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Posts Tagged ‘Smallpox’

In November, my sister Sue and I went on a genealogical expedition to New London, Connecticut, where our great-great-great-great grandparents, David and Mary Rogers, had lived. We’d tried for years to trace the Rogers line beyond David and Mary but were unsuccessful. We hoped an on-site search of local records would be productive.

For three days, David continued to elude us, but we found many colorful stories about a religious sect called the Rogerenes. (See Part I.) At one point, Sue said, “Wouldn’t it be cool if we found out we’re descended from them?”

Reverend John Rogers started his church in 1674. Among the Rogerenes’ unconventional beliefs was faith healing. They believed it was a sin to use medicine or doctors because the New Testament taught, “The Almighty had the willingness and power to cure diseases in a less bungling and dangerous way than physicians.” Prayer and the laying on of hands were the only righteous remedies for illness. Considering the level of medical knowledge in those days, they were probably right. At least prayer and laying of hands usually did no harm.

Usually. The Rogerenes had a crisis of faith when a skin malady called the Itch plagued the congregation. Laying on of hands not only failed to cure the condition, but actually spread it. After months of suffering, they held a meeting to decide what to do. The conclusion was that the Itch was not a sickness, but a species of vermin which they might destroy as they would rats or other noxious animals. Thus, they were able to use the customary remedies, “brimstone and lard,” with a clear conscience, and everyone was cured.

John Rogers wrote several books, but most of them were burned. This survives

John Rogers wrote several books, but most of them were burned. This survives in the Connecticut College Library. Photo by Jennifer Geoghan

In another case, their methods didn’t do so well. Ebenezer Bolles was cutting brush and vines (poison ivy?) and developed a painful condition that, since he refused medical treatment, led to his death.

Inside the book

Despite their objection to conventional medicine, the Rogerenes willingly took care of the sick and were said to be skillful nurses. In fact, when John Rogers wasn’t being a thorn in the side of the Congregationalists, he spent his life ministering to the sick. He believed his faith would save him from any contagion. It did, for over forty years, until the smallpox epidemic of 1721.

You don’t see these on younger people, but if you look at the upper arm of a person of a certain generation, you might see a circular scar less than ½ inch in diameter. These are from smallpox inoculations. When I was a child, everyone was vaccinated against smallpox. Although I was inoculated three or four times, I don’t have one of these scars because it never “took.” It turned out I inherited a natural immunity to smallpox from my father, who also had no scar.

 

Smallpox is caused by a virus and had been a dreaded disease for thousands of years. It had a 30% mortality rate and those who survived were seriously scarred for life. A worldwide campaign of immunization eradicated the disease in the late 20th century, the last cases occurring in the 1970’s. When my children were vaccinated, smallpox was no longer part of the protocol. These days, no one is likely to contract the disease, unless some evil mad scientist has squirreled away a sample of the virus with intentions to unleash it on an unsuspecting world. If that happens, I hope my children inherited my natural immunity.

But smallpox was a big problem in 18th century New England. There was no cure, only prevention and palliative treatment. Physicians could do little, but nurses could keep patients comfortable, prevent their sores from becoming infected, and keep them hydrated. There were experiments with vaccinations, which involved taking pus from an infected person and applying it to a scratch on the skin of a healthy one, but this was controversial. In fact, someone threatened the life of the famous Reverend Cotton Mather because he promoted smallpox inoculation.

In 1721, smallpox came to Boston and afflicted the city for over a year. Out of a population of 11,000, over 6000 cases were reported and 850 people died.

Smallpox ward, Boston, 1721

John Rogers, believing himself to be under God’s protection, went to Boston to care for the sick. His critics claimed he went out of arrogance. His apologists argued he had tended to smallpox victims before and seemed to be naturally immune. It turns out he wasn’t. After he returned home, he succumbed to the disease. Two of his family members caught it from him and also died. Thus ended a chapter in the history of the Rogerenes.

Resting place of John Rogers

Even without their leader, the sect continued to practice their unusual style of Christianity for another 300 years. Their good deeds were often overlooked and they failed to earn the respect of established religion. In fact, stubborn adherence to their beliefs brought them ridicule from the larger community. After World War I, they faded into history. It was inevitable. The Rogerenes were ahead of their time. The Hippie movement of the 1960’s shared many of their concepts: pacifism, social and political reform, and free thinking.

On our last day in Connecticut, Sue and I visited the Otis Library in Norwich. The genealogy librarian was very helpful and provided enough material to keep us busy for a week, but we had only a few hours. Sue and I divided the stack of documents. I sifted through A Genealogy of the Descendants of Joseph Bolles, which listed several Rogers in the index.

There I found him: David Rogers, born August 31, 1776. He married Mary Stone circa 1800. Could this be my ancestor? His parents were Elizabeth Bolles and John Rogers, great-grandson of the infamous founder of the Rogerenes. Could we actually be descended from that notorious group?

Sue and I had planes to catch. We couldn’t dig any further. After I got home, I tried to find more information on the internet, but David continued to elude me.

Then my little brother, a recent convert to genealogy, somehow traced a possible great-great-great-great grandmother, Polly Story Wheeler, who was listed in the History of Montville, Connecticut. This good woman was married to a David Rogers, born circa 1774, son of John and Elizabeth Bolles Rogers!

When you look at old records, you find all sorts of inaccuracies. In the days before computers, indeed before typewriters, everything was written by hand, and not everyone’s handwriting was legible. A David born in 1776 can be the same David as one whose birthdate is recorded elsewhere as 1774. Polly is a nickname for Mary. Middle names were often family names. Stone and Story could be different interpretations of someone’s penmanship, especially if the writer used flourishes, which they often did in those days.

We have finally tracked down our ancestor David, and Reverend John Rogers was his ancestor. Considering the personalities of my modern Rogers relatives, it makes sense—we inherited our quirky genes from the founder of the Rogerenes. However, my immunity to smallpox must have come from someone else.

An interesting side note: among John’s thousands of descendants are Mormons who had him baptized and his marriages sealed. Considering his beliefs about baptism and marriage, I’d love to be a butterfly on the wall when St. Peter gives him the news!

Another thing, if that insane evil scientist unleashes smallpox on our already suffering world, I will not refuse a vaccination, just in case.

 

 

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