Spotted Fever Epidemic In New England In 1812

This entire section of New England, if not a much larger area, during the spring seasons of 1812 and 1813, was scourged by a fearful epidemic, called at first “spotted fever” and later “malignant fever.” So great were its ravages, that the deaths in Vermont reached 6,000 by this disease alone, or about one death in 40 inhabitants. The disease is supposed to be the same as that now called cerebro-spinal-meningitis, and was not then considered contagious. During the time the epidemic raged, there were 70 deaths at Bennington; Pomfret and Reading each had 44; and Shrewsbury about 30. In the month of March 1813, seven persons died in the town of Walpole in as many days and great excitement and fear prevailed in all this section of the Connecticut Valley. In the town of Rockingham, the most prominent physician was Dr. Joshua Ripley Webb, who lived in the small dwelling east of the old Rockingham meeting house, now occupied by his descendants. He was one of the victims of this terrible disease. He was attacked suddenly, while on his daily rounds among the afflicted ones, and became unconscious while in his buggy. His faithful horse continued upon its way, and brought the stricken doctor to the door of his own home, where he survived only a few hours. He was son of Joshua Webb, one of the earliest and most prominent men of the town.

An illustration of some methods of treatment of this disease (not however by Dr. Webb) was shown in later years among the papers of Capt. Charles Church, who was a wealthy and leading citizen of Westminster. It is a receipt that was reported to be one of the most efficacious of any used at that time. Certainly if the patients survived the medicine, they surely ought to have survived the disease.

“Cure for Spotted Fever-To one quart of lime add one gallon of water. To one quart of tar, add two quarts of water. Let these stand in separate vessels until they froth, skim the froth, pour them together. To this mixture add eight ounces of saltpeter, four ounces of opium -take a glass when going to bed and repeat the same in four or five hours.”


Based on: The Connecticut River Valley in southern Vermont and New Hampshire: historical sketches, Rutland, Vt.: Tuttle Co., Marble City Press, 1929.

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