The Macabre: The Dank, Dark, Splendid Side of Things – PART 1

Yes, the macabre can be squeamish and very grim but let me say from experience as a former surgeon’s mate in the hobby which required me to track down surviving accounts of medical books published. Sadly, this impression was a short-lived stint because the surgeon has retired from reenacting after more than thirty years. However, I managed to learn and file away enough information to use the medical side of things to my advantage when interpreting in first person or describing life especially on the Eastern frontier. -cracks knuckles- So, let’s have at it! This is my real niche.

Puritan Cemetery Headstone Symbols:

Author’s personal seal. Sterling silver. 1770s.

This seal at a quick glance doesn’t have much to say. There’s the Royal Lion, a winged cherub, a balanced scale and (what I believe is ivy(?). Fortunately, I’m able to decipher the meaning behind this very cool mourning memento. Having spent more than ten years exploring and researching Puritan cemeteries, one detail sticks out the most. The immense amount of symbols for the deceased. Since this blog is focused on the 18th Century or earlier, I will refrain from 19th Century headstone symbols.

Breaking it all down:

Lion- Symbolizes the power of God and guards the tomb against evil spirits

Balanced Scale- Justice, balance. It represents immanent justice, the idea that guilt automatically unleashes the forces that bring self-destruction and punishment

Winged Face (winged cherub)- Effigy of the soul of the deceased

Ivy- Memory, immortality, friendship, fidelity, faithfulness, undying affection, eternal life

Armor (shield surrounding lion and scale)- Protection from evil

Quite, a lot of symbolism for one little piece of silver, no? How can this context relate to the everyday life of centuries earlier? Well, this this wax seal is an original specimen, we can determine male or female, the person was grieving, so much, they wanted to remember their loved one by having it attached to a watch chain. Victorians were famous for clipping a lock of hair and placing inside a locket necklace. Some who could afford a miniature portrait, would have a pocket on the back of the frame where the hair was stored. Believe it or not, watch fob deals even had secret compartments for the hair of their loved one stowed away! Based on my research, our colonial counterparts, the populace wouldn’t begin to practice this rather creepy, and common practice until the turn of the century.

What can be said is tying in epidemics and illnesses by using one tool, the mourning fob seal above? Let’s breakdown the myths and misconceptions of death. Even Living Historians are lost in the translation by speaking about what one thinks to be true, but too often these misconceptions mislead a visitor.

Myth 1- Average lifespan was 49, or thereabout

This one is tricky. There are far too many assumptions and opinions on the matter of mortality in general. And while I cannot currently supply a definitive spreadsheet to support my research into this subject, I can offer my firsthand observations browsing Puritan cemeteries.

Firstly, while it is true medically in a modern standpoint we can likely agree physicians and surgeons are eons advanced at present, than the 18th Century was. It is false to assume the populace “didn’t live long at all.” Quite the contrary to be honest, speaking for the mid 1770s.

It may surprise the reader but my estimation on the average lifespan then was about the early 70s, with a few lives advancing into their mid 70s or approaching their 80s. Was it common for aging to 80? No. However, it is more visible than one might realize. This was because medical practices were growing fairly steadily in treatments even if the patients ended up as guinea pigs during the mid 1770s.

Satirical painting by James Gillray depicting quack medicine.

In lieu of the Boston Massacre Commemoration approaching, New England was devastated by an invisible epidemic circa 1735. Boston was no different and the losses were devistating. Children suffered the most. This sickness was known as the Great Throat Distemper of 1735. Presently, physicians call it diphtheria.


Ernest Caulfield discribed the disease in his account, “The Throat Distemper of 1735,” as such:

Most of the old towns between Casco Bay and Boston were connected by a 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. -Ernest Caulfield 

The Boston Gazette offered treatment advice since in neighboring towns, children were dying the most when exposed to diphtheria.

What is used is as follows. First be sure that a vein be opened under the tongue, and if that can’t be done, open a vein in the arm, which must be first done, as all other means will be ineffectual. Then take borax or honey to bathe or annoint the mouth and throat, and lay on the Throat a plaister Vngiuntum Dialthae. To drink a decoction of Devil’s bitt or Robbin’s Plantain, with some Sal Prunelle dissolved therein, as often as the patient will drink. If the body be costive use a clyster agreeable to the nature of the Distemper. I have known many other things used, especially a root called Physick Root, filarie or five-leaved physick; also a root that I know no name for, only Canker Root. But be sure and let blood, and that under the tongue. We have many times made Blisters under the arms, but that has proved sometimes dangerous.

Apparently, Boston residents responded reasonably well towards the treatment and the outbreak may have been considered less deadly when the disease was traveling steadfast towards New Hampshire and Kittery (and the majority of Maine).

Please click the link to read more about an underrated epidemic unlike the famous small pox.

