to "all of which I saw," might have added, "and part of which I was," could not be found.

On a beautiful evening in June, as a party of six were enjoying a leisurely stroll along the shore, a small island in the distance had so much the aspect, in the brilliant moonlight, of fairy-land, a wish was expressed to visit it, and the means for its accomplishment soon presented itself, thought, as the result will show, it proved a somewhat dangerous one. While pursuing their walk, a few yards farther on, they found a small boat lying high and dry upon the shore, and without taking into consideration the possibility that it might not prove an entirely seaworthy conveyance, they launched it into the water, and, with pieces of board selected from drift-wood on the beach, to serve as paddles started on their voyage. It was soon learned that their bark was by no means water-tight, for a little cascade was visible at every seam, and while two of the young gentlemen were engaged in propelling it, the third found full employment in keeping it free of water.

They reached their destination in safety, and, after exploring the little islet without meeting a Selkirk or a Fernandez, but instead thereof plenty of bushes that gave promise of future whortleberries, they gathered a few memorials of their visit from the sand, and started on their return. The precaution had been taken to haul their boat upon a ledge of rocks, fearing it might take in, during their absence, an inconvenient supply of the briny element; and in the process of setting it again afloat, some hard knocks were experienced, which, unlike Mr. Weller's watch, did not have a tendency to improve it, for it leaked worse than ever; how many "strokes an hour," as the logbook is not at hand to determine, cannot be stated with nautical precision, but the young gentleman who took his turn at bailing found it harder work than he had fancied, and soon after leaving the island met with a mishap that placed the dventurous navigators in a situation on the shady side of comfort.

The article used for throwing out the water was a broken pitcher, found in the boat, which an unlucky blow against the gunwhale shivered to atoms, and left them without anything that would answer as a substitute. The tide was, besides, against them, and their progress necessarily slow; fortunately, however, they reached in safety the starting point, but not until the water was a foot deep in their craft. The adventure being a contraband affair, entirely against the rules and regulations, their mysterious absence, during which search was made for them, remained unexplained until after they had returned to town.

The last of these reminiscences for which space remains, relates exclusively to the young gentlemen. As the sea air, by which they were surrounded, naturally sharpened their appetites, the hospital diet, prescribed by Doctors Cutter and Jackson, was to them a sore trial. The supplies of pastry, etc., sent from town, might do very well for the girls, but they wanted something more substantial. The children of Israel in the wilderness did not hunger more for the flesh pots of Egypt, than they for the roast beef and similar viands of Portsmouth. Pierce's Island could be reached then as now, at low water, by land, and thither by way of variety, they often resorted.

One afternoon, when about a dozen had assembled there, a Spring Market fisherman, just returned from a successful trip to the ocean, recognizing among them the sons of some of his customers, came along side of the island to have a chat. The tempting display of the finny tribe that his boat presented, suggested thoughts of chowder, and it was proposed, although all amateur cooking was strictly prohibited, to get one up on their own account. As a preliminary step, a fine cod was procured from the fisherman's stock, and hid beneath a pile of rocks in their place of retreat; and before they slept, a pot, and all the other requisites for chowder making, found their way to the same locality. At a specified hour the next forenoon, they assembled at the rendezvous, and set about putting their project into execution; each one having his allotted task to perform.

The result was a complete success; such a chowder, it was the unanimous opinion, had never before been seen on the Piscataqua. Each was provided with one of those mammoth clam shells everywhere found on the Eastern coast, with a smaller one to serve as a substitute for a spoon, and, all unconcious of the surprise that awaited them, they had assembled around the pot to do justice to its contents; when a sound saluted their ears as if some one was feeling his way with a stick over the rocks, on the other side of the high bank behind which they were sheltered from observation, and a moment later a glimpse was had of a cocked hat, and Dr. Jackson was looking down upon them! The rogues had been betrayed by the smoke seen rising from their place of concealment, which combined with the continued absence of so many of them, led to their detection. How the doctor took the matter, history does not say; but we will imagine that he adopted the most sensible course he could have chosen, and after a gentle reprimand, good naturedly accepted an invitation to partake of a compound, that no one better than himself, doubtless, knew how to appreciate.

The old Shapley mansion, from its capacious dimensions, presented the greatest array of inmates, for whom it ever had the happiest recollections. Its walls re-echoed to many a scene of merriment in after years "Recalled 'mid memories of their far-off youth,Of sorrows past, and joys of long ago."

The island was re-awakened into life some thirty years subsequently, when the bridges had been built, by the opening for a time of the Shapley homestead as a public house, and the conversion of the large warehouse, still standing at the waterside, into a bowling alley. On the afternoon of a fast-day occurring during that period, a large representation of the youth of Portsmouth, of the male gender, were again assembled there, and the amount of the once popular fast-day beverage, "egg-nogg," consumed on the occasion between intervals of base-ball playing, would have aroused the sympathies of that excellent man and unwavering friend of temperance, the late Father Matthew, of whom some wag has related that he proposed administering the pledge" to the money market when he heard it was "tight." The ancient edifice has since disappeared, and not a trace now remains upon the spot to show that it once had an existence.


Text scanned courtesy of The Brewster Family Network
Copy of Rambles courtesy Peter E. Randall
History Hypertext project by
This digital transcript  © 1999

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