Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Benjamin Smith: Quaker Merchant

Benjamin Smith was finally in a position to take his family out of the city. The conscientious Quaker merchant refused to flee at the first alarm because his business partner was out of the town on a trip and someone had to watch the store. He had offered all the help he could to members of his wife's family who got the fever. Her brother, a doctor, died. The matriarch of her family, his mother-in-law Margaret Morris, had been dangerously ill. She recovered and warned Smith that the "Destroying Angel" was "within a few doors."

Yet they all decided to stay. On Friday Smith explained in a letter that the very health of his family meant they had to stay. Dr. Rush had told Smith's cousin Richard Wells, after he had recovered from the fever, that it was okay for him to leave but not his healthy wife, "for the exercise of riding and keenness of the country air would probably excite into action the infection that might be in her body, when by remaining in town there was a probability that it might pass off again without any effect."

Plus, Smith thought, to take the infection to friends in the country would be unforgivable. Smith only longed for something to do. The ships William Penn and George Barclay had arrived from London only to be warned not to come up because consignees had fled and the customs house was closed. The only business Smith transacted was taking two notes to a bank where, to avoid as much personal contact as possible, he "threw" them at a clerk.

Although he cited his missing a visit as reason enough for a patient to die, Rush encouraged people to carry-on without him by liberally using mercurial purges. The fully recovered Margaret Morris treated her maid Sally, who seemed to have a mild case, "as Dr. Rush directs." Then she began vomiting "blackish stuff and the discharge downwards was the same, and then she vomited blood."

Morris "began to make experiments." She had Sally lick salt and alum and then quenched the resulting thirst with elixir of vitriol, vinegar and water. Her discharges stopped for 24 hours. Then she started vomiting blood again, "It came out like a teapot." Morris went to her neighbor Rush and got medicine to stop the vomiting, but the bleeding continued and Sally's mouth, tongue and lips were as black as ink. Morris gave her bark, and she recovered. The convalescing Rush told Morris that the spontaneous bleeding cured Sally.

While Sally was sick, William, an apprentice who was staying with Margaret, was seized. She started him with purges and one of Rush's apprentices stopped in to bleed a pound of blood out of him in the morning and another pound that night. He seemed weak but better. No sooner were the patients in her own house stabilized than Benjamin Smith reported that his three servants were ill. With medicines in hand Margaret went to Front Street and purged everyone. Then the two Smith children felt ill.

Back in her Walnut Street neighborhood, Margaret's cousin succumbed to the fever. "Practice had made me bold," Margaret later wrote. She gave her cousin a purging powder, and had her bled. Then the two grandchildren living with her got sick. She had not thought the Smith children truly touched with yellow fever, but she had no doubts about the Morris orphans. She asked Rush how to proportion the medicine to the children and dosed them both. One recovered quickly the other didn't. Then the two blacks she had hired to take care of Sally and William got sick and left. With all the sickness, she wrote, "it seemed as if my heart had died within me." To care for all she decided to spend the days at the Smith house and nights in her own house.

Benjamin Smith managed to find doctors to see his ill servants. He too had faith in Rush's methods and the servant with the most obstinate fever was bled to the point where he was "low indeed" and "cold at the extremities" through the night. On Wednesday October 9th a doctor and Margaret Morris both visited in quick succession. The doctor allowed the three servants "restorative medicine." "My mother-in-law, who has had much experience in the disorder,..." Smith wrote to his father, "thinks the crisis is past with both and they will do very well."

Of the children only his daughter didn't get well. She "can't be got to take medicine but with difficulty nor then in sufficient quantity but we shall try her again." Benjamin was the calm point in the storm, reporting with scant emotion that he was able to do as much as he commonly did. But his wife Debby was fatigued, a condition that was no longer dismissed lightly. She "has taken some medicine which I think will prevent any bad consequences." Her mother Margaret had come to have a great belief in bleeding. For a day she sent for a bleeder in vain - eight were unable to come. She never was so bold to try herself. Finally one came and Debby was bled.

On October 5 Benjamin's father sent down a bundle of dried herbs that he thought might be useful, including "tanzy, wormwood of two sorts, one Italian, cardes, balm, isip, pennyroyal." He recommended chewing the wormwood to prevent infection and told of a Frenchman who feared that his servant had the fever. He "was very earnest in inquiry after cardes benedictus or the blessed thistle." It had been hailed in 1578 as a cure for the plague, and the servant recovered with only a blister and the herb given as a tea. There's no evidence that Benjamin Smith used the herbs. He respected his mother-in-law's respect for Rush's methods, which he knew was borne of her observation of several cases.

Historians try to distinguish between home remedies and doctor's medicine, contrasting the good works of matriarchs like Margaret Morris with the insensitive prescriptions of doctors like Rush. Actually Rush worked well with the mothers of the city. Rush was overjoyed when another widow visited him and told how she cured herself with several mercurial purges and by having herself bled seven times in six days. Then Benjamin himself got a fever. He thought it only from fatigue. His mother-in-law urged medicine on him.

Margaret Morris had the bitter gratification of seeing proof of her diagnostic skill. Benjamin Smith did have the yellow fever, badly. On the 15th she left Smith with what she thought were favorable symptoms. He and Debby had been "twice bled" and both seemed comfortable. But Benjamin rapidly declined. He died on the afternoon of October 18, "without a sigh or groan - and perfectly sensible." Debby Smith completely collapsed. As Margaret Morris prepared Benjamin for the grave, she had to go to her daughter and try to rally her, and then get the family out of their Front Street house which was so close to where the epidemic started back in August.

In the week that followed Debby moaned continually. Margaret had lost her husband when she was 29, but she had been surrounded by friends. She and Debby were surrounded by young children, servants and sick or incapacitated relatives. Margaret could do nothing to console her daughter. As for herself, she found comfort in a Bible prophecy "which seems fulfilling" - Amos 3:8 "...there shall be many dead bodies, in every place they shall cast them forth with silence." "When I look round," she continued in a letter she wrote the 24th, "and see what havoc death has made in our city - the young and vigorous taken away, the old and helpless left, many of them without support - my spirit almost dies within me and I am ready to say 'what wait I for? - my delight is in Thee.'" But 15 people were in her house and she very much the strongest.

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