Lecture – Betty Washington Lewis and Women’s Health [Video]

On Tuesday, May 1, 2018, Dr. Kelly Brennan Arehart, Manager of Interpretation & Visitor Services at The George Washington Foundation, presented a lecture titled “Betty Washington Lewis and Women’s Health.” Betty Washington Lewis gave birth to 11 children; a feat almost unheard of today.  Kelly explored Betty’s  journey from childhood to womanhood, from maiden to mother, and medical challenges that 18th century women faced.  A cradle to grave examination of women’s heath tells us of the strength and resilience of Betty Washington Lewis and other women who endured at time without anesthetics or knowledge of germs.

Join us at the library on Tuesday, May 8, 2018 for “Coinage and Credit: The Economy of Colonial Virginia,” a lecture about the business and trade of Fredericksburg merchant Fielding Lewis presented by David Arehart, a site supervisor at Colonial Williamsburg.  Talk begins at 7:00 p.m. The lecture is FREE and hosted at the Central Rappahannock Regional Library at 1201 Caroline Street, Fredericksburg, Virginia. To learn more, visit http://www.kenmore.org or livesandlegaciesblog.org.

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The Fly …uh, Snail… in the Ointment …Pot

It’s flu season again.  And for most of us who get sick that means a trip to the doctor, perhaps some prescribed medicines, and lots of rest.  But what did George Washington do when he got sick?  Although most of us likely think of our first president as perpetually healthy and strong, he was actually stricken by quite a few serious illnesses in his lifetime, many of which occurred while he was growing up at Ferry Farm.

Mary, George’s mother, had a few options when caring for her sick children but a hospital was not one. They did not exist yet.  The most expensive solution was to call a doctor (Back then, they came to you. You do not go to them).  Most people could not afford a doctor’s visit, however, and many distrusted doctors as being worse than the diseases they cured.  This fear of doctors was somewhat justified given that George ultimately died of an illness he could well have survived had he not been bled to death by his doctors.

An ill man who is being bled by his doctor. Coloured etching by J. Sneyd, 1804, after J. Gillray

“An ill man who is being bled by his doctor. Coloured etching by J. Sneyd, 1804, after J. Gillray.” by James Gillray. Credit: Wellcome Collection. CC BY

Option number two was to visit a pharmacy.  Now, we’re not talking Walgreens.  Think smaller and jars full of leeches.  Anyone could visit an 18th century pharmacy without any kind of prescription or referral. If you had the money, you could purchase whatever ‘cure’ you wanted.  The pharmacist was not necessarily a medical professional and may or may not have been good at diagnosing whatever illness you had. That didn’t mean you couldn’t walk out of a pharmacy with any and all manner of odd concoctions that cured you or did not cure you.  For instance, folks were awfully fond of self-treating with mercury tinctures until well into the 19th century, which we now know to be a colossally terrible idea.

Michel Schuppach in his pharmacy examining a young woman's urine who is seated opposite him awaiting the result. Line engraving by B. Hübner, 1775, after G. Locher, 1774

‘Michel Schuppach in his pharmacy examining a young woman’s urine who is seated opposite him awaiting the result. Line engraving by B. Hübner, 1775, after G. Locher, 1774.’ by Gottfried Locher. Credit: Wellcome Collection. CC BY

Another popular option was to make your own medicines at home.  Recipes for cures were passed down through word of mouth and many households had herb gardens containing medicinal plants, many brought with colonists from Europe.  There were also a number of books available that divulged the secrets of pharmacopoeia.  Many of the medicines described in these books sound like things a storybook witch might brew up.  One such tome available to Mary Washington was Thomas Fuller’s Pharmacopeia Extemporanea, published in 1710. It contains remedies such as ‘Pectoral Snail Water’, said to be good for “Erratic scorbutic Fevers, Flushings, flying Pains of the Joynts, hectic wasting of Flesh, and Night-sweats”.  The delicious-sounding ingredients were as follows:

“Snails beaten to mash with their Shells 3 pound
Crumb of white Bread new bak’d 12 ounces
Nutmeg 6 drams
Ground-Ivy 6 handfuls
Whey 3 quarts; distil it in a cold Still, without burning
One half pint brandy”

One can only assume that the last ingredient was to help the mashed snails go down.

