Letter: Lessons of the Marblehead Riots at the age of COVID | Opinion

To the editor:

It is said that “those who do not learn history are doomed to repeat it,” but what is often left out of such a statement is that those who do not learn history are doomed to scream into the void while they helplessly watch others corrupt and cherry pick history to suit their own needs repeat the same failings over and over again.

I was walking around Salem last Saturday when I saw a group of self-proclaimed patriots corrupting and abusing the language and symbolism of the age of the American Revolution to protest mask and vaccine mandates. What bothered me most was that basically all of our Founding Fathers were very much pro science, pro-inoculation (the precursor to vaccines), pro public health, and very pro mandate.

Benjamin Franklin wrote in his autobiography: “In 1736 I lost one of my sons, a fine boy of four years old, by the smallpox taken in the common way. I long regretted bitterly and still regret that I had not given it to him by inoculation. This I mention for the sake of parents who omit that operation, on the supposition that they should never forgive themselves if a child died under it; my example showing that the regret may be the same either way, and that, therefore, the safer should be chosen.”

Thomas Jefferson likewise wrote of smallpox inoculation; “Every friend of humanity must look with pleasure on this discovery, by which one evil more is withdrawn from the condition of man. . . . I know of no one discovery in medicine equally valuable.”

John Adams had his family inoculated and even later advocated for a kind of form of universal healthcare (the 1798 the Act for the Relief of Sick and Disabled Seamen). George Washington ordered (or “mandated” if you will) that the Continental Army be inoculated during the brutal winter at Valley Forge. Indeed there is a very strong argument to be made that had Washington not instituted what was essentially an inoculation mandate for the Continental Army that the colonies would have lost the Revolution. Given how rampant pandemics were during the age of the American Revolution it should come as no surprise to anyone that there are countless examples of our Founding Fathers extolling the virtues of science, public health, and instituting mandates when necessary.

One such Founding Father was Dr. Joseph Warren, who’s patients included the family of John and Abigail Adams and who would later die while fighting the British at Bunker Hill. In 1773-1774 Dr. Warren, along with other notable early patriots, helped to establish a hospital where patients could be inoculated against smallpox safely on Catta Island (now Children’s Island) off the coast of Marblehead. Many in Marblehead were terrified that the hospital would spread small pox to the town and insisted on the strictest containment measures. Soon all sorts of wild conspiracies began circulating, some even claimed the hospital was a British plot to kill off the people of Marblehead for protesting against the crown. Late on the night of Jan. 26, 1774 two men from Marblehead, John Watts and John Gilliard, sailed out to the island and set the hospital on fire. Over the next several days, the two Johns dined out on their exploits as they bragged about it in several watering holes around Marblehead. They were soon after arrested and held in the jail in Salem.

When word reached their drinking buddies that the Johns were in jail, a mob of drunken Marbleheaders descended on Salem, broke into the jail, overpowered the guard, and carried the two off to Marblehead. The Salem sheriff called out the militia, the Marblehead militia was then also called out to defend Marblehead from Salem… and the two militias met somewhere along the Forrest River. Fortunately cooler heads prevailed before the Marbleheaders and Salemites started shooting each other. The Johns were surrendered to the Salem sheriff.

The burning of the Essex Hospital and the ensuing Marblehead anti-vaxxer riots were far more destructive than the Boston Tea Party ever was, but it was largely forgotten….and that’s probably because it was embarrassing. When asked about whether or not the Marblehead Riots could be seen as part of the American Revolutionary movements, Samuel Adams dismissed them as a disagreement between townspeople and that it bore “no relation” to any of the actions of the Sons of Liberty. It appears that years later nobody wanted to be associated with the riots …t hough Elbridge Gerry, a Marbleheader who was a delegate to Congress and later vice president, wouldly talk of his support for the Essex Inoculation Hospital and his role in helping to found it for many years.

So wear your mask and get your vaccination….it’s what your Founding Fathers would do.

Benjamin Shallop



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