The Marblehead Smallpox Riot, January 1774
From The History and Traditions of Marblehead” by Samuel Roads. Featured image by Charles Green.
During the year 1773, the attention of the inhabitants of Marblehead was for a time occupied in considering their danger from another source than the oppressive acts of the British Parliament. In June the wife of Mr. William Matthews was taken sick, and was treated for “poison.” Her husband having recently arrived home from a fishing voyage to the Grand Banks, it was supposed that she had been poisoned by washing his clothing with some soap which he had procured on board a French fishing vessel.
In a short time other members of her family were afflicted, and in less than a month nearly all who had taken care of them were prostrate with the “poison.” The kind-hearted neighbors of these unfortunates took their turn in watching with, and caring for them, when to their consternation and alarm the disease which had thus far baffled all their skill was pronounced to be the smallpox in its most malignant form. A very small number, comparatively, of the inhabitants had ever had the disease, and their excitement was increased when it was known that an old lady who had died with it had been visited by more than one hundred and fifty persons.
The town — as an old gentleman expressed it in his journal, — was now in an “uproar.” The selectmen ordered all houses where the disease had appeared to be closed and guarded, and “all the dogs in town to be killed immediately.” Many of those who were sick were removed to a house at the Ferry, and in less than two months twenty-three persons died there. Eight others, who died during two weeks of July and August, were buried at the Neck in the plain just above what was then known as ” Black Jack’s Cove.”
In August a town meeting was held, and Azor Orne, Jonathan Glover, John Glover, and Elbridge Gerry petitioned the town to build a hospital on Cat Island for the treatment of smallpox patients by inoculation, “or allow certain individuals to build it at their own expense.” The town voted not to build the hospital, but gave the desired permission to the petitioners to undertake it as a private enterprise, provided “that the consent of the town of Salem could be obtained,” and that the hospital should be so regulated that the inhabitants of Marblehead would “be in no danger of infection therefrom.”
The consent of the selectmen of Salem was readily obtained, and early in September preparations were made for the erection of the building. The work had barely commenced, however, before the people of Marblehead began to manifest great uneasiness, through fear that by means of the hospital the dread disease might take the form of a pestilence among them. The opposition at length became so great that a town meeting was held on the 19th of September, and the vote whereby permission was granted for the erection of the building was rescinded.
The report had been freely circulated that the proprietors desired to establish the hospital for their own personal gain, and “to make money by means of the dangerous experiment.” To allay the indignation created by these rumors, and to show their own disinterestedness, the proprietors proposed to sell the materials for the building to the town, at their actual cost. The citizens, unreasonable now in their opposition, not only refused to purchase the materials, but demanded that the work be abandoned.
Indignant at the injustice of this action, the proprietors continued their work in spite of all opposition, and in a short time the hospital, a large two-story building, was completed. Dr. Hall Jackson, an eminent physician of Portsmouth, N. H., who had attained a distinguished reputation for his success in treating the smallpox, was appointed superintendent, and on the 16th of October entered upon his duties and began the work of inoculation. A large number of patients, numbering several hundreds, were successfully treated, but unfortunately a few who had taken the disease more severely than the others, died while at the hospital.
The opposition to the enterprise, which from the beginning had been very great, now took the form of the most bitter and angry hostility. The boatmen had landed patients at places nearer the town than those appointed by the selectmen, and for this the excited citizens demolished their boats. Four men, who were detected in the act of stealing clothing from the hospital, were tarred and feathered, and, after being placed in a cart and exhibited through all the principal streets of the town, were carried to Salem, accompanied by a procession of men and boys, marching to the music of five drums and a fife.
The fears of the inhabitants were still further increased when, a short time after this affair, it was announced that “twenty-two cases of small-pox” had broken out in the town. The storm of indignation which for months had been brewing, and manifesting itself at intervals, now burst upon the proprietors of the hospital in all its fury. Threats of lynching them were openly made, and the angry populace demanded that the doors of the detested “Castle Pox” — as the hospital was ironically called — should be closed forever.
