18th century people caught smallpox
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.
Shapley's Island--Small Pox Parties--Incidents and Pastimes.
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 inocculation in
Portsmouth." From that time up to 1797, Shapleigh's Island, in this
These 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
That little green isle in the Piscataqua, whose still life, at the
A gentleman of Portsmouth, still in the full vigor of life, with whom I
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
"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
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
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
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
Text scanned courtesy of The Brewster Family Network
Copy of Rambles courtesy Peter E. Randall
History Hypertext project by SeacoastNH.com
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