One of the great advances of civilization has been the reduction or elimination of disease. One of the most scurrilous in the Colonial era was known as throat distemper. It later became known as diphtheria.
An outbreak of the disease in New England nearly 300 years ago is said to have killed 80 percent of the children under 10 in some towns. While the heaviest tolls were in southern New Hampshire, Wilmington did not escape the ravages. One estimate puts the death toll at 5,000 people in New England between 1735 and 1740.
There was no cure for the disease at the time. A cure was finally developed in the 1890s. A preventive vaccine was developed about 30 years later. Diphtheria is quite rare in the U.S. today.
An account by Ernest Caulfield, published in 1939, is entitled A History of the Terrible Epidemic in the New Engld Colonies between 1735 and 1740.
The epidemic hit Wilmington not long after it had become a town. Three families were hit particularly hard: the Harndens, the Joneses and the Walkers. Previous accounts of the deaths of this epidemic have ascribed it to smallpox, but records from other towns refer to it as throat distemper. (Reading)
The first death was on Aug. 12, 1735, when Susanna Harnden died. She was the daughter of Benjamin and Elizabeth Harnden. Mrs. Harnden had died the previous winter, on Dec. 31, 1734.
Deacon John Harnden and his wife Mary had five children. In August 1737, four of those children died. They ranged in age from three to eight. Only their infant brother Joseph survived, along with his parents. Eight-year-old Mary and seven-year-old John both died on Aug. 1. On Aug. 6, Abigail, age three, died. Five year-old Joshua died on Aug. 9.
There were five other deaths in town that year, all children.
The following February, the disease hit the family of Jonathan and Elizabeth Jones. Four children died: Mary, 8, on Feb. 5; James, 2, on Feb. 14; Elizabeh, 16, on Feb. 16; and Samuel, 4, on Mar. 3.
In May and June of 1838, the disease killed eight children of Samuel and Hannah Walker, who lived on Shawsheen Avenue, in the vicinity of the old West School. Samuel, 18, and his sister Judith, 3, both died on May 16, followed by Jonathan, 12, on May 17, and Nathan, 10, on May 18. On May 31, it was 16-year-old James. Edward, 10, died on June 16, Richard, 7, on June 21, and Abigail, 13, on June 27.
In all, 30 people died in Wilmington in 1737 and 1738, and 27 of them were children. The three adults who succumbed to smallpox were Lydia Pearson, wife of Capt. Kendall Pearson on July 10, 1737, Samuel Dummer, Esq. on Feb. 2, 1738 and Elizabeth Stearns, wife of Timothy Stearns on March 16.
Samuel Dummer was a brother to William Dummer, who was the lieutenant governor and acting governor in the 1720s. When Wilmington was established in 1730, Samuel Dummer became the town moderator. He was also the sheriff of Middlesex County. His house was northeast of the present location of the Harnden Tavern.