Write what you know. That’s what a great English teacher once told me. It occurred to me when I started working here that much of what I know consists of history, photography and keeping chickens. Seeing as most people don’t want to read a column about chickens every other week, I’ve decided to write about history. Mostly I’ll write about local history, customs and traditions.
I have spent the last seven years working at the Perkins House and Queens County Museum. I’ve also organized a couple Haunted Hikes so I have a tendency to remember a few creepy stories. So following on that theme, we’re going to talk about inoculation for my first column.
February is prime flu season and unfortunately this year, I forgot to get my flu shot. Most of us have had that shot before and it’s a little bit of a pinch but not so bad. I’d personally say the worst inoculation I have had was when everyone in a certain age group had to have their mumps shot re-done. That burned quite a bit.
However, though we’ve all had these little pinches and the occasionally burning reaction to a shot, we are far better off than our 18th and 19th century ancestors.
Local merchant, Simeon Perkins left us with a diary, which he kept for over 46 years, from 1766 – 1812. In his diary, Mr. Perkins makes a point of documenting different remedies to sickness so he can look back and see if any of them worked on him or his family.
One of the major outbreaks of disease occurred between 1800-1801. Perkins wrote “The Small Pox is broke out among us.” On Dec. 10, 1800. He names several people who have caught the disease and explains that many are quarantining themselves and are quite alarmed. People in Milton and Liverpool start to demand inoculations however many people are against them.
Inoculations were very different from what we experience now and were much less affective. In fact Perkins writes throughout the epidemic that more people died from small pox after receiving the inoculation than with getting small pox the natural way.
However, the community compromised with the inoculations and chose specific houses in which to keep people who had received the inoculation away from the general public. These houses were called “pest houses.”
So what did an inoculation in 1801 look like? Well this is how Perkins describes it:
“(My family) are inoculated by Mr. John Kirk, all in the left hand, between the thumb and forefinger, tho not in that loose skin but on the hand, by making a small incision and laying an infected thread into it about 3/8 of an inch in length, then he put a small square rag, doubled, and over that a bandage, to keep it in place,”
Basically a string that was infected with small pox or often cow pox (a lesser form of the disease) was placed in a small incision and then bound up. It was an almost 50-50 chance you would get the disease after the inoculation.
Mrs. Perkins in particular did not want the inoculation and it took quite a bit of convincing from Mr. Perkins to get her to do it. The couple had eight (six of which were daughters) children together plus Mrs. Perkins had a daughter from her first marriage whom by that point was a mother herself. All of the family, plus the step daughter and her child were inoculated and kept in the same home. The Perkins Family was quite large and so decided to stay in their own home instead of going in a “pest house.”
Although his children had fevers and much discomfort Perkins encouraged them to go for horseback rides to get fresh air without contacting those who had not had inoculations.
One of his daughters however did get full blown small pox. Her name was Mary and he and Mrs. Perkins had nicknamed her Polly. Polly’s face swelled, she had pocks all over her face, a very bad fever and sore throat. She ended up being bedridden for several days and could not even walk down the stairs during that time due to her feet being swollen and having pocks on them. Polly did survive her bout of small pox.
Small Pox is a fairly contagious disease and though there are a couple small pox victims in the Old Burying Ground, many were buried outside of pest houses to prevent spread of the disease. But I think there will be a completely separate column to talk about where some of our 18th century ancestors are buried in Liverpool.
Until then, stay healthy and remember, it could be a bit worse than the flu.