We do have evidence showing the use of home medicines at Ferry Farm in the form of numerous ointment pots.  At least half a dozen have been identified thus far.  Ointment pots were used for holding various medical or cosmetic unguents likely made at home.  Generally, such pots were fairly plain with a rolled or flared lip used to secure a textile, hide, or paper lid with a string.

Judging by their lack of use wear, the pots recovered at Ferry Farm were used for storage, not for actually manufacturing medicines.  The act of stirring or grinding substances in the pots would have resulted in microscopic striations or scratches in the glaze and these are absent in the Washington family ointment pots.  However, they do indicate the storage of medicines at Ferry Farm.  Given the nature of home remedies in the 1700s, one’s imagination can run wild thinking of all the interesting concoctions that they may have held!

Mara Kaktins, Archaeologist
Archaeology Lab Supervisor

Further Reading

Fuller, Thomas. Pharmacopoeia extemporanea : or, a body of prescripts. In which forms of select remedies, accommodated to most intentions of cure, are propos’d. London. 1710.

Hume, Ivor Noel.  A Guide to the Artifacts of Colonial America.  University of Pennsylvania Press, Philadelphia.  2001.

Hume, Ivor Noel.  Early English Delftware from London and Virginia.  Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, Virginia.  1977.

Mellor, Maureen.  Pots and People that Have Shaped the Heritage of Medieval and Later England.  Ashmolean Museum, Oxford.  2000.

Skerry, Janine E. and Suzanne Findlen Hood.  Stalt-Glazed Stoneware in Early America.  University Press of New England, Hanover and London.  2009

 

 

Washington, Smallpox, and the Fight for Independence

Living in Colonial America, disease and illness were defining challenges and perpetual threats of human existence.   At the time, there was no concept of infection or germ-theory, no vaccines, no really effective treatments for infectious disease and few public health measures that could reliably curb epidemics.[1]  For colonial Americans, it was not a matter of “if” you would get sick but rather when and would you be strong enough to survive.

George Washington contracted many of the epidemic diseases like malaria, dysentery, and smallpox that plagued colonists and survived despite limited medical intervention.  As a young man in the prime of his life, standing 6’2”tall and weighing over 200 pounds, his body fought a host of illnesses that killed most.  Still, these diseases had lasting effects on Washington’s body and one of the diseases he suffered led to a controversial decision that may have even saved America in its fight for independence.

Smallpox no longer terrifies humanity because it was eradicated in 1977 through a global program of vaccinations.  The devastation this disease caused through history is unrivaled.  By the 17th century, smallpox surpassed all other pandemic diseases as the swiftest and most deadly.[2]

The earliest conclusive evidence for smallpox dates back to 4th century China. It quickly spread through Asia and reached Europe around the 10th century. By the 18th century, it accounted for an estimated 8 to 20% of all deaths.[3] Upon its arrival in the New World, it decimated the Native American population, which had never faced the horrible and highly contagious disease.

Smallpox spread easily through overcrowding and unsanitary conditions.  Symptoms include fever, intense headaches, pains in the back and legs, vomiting, and eruptions of seeping, smelly pustules on the body.  While left with immunity, survivors face debilitating after-effects like disfiguring scars and blindness.[4]

Smallpox pustules on hand

Smallpox pustules on hand. Credit: Centers for Disease Control

While smallpox was a reoccurring problem for larger coastal cities in British North America, it was less prevalent in more inland rural areas. Virginia experienced only minor outbreaks prior to 1747 when large outbreaks hit Williamsburg and Norfolk County causing panic, public unrest, and eventually public health proclamations.[5]

At the time, many offered advice on how to stave off or even cure the disease.  Recommendations in popular medical manuals, like Domestic Medicine, advocated rest, liquids, and various regimens of blistering, purging, and bleeding but not much more.[6] A particularly interesting remedy Virginian planter William Byrd II advocated included drinking large amounts of water “that had stood two days upon tar”.  These methods perhaps relieved symptoms but did little to prevent one from catching the disease.

