Monday, April 22, 2013

Buckland, Massachusetts and the Psychology of Epidemic Disease

by Kate Corbett Pollack  

The LORD shall smite thee with a consumption, and with a fever, and with an inflammation, and with an extreme burning, and with the sword, and with blasting, and with mildew; and they shall pursue thee until thou perish. —Deuteronomy 28:22 

Readers familiar with the Spaulding family might recall my September 2011 blog post, “Calvinism and Epidemic Disease in the Susanna Cole Letters”. In that post, I discussed the ways that the Calvinist religion was used by its followers in Buckland, Massachusetts, to explain the epidemic diseases that ravaged the village for over a fifty-year period. I used the letters in our archives written by the Spaulding and Pomeroy families during this time (1800-1850) as the basis for this research. Since writing this article, I have learned more about the psychology of epidemic disease and have seen parallels in reactions from Buckland villagers to disease and illness in the early 1800s to reactions to contemporary disorders such as Autism. There are also similarities with both of these responses and those to the Great Plague of London in 1665. Guided by Philip Strong’s essay Epidemic psychology: a model, this article will address what appears to be a common human psychological reaction to epidemics, regardless of the time period. Epidemic disease can also function to explain the treatment of Josiah Spaulding, Jr. (1785-1867) who was kept in a cage in the homes of his family for 57 years. 

Epidemics have, throughout history, invoked a common psychological response in humans from the Stone Age to the AIDS epidemic, even to current issues of diabetes, obesity and Autism. In the midst of a serious, ongoing health crisis, humans look for an answer, any answer, to the problem. In early 1800s Buckland, choices for an explanation of disease were limited. Today, science provides us with many more options. However, this has not stopped large numbers of people from continuing to seek the types of explanations commonly sought in Buckland or 1665 London. The powerful psychological response to illness can be difficult to sway, and manifests in similar ways throughout history. 

Autism is a current disorder that upon examination provides insight to human psychological response to epidemics. Looking to external sources and imagining a conspiracy is at work are examples. The opinion that an outside source triggers or has triggered the onset of Autism is one held by communities who are seeking an explanation to the condition and do not trust the average doctor or scientist who maintains the cause is biological and internal. These communities are largely made up of those who are either against vaccinations or in favor of a limited vaccine schedule. They argue that vaccinations are the cause of Autism, despite that claim being widely discredited by doctors, and the initial research it was based upon found to be fraudulent. There is a correlation with the rise in autism diagnoses and the rise in the MMR vaccine, but causation has been disproved.i This has not stopped people from believing that all vaccines are a potential cause, however. This reaction is a common one in the face of widespread illness. In Philip Strong’s Epidemic psychology: a model, he explores the “fear, panic, stigma, moralizing and calls to action” that seem to characterize the “immediate reaction” to an epidemic.ii

Autism is not the type of “large, fatal epidemic” Strong is referring to, but the social responses he outlines in this essay are characteristics that considerable numbers of the American, British and Australian populations have displayed in response to Autism, a condition that is arguably not an epidemic at all, but is viewed by many as being so due to the increase in diagnoses over the last few decades. This increase, doctors and scientists explain, is due to better identification, and expansion of the definition to include a wider spectrum of Autism including Asperger’s disorder. Scientists also maintain that these disorders have existed for a long time, if they are to be characterized as “disorders” in the first place. Renowned Autism researcher Simon Baron-Cohen maintains that Einstein and Newton both had symptoms of Autism and Asperger’s, and that the condition can contribute to a better understanding of scientific and mathematical systems.iii

Despite increased information and positive perspectives on the condition, the propensity for “fear, panic, stigma, moralizing and calls to action” remain strong. Ideas that an outside cause in the environment, a governmental conspiracy or even religious reasons (anti-vaccination activist Jenny McCarthy frequently references a spiritual calling from God to inform people) are the cause of Autism continue to proliferate. There is fear and panic around the idea that vaccines contain harmful chemicals like anti-freeze, and that conspiratorial doctors and scientists are working together to harm children for pharmaceutical profit.iv Calls to action include anti-vaccination groups that push for changes in vaccines or to not vaccinate at all. Other outside sources have been looked to such as diet and environmental factors, for example. Dr. Baron-Cohen believes that the disorder is hormonal and develops in the womb. There is not yet a solid explanation for the cause of Autism, but there is no evidence that it is caused by vaccines. 

During the Great Plague of London, a similar reaction to the devastation of the Black Death occurred. In the medical pamphlet The Shutting Up Infected Houses As It Is Practiced in England Soberly Debated (1665), possible causes of the Black Death are discussed. (During the plague, infected people would be shut up in their own houses.) The causes are almost all from external environmental sources. Food features prominently on the list: 
23. By a Dinner of Soales in Fifth street 
24. By a dish of Eels. 
26. By a Codling Tart and Cream 
27. By a Dish of French Beanes. 
28. By Cabbages. 
29. By Turneps and Carrets. 

