Beacon Street Diary blog

The dark matter of history: an epidemiologist's findings in our archives

Spring is finally here in Boston: the Granary Burying Ground is turning green, the leaves are budding on Beacon Street, and tourists are walking the Freedom Trail again. Spring also signals the end of cold and flu season. Considering health and wellness reminded us of a researcher who visited the Congregational Library & Archives a few years ago.

Nicholas Bonneau, a PhD candidate at Notre Dame University, is on the trail of a 1730s outbreak.

"I was interested in diseases, in the history of diseases spreading through populations," said Bonneau. "My questions were more historical; I was interested in how things changed after European contact in the Americas." Bonneau wants to know how we look back at past diseases from the present. His dissertation research centers on an outbreak of throat distemper that killed thousands of people in just a few years — and has been largely omitted from the history of New England.

"I was looking at the burial records for Rowley, Massachusetts. There was this huge spike [in burials] in 1736. I wasn't looking for it but it was there. I thought it might have been a mistake." After seeing similar spikes in nearby towns, Bonneau knew he was onto something big.

"Investigating further into church records and town records throughout the region really settled that this was a legitimate thing that had been underreported in the mainstream narrative of prerevolutionary New England." From 1735 to 1740, an epidemic of a disease called 'throat distemper' ravaged towns in coastal New Hampshire, southern Maine, and northern Massachusetts.

The throat distemper killed some 5,000 people in the first 4 years of the outbreak, 95 percent of them children under the age of 20, says Bonneau. It was a major event in New England, but it has been mostly forgotten. "I really wanted to explore more why this hadn't reached into the mainstream of our accepted narrative of the time."

Bonneau came to the Congregational Library & Archives to comb through our church records, looking for evidence of distemper. He leaned heavily on collections from our New England's Hidden Histories program. The CLA's collection appealed to him because of its focus on churches, which were the center of religious and secular life in early New England. "Beyond anything, the parish community is really important to the history of New England. I was hoping to use a parish community as my focal point, to see what could go from there."

The disease's effect on families, parishes, and towns was most interesting to Bonneau. "People were dealing with the loss of five or six of their children within a few weeks, sometimes even worse. What was going on with people who were sort of in the midst of this?" Bonneau was curious to know how communities responded to the loss of life.

Bonneau worked with the faith relations (the written explanation for why a person chose to join the church) and other digitized documents from the First Church in Haverhill. In the relations, he began to find mention of disease. Other church records, the dry accounting of town life, also provided clues.

"A big part of what we're doing is going through church records: not just death, but births and marriages." Any notes in the records or marginalia might be a clue about the distemper outbreak, Bonneau says, because the epidemic was very rarely addressed directly in sermons. "A couple times here and there, you might find a clergyman saying 'These deaths were really awful.' Those are things you wouldn't look for in things that were supposed to be a list," said Bonneau of the records. "But they're written by people."

Our collection of sermons show a possible explanation of why the disease was underreported: Sermons from the time rarely mentioned it. "There wasn't as much in sermons as one might expect. There seemed to be a few hints here and there," Bonneau said.

The sermons also provided Bonneau with clues about how communities responded to the distemper. "The sermons were very, very useful," he said. "I wanted to compare how specific preachers had compared before and after the epidemic. It was a little bit opposite of what I expected, and it's been a little bit difficult to parse out." Before the epidemic, warning children that they could die at any time was a common trope in sermons. Bonneau saw this kind of message wane in the 1740s and 1750s. "There is sort of drop-off in the call to early piety to children."

The human and emotional aspects of the throat distemper are most interesting to Bonneau. "I hope that my work with disease and with trying to understand how to think about the grief of parents falls under those same lines. This is something that tells us about the human experience across time. I'm trying to give voice to a voluntarily voiceless group of grieving parents."

Life changes after a disaster of this magnitude, and Bonneau wants to figure out how people dealt with their losses in the 1730s. "We need to find a way of accounting for this 'dark matter' of grieving in our histories," said Bonneau. Parents who lost children and others may have moved to different towns because of their losses, he says, or changed some other aspect of their lives in response. "The study of disease is the study of loss, and this is outside of history in certain ways, but it connects us with the past in that we can identify with past actors on their own terms."

Through our records, Bonneau says, you can see people renegotiating their relationships with pastors, community, and religion. "Your collection in particular is something people are looking to from a confession aspect: this is their face and they're very much alive, and these traditions feed into a larger tradition."


"By a Sickbed" (1879) by Michael Ancher courtesy of The Hirschsprung Collection, found via Wikimedia Commons


I have always been keenly

I have always been keenly interested in this subject, ever since looking at old records of Park Street Church, which used to contain the cause of death.  Often, the cause of death is only a one-word reference to an incredibly vague, nondescript malady (distemper, consumption).  Specifically, infant death due to teething is one fatal malady that i have a hard time grasping.  I would love to see a follow up of Mr. Bonneau's research!  Great work, and it's fascinating to think of all of the lenses these valuable archives can be seen through.


I was interested to see

I was interested to see Rowley mentioned in this article. I do research for the Georgetown Historical Society (Georgetown was previously part of Rowley), and include the story of this tragic epidemic in my annual cemetery tours. Most of my information came from the records of Reverend James Chandler and the Second Congregational Church of Rowley. which are now safely stored at the Congregational Library.