The Proprietors momentarily expected to be mobbed, and it is said that one of them, Col. Jonathan Glover, placed two small artillery pieces in one of the rooms of his house, fronting the street, intending to give the crowd a warm reception from the windows, should they attempt to molest him.
At length, unable longer to resist the importunate petitions of their fellow citizens, the proprietors closed the hospital, and promised that no more patients should be received. For a time the excitement was somewhat allayed, but the injudicious remarks of one of the proprietors “excited the suspicion of the citizens that the promise would not be kept,” and the opposition broke out afresh.
On the night of January 26, 1774, a party of men closely disguised visited the island, and before they left it the hospital and a barn adjoining were in flames. The buildings and all their contents were completely destroyed. Naturally indignant at this outrage, the proprietors determined to secure the speedy punishment of the incendiaries. John Watts and John Gulliard were arrested as being implicated in the affair, and were confined in Salem jail.
As soon as the news of the arrest became generally known in Marblehead, the cause of the prisoners was earnestly espoused by the inhabitants, and measures were adopted to rescue them from the hands of the authorities. A large number of men at once marched to Salem, and in a short time the jail was completely surrounded. At a given signal the doors were broken open, the jailer and his assistants were overpowered, and the prisoners were rescued and conducted in triumph to their homes.
A few days after, the sheriff organized a force of five hundred citizens, intending to march to Marblehead and recapture his prisoners. A mob equally as large at once organized in Marblehead to resist them. Fearing the disastrous consequences to life and property which a conflict would endanger, the proprietors decided to abandon the prosecution, and the sheriff abandoned his purpose.
Some time after this affair a man named Clark, one of the persons who had previously been tarred and feathered, went to Cat Island and brought a quantity of clothing into the town. He was at once ordered to take the bundle to the ferry for examination. On his return to the town he was surrounded by an angry crowd, who threatened to inflict summary punishment upon him. The selectmen appeared upon the scene, however, and he was released. At about eleven o’clock that night his house was visited by a delegation of twenty citizens, and he was taken from his bed, conducted to the public whipping-post in front of the town house, and was there unmercifully beaten.
One of the perpetrators of the outrage was subsequently arrested, but the others were not detected. The town having been disinfected of the disease, and the hospital, the great cause of all the contention, having been removed, peace was once more restored to the community.
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All the women think I’m fine
All the women, when they see me, want me
I’m walkin’ down the street
They can’t get enough of me
I’m smilin’ my smile
They can’t get enough of me
I’m strutting my stuff
They can’t get enough of me
I’m drivin’ my short
They follow me down the road
Around the curves
Into the straightaway
They follow me wherever I go
I wanna get somethin’ to eat.
They’re there with their faces pressed against the window glass
I get home and there are three or four waitin’ for me
Two or three scramble in before I can git in and close the door
It’s a long night I gotta put in
It’s a long night takin’ care of ’em all
It’s a long night being me
All the women think I’m fine
As I sit alone in this small church, staring at his casket (a casket, by the way, that cost more than the building it sits in is worth), I can’t help but smile to myself. This is where it had started all those many, many years ago. Mike could have had one of those large, ostentatious Hollywood funerals, but he had asked me to ship him here on the QT. He wanted only one mourner … me.
I first met Mike Landrieu when I was thirteen, the year was 1935. I had run away from home, such as it was. The old man was an abusive drunk and my mother had given up hope years earlier. I hitched myself a ride with a salesman heading west and we got as far as this town when his Ford Model A blew a tire. Not wanting to wait around while he patched the tube, I grabbed my grip and bid him good-bye. As I look back on it now, that blown tire was fate knocking at my door.