Inoculation was the one way available to try and prevent smallpox.  A doctor took a bit of infected matter (i.e. pus from a pustule) from a person suffering from a mild case of smallpox and inserted it under the skin of a healthy patient.[7]  Theoretically, the newly infected patient would then develop a mild case of the infection and after recovery be immune to further breakouts.

Inoculation against smallpox in Paris (1807) by Louis Léopold Boilly

Inoculation against smallpox in Paris (1807) by Louis Léopold Boilly. Credit: Public domain / Wikipedia.

Many physicians supported this new technique but inoculation had serious drawbacks.  One of the biggest was the mild case of smallpox in the newly infected patient could become a full-blown attack.  Additionally, people who were inoculated became carriers of the disease, capable of infecting individuals who had never had smallpox or who had not undergone inoculation.  This became a volatile issue because of a lack of understanding of population immunity and ineffective quarantine protocols.[8]

Anti-inoculation sentiments rose in Virginia after people recently inoculated returned to the community and outbreaks followed.  Full-scale riots and protests were seen in Norfolk County  and Williamsburg which led to petitions to ban inoculation. In 1769, Virginia prohibited inoculation unless specifically approved by the county courts.[9]

But how does smallpox and inoculation relate to George Washington, Virginia’s most famous son, and America’s fight for independence?

The connection began on November 2, 1751 when George Washington landed in Bridgetown, Barbados with his half-brother Lawrence. They had come from Virginia to the tropical island seeking relief for Lawrence’s tuberculosis.  Two weeks later, George wrote in his journal that he “was strongly attacked with the smallpox”.  He was confined to his sickbed for nearly a month being too ill to keep his daily journal.[10]  After his battle with smallpox, however, Washington became a major proponent of inoculation even though his support ran counter to most of his fellow Virginians.

Washington House, Barbados

Home of Captain Croftan where Washington lived during the several months he visited Barbados in 1751. Credit: Wikipedia / Jerry E. and Roy Klotz

With the Revolutionary War, smallpox increasingly became a deadly complication for the new United States in its fight for independence.  Where soldiers go plagues follow and when Washington took command of the Continental Army in summer of 1775 he wrote to the president of the Continental Congress that he had been, “particularly attentive to the least Symptoms of the Smallpox” and he would “continue the utmost Vigilance against this most dangerous enemy”.

Outbreaks were particularly common when there was a large buildup of troops in an area like during the Siege of Boston in 1774 or after the battles of Lexington and Concord in April 1775.[11]  Epidemics also broke out in Boston and Philadelphia in summer of 1776 and the attempt by American forces to take Quebec was greatly hindered by smallpox among the soldiers.

In the winter of 1777, Washington decided to have all troops and new recruits inoculated.  As stated in his letter to Dr. William Shippen Jr., “finding the Small pox to be spreading much and fearing that no precaution can prevent it from running through the whole of our army, I have determined that the troops shall be inoculated.  This Expedient may be attended with some inconveniences and some disadvantages, but yet I trust in its consequences will have the most happy effects.  Necessity not only authorizes but seems to require the measure, for should the disorder infect the Army in the natural way and rage with it usual virulence we should have more to dread from it than the Sword of the Enemy.”

