By Charles W. Brewster
Editors Note: C.W. Brewster was a Portsmouth columnist in the mid-1800's. This article includes his opinions and may not reflect current research or current values.
Among the dividing points of the eras in Portsmouth history, is "the year of the yellow fever," 1798. We rarely pass among the old houses at the north end of Market street, without being reminded (not unfrequently by the noxious air of the present day,) of the scenes which there transpired about seventy years ago, when the "Yellow Malignant Fever" prevailed, finding victims almost every day for eight weeks.
At that time Thomas Sheafe, one of the most respectable merchants of the day, father of the late Samuel Sheafe, and occupant of the house on the corner of Market and Deer streets, was largely engaged in commerce. On the 22d of July, 1798, the ship Mentor, belonging to him, of which John Flagg was master, arrived in a short passage from Martinique, where the yellow fever had prevailed to a great extent. At that time but little regard was paid to such quarantine laws as stood on the statute book, and the Mentor came up immediately to the wharf. One or two of the crew had been sick on the passage, but having recovered, no precautions were taken, as in later days, by cleansing the ship. The Mentor was fully laden with sugar, molasses and coffee, and discharged at Sheafe's wharf in the rear of the store now occupied by Pickering & Tompson. A laborer assisting in discharging, was the first victim of that fever, -- and then another who had worked on board was taken down with the like symptoms. The owner of the ship was still unwilling to believe that any malignant fever was brought by the vessel: but soon the melancholy fact was brought directly home to him by the death of two promising sons -- Thomas at the age of 14, and Horatio at the age of 6, and an only daughter Sally at the age 17 years.
The existence of the malady now became too manifest. The selectmen sent the ship off and had her properly cleansed, -- but it was too late to stop the pestilence which now began to spread with fearful rapidity in the neighborhood. The north part of the town was soon depopulated. Every family that could conveniently remove left for other places, and people from the country abstained from visiting the town. A strict guard was kept to prevent intercourse below the infected district and other parts of the town. The fever raged principally in Green, Russell and the east end of Deer streets, and from Rindge's wharf down Market street to the house next south of late Thomas Sheafe's mansion, now occupied by Albert Payne. At that time the widow of Noah Parker kept a boarding house there. The victims in this house were her daughter Zerviah, her neice Rebecca Noble, and William Plummer, a merchant. In the house in Russell street, now occupied by Joseph Remick, Mrs. Hannah Noble and two daughters, Eliza and Mary, died -- none could be found to bury them, and the brothers of the girls were compelled to bear their sisters and mother to their grave. There were some cases elsewhere. Dr. William Cutter was dangerously sick with the fever, on Congress street. In two months ending on tbe 5th of October, when the frost terminated the course of the fever, there were 96 cases, of which 55 proved fatal. In the same time there were 52 deaths from disentery and other diseases, making over a hundred deaths in two months, and that too at a time when our population was only about 6000, and a large number of inhabitants had fle'd to other towns.
Eleazer Russell, mentioned in the 47th Ramble, died at the time of this fever but not of it. He was said to be as much in fear of the fever of which his sister died, that he refused to have any one come to his assistance, and died alone. The sickness was not confined to those who remained in Portsmouth. Moses Little, Esq. who had just married the widow of Humphrey Fernald of this town, to escape the danger, with his wife and her only son, John Fernald, aged 20, went to Dover. Mr. L. and son were soon attacked at the same time and died at Dover.
Among those who were dangerously attacked but recovered were Robert Rice, Abel Earris, Nathaniel Folsom Thomas Cutts, and many others with whose names our readers are not familiar.
There fell in that season many who sacrificed their lives in devotion to the sick -- whose good deeds yet rest in the remembrance of our older citizens.
None or few were seen in the street where the fever raged. Nothing was heard there but the groans of the sick and the awful shrieks of the dying. If persons were met, they would have handkerchiefs to their faces wet with vinegar or camphor, and passing with hasty steps. There were however some noble hearted men and women, who, fearless of consequences, stood by the bedsides of the sick and dying, to wet their parched lips; and when the spirit was about quitting, some were there to smooth the passage through the dark valley. The Rev. Mr. Buckminister, Col. George Gains who at that time was selectman, Mr. Vaughan the sexton, were among those who were ever faithful in their duties. Also Dr. A. R. Cutter, and Dr. Bracket, senior. These men stood firm through the whole and never took any fever. In consideration of the devoted service of Col. Gains, the town made him a present of $100.
As at the time of the plague in London, no bells were heard at funerals; and when the fever abated, the tolling bell was hailed as a signal of returning health. People were hurried to their graves hastily. No procession attended. Soon as the breath left the body, and perhaps sometimes before, it was immediately put in a tarred sheet and rough box, slid from a chamber window to a cart or dray, conveyed to the north cemetery and deposited in one common grave or trench. The grave of no friend was afterwards found. Like the burial of Sir John Moore, they were hurried off "at dead of night, by the lantern dimly burning."
Such a pestilence had never before, nor has since visited our town, which ranks among the healthiest in the Union.
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