While walking through town on my way to the highway, my eye caught sight of a small billboard in front of a burlesque house. It wasn’t the listing of the acts that drew my attention; it was the picture of the star, Rosita Royce. And as many a thirteen-year-old boy can attest to, that is all it took to stop me in my tracks. Having nowhere I had to be and no one waiting for me when I got there, I took myself around to the back to ask for a job.
I walked through the door, which was propped open, and was immediately accosted by Pop. There was a “Pop” guarding the stage entrance in every house. From the grandest in New York City to the third-raters in little towns like the one I was currently in. The man who halted my ingress inquired as to what I wanted and who I wanted to see. When I informed him I was looking for a job, he laughed and said, “Ain’t you heard, boy? There’s a depression going on. There ain’t no jobs nowhere, and if there was a job available, it would have been snatched up long before you showed.”
When he had finished speaking, he slit his eyes, and looking at me sideways said, “How old are you?” I was big for my age, so I lied and told him I was sixteen. I don’t think I fooled him much.
Just then a man walked up and asked, “What’s this, Pop?”
“This here boy is lookin’ for work, but I told him we don’t have none.”
Turning his full attention in my direction, the man asked me my name. When I told him, he stuck out his hand and said, “I’m Mike Landrieu. I run this house.” After we shook hands, I took stock of the man. To me he was ancient; he must have been all of twenty-five. He told Pop that he was going out for a “bottle and bird,” which I later learned was the term show people used for a meal.
“Why not come along?” he asked. “I’ll treat you to some donuts and milk and maybe we can find a job for you.” The short of it is, Mike hired me as his assistant and gave me a room at the back of the theater in which to live.
I liked working for Mike. It was quite an education. He kept me busy, and he taught me the business. It was just a third-rate Burly Q, but Mike ran it first-rate. Even though he was young, he was known as Uncle Mike to all the acts that came through. About a year later, Mike upped and said we were going to Hollywood. He had sold the place.
We hit Hollywood on a dusty, wind-blown day. Back then there were still some orange groves around town and the wind was kicking up an awful fuss … blowing the loose soil around till it was hard to see the road before us.
Mike knew so many people in the business that it wasn’t long before he was representing some of them to the studios. One thing led to another and before we knew it, Mike was a big-time Hollywood agent.
I left Mike in ’55—with his blessing—and started my own agency. Being as busy as I was, I didn’t see Mike as often as I would have liked. I think it might have been six months since I had last spoken with him when I got the call. It was near 2:00 a.m. and I was in bed with a girl from Omaha who thought she was going to be the next Bette Davis.
I picked up the phone and Mike said, “Howdy, partner, I need you.” There was a tremor in his voice that brought me full awake. “Can you come over here right now?” he asked.
I was out the door before the would-be starlet could object.
I pulled into Mike’s driveway and noticed a strange car parked there. I didn’t knock, but went right in and found Mike covered in blood.
“What the hell happened, Mike?”
“I don’t know. She attacked me with a knife, she just went crazy!”
He pointed towards the bedroom. Sprawled across the bed lay a woman on white sheets soaked in crimson blood, glistening in the dim light. I turned away in disgust. Mike had followed me into the room, he was crying.
“Mike, tell me what happened here.”
“I just don’t know. We were going … going to … you know. As she was taking off her clothes, she was telling me about how she had a small speaking part in a Warner’s film. I said something like, ‘Good for you’ or ‘Enjoy it while you can.’ Then she suddenly ran from the room and came back holding that kitchen knife,” he said, as he pointed toward a knife on the floor.
“I don’t know what set her off. I just don’t know.”
I turned Mike around, walked him to the living room, and sat him down on the couch. I retrieved a bottle of Scotch from his liquor cabinet and poured us both a stiff one. “Okay, Mike … no bullshit, tell me!”
He downed his drink in one gulp and said, “She was a honey I picked up down on Wilshire. You know, that little hole-in-the-wall off Pico. She said she wanted to go home with me and I thought that would be a good idea. She followed me here in her car. Everything was going swell. I made drinks and we talked for a while. Then she made bedroom eyes at me, stood up, took me by the hand and led me into the bedroom. The next thing I knew, she was trying to stab me with that goddamn knife.”
