It’s hard to play “CSI: New Haven” with bones that are likely hundreds of years old. But according to the New Haven Independent, the human remains unearthed Monday when a big oak fell on the city’s Green during the storm could be remnants of threat that has resonance today – a raging pandemic.
Turns out that the Green that in 2012 shelters homeless people and protestors was once an ad-hoc burial ground for Colonial smallpox victims, according to “Historical Sketches of New Haven,” an 1897 collection of city lore.
“After the English custom, the burying-ground adjoined the church, and there were laid the wise and the good, the young and the old, of the infant settlement … Sometimes, at dead of night, apart from others, the victims of small-pox were fearfully laid here,” writes author Ellen Strong Bartlett in her typically fulsome prose.
CT’s ‘Smallpox Trail’
If the remains can be linked to smallpox, the bones will join what has long been a macabre tourist attraction – Connecticut’s many historical sites related to smallpox epidemics. Of course Native Americans were by far the population hardest hit by the variola major virus: Millions died of smallpox and other imported diseases, and smallpox played a key role in conquests including the Aztecs.
But lesser known is the lasting impact of a smallpox epidemic that swept through North America in the years 1775 to 1782 and killed an estimated 130,000 people. In her 2001 book “Pox Americana,” historian Elizabeth Fenn argues that the pandemic helped shape the American Revolutionary War and its aftermath. Smallpox outbreaks weakened American troops during pivotal early battles, hampered enlistment and may have kept enslaved African Americans in the South from joining loyalist ranks in larger numbers, Fenn argues. In response, George Washington kicked off the “first large-scale, state-sponsored immunization campaign in American history.”
Connecticut endured waves of smallpox outbreaks throughout its history, with 30 reports of deaths in the town of Sharon alone in 1777. Pox victims were isolated in “pesthouses” when ill and in remote cemeteries when dead. Pox graveyards are documented in Chaplin, East Granby, East Hartford, Franklin, Guilford, Hartford, Old Saybrook, Stonington, Westbrook, and Willington, according the New York Times.
The tide started turning in the 1790s with large-scale vaccination in the state; a marker for an early vaccination hospital can still be found in Farmington.
Scourge persists until modern times
Strangely enough, Connecticut also took the spotlight in a more recent episode
related to smallpox – four state doctors were the first in the nation in 2003 to get smallpox vaccinations as part of a Bush administration anti-bioterror plan. Eight months later, the plan was declared “in need of retooling” after only 40,000 of the 10 million healthcare workers eligible opted for the shot.
Smallpox has officially been declared eradicated worldwide since 1980 but two vials of the virus remain, one each in U.S. and Russian research labs. The World Health Organization decided last year to revisit the option of destroying the last remaining samples – but not until 2014.