History: The Great Sickness of 1753

We have watched the coronavirus spread across the world for a few months now. We have had minute by minute updates, taken steps to protect ourselves and watched with horror as the numbers of afflicted rise and the death toll reaches deep into our hearts and crushes us with fear and anxiety. Back in 1754…

THEN

Between December 18, 1753 and January 30, 1754, one-eighth of Holliston’s 400 residents died from a sickness that was confined exclusively to this community and for which no cause was ever determined. You can find tombstones of people who died from the Great Sickness in the Central Burying Ground next to Town Hall.

We learn about this event from the Holliston history written by Dorothy Drinkwater Rees in 1974. The details come from a sermon given by Rev. Charles Fitch on December 4, 1826 based on notes from Rev. Joshua Prentiss who lived at the time of the sickness.

Fitch described the symptoms, “…which peculiarly marked the disease, were violent and piercing pains in the breast or side; a high fever; and extreme difficulty of expectoration, which in some cases – if not in most – resulted in strangulation.” There was no “derangement of mind,” and “people with the sickness survived just three to six days.”

Prentiss’ notes said that a total of 53 people died and 27 were heads of households. Four families lost both parents. “For more than a month there were not enough in health to attend the sick and bury the dead.” Also from those notes, two to five people were buried daily for many days in succession.

The Selectmen filed a petition with the state seeking relief following the devastation of the Great Sickness and on April 9, 1754, the State Legislature provided “26 pounds, 13 shillings and four pence” for the poor.

WAS HOLLISTON BEING PUNISHED?

Local historian Joanne Hulbert talks about the Great Sickness in her book, “Holliston: A Good Town.” She reports that Holliston residents thought they were being punished for being overly litigious. Joanne always adds flavor to history.

The subject of this legal battle, as recalled by Samuel Bullard in 1826 – who heard the story from his grandmother – was a disagreement over the price of a wig. Little is known about the details of the lawsuit, for as is usually the case, that story faded in comparison; but it is known that one of the principal adversaries fell suddenly ill while returning from Concord, and he died soon after arriving home. Several principals of the opposing side of the lawsuit also fell ill and died. From December 18, 1753 to January 30, 1754, 53 of Holliston’s 400 residents died, fully one eighth of the town’s population.

The epidemic surged rapidly. There were times when few able-bodied persons were available to bury the dead. Many children became orphaned and were divided amongst the surviving families for care… 

Holliston did not suffer alone. Although the Great Sickness was treated traditionally as a Holliston phenomenon, the epidemic was also raging elsewhere, most notably, Sherborn, where about 25 persons died of an illness. There, the epidemic was known by the more melodious moniker, the Memorable Malady…

The townspeople of Holliston saw the epidemic as an omen to cease their litigious ways and strive to live harmoniously with one another. Indeed, the number of lawsuits decreased for a generation or more.” 

BONES UNEARTHED – 2000

When Town Hall was being renovated (2000), workers accidentally dug up bones that lay under the front lawn of the Town Hall. “The bones were discovered by an electrician working in a trench to bring electrical power into the building through an underground conduit.  He was shocked when he found them and the joke was that nobody guessed he could jump that high,” recalls Paul LeBeau who was Town Administrator at the time. Construction stopped.

The bones were removed by the State Police to determine if they were related to a crime scene. Once officials were sure that was not the case, construction work resumed and the bones were sent to the Massachusetts State Historic Commission to determine if the bones were of Native Americans. After more than a year, the state decided it was likely not a Native American burial.

Ultimately, the best guess was that perhaps the bones were of someone who died in the Great Sickness. Eventually the state sent the bones back to Holliston. LeBeau remembers that “Jon Juhl bought the “coffin” at a Christmas Tree shop. It was a wooden chest, like something you might keep a lot of jewelry in.  I had considered getting a small coffin, but that was pretty expensive.” The bones were placed in the makeshift coffin and respectfully buried.

Paul LeBeau wonders even now, “how many more unmarked graves may be under the front lawn of the Town Hall.”

OTHER EPIDEMICS

During the scarlet fever epidemic of 1918, 123 cases were reported in Holliston with two fatalities. The Town spent over $2,000 for nursing care, fumigation and other expenses. The schools and library were closed for two weeks and all public buildings were fumigated. These steps were taken again during the Spanish Influenza, but I do not have any statistics from that event.

NOW

In 1754, residents of our town did not know what hit them – and they never found out. I wonder if they did the “blame-game.” At that time they might have attributed the bad events to some spirit or mysterious fate for bad behavior on the parts of the people of Holliston. We’ll never know, I guess.

Today we knew well in advance what was coming. We knew where it was coming from and what to expect. It’s good to know. This gave us time to prepare, but it has also given us much more time to anticipate the worst. There are reports of pharmacies running out of anxiety medications and many people seeking counseling online. And I expect there are thousands of us living in anxiety quietly at home.

I can’t help but think of 9-11. In my humble opinion, that event was such a shock to our collective psyche that we have lived in fear since then. I attribute much of the fear and anger of today’s politics to inadequate processing of the emotions related to the first invasion that proved we were far more vulnerable than we thought. The invasion of Covid-19 is different, but we must learn from the experience and better prepare for future pandemics. We need to process it all.

I’m ‘Just Thinking’ that Holliston officials might launch a concerted effort to help the residents process this experience. Perhaps we can have online discussions now about the fears we have and how to handle them. We have access to services through the Town’s insurance program, and we also have the staff at Youth and Family Services. Let’s do something while we are all confined in place.

In any event, stay safe. And let me know what you’re thinking about this very strange moment in history. How are you and your family faring?


7 responses to “History: The Great Sickness of 1753”

  1. Warren Chamberlain says:

    Hi Mary, wonderful artical.

    I went to the drug store to get a battery for my thermometer and they were all out. I then asked if they had any thermometers and they were out of them to and now you say

    “There are reports of pharmacies running out of anxiety medications and many people seeking counseling online. And I expect there are thousands of us living in anxiety quietly at home.”

    So I just went to the package store and got a bottle of wine.

  2. Patricia N Boyd says:

    Of course we wonder if the illness was brought on by something like what we are experiencing now. Social distancing was probably normal behavior in that it wasn’t easy to go out of town, except to Sherborn.

  3. Ceci LeBeau says:

    Very interesting, Mary!

  4. Kathy Shore says:

    Thanks Mary. Yes I believe that anxiety is increasing and mostly because we don’t know what to expect and exactly when. As a health care provider (RN) we are preparing everyday, we are preparing to become ICU nurses again even tho it has been over 20 plus years since many of us practiced in the ICU. The hospital is steadily getting busier and the patients sicker. We are getting the tools and equipment we need for now. But we are anxious, when will the surge be here? As one of my mangers said, we are preparing for the worse and praying for the best.

  5. Steve Curley says:

    Mary; interesting reading, thanks. I guess what happened in Holliston stayed in Holliston. Certainly not the case today. Bryna and are at home but we have spent time looking through our IMAGES OF HOLLISTON paperbacks. Stay save and be well

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