Spotted Fever Epidemic

Miniature portrait of Dr. Joseph Gallup, from the Woodstock History Center's Collection.

Miniature portrait of Dr. Joseph Gallup, from the Woodstock History Center's Collection.

Some two hundred years ago, the worry of the day was not a government shut down or tensions in the Middle East; it was the spotted fever. In Henry Swan Dana’s History of Woodstock, Dana mentions a number of Woodstock residents who died from this disease between February and April of 1813. Similarly, in the neighboring town of Bridgewater, at least 21 people died of the fever in March of that year. The numbers were even higher in many other towns throughout Vermont and New Hampshire.

The fever, which manifested itself in 1806, sporadically ravaged many New England communities as well as states such as New York and Pennsylvania. It tended to strike during the winter months, and then disappeared during the summer, only to return again the following winter.

The first sign of this fever was usually coldness, pains in the limbs, head, and back, and a loss of strength. In some cases, these symptoms were followed by bouts of fever and chills, and delirium. In severe cases, the person became comatose following the initial attack and died within several hours. The disease got its name, spotted fever, because small, dark purplish spots or blotches appeared on the skin of some of the afflicted. Starting around 1812, the disease appeared to evolve. In many cases, the fever was accompanied by inflammation of the throat and/or lungs.

Since medicine was not standardized, and many medical practitioners with different backgrounds and levels of medical training were providing treatments, there was a great deal of diversity in the remedies. For instance, in the papers of a Capt. Charles Church of Westminster, Vermont was found the following treatment that was purported to be efficacious in curing 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."

According to the book Bridgewater, Vermont 1779-1976, written by Gladys Adams, Woodstock’s Dr. Joseph A. Gallup (who, in 1826, started a medical college in Woodstock) favored a treatment of blood letting, but strongly opposed the use of opium or brandy, in treating the fever.

Not fully comprehending the contagious nature of diseases, Dr. Gallup suggested that the cause of the disease might be from harmful gases formed on the earth’s surface.  Despite his faulty conclusions about the disease’s cause, Dr. Gallup and many of his contemporaries carefully documented the symptoms of their patients and the residual affects of the disease. These papers, in turn, provide fodder for modern-day doctors to analyze the illness. Although there is no conclusive identification of this disease, some have inferred from the descriptions of its symptoms that it was what is now called cerebro-spinal-meningitis.  

The spotted fever epidemic is but one fascinating chapter in Woodstock’s history. To learn more about other fascinating local history topics, please come visit us at the History Center.

SpotlightMatthew Powers