Going Viral

Cover of Wheeler Brothers' History of Brunswick

A midnight browse through the pages of History of Brunswick, Topsham, and Harpswell, Maine* yielded more information about Brunswick’s earliest reactions to smallpox, the highly contagious, disfiguring, and often fatal Variola virus, and led to speculation as to the cause of the 1851 epidemics in Brunswick, Maine, and New York.

The Wheeler brothers reported that in October of 1792, during Brunswick’s first smallpox epidemic, citizens ‘voted not to allow any person in this town to inoculate for to take the small-pox, but to take all possible care to prevent the spreading of the disorder.’* For two months, 18 inspectors examined, smoked (in special smokehouses), and cleaned “all goods brought into town.”* Further, the inspectors were directed to “stop, examine, and cleanse any person whom they might suspect of being infected.”* The voters also approved quarantining infected persons in a 28-by-14-foot hospital to be built on the Town Commons. No doctor was allowed to treat smallpox patients without approval from the selectmen.

Thirty-four years later, Brunswick reacted differently to an impending smallpox epidemic. This time voters opted to fund inoculation for every unvaccinated person in town.

In 1851, the same year Enos Merryman died of smallpox aboard ship at the port of New York (see The Shipkeeper and the Housekeeper), there were a few cases of smallpox in the Brunswick area. Once again, the men voted ‘to cause the inhabitants of the town to be vaccinated without delay.’

Was it merely coincidence that New York and Brunswick had smallpox cases in the same year or did disease contracted in one location spread to the other? Let the speculation begin!

We don’t know if Enos was at the beginning or end of his voyage when he was docked in New York, nor if other Brunswick mariners were part of the crew. If he had just arrived in New York, and was already infected with smallpox, Enos could have been the starting point for the city’s epidemic. The disease could have spread out from him to the crew, then to the crew’s favorite venues, and outward to the rest of the city.

It seems more likely, though, that he was at the end of a voyage, perhaps having returned from an area where smallpox was endemic. Given that several of his Merryman and McManus kin were also sailors, one or more could well have been a crew member of the same ship and, having been infected with the virus, brought it to Brunswick when they returned home from their voyage.

Whether or not the New York and Brunswick smallpox episodes were related, 19th-century Maine mariners were physically connected to the world in ways that would have made them shudder at the term “going viral.”

Next Blog: Hannah Keeps Her House



About Barbara Desmarais

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

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s