From the Files of the Rochester Historical Society

This year’s museum exhibit highlights notable people of Rochester, both past and present. One such person was Abraham Holmes, born in 1754 and a lifelong Rochester resident. Holmes was a lawyer, Justice of the Peace, Representative to the General Court, and one of Rochester’s Town Clerks. He also ran the 1700s equivalent of a law school where many young men became lawyers after “reading” and working in his law office in Rochester Center.

            Even with all these accomplishments, what has mostly kept his name alive are his memoirs which he entitled; “Historical Sketches” and which he completed in 1836 when he was in his 83rd year. These memoirs which the Historical Society is lucky to have in their possession cover history of the times with much about the Revolutionary War and its aftermath, but also much about the people and events of Rochester.

            One section entitled “Epidemics” has a particular impact at this time. He writes about two serious epidemics, one occurring in 1816 and the second beginning in 1831. The first he recalls as having ravaged the town, with 1/50th of the population dying. This disorder which was unknown to both the victims and the area doctors who treated them, afflicted the healthy and “robust” while leaving the “delicate and sedentary” untouched. He writes, “The doctors were totally ignorant of what to do and generally did more harm than good.” Finally, Esq. Ruggles went to Boston and found Dr. Mann who was “acquainted with the disorder”. With his treatments, the disease abated and was finally gone. Holmes adds that it was not contagious, but still caused a “suspension of business.” He personally lost more than $1,000 of business: “$600 from two students, about $300 from one man’s dying and $50 by another’s” as well as a general loss of business. 

            In 1831, a new disorder broke out and its story has eerie parallels to today. The disease broke out in the eastern part of the world and then spread to ravage western Asia and Europe and then Africa. He states, “Its progress and effects were dreadful. More than half of those who were attacked fell victim to its ferocity: its effects were sudden; it generally proved fatal in two or three days and sometimes in less than one”.

            For a while, the Atlantic Ocean seemed to block its spread, but by the summer of 1832, it struck Quebec and Montreal and then moved onto New York. He says that some wanted to blame the spread on “emigrants” to Canada, but this was disproved as the disease preceded their arrival. This quote from his account truly resonates. “It next made its appearance in the northerly part of the state of New York at Plattsburg. It was not long before it was in the Cities of New York and Albany. In New York its ravages were dreadful, thousands and thousands were swept away. No place in America has suffered as much as that city”.

            He goes on to say that the alarm through the entire country is great and everywhere, “Health Committees were formed and Quarantine Boundaries are established”. There were many rumors as to the cause of the epidemic. “Some think there is a strange quality in the water or that the easterly wind has impregnated the western atmosphere with the seeds of the disease.”

            The disease was eventually identified as cholera and in time was brought under control.            Fortunately, there were few cases in the Wareham and Rochester towns.

            Reading all this makes me realize again that the saying “history repeats itself” is much more than a cliché.

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