Quarantines in Salem

I’m pretty familiar with the origins of the quarantine, having taught classes on or in the era of the Black Death for twenty years: quaranta (40) days that ships were required to anchor in the harbor off Venice before they could unload their passengers and cargoes to prevent the passage of plague in the fourteenth century. The Black Death came to Europe by sea, in ships: it was external. The circumstances in which we find ourselves prompted me to look at Salem’s quarantines, as Salem was a mini-Venice in its day, an entrepôt for worldly goods coming from far, far away. And by the time of Salem’s heyday, everyone knew that deadly germs could accompany those precious commodities. The plague was over (until its reappearance in the later nineteenth century) but other plagues persisted: smallpox, yellow fever, cholera, influenza, scarlet fever.

Quarantine-Venice Puck Magazine drawing from 1883, showing the NYC Board of Health attempting to ward off the arrival of Cholera.

Disease operates like war in history: it dramatically intensifies the size, scale and power of the government in reaction. Quarantines are evidence of the government’s powers and/or ability in the face of crisis, and they leave a record. Massachusetts experienced several smallpox epidemics in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, provoking both quarantine measures and medical relief in the form of inoculation. In Salem, smallpox was still considered threatening enough to provoke the establishment of a designated hospital and committee to deal with it in the eighteenth century, but it was by no means as frightful as the disease which was often simply referred to as the “pestilence”: yellow fever. Maybe I’m wrong, but the public discourse at the time seems to imply that smallpox is containable, yellow fever, not at all.


Quarantine-Salem_Gazette_1794-09-16_4Salem Gazette

Strict maritime quarantines were implemented as soon as any news of yellow fever was reported, particularly after the dreadful epidemics in Philadelphia in 1793 and New York in 1795, and the concurrent epidemics in both cities and Boston in 1798. The last two years of the eighteenth century marked a turning point in Salem’s public health history, with the appointment of a new inspector of police: apothecary Jonathan Waldo. In several long articles in the Salem Gazette, Waldo asserted that the dreadful pestilence was not only an external threat, but one that was festering right in Salem, and thus a series of quarantine and hygiene regulations must be implemented as soon as possible. Salem needed to clean up its act.


First, a new Board of Health, the Overseers of the Poor, or some other body should be empowered with the mandate to enforce the necessary regulations, which included: confiscation of “corrupted” properties for the “public good”, with compensation to the owners, the establishment of a “pest house”(another one: Salem already had two by my count), “suitable” privies, “so situated as to incommodate their next neighbor as little as possible”, proper cisterns for butchers, docks and flats to be kept clean, no dead animals are to be thrown into the streets or the river, no storage of hides, fish, and beef for prolonged periods of time, and “the public streets, wharves and enclosures should be kept in a good wholesome state of cleanliness, especially during the hot season.” And so you see, we can learn a lot about societies in the midst of, or facing, a contagion! Once the hot season arrived, the city imposed a maritime quarantine on all incoming vessels. Another apothecary (who interests were even more wide-ranging than those of Waldo), Scottish exile James Tytler, published his Treatise on the Plague and Yellow Fever in Salem in this same, fevered, year of 1799.


KeithFeverDistrictsUSA1856Library of Congress

As the map above (from Alexander Keith Johnston’s Physical Atlas: a Series of Maps & Notes Illustrating the Geographical Distribution of Natural Phenomena) depicts, I always associated yellow fever with the south: the Caribbean, and New Orleans, in particular. But this was not strictly the case. I have no access to the City of Salem archives—some seem to be up in the Phillips Library up in Rowley; some remain here in Salem, in City Hall I presume—but fortunately a predecessor of mine from the Salem State History Department, Charles Kiefer, created an inventory and finding aids for the municipal records from 1681-1832 in the 1970s which is preserved in the Salem State Archives. According to Kiefer’s notes, most of Waldo’s recommendations went into effect in the first decade of the nineteenth century, with the additional improvement of paved streets. These notes also reference the first outbreak of what would be the new threatening disease of the nineteenth century, cholera, with a very early outbreak for Salem in 1812. I was surprised to read of the implementation of a maritime quarantine against cholera by the Salem Board of Health as late as 1885: I thought it was all about railroads at this point. There were influenza alerts (but not quarantines as far as I can tell) in 1890 and (of course) 1918, a late smallpox scare in 1912 which brought out police guards, and several scarlet fever quarantines in the twentieth century. Despite the fact that it was revealed to be contagious in the 1880s, I don’t see any quarantine measures used by Salem authorities to combat the most endemic of nineteenth- and early-twentieth century diseases: tuberculosis. There was clearly increasing concern and focus on preventative public health, hygiene, and housing, an updated Waldo regimen if you will, but no extreme measures.




