Hidden on the Horizon: A View of the New England Throat Distemper Epidemics from Salem

NIcholas E. Bonneau

Examples of virtal statistics records of births, deaths, and marriages.

Catastrophic epidemics and black holes have something in common: observers outside these events can never truly understand what happens at the heart of the phenomena. Some limited observations are possible while standing outside the “event horizon,” but we can only theorize the extent of turmoil within; being distant from the event irrevocably distorts perceptions of it. Just as the gravity of a black hole allows not even light to escape its influence, the unspeakable grief of loss inhibits the expression of those who suffer most at the geographic or psychological center of an epidemic. Little surprise that the worst epidemic in prerevolutionary history, the throat distempers of 1730s and 1740s New England, remains so hidden from our view, even when occurring in a period as well-studied as the First Great Awakening. Read more

Jonathan Plummer and the Problem of Print

Benjamin Bascom

When the itinerant peddler, poet, and preacher Jonathan Plummer died in 1819, he left behind a will that requested his executor to distribute several hundred copies “of the Occurrences of my life printed from the manuscript which I may leave at my disease.”[1] Unfortunately for this Newburyport eccentric, however, the money he had amassed through selling combs, thimbles, fish, and his own poetry, among other items, was given to his estranged family, leaving information about the contents of this supposed manuscript about his life reserved for speculation. During a month of research at the Phillips Library, I sought to reconstruct the life of Jonathan Plummer through the printed ephemera he left behind—from broadsides and annotations in account books to the one remaining copy of his late-1790s Sketch of the History of the Life and Adventures of Jonathan Plummer, jun. (Written by Himself). Through doing this research, I came to recognize a historically specific instance of desiring to write one’s life into book form for posthumous consumption. Read more

Walt Whitman at the Phillips Library

PortraitRecently, when I was searching the shelves for the latest reading room display of Summer Reading Books, I discovered several volumes of Walt Whitman poetry.  Two of the original owners of our books on Whitman lived in the late 1800s.  A side-by-side comparison of these owners’ copies shows that they had vastly different experiences with Whitman’s poems.  The first reader physically removed dozens of pages from his own book, and the second went out of her way to republish and promote the poet’s work. Read more