Washington understood the great risk he was taking in instituting mass inoculation and effectively incapacitating large numbers of soldiers while they recovered.   The operation was kept secret and done during the winter in the hope that his forces would be healthy and ready to fight in the anticipated summer campaign. Despite some setbacks, Washington’s efforts to eliminate smallpox in the army were largely successful.  While the disease continued to affect soldiers, there were no further epidemic outbreaks among the troops.[12]

Reconstructed winter cabins at Morristown NHP

Reconstructed winter cabins at Morristown National Historical Park in Morristown, New Jersey, where the Continental Army quartered for the winter of 1776-77 and where a large portion of Washington’s troops were inoculated. Credit: National Park Service / Steve Santucci

George Washington’s insistence in these preventive health measures and his belief in the effectiveness of inoculation helped the Continental Army conquer smallpox and become a more reliable military force.  Additionally, the success of mass inoculation within the fledgling nation’s military helped encourage the civilian population to use these preventative measures. Inoculation began to gain popularity with Virginians and all of the American people.  So, young Washington’s trip to Barbados when he was nineteen was unsuccessful in helping his brother’s tuberculosis but it did end up giving him a greater appreciation for preventive medicine and the devastating power of epidemic disease.

Heather Baldus
Collections Manager

[1] “The Perpetual Challenge of Infectious Diseases”, Anthony S. Fauci and David M. Morens, The New England Journal of Medicine, 2 February 2012.

[2]  Kotar, S.L., and J.E. Gessler. Smallpox: A History. McFarland, 2013. pg 11

[3] The Seat of Death and Terror: Urbanization, Stunting, and Smallpox by Deborah Oxley, The Economic History Review, November 2003,  pg 5, 627

[4] Kotar, pg 4; Oxley, 628

[5] Kotar, 41

[6] Domestic Medicine, William Buchan, 1769

[7] Oxley, 629

[8] Kotar, 13

[9] Kotar, 41

[10] Kotar, 40

[11] Kotar, 42

[12] “Smallpox in Washington’s Army: Strategic Implications of the Disease during the American Revolutionary War”, Ann M. Becker, The Journal of Military History, Vol. 68, No 2. (Apr. 2004), pg. 424-430

In Memory of Mother Washington

2016MaryWashingtonMounment

The Mary Washington Monument on Washington Avenue in Fredericksburg, Virginia.

Today, August 25th, marks the 227th anniversary of the death of George Washington’s mother, Mary.   Mary lived to be 82 years old, and suffered from breast cancer during her final years.

Few biographers have been neutral in their treatment of Mother Washington, a woman of great significance in George’s life.  Some writers have offered overly sentimental descriptions of this matron, whereas others have been critical, and even harsh in their evaluation of her role as George’s mother.

Mary Ball married Augustine Washington on March 6, 1731.  Their marriage produced six children: George, Betty, Samuel, John Augustine, Charles, and Mildred.  When Augustine died twelve years later, a significant portion of the family’s property went to Augustine’s two oldest sons from his first marriage.  Mary raised their five surviving children at their Ferry Farm home, keeping the family together.  In 1772, at the insistence of her children, an aging Mary Washington moved into the town of Fredericksburg where she could be closer to her daughter, Betty.

In the summer of 1789, Mother Washington’s health was rapidly deteriorating.  Betty wrote to her older brother George,

“I am sorry to inform you my mother’s breast still continues bad.  …she is sensible of it and is perfectly resigned…  …the doctors think if they could get some hemlock it would be of service to her breast.”

Hemlock in Köhler's Medizinal Pflanzen

19th-century illustration of hemlock or Conium maculatum (from Köhler’s Medizinal-Pflanzen). Public domain. Courtesy: Wikipedia

Hemlock, an extremely poisonous plant that “affects the transmission of nerve impulses to muscle and causes death through respiratory failure,” was a traditional treatment for breast cancer in the early 1700s. Although doctors in England had largely abandoned this treatment by the late 1780s, when Mary Washington was suffering from this disease, it is evident that local doctors were not up-to-date on the most recent treatments.