For a period read, and a very neat one, please check out Ernest Caufield’s paper, written in the 1730s.

Following up, we travel to Marblehead, Massachusetts, where the citizens rioted against the pox inoculation for fear of the uncertainty of dying a slow, miserable death, especially when word reached there was an outbreak in Boston in 1730, a mere five years after and now the epidemic has landed in Marblehead.

Marblehead, MA

Marblehead panicked for two reasons. Prior, one of worst and deadliest outbreaks of small pox began in 1721 in Boston. Samuel Sewell recorded in his diary he had attended more than a dozen funerals for his friends.

Octobr 2. Samuel Lynde esqr dyes of Swelling through stoppage of Urine.
5. Mr. Lynde buried. Bearers, Sewall, Townsend; Bromfield, Dr. Clark; Fitch, Timo Clark esqr.
Lord’s Day, 15 … At Noon notice was given, that we’re desired to return at 1/2 past one that might be time for the many Funerals…Went to the Funeral of Mr. Colson’s daughter; and Hannah —, Mr. Adams the Master’s Maid, used to tend his daughter, Mary, was of our Comunion.
16. Mrs. Martha Cotes, Mistress of our Charity School, was buried; Bearers, Sewall, Bromfield; T. Clark, D. Oliver; Deacon Powning, D. Green. Had a great Character as to devotion and Piety.
17. Went to the Funeral of neighbor Holbrook.
18th. Madam Checkley dyes of the Small Pox.
19. Neighbour Vivien dyes. Stormy-day. Mr. Cooper preaches from Job. 14.12. a very good Discourse. …
20. A Considerable Snow after the Rain fell last night, which covers the Houses and Ground…Followed my neighbor Elizabeth Vivien to the Grave in the old Burying-place. Aet. (at the age of) 46. was a very good Neighbour. Next Mrs. Checkley was buried in a Tomb in the South-Burying place. Bearers, Sewall, Townsend; Dr. Clark, Col. Fitch; Capt. Ballentine, Mr. N. Williams Aetat. 65. I said at coming away, This Gentlewoman has been under great Confinement a great while, but now, triumphing in the Grace of God, she says Rehoboth! [Genesis xxvi. 22.] Col. Checkley thanked us for our last Office of Love. Rings and Scarfs. Mr. Lotta’s daughter was buried at the same time: and a daughter of Mrs. Melvil, and another daughter, is Five in all.
26. Thanksgiving; But one Sermon in most Congregations by reason of the Distress of the Small Pox. Began at eleven a-clock. Note. I think so great an Alteration should not have been made; without the Knowledge and Agreement of the Councillours and other Justices in Town, met together for that purpose!
27. Friday. Commissioners Meeting. I waited, after it, till five a-clock, to have accompanied Mr. Wm Rawson to the funeral of his son Edward; and then went away to the burial of my Tenant Hoar, Mr. Brown’s Sister. Mr. Loring’s Son, a student of the College, was buried that night, and many more.
29. At night went to the Funeral of Fr. Homes’s Son.

Two, inoculation meant purposefully  infecting the person with the small pox virus into the bloodstream. The idea was in hopes the body would build up an immunity to it. In modern terms, it simply meant the white blood cells attacked a small amount of the strain and the person’s immune system eventually built a resistance to further episodes. There wasn’t a guarantee of survival. Imagine the terror concerning talk of an experiment of one’s life. Death was still a real possibility.


Edward Augustus Holyoke was another prominent figure along with Cotton Mather and in 1721, Holyoke treated hundreds of patients during his practice. He pioneered the inoculation and vaccinations against the pox. April, 1764, another outbreak in Boston occurred and thus, Holyoke travelled there to assist.

Holyoke inoculated six hundred patients in groups of two hundred at a time. Two died in the process but he was instrumental by preventing the disease to strike. He ended his practice in 1821 and lived to an astonishing 100 years old! That in itself says a lot. Holyoke being around a dangerous epidemic, though he did inoculate himself before arriving in Boston, there wasn’t any guarantee of survival if he should become quite ill. Survivors could be left scarred and blind and so these effects had to have been a significant stressor also.

More about Edward Holyoke can be found below.

More about the small pox epidemics which at Boston in 1721, can be read at the link below.

Fastforward. Given the severity of only two examples of illness listed above if a child lived through to approximately past their twenties when their immune systems were stronger, the potential longevity increased. Certainly there were other disastrous illness and Cotton Mather again faced his second monster in 1721: Measles.

Myth 2- “They didn’t know anything about infection. That’s why people died a lot.”

In Eliot’s medical pocketbook, he cites using antiseptics for the plague. Antiseptics were designed to treat infection.


Please, if at all interested in early medicine, you’ll love browsing Eliot’s book. Link below.

Part 2 continued here.

Leave a Reply

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

You are commenting using your 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

Create a free website or blog at

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: