Too Many Tears: The Distemper Epidemic

They knew it was coming. It started in southern New Hampshire in 1735 and slowly crept its way south. Neighboring towns had already been hit. All they could do was pray. On June 21, 1736, Reverend James Chandler, pastor of the Rowley West Parish Church, wrote in his record book, “ John Plumer, son of John and Mary [Nelson] Plumer etatis [age] about 2 years and ˝ died June 21, 1736. N.B. This was the first child that died in this parish of ye same sickness of which great numbers have died in neighboring parishes.”

In the early years of Rowley West Parish (now known as Georgetown), there were usually about six deaths per year, most of them infants. Between June of 1736 and February of 1737, there were forty-nine deaths; forty-eight of them children. (Three were actually residents of First Parish, but worshipped and were buried here). It was known as the Throat Distemper, and it was a highly contagious and brutal killer of children. Within days of the first symptoms, the throat would swell up so severely that the child would die of strangulation. There was no cure, and nobody was known to have contracted it and survived. Twenty-five families in the Parish lost children during that time, many losing more than one.

Among them:
  • The second household to be affected by the epidemic was that of Francis and Mary (Cheney) Brocklebank. Three-year-old Samuel died on June 23. Four days later, five-year-old Francis and eleven-month-old Moses died within three hours of each other.
  • Elijah and Mary (Holms) Blaisdel lost all five of their children, between the ages of six months to seven years, within three weeks in September 1736.
  • John and Jane (Bayley) Heriman lost three of their children, ages ten, seven, and two, within eight days in August and September. Jane was eight months pregnant at the time.
  • John’s brother, Samuel Heriman and his wife Jane (Colman) lost three children, ages four, two and one, in September.
  • John and Samuel’s sister, Sarah (Heriman) and her husband Samuel Hazen lost five of their children, ages two to twelve, between November 1736 and January 1737.
  • Hours after her only daughter, one-year-old Sarah, drew her last agonizing breath, Ruth (Fisk) Easty gave birth to another daughter. She named her Sarah. A month later Richard and Ruth Easty lost their only son, six-year-old Zebulon.

Many surrounding towns and parishes suffered even a greater number of losses than our little parish. Stonecutters found it difficult to meet the demand for gravestones. Of the forty-eight children who were laid to rest in the Parish Burial Ground (now Union Cemetery) during the time of the epidemic, only a few have gravestones that are visible today.

Over the years, the town suffered through other epidemics, but none were ever as devastating as the Throat Distemper of 1736-37. Let us never forget the many hardships faced by the earliest settlers of our town, nor the little voices that were forever silenced during that deadly time.

Christine Comiskey (2009)

© Georgetown Historical Society 2015