Updated: Dec 1, 2022
How did colonial communities in Massachusetts deal with outbreaks of highly communicable and deadly diseases?
Like now, one solution was to isolate the afflicted persons to contain the spread of the disease. In Longmeadow and Springfield, the sick were sent to David Burt's pest house in Matthew’s Swamp (exact location is not known.).
Note: A pest house, plague house, or fever shed was a type of building used for persons afflicted with communicable diseases such as tuberculosis, cholera, smallpox, or typhus.
Prior to the smallpox vaccination in 1796, you could obtain immunity from smallpox either through contracting the disease or through inoculation (exposure to a milder version of the disease). Since a small percentage of inoculated persons acquired the full-blown disease, patients were treated as if they were as infectious as those who had acquired the disease naturally and they were isolated from the general population until the disease had run its course (3-5 weeks).
Depiction of the smallpox inoculation process
In mid-January, 1761, Samuel Williams and several other men from Longmeadow were inoculated and subsequently went to live in isolation at Matthew’s Swamp. Rev. Stephen Williams, Samuel’s father and the first pastor of Longmeadow, visited them frequently (at a distance) during their month-long stay and wrote of his concern for them in his diary:
January 26 – “We are concerned about ye people at Matthew’s Swamp. Some of them begin to break out. They are in God’s hands. His tender mercies are all over his works and his creatures.”
January 29 – “Ye account from Matthew’s Swamp comfortable about 2 o’clock, but toward night we heard that my son and Abner Bliss had a purge – the Lord graciously relieve and help them – and prevent any ill effect of it – and annodine was sent out in the evening.” On January 30 he reported that the annodine treatment was helpful.
Other groups of men were inoculated on February 24 and March 11. These men also recuperated at Matthew’s Swamp and all of the inoculated men recovered.
On October 31, 1765, David Burt deeded Matthew's Swamp and all of the buildings on it to his sons, David and Elijah.
Stephen Williams Diary, Volume V
Deed Oct. 31, 1765 David Burt to Elijah and David Burt
Longmeadow Historical Society archives
Contributed by Elizabeth Hoff, Longmeadow Historical Society Board Member
Originally published April 30, 2020