Over 246 years ago, an invisible enemy descended on the town of Marblehead, Massachusetts. A virus divided the town politically and had a profound impact on the Revolutionary War that followed shortly after.
The scourge of the smallpox virus had arrived in Marblehead on June 1, 1773, brought by the town’s fishermen. Those infected with the variola virus, known as smallpox, undergo several stages: high fever, rashes, and pustules that form like peas under the skin. The affected are highly contagious and often physically deformed. The Selectmen of Marblehead first attempted to contain the illness by quarantine.
Poles flying a red flag designated “pest houses” near the waterfront in a desperate effort to isolate the sick. Dogs running loose on the streets were killed immediately. Authorities constructed fences around the homes of the infected. The plague spread, leaving death in its wake.
Before Edward Jenner discovered the first successful smallpox vaccine in 1796, physicians employed inoculation to combat the disease. This procedure involved lancing a pustule and then inserting the contaminated knife under the skin of a healthy person. The patients often received a smaller dose of the virus that allowed their bodies to combat the disease and eventually become immune. But they could also manifest a full-blown case of smallpox. The uneven nature of the results of the procedure led to fear. Individuals played a game of Russian roulette—would inoculation protect or kill?
Patriot families devised a controversial solution: build an inoculation hospital. They called a town meeting and approved the construction of the private hospital on Cat Island, a small speck of land in the harbor. The town’s Patriots including John Glover, the future commander of the Marblehead Regiment who would help row Washington across the Delaware and help found the American Navy. Elbridge Gerry, future Congressman and Vice-President of the United States fronted the money to buy the land and constructed the building. However, when the time came to fund the enterprise, the Loyalists in the town demurred and became vocal opponents of the hospital. Local politics, funding, and personal animus to the Patriots derailed bipartisan support.
The owners charged a fee for the inoculation procedure to subsidize the costs of the hospital and doctor who specialized in handling the virus and initiated a series of processes to minimize spreading the disease. One of the doctors was a Harvard-trained specialist in smallpox, Dr. Nathaniel Bond. The founders went out of their way to avoid the appearance of profiting from the venture and covered the cost of one of every ten indigent Marbleheaders who wanted treatment but could not afford it.
John Glover and his fellow investors used two boats to ferry patients and provisions to Cat Island: Mercury Cruiser and Noah’s Ark. To avoid contamination, they erected a fence on the vessels to separate the crew from the patients. No one was allowed to depart the island without clearance from the physicians and a permit from the Selectmen.
The first two groups of patients on Cat Island survived inoculation; however, the third group may have caused a new outbreak in town. The Loyalists seized on the incident to clamp down on the hospital, attempting to put it out of business. The Loyalists took over the town meeting and implemented new regulations. They required patients to linger for a painful thirty-day waiting period after inoculation before reentering the mainland and insisted they land first in a remote area of the town. When a group of inoculated patients attempted to enter a public wharf before the expiration of the waiting period, an enraged mob hurled rocks at the craft and beat off the inoculated patients to prevent them from landing. On January 12, 1774, the mob torched Mercury Cruiser—mob violence could be hijacked by either side.
Several days later, eagle-eyed Marbleheaders spotted several men stealing contaminated clothes from Cat Island. As they attempted to escape in boats, the clothing-nappers hurled the infected items overboard in the wake of their pursuers. After apprehending the thieves, the mob loaded the four men in a cart and tarred and feathered them. Waving a large white flag, a fifer and four drummers escorted the cart with the men through the streets of Marblehead in full view of over one thousand mocking and laughing observers.
The Loyalists called another town meeting to stamp out the disorder. Having the upper hand, they quashed a motion proposing that the hospital be purchased from the Patriot investors. Attendants resolved to form a committee to inspect the hospital, and the owners conceded they would shutter the facility once the current patients completed their treatment.
The inspection committee visited the hospital, and the following evening, about twenty men blackened their faces and silently rowed over to Cat Island armed with incendiary tubs of tar. Without attempting to awake anyone, they set fire to the hospital with eleven patients sleeping inside. Nightshirt-clad, running for their lives, all the patients miraculously escaped including a woman with a small baby. The flames reduced the hospital to ashes, resulting in a £2,000 loss for the Patriot investors—an enormous sum for the time.
Obtaining a court order, the proprietors served a writ on two of the arsonists, and the deputy sheriff arrested and jailed the men in Salem. An angry mob assembled. Hundreds of men armed with clubs, crowbars, and axes stormed the jail, broke down the doors, and carried off the two prisoners in triumph.
This unknown story and others are in the new bestselling book, The Indispensables: Marblehead’s Diverse Soldier-Mariners Who Shaped the Country, Formed the Navy, and Rowed Washington Across the Delaware. The book is a Band of Brothers-style treatment of a unique group of Americans who changed the course of history.
At midnight, the mob descended upon Glover’s home. Forewarned, Glover had transformed his house into a fortress and placed two loaded cannon in the foyer behind the front door. When the masses arrived on Glover’s front lawn, he threw open the front door and appeared with torch in hand. The primed cannon by his side, Glover readied to ignite the touchhole of each piece of ordnance. With steely determination, the stout, diminutive merchant “commanded the mob, in his military style, to halt, or they were dead men.” In response to Glover’s stand, the mob dispersed.
However, the law in Salem did not forget the incident and the destruction of their jail. Within a day, the sheriff organized a posse of scores of armed men to march toward Marblehead to seize the prisoners and those who had destroyed the jail. Six hundred to eight hundred Marbleheaders assembled to oppose Glover, Orne, and Gerry emerged. The Patriots defused the situation by agreeing to drop the charges against the men.
Gerry and the other proprietors of the hospital also had their homes surrounded and their lives threatened. The event had a profound impact on the Patriots for the rest of their lives. Citizens could be as tyrannical as despots—when the crowd attacked the very people trying to help them, the Patriots were stunned and disgusted. Gerry wrote to his mentor Sam Adams for advice on dealing with the throng. Adams sagely responded, “The tumult of the people is very properly compared to the raging of the sea. When the passions of the multitude become headstrong, they generally will have their course: a direct opposition only tends to increase them; and as to reasoning, one may as well expect that the foaming billows will hearken to a lecture of morality and be quiet. The skilful [sic] pilot will carefully keep the helm, as to prevent, if possible, her receiving injury.”
Despite its devastating effects, the virus would have a profound impact on these future influential founding fathers in Marblehead and a doctor who later combated the virus to save the Continental Army.
Patrick K. O’Donnell is a bestselling, critically acclaimed military historian and an expert on elite units. He is the author of twelve books, including The Indispensables, which is featured nationally at Barnes & Noble, along with Washington’s Immortals, and The Unknowns. O’Donnell served as a combat historian in a Marine rifle platoon during the Battle of Fallujah and often speaks on espionage, special operations, and counterinsurgency. He has provided historical consulting for DreamWorks’ award-winning miniseries Band of Brothers and documentaries produced by the BBC, the History Channel, and Discovery. PatrickODonnell.com @combathistorian