13 responses to “Quarantines in Salem

  • Bonnie Henry

    Fabulous, great, timely blog! Thanks, Donna Keep these coming! I love hearing about the lessons history has for us – those we can model and those we should avoid. Feed us some successes that we can celebrate as we come together at this time.

  • Laura

    Historical context always helps! I have a friend who especially likes to reference the sweating sickness in the time of Henry VIII these days. Whatever works! Hope you are doing well and all OK in your home and neighborhood! I feel fortunate to be able to telework myself and still able to enjoy spring (stay at home allows walk for exercise!)

  • Nancy

    Thank you for this informative blog post, Donna. Sometimes we fall into thinking that we are different from any other generation before us, but really only the faces and outward trappings change. The fear, the sorrows, the courage remain…

  • Nanny Almquist

    Thanks for this post on three things I am interested in: Salem, history, and medicine. Very fascinating. I had read about Boston ancestors who during several summers left the city for Jamaica Plain in the late 18th and early 19th centuries due to epidemics in the city and thus was aware that Boston had issues with epidemic, but I hadn’t made the intuitive leap to Salem and my ancestors there.

  • Ann Swartzell

    Your work and articles are always fascinating — I know your focus may be Salem-centric (most of the time) but I know you have looked at other resources — did you ever run across this one
    https://curiosity.lib.harvard.edu/contagion?utm_source=library.harvard (now it seems curated by the Countway Ctr for History of Medicine or similar title…._

    • daseger

      Thank you, Ann! You know, I have browsed through that collection before, but for some reason I forgot all about it. So thanks for the reminder, I will be posting more on this general topic, so it will be helpful.

  • Helen Breen

    Hi Donna,

    Thanks for such an informative article about the history (and definition) of quarantines in our past. Really proves again that past is prologue I guess. As always, you have illustrated the point well with your archival retrieval.

    The subject brought to mind that 1938 classic film JEZEBEL staring Betty Davis and Henry Fonda, set in antebellum New Orleans during an outbreak of yellow fever. Haven’t seen it for years, but I recall the powerful last scene when the chastened heroine rides out of the city with those facing quarantine on a remote island to be with her former lover. A Billy Wilder film at his best.

    Also, let’s not forget the present quandary of those two Holland American cruise ships, the Zaandam and Rotterdam, in the Caribbean begging to enter Fort Lauderdale. Still not resolved.

    Stay safe…

  • Brian Bixby

    I recall one of my discoveries in the stacks of Widener Library was a study of consumption by Henry Ingersoll Bowditch, dated 1862. Without a germ theory, Bowditch had corresponded with doctors all over Massachusetts, and a smattering from other New England states, trying to determine what caused the disease. Of course, he was unable to identify the actual cause, but it’s fascinating to see the range of theories proposed. And one doctor, an outlier from Saco, Maine, makes a passing allusion to the “consumption vampire” belief.

    My own father returned from a trip to Saskatchewan in 1929 with diphtheria. In defiance of the law, his mother (ruling the household as his father was suffering from dementia) did not tell the authorities, but kept him hidden indoors, for fear they would be quarantined. Fortunately, my father did not pass the disease on to anyone else.

    • daseger

      Thank you, Brian! I have been meaning to post on the “other” Bowditch forever but this should be his time. Talk about a public health pioneer! He’s more Boston than Salem but he was born in the latter so I can claim him!

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