The list continues and includes humans (typically poor people), animals, clothing and places of ill repute like “Scurvy Tipling Houses and Bowling Allies.”v The idea that people considered undesirable or different by the rest of the population are somehow responsible for disease or that God is angry because of these people and making everyone sick is still a common reaction to epidemics. The Plague was thought of as a disease that came from the poor, and upper classes would try to hide the fact that they’d contacted it out of embarrassment. Gay people being blamed for AIDS is an example of modern day epidemic scapegoating. Profit-hungry chemists, doctors and pharmaceutical companies being blamed for producing Autism-causing vaccines is another. If a segment of the population’s influence could be decreased or eliminated, then these diseases would go away, according to this logic. 

Vaccines do not cause Autism, but what they do accomplish is to prevent a variety of life-threatening, debilitating illnesses that caused high mortality rates and suffering for most of human history. Public health and medical science have also put an end to these diseases almost entirely in the United States, Europe and many developing countries. The Black Plague decimated European cities in regular intervals for almost 300 years. The Great Plague of London in 1665 is estimated to have killed over 100,000 people. During its height, 8,000 died in London per Anyone who was able to fled the city, but most remained within city limits to die. We know today that fleas carried the disease, but during this era, the cause of the plague was unknown, as was what to do to cure it. People believed that miasma, or contaminated air was a cause, but it wasn’t known for certain. Hysteria resulted. Londoners, thinking a possible cause was cats and dogs, killed over 40,000 of the animals. The result increased the flea population, as fleas now had fewer animal hosts and turned to humans instead, exacerbating the Plague.vii

Today, the Plague is rarely seen. Nor are the diseases that were a part of everyday life for the Spaulding family and residents of Buckland, Massachusetts in the nineteenth century. These included cholera, dysentery, typhoid, tuberculosis, yellow fever and measles outbreaks. These illnesses were a part of everyday life for the villagers in epidemic years. Living with constant epidemics impacted the psychology of Buckland residents in ways much like the Plague impacted the psychology of Londoners.

Buckland residents reacted to epidemics in the way that humans tend to. What occurred was fear, paranoia, hysteria, blame and looking to an external, somewhat conspiratorial source, in this case God, as the reason. Certainly there was fear involved with this belief. The Spaulding letters repeatedly express feelings of wariness, helplessness, depression and anxiety in response to the idea that God is hurting and killing Buckland villagers for reasons that must be their own fault. The “call to action” was church revivals, penitence and an obsession with religion in all areas of life. Clearly the constant epidemics began to define the mindset of the Buckland residents. Nancy Spaulding wrote to Mary Pomeroy on March 27, 1810:  

Dear Sister…When we behold the sprightly youth whose chicks glow with beauty and whose limbs are full of activity cut down by the stroke of death and layed in the silent grave never more to be beheld by mortal eyes there to remain until the arch angel shall sound the trump of God…we one or both of us shall be numbered with the dead our bodys must be layed in the silent tomb… 

The women were in their early twenties at this time. From Deborah Spaulding to Mary Pomeroy, April 20th, circa 1814: 

 We who are now in the bloom of youth are as liable to die at any age we had ought to be in preparation for death judgment and eternity many of our fellow mortals are dying around us some in by a sudden and surprising manner… 

From Deborah Trowbridge to David and Mary Ann Pomeroy, April 17, 1839:  

God is speaking to us in accents as loud as thunder, to be also ready how soon and sudden we may be called, for we know not. Short has been the separation of your Dear Mother from your beloved child, this new wound has opened the other afresh may you my dear friends be still and know it is god that has done it… 

Stigma was directed at anyone who fell outside the category of a proper religious person. Mary Ann Pomeroy wrote in her 1850 diary when she was 14 years old of attending church almost constantly and being punished when she misbehaved by not being allowed to go, which for her was very upsetting, since she believed that she was going to die soon, as so many others around her were. Church was a possible way to protect herself. 

Epidemics and the Incarceration of Josiah Spaulding 

Josiah Spaulding, as we have seen in previous posts, was not like everyone else in Buckland. He challenged his father’s religious beliefs, for some reason did not fit in at Williams College, and wanted to spend his time in Southampton having fun instead of following in his father’s footsteps. There was also something clearly different about his mental state. It is difficult to say what exactly he was suffering from, since it was over 200 years ago and there is scanty evidence. However, Spaulding family letters indicate that in 1812 or around that year, at age 23 or 24, Josiah was put in a cage by his father, where he would live out the duration of his life. While it is possible that he became violent or aggressive, his letters to his family are very gentle-there is no evidence of violence, but there is evidence of kindness. Whatever the case, Josiah was clearly different. Death was a constant in Buckland and the surrounding area during the early to mid-1800s, as we have seen. Josiah’s sister, Mary Spaulding, almost died in 1811 after giving birth, lost a baby in 1814, and her husband in 1815, when he was only 33, and by 1816 was facing the possibility that her surviving daughter might also die. The feelings of terror that must have resulted in the family only strengthened the need for Josiah to be kept under control. 

