This Week in New England Native Documentary History

On September 9, 1772, Abigail Meason, an itinerant Indian woman from Farmington, Connecticut, appeared in Northampton, Massachusetts at the doorstep of Nathaniel Day and his wife Experience with a growing temperature.  The Days recognized the symptoms as “slow fever” or typhoid, a bacterial illness caused by ingesting contaminated water or food, which in the eighteenth century could sometimes be fatal, and took Abigail in.

There are four stages of the illness, each lasting about a week, over which time the patient becomes exhausted and emaciated.  The bill of costs for Abigail’s treatment indicated that Experience Day nursed her through the first four days.  During that time, Abigail would most likely have lost her appetite, suffered nosebleeds, and had intense abdominal pain.  Her fever may have already reached 104 F.  In her second week of sickness, Abigail would most likely have developed rose colored spots on her lower chest and abdomen, with her gall bladder, spleen, stomach, and liver enlarging and becoming tender and painful.  With most patients, delirium is frequent, so the Days brought in a more experienced nurse, the Widow Coates, to help Abigail through the difficult days.  On September 19th, Mrs. Coates was relieved by an unnamed Indian nurse.  By the third week, complications, such as intestinal bleeding, encephalitis, and continued neuropsychiatric problems, may arise.  At some point, the town’s doctor, Samuel Mather was called to attend.

While treatment may have included home remedies made with blueberries or drinks made with honey to relieve the symptoms, the only medicine on the medical bill is three quarts of rum.  However, it is likely that the Indian nurse relied on Native remedies, such as concocting a tea from the leaves and stems of the Eupatorium purpureum plant, more commonly called Joe Pye weed.

By the fourth week, a typhoid patient’s fever should begin to subside and the ailments abate.  But Abigail’s illness continued for several more weeks, until October 21st, indicating the severity of her condition. 

We know about her sickness because the bills for her room, board, and treatment were left unpaid.  Nathaniel Day presented them to the selectmen of Northampton. However, since Abigail was a “stranger” in the town and not a Northampton resident, the selectmen referred the costs to Massachusetts Governor Thomas Hutchinson, requesting that they be paid out of the colony’s public treasury.

The bills are from the Massachusetts Archives collection at the Massachusetts Archives.  Transcriptions and images of the documents can be found here, here, and here.  For more on eighteenth century medicine, click here.  The images are from the Harvey Cushing/John Hay Whitney Medical Library at Yale University.  More complete information on them can be found here and here.

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