Since ancient times, smallpox had been a devastating disease that raced through whole communities, leaving most victims to an excruciating death. The colonists first encounter with the disease was in 1677, followed by another siege in 1689–1690. From time to time, other significant outbreaks occurred, and the population was never completely free from the fear of an outbreak of smallpox until the mid-twentieth century when the World Health Organization conducted a world-wide campaign to contain the disease.¹
Dread of Smallpox in Colonial Days
“Of all the diseases to which the Colonists were subject, the most distressing as is well known, was the smallpox.”² Colonists knew of few ways to slow the spread of smallpox. Days of fasting, self-denial, prayer, and strict quarantining were considered the sole means of arresting its remorseless advance.
‘’Back then people had no understanding of how diseases are transmitted,” explains Ruth Shapley, of the Connecticut Gravestone Network. “They just knew that if you came into contact with the afflicted you would get the pox, too.” Often fear took hold in the affected communities. Victims were isolated, sometimes in what were called “pest houses” where victims were often nursed by old widows.³
Local history records in Madison, Connecticut reports that townspeople, fearful of contamination from victims among area soldiers, left baskets of food for them on a rock or another agreed upon place to avoid all personal contact.
Often townspeople, fearing the disease, buried the victims who died nearby in the woods. Other times, alarmed neighbors burned down the pest houses where the victims were nursed after the disease had run its course. Other victims may have ended up in potter’s fields after entire families died without money for graves.’’⁴
In her May 2020 column in The Day, Carol Sommer points out that smallpox prevented New London from being represented at the Continental Congress in 1776 when New London Lawyer, Richard Law contracted the disease and was unable to attend the historical signing of the Declaration of Independence in Philadelphia.⁵
When news of an outbreak of smallpox in Boston reached New London in 1721, John Rogers, a local believer of faith healing, left for Boston on horseback. Imagining himself a messenger from God, John aimed to care for the sick as he saved their souls. He believed he was immune to smallpox. However he soon fell ill and was forced to return home.
John Rogers became gravely ill and died in mid-October that year. Others in his community on Mamacock Island also developed the disease. Governor Saltonstall, a self-appointed adversary of Rogers, responded to the outbreak with a heavy hand. The draconian quarantine measures he installed upon the small Rogerene community had long-term consequences for the group. The Governor used the quarantine as a pretext to rein in the unorthodox beliefs of the Rogerenes. Without John, the group fell apart and was never were able to reorganize again in New London. One group of followers moved across the river in Ledyard and developed a community that last for many years.
Edward Jenner’s Early Vaccines
In the early 1790s, after experimenting with a number of patients, the surgeon Edward Jenner developed a method that provided patients with immunity to smallpox. Soon afterwards his vaccination came into widespread use. Unfortunately it also caused much unease and distrust among the population. When the Compulsory Vaccination Act of 1853 decreed that all babies should be vaccinated, public accusations that personal liberty was under threat intensified.
Many regarded the smallpox epidemic as “God’s Will.” They saw this suffering as the wrath of God, and believed faith would protect them. However, Cotton Mather, the prominent New England Puritan leader, developed very forward thinking: he supported inoculation (a precursor to vaccination).
Carol Sommer writes that it took residents of the greater New London-Groton area some time to warm to the idea of smallpox inoculations. In 1787, two local doctors opened an inoculation hospital in Mystic, on Dodges Island, away from the general population. Similar facilities were established in Saybrook and New London.⁶
The polarization between “pro” and “anti” vaccination camps solidified by the end of the19th century. Many Americans regarded compulsory vaccination as a threat to their health and an invasion of their individual rights. Despite historical resistance to widespread vaccination efforts, smallpox was eradicated in the latter half of the twentieth century.
Thames River and Long Island Sound Beaches
As Marc Siegel, an assistant professor of medicine at NYU, points out, the fear associated with smallpox is much more contagious than the disease. Smallpox is one of our ancient scourges that captures the dark side of our imaginations. Tending to the sick and even the burial of the afflicted were jobs that generated great fear. Victims were not welcome in most cemeteries so other burial spots were found for these unfortunate souls.
These places are not so much a graveyard, but a general area that the town suggested as places to dispose of the unfortunate souls who succumbed to the disease onboard ships.
Powder Island, in the Thames river off Pequot Avenue, was used for many years as a spot for vessels carrying passengers with diseases to tie up. The passengers were not allowed to disembark. Often, those who succumbed to disease were buried right there on the beach.
A 1702 statute required any ships with passengers infected with smallpox to anchor a half mile from shore. No one was allowed to disembark without a license from the governor or his assistants.⁷
Caulkins explains that “the selectmen were the only health officers and it fell to them to dispose of the sick, and to the town to defray most of the costs…the many victims of the perilous infection, were “cast into the earth as a thing utterly abhorred.”⁸
She states that for some years, 1750–1760, the beautiful beach along the mouth of the Thames River was used to quarantine the sick who arrived on sailing vessels, “and there many a victim to the perilous infection, was cast into the earth as a thing utterly abhorred,” according to Caulkins.⁹
Crane Cemetery on Chester Farm
“Crane Cemetery” is found on many lists of graveyards, and directions to its site always point to the Fog Plain Road area, in the vicinity of the hill. However, its exact location has not been made clear. It is possible and probable that the “Crane Cemetery” may be one with the Chester Cemetery.