He stood and poured himself another drink, then continued: “We fought for the knife and, as I wrenched it from her hand, it slipped into her throat. It was an accident! I tried to stop the flow of blood, but I just couldn’t. She was on the bed just like she is now. She slowly smiled at me as the life seeped out of her.”
Mike started to cry again.
“What do you want me to do, Mike?”
He did not answer. I don’t think he heard me.
I placed my hand on his shoulder. He had been like a father to me. He was the only person that had ever treated me right. I knew what I had to do.
I went into the bedroom and rolled the woman up in the sheets. The blood had soaked through to the mattress, but that was of no concern at the moment. I carried her outside and placed her in her car. Then I went back into the house and retrieved her purse. Her car keys were in it.
Mike was in a trance-like state and had no idea what I was doing. I told him to have another drink and not do anything until I got back. He nodded numbly, and I left Mike Landrieu for the last time.
I drove the woman’s car out to Malibu and left it in a parking lot of a restaurant on the beach. I had trouble finding a cab, so it was a while before I made it back to Mike’s.
I went in to find my old friend sitting in his favorite chair. He was dead; he had shot himself. There was a note in his hand. He wrote that he could not live with what he had done. He asked that he be buried in the town where we first met. And he thanked me for being his friend. His friend? The sonavabitch saved me when I was just a snot-nosed kid without a dime to my name!
I took the note and left. Let the cops figure it out.
I sit here alone in this podunk town with only my memories … and the body of my friend, Mike Landrieu.
Georgia was my girl, she was my love. Georgia was taken from me. She is not of this earth anymore. Georgia awaits me in heaven.
Georgia was taken from me last spring as she crossed a street. She was killed by a drunk driver. Winter is now coming on and the murderer has still not faced justice. He has money and a very good lawyer. His trial has been postponed repeatedly.
He may have money and a good lawyer, but I have my granddaddy’s Colt .45. I have decided to be judge, jury, and executioner. I have waited long enough for justice.
He goes out to the clubs every night. He does not drive now. He has a Cuban drive him in his big fancy car; the same car that took my Georgia.
It will be tonight.
As I wait in the alley for the murderer to emerge from the newest, hottest club on Miami Beach, I think of Georgia.
My Georgia was only nineteen when we met. She was in Miami visiting a friend, and the friend suggested that she see Fort Lauderdale before she went home. I was at the bar in The Elbow Room, sitting on my usual stool, when they walked in. I don’t believe in love at first sight, but that night I had my doubts.
I sat there and looked on as a few guys hit on Georgia and her friend. They all walked away empty-handed. Normally, I wouldn’t have made a move, but something drew me to Georgia. She was full of life. If I could see someone’s aura, I’m sure hers would have been a light blue. A loving and pure soul was she.
To make a long and loving story shorter, I sweet-talked her phone number out of her. At that point, all I wanted was to get laid. But that was before I fell in love with my Georgia.
I called the next day. We went sailing on my boat. I told her to bring her friend along so that she would feel safe. The three of us sailed the bay and then ate a picnic lunch on Elliot Key. As we sailed back, the sun was setting into a fiery western sky .
We hit Dinner Key just as it got full dark. By then I was in love.
My home base is Fort Lauderdale—about two hours up the Intercoastal Waterway.
I asked Georgia to sail up there with me and I would send her back to Miami in a cab. To my great surprise, she said yes. Her friend left us and I cast off from the dock.
Two hours later, in a cove off Dania Beach, we anchored and made love. The sweetest most loving love I have ever known. From that moment on, she was My Georgia.
She flew home, settled matters and came back to me. We had two years of love and life before she was taken from me. In that time, I learned how to love another human being. I learned of tenderness. I learned of love. And because of what was done to My Georgia, I will kill a man tonight.
