The Fever of 1721: The Epidemic That Revolutionized Medicine and American Politics
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More than fifty years before the American Revolution, Boston was in revolt against the tyrannies of the Crown, Puritan Authority, and Superstition. This is the story of a fateful year that prefigured the events of 1776.
In The Fever of 1721, Stephen Coss brings to life an amazing cast of characters in a year that changed the course of medical history, American journalism, and colonial revolution, including Cotton Mather, the great Puritan preacher, son of the president of Harvard College; Zabdiel Boylston, a doctor whose name is on one of Boston’s grand avenues; James and his younger brother Benjamin Franklin; and Elisha Cooke and his protégé Samuel Adams.
During the worst smallpox epidemic in Boston history Mather convinced Doctor Boylston to try a procedure that he believed would prevent death—by making an incision in the arm of a healthy person and implanting it with smallpox. “Inoculation” led to vaccination, one of the most profound medical discoveries in history. Public outrage forced Boylston into hiding, and Mather’s house was firebombed.
A political fever also raged. Elisha Cooke was challenging the Crown for control of the colony and finally forced Royal Governor Samuel Shute to flee Massachusetts. Samuel Adams and the Patriots would build on this to resist the British in the run-up to the American Revolution. And a bold young printer James Franklin (who was on the wrong side of the controversy on inoculation), launched America’s first independent newspaper and landed in jail. His teenage brother and apprentice, Benjamin Franklin, however, learned his trade in James’s shop and became a father of the Independence movement.
One by one, the atmosphere in Boston in 1721 simmered and ultimately boiled over, leading to the full drama of the American Revolution.
28. Ibid., 417. 29. Ibid. 30. Ibid. 31. Ibid., 419. 32. Ibid., 422. 33. Carrell, Speckled Monster, 399. 34. Nathaniel Hawthorne, Grandfather’s Chair: A History for Youth (Carlisle, MA: Applewood Books, 2010) (facsimile of 1898 edition published by Henry Altemus, Philadelphia), 117. 35. Silverman, Life and Times, 423. 36. Benjamin Franklin to Samuel Mather, Passy, May 12, 1784, in the Papers of Benjamin Franklin, American Philosophical Society and Yale University, digital edition by the
was the perfect way to hide bad news from Boston officials. FOR ONE REASON or another, fifteen-year-old Charles Paxton, one of the newer members of the Seahorse crew, had asked to remain behind in Boston during the ship’s voyage to Barbados. Despite his difficulties assembling and keeping a full crew, Captain Durrell had granted the favor, probably because Charles’s father, Wentworth Paxton, was a former naval captain who had once commanded a smaller version of the HMS Seahorse. A condition of
authors of “that Flagicious and Wicked Paper” failed to “clear themselves of and from the Imputation,” the anonymous author warned, “People will take it for granted, they are a new club set up in New England, like to that in our Mother England.”13 Three decades after the Salem witch trials, an accusation of Devil worship was still no laughing matter in New England. Writing as “W. Anti-inoculator” in the Boston Gazette (because James had shut him out of the Courant), a rattled William Douglass
happy to assist in the counterattack, since the Courant had also attacked his performance as postmaster, accusing him of failing to deliver letters out of sheer laziness, of opening private letters, and even of stealing money from them.) Byles, the Harvard student and former Latin School classmate of Benjamin Franklin, reminded readers that the contributors to the Courant had been declared a Hell-Fire Club, and he threatened to divulge their identities. If that didn’t end their “wickedness,” he
their Freedom of Speech.11 Gordon wrote that public measures, “when they are honest,” should be publicly commended. But when they were “knavish or pernicious,” he added, “they ought to be publickly exposed, in order to be publickly detested.”12 The letter’s timing left no question that Silence was rebuking the government officials who had first jailed James and then tried to impose pre-publication censorship against him. Quoting chapter and verse from Cato now, with James fresh out of jail, was