The late town historian Margaret Stacy wrote, in her notes on Waterford’s ‘burying grounds’, “Upon Fog Plain in the corner of a pasture now belonging to the Chester Farm is a plot of graves where those who died of smallpox in 1779 are buried.”¹⁰
She says that two nearby houses, including the John Chapel House were used as hospitals. The location of the Chapel’s is said to have stood in a lot north of Fog Plain Road just east of a brook and a short steep hill.
Fear of contamination from the deadly disease probably prompted the decision to bury the victims on the site where they died. “Ten or twelve graves can be found but only one has a headstone: that of John Hempstead:” While the inscription on his gravestone has been recorded in Stacy’s notes, the actual gravestone has been not been found.¹¹
In memory of John Hempstead Esqr
Who died June ye 2nd 1779
Aged 70 years and 6 months
Only one other burial name is mentioned: Mrs. Phebe, wife of Jacob Fink. She died in November, 1792. Her two children, who died earlier of smallpox, had been buried elsewhere. They were moved and buried at this site to be near their mother. Caulkins noted that the first American Episcopal Bishop, rector of St. James Church in New London, officiated at the service. His presence at the service may have been a deliberate attempt to abate the fears of the deadly disease.
In his diary, Joshua Hempsted, an early citizen of New London, describes the many hardships caused by smallpox on New London’s residents. He wrote that the year 1689 was the hottest summer anyone could remember; it allowed a most virulent epidemic of smallpox to devastate the city and other neighboring towns. He reports that in 1721 nearly one half of New London’s population became infected.
One elderly widow, Mary Hobbs, who cared for a smallpox victim, managed alone to bury the body in a pasture without asking for help. Somehow she pulled the coffin along on the ground with long ropes. She tried to avoid contaminating anyone else. Older widows were logical choices for such dangerous work as caring for the sick. They were experienced healers and had no husband or child to care for at home” or to whom to pass the disease.
Harkness Park: Smallpox Burial Ground
Fear of the disease was so overwhelming that ordinary citizens grew alarmed when it came to burying the bodies. Worried about contamination, families were forced to bury their loved ones in graves far outside town.
When Captain Thomas Harris, from the distinguished Harris family, and his granddaughter, Mercy, died of smallpox in 1777, their neighbors on Pequot Avenue became alarmed and panicked. Fearing contamination, they refused to allow the distinguished Captain Harris to be buried in the town cemetery.
A plot was found outside New London. Captain Harris and his family were buried in a small plot on Dimmock Road in what is now Waterford. Today, this lonely gravesite of only four graves is located on a quiet spot not far from Harkness State Park. At the time it was created the small burial site was a field. Today, it is under a forest of tall trees.
Today this burial ground, tucked away on Dimmock Road is part of Harkness State Park, owned and maintained by the state of Connecticut.
The Four Graves
In Memory of Mercy Taber
Dau. of Pardon and Elizabeth Taber
who died of the Smallpox Ju.8 1777
in the 7th year of her age
In memory of Lucendy,
dau of Dyar & Lucendy Harris
who died Sept 1, 1801
aged 3 years & 8 months
Here lies ye Body of Mr. Thomas Harris
he died of the small pox Feb. 24, 1778 age 54
In Memory of Mrs. Sarah Harris
Relic of Capt.Thomas Harris
who died May 27, 1807 aged 80 years
Manitock Hill Burial Site
Local historians, including Margaret Stacy, say that an old burial site lies on the west end of Manitock Hill on land that once belonged to the Beebe family. Victims of a smallpox epidemic are said to have been buried on the hill north of a square walled-in lot called the Flax Lot. An old cellar is said to be nearby. Although volunteers have searched the area carefully, the site of the old cemetery has not been found. Further details are unknown.
Manitock Hill lies on the north side of the Boston Post Road in Waterford between Cross Road and Fog Plain Road.
- Graves, Charles B. “Early Medicine and Medical Men.” A Modern History of New London County, Connecticut, edited by Benjamin T Marshall, vol. 1, Lewis Historical Publishing Company”, New York City, NY, 1922, p. 367. <https://www.google.com/books/edition/A_Modern_History_of_New_London_County_Co/YqsrAAAAYAAJ?hl=en&gbpv=1&kptab=overview>
- Monagan, David. “Isolated Reminders Of Old Epidemics.” The New York Times, 9 Apr. 2000, www.nytimes.com/2000/04/09/nyregion/isolated-reminders-of-old-epidemics.html.
- Sommer, Carol. “Loss and Love in the Worst Hard Times.” The Day, 10 May 2020. <https://www.theday.com/article/20200510/ENT07/200519995>
- “The Pilgrims Were America’s First Anti-Vaxxers.” (1) Peter Manseau The New Republic, Feb. 6, 2015.
- Sommers, Carol. Ibid.
- DeBrincat, Dominic. “‘All Dregs of the said Distemper’: Containing Smallpox and Religious Dissent in Colonial Connecticut.” Connecticut History Review, Vol. 58, № 2 (Fall 2019), p. 15 <https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.5406/connhistrevi.58.2.0003>
- Caulkins, Frances M. History of New London, Connecticut: From the First Survey of the Coast in 1612 to 1852. 1860. <https://www.google.com/books/edition/History_of_New_London_Connecticut/QO0nAQAAMAAJ?hl=en&gbpv=0&kptab=overview>
- Ibid. p.475.
- Margaret Stacy, Waterford Burying Grounds. Stacy, including her handwritten book available from the Waterford Public Library, was and continues to be a valuable source for much of my cemetery research.