It’s coming up on 2:00 a.m., about the time the killer heads for home with his conquest of the night.
I see them now, the three of them—the murderer, a girl, and the Cuban.
My quarry has his arm around the tall, skinny girl. She sways on her high heels. She wears a silver dress that reflects the pink and yellow neon lights of the bars they pass. He weaves as he walks. I hope and pray that he is not too drunk. I want him to know why he is going to die.
I step out of the shadows to block their path. I stand before them and tell the girl to hit the road. She hesitates, but when I raise the gun, she finds someplace else to be. I then turn to the Cuban. “This ain’t your fight.”
He also hesitates. So I explain it to him, “In one minute, your boss will be dead. Do you want a piece of what is about to go down?” I reckon he didn’t because he shrugged and walked away.
Now it is just me and the murderer.
“This is for Georgia,” I say as I put a bullet into his shocked face. His blood and brains splatter onto the wall behind him. So simple to take a life. So very simple. I did it with a gun … he did it with a car.
I thought I would feel better killing the son-of-a-bitch. But you know what? It does not feel good to kill another human being … although I am glad I did it.
Now I’m waiting for the cops. I hear the sirens nearing. But I am not worried; I will not be here when they arrive.
With the barrel of the gun in my mouth, I think of My Georgia and tell her that I am on my way.
When I see the first cop car approach, I slowly squeeze the trigger.
I’ve been a long time livin’, too long
I’ve been a long time hurtin’, too long
I need to feel somethin’ good, for a change
I need to feel the touch of another, for a change
Sometimes I’m so lonely, so blue
Sometimes I just wanna die, I just wanna
There’s gotta be a better life awaitin’, for me
There’s gotta be somethin’ more than I have, anything
There’s only one way to find that somethin’
That is to move on
But I’m so afraid of dying
Love is never spontaneous.
Love takes work.
Love, over time, grows strong like a mighty oak.
No sapling is Love.
Love is soft and low.
Love is hard as a rock.
Love is not words.
Love is action.
Love is showing.
Love does not have to be spoken.
Life without Love is a long, lonesome road.
Love is being sheltered from the rain and snow.
Love is the Tao.
Love is the Way.
Never trade for your Love.
Never expect anything for your Love.
Because then it is not Love.
Note: Here’s another snippet of my youth. I don’t know why I’m writing so much about myself these days. Perhaps all those people who have, throughout the years, told me it wasn’t all about me were wrong. Maybe it is all about me. If not, I gotta get back to writing fiction. I’m feeling a need for a spurned lover to take his revenge. In the meantime, here’s a story that is true down to its last word.
How to convey something that I know, down to my very soul, to be true? How to put into words something that no one is gonna believe? How indeed?
I reckon I’ll get right to it and see what happens, see who believes what.
I’m out hitchin’. I’m twenty years old. I’m a robust young man in the prime of his life. It’s early morning. The sun has just cleared the horizon to the east, and I’m heading west on Interstate 80, a brand new super highway. I’m on my way to San Francisco, the year is 1970. As I write this, I don’t remember where I slept the previous night. Probably in some bushes off the side of the road, snug in my sleeping bag.
I’ve been eating, at least as well as one can while on the road. Perhaps my last meal was the night before. Perhaps it was only an hour earlier. I can’t remember, but I do know that I am not hungry. There are two of us in the car, me and the guy that picked me up that morning. We’re shooting the shit as the vast, flat lands of Nebraska speed by.
The guy tells me he’s getting off at the next exit and that it’s out in the middle of nowhere. He suggests I get out at a rest area that’s coming up ahead. There’s nothing there yet … no restrooms, no nothing; the road is too new. But if someone pulls in there, my chances of getting a long haul would be a lot better than if I stood at the entrance ramp outside of Nowhere Town. I agree and my host pulls into the rest area and lets me out.
