The Shipkeeper and the Housekeeper

Morguefile IMG_9338

Two centuries ago wooden ships used muscle and wind power to transport people, goods, and ideas along rivers, across great lakes, and over treacherous seas. In the early part of the 19th century, entire families from Brunswick and nearby Harpswell earned their livings in seafaring, whether as shipbuilders, suppliers, or sailors. Entire crews might have been friends and neighbors. For many, maritime occupations were temporary, meant to fulfill a desire for adventure or to provide income during lean times. Voyages were fairly short, often transporting goods up and down the Atlantic coast.

After the War of 1812, new technology allowed ships to travel further in less time than before, while carrying larger cargoes. At the same time, competition increased and investment companies demanded speedier and higher profits. Seafaring became faster-paced, crews smaller, and voyages longer. It was also less profitable and more dangerous than before.

New edited McManus Merryman Family Tree 2016Rocky Hill’s Merryman family provided its fair share of mariners. One of these was John Merryman’s brother, Enos (1807-1851), who married Eleanor McManus’s sister, Hannah (1806-1899), in June of 1829. (See John and Eleanor: River Road from Cradle to Grave.)

Coombs to Enos Jr

Portion of Deed from Thomas Coombs to Enos Merryman

The 1830 census listed Enos in Brunswick. He was still there two decades later when, in 1849, he purchased the farm of Thomas and Rhoda Coombs on Rocky Hill, between River and Durham Roads. The very next year, though, the 1850 Federal census recorded Enos (a mariner), his wife Hannah, and their 6 children in their own household in Portland. Enos may have found ready work there, since Portland was both the largest city and the largest port in Maine. He still kept the farm, perhaps renting it out while he and his family were away.

While at sea, mariners endured seasickness, stale food, close quarters, violent storms, and backbreaking work interspersed with spirit-numbing tedium. A sailor’s lot didn’t necessarily change when the ship arrived at port full of cargo since the vessel might have to wait days or weeks for a free berth before the cargo could be unloaded and a new one brought on. That’s why, in 1851, 45-year-old Enos was on duty aboard an empty vessel docked at New York City, acting as the ship-keeper or watchman. With most of the mariners on shore, Enos would have had, at best, a skeleton crew to help him protect the ship from thieves and vandals. The greatest danger he faced that year, though, wasn’t criminals. It was a largely preventable disease – smallpox.

Waterhouse Rev War

From the Papers of Benjamin WaterHouse, 1786-1836; Small pox Lecture, Sept. 1809, courtesy of Harvard University

Europeans brought smallpox to the Americas in the early 16th century. In fact, the disease may have killed as many as 90% of Native Americans during European colonization. In 1798, English physician Edward Jenner published his findings on his newly developed smallpox vaccine. Two years later, Benjamin Waterhouse tested the vaccine in the United States.

Waterhouse Harvard

From the Papers of Benjamin WaterHouse, 1786-1836; Small pox Lecture, Sept. 1809, courtesy of Harvard University

In 1809, Massachusetts (of which Maine was still a part) enacted a law to enforce either mandatory vaccination or quarantine during an outbreak. The committee appointed by neighboring Topsham to determine the number of inhabitants at risk of catching “Kine pox” (1181 people) reported their findings at the May 7th, 1810, town meeting:

…your committee are seriously impressed with the importance of uniting with the enlightened and benevolent men of this and foreign countries to extirpate that dreadful malady from the face of the earth, and we believe if any thing within the power of man can effect that desirable end, it will be by a general inoculation with the Kine pox, which the Great Disposer of events appears mercifully to have made a perfect, mild and safe substitute for this alarming and dreadful pestilence.

Vaccination worked; by the mid-1800s, the majority of Americans had never seen an incident of smallpox and didn’t see a need for preventive inoculation. Further, since smallpox spread in overcrowded and poorly sanitized conditions, it was considered a disease of the poor and morally bankrupt.

The very nature of seagoing vessels created crowded and unhealthful conditions for those aboard, and smallpox was endemic in many of the African regions where slaves were captured and loaded into ships. This meant mariners were especially vulnerable to the disease.

Waterhouse Smallpox progression2

From the Papers of Benjamin WaterHouse, 1786-1836; Small pox Lecture, Sept. 1809, courtesy of Harvard University

And so it was that in 1851, Enos Merryman contracted smallpox.  Perhaps at the beginning of his infection, he languished in his bunk while the crew enjoyed their time ashore. After a week, pustules rendered Enos’s face unrecognizable. His struggle to breathe kept him from sleeping; his inability to swallow prevented eating and drinking. Likely alone and in pain, Enos died, just one of the 562 people who succumbed to the disease in New York that year.

Enos never made it back to Rocky Hill; he was buried at Greenwood Cemetery in New York.

Next Blog: Going Viral

Notes: New York’s population in 1851 was approximately 500,000.

Selected Sources:


About Barbara Desmarais

Writer and amateur historian
This entry was posted in Brunswick History and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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