 Around 1814 the family almost lost youngest daughter Lydia Spaulding from tuberculosis, a disease she would suffer from for the next twenty years. This type of pattern of near death and loss was not unusual for Buckland families. Nearly everyone in the Spaulding family eventually died of a now-preventable disease, everyone that is, except for Josiah. Although he came into contact with Lydia (tuberculosis) and his sister Deborah (typhoid and dysentery)on a regular basis, and in 1840 nearly all of the next door neighbors died of “Spring Fever”, Josiah lived to be 81. His niece, Mary Williams Howes, wrote to her Aunt in Southampton in 1840 of the “Spring Fever” epidemic that swept Buckland that year:  

Death that formidable adversary of mankind has snatched from our midst the man of years and the interesting youth and the bell has hardly ceased its tolling for another wrhose cold remains are waiting for the grave…You have probably heard of the deaths of Mr. Alexander Ward, Mrs. Hall, Mrs. Upton, Mrs. Daniel Bement, and Mrs. Thacher, all of whom died some time ago. But a week last Monday night this “grim messenger” entered the abode of our nearest neighbors and nipped the brightest flower of the family. The days of this mourning had scarcely passed for their little babe when a greater affliction came upon them. One remarkable for her apt evil, her uncommon rudeness, and her engaging manner has left us. But she died not as a true Christian dies, but pleading for mercy even in the agonies of death and the mortal remains of Eliza Townsly are deposited in the churchyard. 

Epidemics continued to outbreak into the 1850s, with cases of tuberculosis, then known as consumption, and typhoid fever striking Spaulding family members and Buckland area residents. 

The hysteria that resulted can be identified in almost every Spaulding and Pomeroy family letter, as indicated in the excerpts above. Josiah’s letters to his father (as written about in my 2011 post viii) indicate that he did not share his father’s Calvinist beliefs. While this type of behavior is normal today, and young people are often expected to show a certain amount of rebellion, it was not normal in 1812, and would have been completely unacceptable in the Puritan tradition. Josiah’s incarceration, which is unusual, should be viewed in the context of epidemic disease, since that is what was occurring at the time. 

There are many factors in his case that add up to the complex reason for his being kept in a cage, and some may weigh more heavily than others. But in the environment of “fear, panic, stigma, moralizing and calls to action”, someone who challenged the status quo could be looked at as a serious threat to social order. The villagers sincerely believed that God was testing them, angry with them; killing their families and friends for unknown reasons. Everyone went to the same church to listen to Reverend Spaulding talk about it; Reverend Spaulding with the very different son. Keeping Josiah confined was a way of maintaining control and order in Buckland society. Something was very out of order, because of the amount of sickness and death, and 1816’s “year of no summer”, when crop failure occurred due to weather changes. Disease and crop failure were out of the control of Buckland villagers. What they could try to control was each other. Josiah’s incarceration in the family home by his father had the support of the Buckland villagers, and Spaulding family neighbors were invested in helping to care for him. Everyone knew about Josiah. The shared mentality was that the cage was where Josiah belonged; enforced by Reverend Spaulding’s religious sermons which functioned to explain the rampant disease and death. 

In the years after Josiah’s incarceration, disease continued to be a constant, and more and more members joined the First Congregational Church of Buckland, where they were baptized by Reverend Spaulding. In 1816, the year without a summer, 16 people were inducted. In 1822, the year before his death,Reverend Spaulding inducted a record number of new congregants into the church-over 60 people, including the founder of Mount Holyoke College, Mary Lyon.ix

Eventually, the source and causes of these diseases was discovered, and medicine followed suit. Vaccinations were and continue to be a large part of staving off the types of epidemics that routinely threatened Buckland. As a result of vaccination rates falling, there has been a resurgence of the types of diseases common in the Spaulding’s era. In 2011, according to the Centers of Disease Control, incidence of measles outbreaks reached a 15 year high, and Pertussis outbreak was at epidemic levels.x It is interesting to note that the fearful and suspicious reaction towards vaccines is in fact bringing back epidemic disease to a society that has all but forgotten what life was like before them. Like the Great Plague of London, human’s suspicious reactions to cats and dogs as potential carriers exacerbated the spread of disease. Looking at vaccines as the cause of illness today is ironically leading to actual illnesses. Because of epidemic psychology, humans can unwittingly cause further harm to their own societies. 

