Monday, November 24, 2014

The Kingston, New Hampshire Throat Distemper Pandemic of 1735

On November 13th, on the WMUR TV show “New Hampshire Chronicle” historian Fritz Wetherbee told a scary tale about the “Kingston Pandemic” of 1735 - 1736.  According to Fritz, there is a legend that in 1735 a Mr. Clough of Kingston, New Hampshire butchered a pig that had died of a throat ailment, and that Mr. Clough himself soon died of what was then known as “throat distemper” (what we now call diphtheria).  I don’t know if the story about Clough’s pig is true or not, but the pandemic was absolutely true, and has been well documented.

In 1735 - 1736 the town of Kingston suffered a pandemic of throat distemper and lost 150 children, most under the age of 10.  The disease spread to the seacoast and to Massachusetts.   In Hampton Falls twenty families lost all of their children, and 1/6 of the entire population perished.   Almost 1,200 people in fifteen different towns in the state of New Hampshire were dead by 1737.

Throat distemper raged again in New England several times over the next century. There were several terrible pandemics in which many children were lost.  I looked through my own family tree for victims and expected to find a few families that lost a few children.  What I found was truly chilling.

Instead of losing a child here, and a child there, I found entire families devastated by throat distemper. I found so many examples that I decided to only list those who lost more than two family members – and there were many that fit this description.  And not all were children.

BILL – Phillip Bill (1629 – 1689), my 7th great grandfather, lived in New London, Connecticut and died of throat distemper on 8 July 1689, the same day as his six year old daughter, Margaret.  This left his widow, Hannah Waite, with six children to care for.  She remarried to Samuel Bucknall in 1696.  This incident preceded the pandemic of 1735.

CHOATE – John Choate (1697 – 1765), my 7th great grand uncle, lived in Ipswich, Massachusetts.  According to town records he “lost all his children during the prevalence of throat distemper in 1735”.  I had no idea how many children he lost until I looked in the records.  Two children died early before the pandemic, and then he lost all five surviving children in 1735-1736.  A cause of death was not listed, but the town records about throat distemper filled in the blanks for me.  What a tragedy!

HOLGATE – James Holgate (1692 – 1756) and his wife Jemima Rideout of Haverhill lost five children, too, in Haverhill, Massachusetts, to throat distemper.  James is the stepson of my 8th great aunt, Magdalen Dunnell.  Haverhill was a hotbed of diphtheria cases during the pandemic, and lost a total of 256 children during 1735 – 1736!  An unbelievable number of deaths for a town that was very small at this time period.

LANE- Samuel Lane (1698 – 1776) and Elizabeth Blake (b. 1699), my 7th great grandparents, lost three children in one day, 2 August 1735 in Hampton Falls, New Hampshire.  Abigail, Samuel and Elizabeth all died of throat distemper, leaving only two children behind.  The Lanes went on to have two more children and named them Abigail and Samuel.   I descend from this second Samuel Lane (1741 – 1822), who was my 6th great grandfather. A total of 214 people in Hampton Falls died of diphtheria this year, 96 of them were under age ten.

LOCKE- John Locke (1683 – 1774) lost his wife Sarah, and four children to throat distemper in 1736 in the seacoast town of Rye, New Hampshire.  He was left with only one living child (two had previously died as infants). This surviving child was my 6th great grandfather, Richard Locke (1720 – 1804). 

SHATSWELL – Richard Shatswell (died 1772) and his wife Mary Treadwell (1702 – 1787), my 2nd cousin 8 generations removed, lived in Ipswich and lost three of their four children during the throat distemper pandemic in October and November of 1736.   They had only one more child after this disease took their young children. 

Possibly there were more deaths in my family tree due to the throat distemper pandemic of 1735 - 1740, but sometimes young children were not recorded, and usually the cause of death was not recorded.  It takes looking at town and church records, and reading the accounts of the epidemic to trace which lives were lost to this disease. 

This is not all ancient history.  You would be surprised to learn that diseases like diphtheria (throat distemper), pertussis (whooping cough), and tetanus are making a comeback because people have stopped vaccinating their children, and adults have stopped receiving their boosters.  This is the DPT vaccine your children should get as infants, but for many misguided reasons it has become “unpopular”.  Now children can catch these horrible diseases, and die, just like these poor children did in colonial New England. And it was entirely preventable.

One of the more famous diphtheria pandemics in the past 100 years was the 1925 outbreak in Nome, Alaska when teams of sled dogs relayed medications to the stricken town.  This was the race that inspired the Iditarod, and Balto, the hero dog of the serum run to Nome, has been honored by a statue in New York’s Central Park, and an animated movie.

The elderly who have not kept their boosters up to date, and unvaccinated children are at the most risk from dying of complications of a modern diphtheria pandemic.  Unvaccinated adults can pass on these diseases to infants who have not yet been vaccinated.  During the 1990s in the Soviet Union over 150,000 people were sickened with diphtheria, and over 5,000 died.  Yes, it can happen in modern times, too.  You can imagine the horror of losing one family member, but now you can see that in some cases all the children and even spouses were taken, too.   These colonial era families could not prevent their children from taking ill .  We have to learn from history that these diseases are not gone.  They still linger, and still terrorize.   And we can prevent children and adults from dying needlessly.

For the truly curious:

History in Focus: Diphtheria Epidemic by Dean Merchant, (courtesy of the Hampton Union, Friday, June 27, 2008) on the Lane Memorial Library of Hampton, New Hampshire website:

The “Throat Distempter” of 1735 – 1740, by Ernest Caulfield, click here to view the PDF file:

History of Kingston NH 1694 – 1994 online, see page V-1 for the throat distemper pandemic:

A new UpWorthy infographic on pre-vaccine morbidity rates

Here is a list of epidemics and pandemics in the US from 1616 to the present.  I found this by Googling "New England" epidemic list.   I'm sure that you can find similar lists on line by Googling locations and the words pandemic or epidemic:


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Copyright ©2014, Heather Wilkinson Rojo


  1. I hadn't heard the story about sled dogs taking medicines to Nome - very interesting. In Australia we have a good series of records (Wallangarra Quarantine Registers) that were created during the 1918-1919 influenza epidemic.

  2. Very interesting-- if sad-- topic. I actually am planning on writing about James and Jemima Holgate next month; they were my 7th greats. Their daughter Priscilla (my 6th great) and Elizabeth, an infant, were the only Holgate children who didn't die during the month of December 1737.

    I agree about the importance of vaccination. Apparently there is a big movement against it, and this is unfortunate. "People don't get these diseases anymore"... um, yeah, because we inoculate people against them! When we stop doing that, the diseases will return. Eg, awhile back there was a measles outbreak among a largely unvaccinated Hasidic Jewish community in New York City.

  3. My great-grandfather lost five sisters to diphtheria in a two-week period in 1861. It was one of the first things I wrote about when I started my blog.

  4. Heather,

    I want to let you know that your blog post is listed in today's Fab Finds post at

    Have a great weekend!

  5. Heather. How timely that you wrote about this subject. I am currently reading a book about the Rev War era. It's fictional, but with many historical components. Throat Distemper is mentioned a couple of times and I hadn't had a chance to Google it yet. Thank you for the info.