Sunday, February 24, 2013

The Pox and the Covenant by Tony Williams

Why I read it: I'm always available for another tale from Boston's past.

Summary: Cotton Mather, James and Ben Franklin and the smallpox epidemic that struck the city in 1721.

My Thoughts: Well, it was definitely the first time I've ever come across a story in which Ben Franklin was the bad guy.

And I have to admit that when I read a story about the 17-teens and see Franklin's name prominently mentioned, it's feels strange, like he lived too long a life to be human, like he's intemporal. I think of  him at the heart of the American Revolution a half century later. But there he was, rousing the rabble in 1721.

What a terrible occurrence the epidemic was. At the time, Boston was the busiest port town in the New World, 11,000 residents strong with a board of selectmen running things (now, try 2 million and a "maya"!). Before the epidemic petered out, the virus had afflicted more than half of the population - an unfathomable number. SARS, the bird flu, throw at me whatever you like, they never reached the proportions that this event did. I can't imagine what it must have been like to watch the world around me crumble like it did for so many families during the epidemic.

The clash in the story - and every good tale has conflict - came when Cotton Mather, a religious man, suggested the first-ever New World use of inoculation. Puritan Boston revolted at the thought, and one man even threw a bomb through Mather's chamber windows. One doctor, Zabdiel Boylston (and that's not even my favorite name in the book; that belonged to Waitstill Winthrop), risked public ridicule and governmental punishment and inoculated patients wanting to build immunity. He ended up setting precedence, making history.

On the other side of the debate was James Franklin, older brother of our beloved Ben. He was the agitator, a young printer hoping to make a name for himself. The war of words in the newspapers spilled into the streets, and let's face it, in a town of 11,000, eventually people will come face-to-face. (Trust me - it's the exact proportions of my hometown, and I've seen such pots boil over). In the end, more than a decade later, Mather and Boylston were proven right, but they went through hell to get there.

As for Ben? He was James' puppet for a while, apprenticed to him, eventually breaking away, only to be effectively blacklisted in Boston at his own brother's hand. He fled south and got a fresh start in Philadelphia. Had he stayed in Boston, would he have become the most famous American of his generation, or the most villified? History will never know.

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