I look around. The land sure is flat. I can see for miles and miles, all the way to the horizon, so far away. Then I notice there is one thing at that rest stop: A small plaque telling me that particular portion of Interstate 80 was built on the old Oregon Trail. Big deal. I had never heard of the Oregon Trail.
This sucks. No one is pulling into the damn rest stop. I’ll never get to San Francisco. Only one thing to do, get back out to the highway and stick out my thumb. It’s about a hundred-yard walk, so I heft my bedroll and start walking. I’ll have a ride in a few minutes. Maybe if I’m lucky, the guy will offer to buy me lunch.
But then something funny happens. One minute I’m filled with vim and vigor and the next, I’m getting really tired. Funny, but not worrisome. Just keep putting one foot in front of the other. Get out to the highway. That’s where the cars are, that’s where your next ride awaits you.
With each step, I’m slowing down. It gets to where it takes all my willpower to take one lousy step. My feet weigh a ton each. My bedroll weighs two tons if it weighs an ounce. I’m almost to the highway. Gotta get there. Standing here ain’t gonna get me anywhere.
But it’s no use. I’ve come to the end of the line. I couldn’t take another step if my life depended on it. I just want to collapse. It takes all my strength just to keep upright. My feet are mired in the asphalt—cemented in place. I feel my soul wanting to leave my body. I won’t be heavy any longer. What a weird thing to think.
Just then a car pulls up next to me. It’s coming from the rest area. The passenger window is down. The driver leans over and offers a ride. I want the ride, but I can’t move. But if I don’t move, I know I’m going to die. How do I know that? With my last bit of energy, my last ounce of strength, I reach out and open the car door. But that’s it. I’ve got nothing left. The only thing I can do is fall into the passenger seat. The guy doesn’t wait until I’m all the way in before he accelerates. It’s a good thing that he did. It closes the door for me. I sure as hell couldn’t do it.
He wants to know where I’m headed. I answer in a weak whisper. It’s all that I can manage.
The guy’s really moving. The land is flat and there are no other cars around. We’re tearing up miles. But the funny thing is, the more miles we tear up, the farther I get from the rest area, the stronger I get. My strength is returning. Four minutes and five miles later, I’m restored. I’m once again a strapping, youthful guy with his whole life ahead of him. I don’t know why I think that, but I do.
I put the whole thing out of my mind. Never to think of it again. It was just something that happened. I’m looking forward to my sojourn on the West Coast. I love hitchin’ up and down the Pacific Coast Highway. I always meet interesting people who take me into their lives for a few minutes, a few hours, or even for a few days. Whatever.
Fast forward twenty-seven years.
I’m now middle aged, forty-seven years old. Out of nowhere, I start having this recurring dream. In it, I’m on the plains of America. The sky is blue, very blue. The sun is warm, it’s summertime. Things are quiet. I hear not a sound. I stand behind a covered wagon, I’m at the tailgate. I’m feeling weak, very weak. It takes all my willpower, all my energy, just to keep standing upright. My folks and my sister are at the front of the wagon. They are dead. We tried to cross the continent on our own. We did not provision properly. We ran out of food, I think. The details are murky. Maybe something else killed my family. I don’t know. All I know is that they are dead and I’m dying. I want to bury my family, I should bury them. But I just can’t. I’m standing, holding on to the tailgate for support. But not for long. In a few seconds, I’m going to fall to the ground and die. I don’t think I am scared. The last thing I see in that life is the rough, grey, weathered wood of the tailgate and the tall, brown grass of the prairie as it comes up to meet my face.
The dream comes again and again and again. Then, one time, for the first time, I look around in the dream. I look behind me. I see the prairie. It hasn’t changed. And I know, with a calm certainty, that I am standing on the exact spot where I stood rooted to the ground on that day in 1970. It’s the same damn place. The exact same place! The same two square feet of earth—just different times.
After that … after I came to understand what had happened to me as a twenty-year-old kid, back when I was on the road … the dream has never returned.