Featured image: Tombstone of the daughters of Dr. Thomas Berry: Elizabeth age 5 years, and Mary, age 18 months, who died in December 1735 of the “throat distemper.” Photo by John Glassford

An epidemic of “throat distemper” raged in New England between 1735 and 1740. The contagion struck first in New Hampshire, killing almost 1% of the population. The epidemic spread south through the Massachusetts Bay Colonies, and eventually into Connecticut. By the time it had run its course, 5000 people had died, and more than 75 percent of the deaths where children. In Hampton Falls as of July 16, 1736 there had been 210 deaths, 160 under the age of ten. The epidemic affected Kensington a decade later, where 250 child victims of “throat distemper” between 1744 and 1779.

Old North Burying Ground Ipswich: Samuel York, age 15, died Nov. 27, 1735. Son of Samuel Yorke and Mary. Photo by John Glassford

Ernest Caulfield described the path of the disease south into Massachusetts in his “A History of the Terrible Epidemic, Vulgarly called the Throat Distemper, as it Occurred in his Majesty’s New England Colonies between 1735 and 1740” and “The Throat Distemper of 1735-1740 Part II.” (excerpts below)

“It has long been known that there was an epidemic of some disease in Kingston, New Hampshire, in 1735, but…this was merely a small part of a greater epidemic which involved most of the inhabited regions of New England and caused great loss of life wherever it appeared. In some of the towns nearly half of all the children died and at times it was feared that the disease would actually destroy the colonies. This strange “Plague in the Throat” was not like any disease with which they were familiar. They knew that whooping-cough and measles could spread among children, but never had any such mortality accompanied a childhood epidemic.”

Old North Burying Ground Ipswich: “Here lies ye bodies of John and James Abbe, sons of Mr. Joseph and Mrs. Tamzon Abbee. John died July ye 12th 1736 in ye 8th year of his age. James died August ye 30, 1736 in ye 2nd year of his age.” Photo by John Glassford

“Late in the summer of 1735, the disease invaded the northern part of Massachusetts…carried into Massachusetts by countless travellers going to many different towns. Most of the old towns between Casco Bay and Boston were connected by a road (the Old Bay Road) which ran roughly parallel to the coast and far enough inland to avoid the many small inlets, marsh lands, and sandy dunes. A few weeks after the Kingston outbreak the disease invaded Kittery and Hampton Falls, two important trading centers along this road. From Kittery the infection was carried northward into Maine and from Hampton Falls southward across disputed territory into the Province of Massachusetts Bay. Amesbury and Salisbury were soon involved, and by September the epidemic had crossed the Merrimac River and like an invading army concentrated its forces at Newbury before it started down the old Bay Path towards Boston.

Old North Burying Ground: "Here lies ye body of Abigail Hart, wife of Mr. Nathaniel Hart, who died August 1736 with four of her children: Henry, Abigail, Lydia William." Photo by John Glassford
Old North Burying Ground: “Here lies ye body of Abigail Hart, wife of Mr. Nathaniel Hart, who died August 1736 with four of her children: Henry, Abigail, Lydia William.” Photo by John Glassford
Ipwich Old North Burying Ground: “Here lyes the body of Mary Peabody, deceased Septembre 2, 1736 in ye tenth year of her aging”

Ipswich is hit by Diptheria and Scarlett Fever at the same time

In 1736, scarlet fever was present in Boston and neighboring towns.. But while the scarlet fever epidemic was spreading out from Boston the diphtheria epidemic was descending from the north, and in Essex county they travelled along the Old Bay Road at the very same time, but in opposite directions. The epidemic in Ipswich was more similar to the epidemic in New Hampshire and other northern towns.

The Ipswich Vital Records and Felt’s History of Ipswich, Essex, and Hamilton show two or more deaths in the Abbe, Appleton, Baker, Bennet, Boardman, Brown, Burnam, Choate, Fuller, Gibson, Hart, Heard, Jackson, Jewet, Kimball, Knowlton, Lull, Neland, Pierce, Pottar, Safford, Shatchwell, Sherwin, Smith, Treadwell, Trucker, and Webber families.

  • Michael Farley lost five children in April, 1736, four of them in one week.
  • John Abbott, a neighbor, also lost eight children about the same time
  • December 7, 1736: Mark How, and John Abbott his neighbor, had each lately lost eight children by this sickness.
  • January 23, 1735: Nathaniel Cross, of the Hamlet, had lost seven and all his children within about a month with the throat distemper.
  • March 21, 1738: John Treadwell has three children buried in one grave, and one more before, within five days, with the same disease.

The Howe family at Linebrook loses all of its children

From the Publications of the Ipswich Historical Society we read, “”In November 1736, a deadly distemper invaded the home of Mark and Hephzibah Howe in Linebrook. The pitiful record of their sore affliction remains on a page of an ancient account book that must have been wet with tears. Their house was left desolate not a child surviving. All the children of Mark and Hephzibah Howe died and were buried in the old Leslie Road Burying Ground.” Town records state that they died of “cancre quinsy”-an eighteenth century term for laryngeal obstruction.”

  • November 5, 1736: Lucy died aged 9 years
  • November 15, 1736: Mary died aged 7 years
  • November 18, 1736: Hannah 13 years and Aaron 5 years died
  • November 21, 1736 Abijah 1 year died
  • November 21, 1736: Mark 2 years died Nov 24 They all died with the “cancre quinsey”
  • November 25, 1736: Moses died in ye 11 year of his age 28
  • November, 1736 Love died aged 12 years

Great sorrows in Ipswich Village

Thomas Franklin Waters wrote that Ipswich Village, just below Rowley on the Old Bay Road suffered greatly.

“In the year of 1736, sorrow settled heavily upon the household of Nehemiah Jewett. No doubt the deadly throat distemper was the cause.

  • Patience, eighteen years old, died on May first
  • Mary the day after
  • Mehitable, twenty-five, her mother’s companion, the staff and stay of the family, followed on May 10th
  • Jane on the eleventh
  • On the second of June, twelve-year-old Joanna.”

“On Paradise Rd. was the home of John Boardman and his wife Abigail Choate. On one black and awful day, November 3, 1736, three children died. Lucy, four, Mary seven, and Sarah, nine years old; and on the following day, baby Francis, fifteen months old, was taken. The older children, John, fifteen, Abigail, fourteen and Thomas, twelve, were spared.”

Further reading:

2 thoughts on “Great Sorrows: The Deadly “Throat Distemper” of 1735-36

  1. Nathaniel Cross was an ancestor of mine. I can’t imagine the pain of losing “all” your children. thank you for these historical insights.

  2. Just unimaginable how losing so many of one’s children with such virulent and cruel suffering while they were so ill was managed by the poor and bereft survivors. This type of commentary, though very sad, also helps us learn more about the day to day lives of our ancestors in Ipswich and neighboring towns in early 18th Century New England. And the miracle that we descendants are here at all to tell their story. Thank you.

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