Susan Forbes Hanson – Mary Bidwell (1731-1761) & William Forbes, Jr (1754-1777)
Aside from both being descendants of two prominent founding families, Mary Bidwell and William Forbes, Jr. also share the distinction of dying young from smallpox infection. While nearby each other, a lane separates the two grave markers.
Town history says smallpox victims, out of general fear of further infection, were not buried in the cemetery, but in out-the-way places with unmarked graves. The truth of this is indicated by the inscription on the tombstone of William which states that is in memory of him, and could very well be only a memorial marker with his body being elsewhere.
The inscription on the stone for Mary, on the other hand, clearly states it marks the spot where she is buried. This shows that exceptions were made.
During a smallpox epidemic in 1761, of which Mary was a victim, Hartford ordered a pest-house for east of river for the quarantine of those infected. It was built on land, that came to be called “Pock-House Hill,” a promontory in a swampy area south of Burnside Ave.
It was also on this site that two town physicians after much struggle got the town to finally, in 1791, accept their petition to establish a special hospital for voluntary inoculation. A town meeting declared inoculation an, “easy method discovered and pointed out by Divine Providence.” The progress was short-lived, however, and permission was denied within a year.
The hospital had nonetheless been built and was an inhospitable, barn-like structure, with the patients being cared for by “Old Ocolo,” described as being a “hideously pox-pitted freed male slave.” A hollow is all that remains of its once cellar and it can still be made out along side the trail in Hockanum Linear Park.
Initially in the 17th century, because of their strong Puritan beliefs, the colonists perceived the numerous outbreaks of pestilence such as smallpox as punishment from God for sinful ways. Eventually connection between such outbreaks and arriving ships began to be seen and the idea of maritime quarantine came into practice, a concept which spread to isolation of victims anywhere in the colonies; the town’s Pock-House is an example.
In 1721 inoculation was introduced by Reverend Cotton Mather in Boston, as a second way of fighting against smallpox. At first it was primitive, too often even fatal, and thus very controversial with persistent and even violent resistance by opponents.
At the time of the Revolutionary War there were several smallpox epidemics. Survival of smallpox confers lifelong immunity, and this gave a decided advantage to the British soldiers, since many had survived the disease earlier in life. And the British were known to even deliberately spread epidemics by expelling its victims outside the city of Boston with the idea of infecting the American lines.
General George Washington was initially quite hesitant to have his troops inoculated. However, by 1777, faced with mounting smallpox deaths, he ordered mandatory inoculation of all recruits who had not had the disease.
Thus, one can assume all East Hartford veterans of the war returned home inoculated and should of stood as examples to town residents of the value of inoculation in the prevention and survival of this dreaded plague.