The environment of constant disease and sickness that the Spaulding family spent their lives in made it hard to be a happy person. If their letters are any indication, they were fraught with anxiety and depression, and consumed by thoughts of death. The main comfort for them was the afterlife, where they would be reunited with their lost loved ones. This glimpse into a time when medical science and technology was almost non-existent reveals what the reality was for people who could do nothing to stop disease. It was not too far from the days of the Black Plague. Today, if current trends continue, we could be entering a new era of epidemic disease. Medical science has the power to eradicate disease, but it takes the participation of the population to work. If distrust and misunderstanding of vaccinations continues to rise, the era of the Spauldings will not be such a distant memory. 

 Further Sources: 

"Autism Risk Unrelated to Total Vaccine Exposure in Early Childhood." NIMH RSS. National Institutes of Mental Health, 29 Mar. 2013. Web. 04 Apr. 2013. 

Brodman, Estelle. "Medieval Epidemics." Journal of the Medical Library Association 41(3).July (1953): 265-72. US National Library of Medicine.National Institutes of Health.Web. 4 Apr. 2013. 

Fombonne, Eric, M.D. "What's Behind the Rise in Autism?" Interview. PBS Frontline. PBS, 29 Dec. 2009. Web. 4 Apr. 2013.

Greven, Philip J., The Protestant Temperament: Patterns of Child-Rearing, Religious Experience, and the Self in Early America. University of Chicago Press: 1988. 

Holt, D. "The Measles Lie, and the Ongoing Ad Campaign Disguised as News." NaturalNews., 6 May 2012. Web. 04 Apr. 2013. 

Offit, Paul A., M.D. "The Problem WithDr Bob's Alternative Vaccine Schedule." The Problem WithDr Bob's Alternative Vaccine Schedule. Pediatrics, n.d. Web. 04 Apr. 2013. 

"The Vaccine War."PBS. PBS, 27 Apr. 2010. Web. 04 Apr. 2013 

Sears, Bob, M.D. "So Autism Is (now Even More) Common . . . Anybody Care Yet?" Lisa Ackerman Real Help Now. TACA, 20 Mar. 2013. Web. 04 Apr. 2013. _________________________________________________ 

 i. Cohen, Elizabeth, and Miriam Falco."Retracted Autism Study an 'elaborate Fraud,' British Journal Finds."CNN. Cable News Network, 05 Jan. 2011. Web. 19 Mar. 2013. 

ii. Strong, Philip. "Epidemic Psychology: A Model." Sociology of Health and Illness 12.3 (1990): 249. Print. 

iii. Muir, Hazel. "Einstein and Newton Showed Signs of Autism." - 30 April 2003. New Scientist, 30 Apr. 2003. Web. 19 Mar. 2013. 

iv. Gorski, David. "Science-Based Medicine."Jenny McCarthy, Jim Carrey, and Green Our Vaccines: Anti-vaccine, Not pro-safe Vaccine”. Science-Based Medicine, 9 June 2008. 

v. Sequence 1: The Shutting up Infected Houses as It Is Practised in England Soberly Debated :by Way of Address from the Poor Souls That Are Visited, to Their Brethren That Are Free : With Observations on the Wayes Whereby the Present Infection Hath Spread : As Also a Certain Method of Diet, Attendance, Lodging and Physick, Experimented in the Recovery of Many Sick Persons. [London] : [s.n.], Printed in the Year MDCLXV [1665]., Harvard University Library PDS. 

vi. "The Great Plague of London, 1665." Open Collections Program: Contagion,.Harvard University Library Open Collections Program, n.d. Web. 02 Apr. 2013. 

vii. Ross, David. "The London Plague of 1665."The London Plague 1665.Britian Express, n.d. Web. 02 Apr. 2013. 


ix. Rev. Mortimer Blake, A Centurial History of the Mendon Association of the Congregational Ministers, with the Centennial Address, Delivered at Franklin, Mass, Nov. 19, 1851, and Biographical Sketches of the Members and Licentiates (Boston: Sewall Harding, 1853) 

x. Castillo, Michelle. "CDC: US Whooping Cough Cases Rising at Epidemic Rate." CBSNews. CBS Interactive, 19 July 2012. Web. 02 Apr. 2013. xi. Beasley, David. "Measles Cases Reached 15-year High in 2011: CDC." Reuters. Thomson Reuters, 20 Apr. 2012. Web. 02 Apr. 2013.


  1. Could Josiah have been schizophrenic, or manic depressive?

    "for the good of the village" ... he would have to be outcast, or confined.

  2. I think it is very possible that Josiah had one of those disorders, especially because it manifested when he was in his early twenties, the time that both of those disorders tend to appear.


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