It seems likely that hemlock was indeed administered to Mary.  Burgess Ball wrote to George on the 25th of August, 1789:

“The Cause of her dissolution (I believe) was the Cancer on her breast, but for about 15 days she has been deprived of her speech and for the five last days she has remained in a sleep.”

These symptoms that Mary experienced in her final days, such as loss of speech and prolonged unconsciousness, seem consistent with hemlock poisoning, which attacks the nervous system and can cause comas.  Side effects include loss of speech (Steger 1972:71; http://www.webmd.com/).

George publically recognized his mother’s role in his life at a 1784 event where he addressed the citizens of Fredericksburg, when he referred to her, “…by whose Maternal hand (early deprived of a Father) I was led to Manhood”.

After his mother’s death, himself recovering from surgery to his left thigh (Abbot et al. 1992b, pp. 75-77), George consoled his grieving sister Betty Washington Lewis in a letter dated September 13, 1789:

“Awful, and affecting as the death of a Parent is, there is consolation in knowing that Heaven has spared ours to an age, beyond which few attain, and favored her with the full enjoyment of her mental faculties, and as much bodily strength as usually falls to the lot of four score.  Under these considerations and a hope that she is translated to a happier place, it is the duty of her relatives to yield due submission to the decrees of the Creator….” 

On August 28th, Betty Lewis and her children buried Mary Washington near a rock outcropping known today as “meditation rock” (Hetzel 1903:5).  The letter conveying the news of her death had still not reached her son George (Hetzel 1903:1), preventing him from attending the ceremony (cf. Rejai and Phillips 2000:15).  The burial site was part of the Lewis family’s Fredericksburg plantation.  This was a favorite spot of Mary’s, to sit, read the Bible, and spend time with her grandchildren.

For some time, Mary’s grave had no permanent marker.  An attempt to move her remains to Mount Vernon stirred concerned local residents into action (NRHP 2002 Section 8, p. 21) and an effort was begun to place a marker on Mary’s final resting place in 1826.  While a cornerstone for a marker was laid in 1833, construction failed to materialize a suitable memorial before 1893 when the Mary Washington Memorial Association brought this effort to fruition (NRHP 2002 Section 7 p. 16, Section 8, pp. 22, 27).  In 1894 President Grover Cleveland, as well as his Vice President, the Governor of Virginia, the Mayor of Fredericksburg, a senator from Virginia, and thousands of citizens attended the dedication of the completed memorial (NRHP 2002 Section 8, p. 28).

1903MaryWashingtonMonument copy

The Mary Washington Monument as it appeared in 1903. Library of Congress photo.

This Saturday, August 27th, you can commemorate Mary Washington’s death with the Washington Heritage Museums at the grave of Mary Washington.  A reception (cost $10) at the Mary Washington House on Charles Street follows.  For event details, visit washingtonheritagemuseums.org.

Laura Galke, Archaeologist
Site Director/Small Finds Analyst

Further Reading

Abbot, W. W., Dorothy Twohig, Philander D. Chase, Beverly H. Runge, Beverly S. Kirsch, and Debra B. Kessler
1992  The Papers of George Washington, Confederation Series Volume 1.  University Press of Virginia, Charlottesville.

Hetzel, Susan Riviere
1903  The Building of a Monument Press of Wickersham Company, Lancaster, Pennsylvania.

NRHP
2002  National Register of Historic Places Form, Washington Avenue Historic District,
http://www.dhr.virginia.gov/registers/Cities/Fredericksburg/1115262_Washington_Avenue_HD_2002_Final_Nomination.pdf (accessed August 11, 2016).

Rejai, Mostafa and Kay Phillips
2000  The Young George Washington in Phychobiographical Perspective.  The Edwin Mellon Press, Lewiston, New York.

Steger, Robert E.
1972  Native Plants Poisonous to Humans.  Journal of Range Management 25(1):71-72.