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“Greatly Endangering the Inhabitants of Said Town & Contrary to the Statute Law”: Illegal Inoculation

by Sarah Morin on 2021-12-07T08:30:00-05:00 in Archives, Civil Rights & Human Rights, Connecticut, Courts: Connecticut Courts, Diseases and History, History | 0 Comments

For the fourth profile in our “disease in colonial New England” series, we examine a group of cases where four men were charged by the State of Connecticut for violating inoculation laws. Before we delve into this investigation, we will explain the difference between inoculation and vaccination, as well as provide a brief overview of the controversy and legislation surrounding inoculation in colonial New England.

When quoting from documents, we will use the actual spelling, including transcriptions of individual words as necessary. (For more information about colonial spelling practices, see The Standardization of American English at In certain circumstances, we will add missing letters to abbreviated words or substitute modern spelling in brackets to enhance reader comprehension.

Inoculation vs. Vaccination

Nowadays, the words inoculation and vaccination are used interchangeably. In the eighteenth century, there was a difference between the terms.

Inoculation, which came from combining the Latin words inoculāre and oculus (the former meaning to graft or to implant, the latter meaning eye or bud), pertained to the procedure of smallpox variolation. Vaccination entered the lexicon in the 1790s when Edward Jenner discovered that cowpox, a milder form of the disease, could be used for inoculation instead. He named his cowpox inoculation process vaccination, from the Latin vacca for cow (Ellen Gutoskey, Vaccination vs. Immunization vs. Inoculation: What's the Difference?, Mental Floss).


Although the colonists and Indigenous peoples did not have the benefit of antibiotics or other modern medical treatments to combat diseases, inoculation could lessen the risk of dying from smallpox. Introduced to Britain and New England in the early eighteenth century, this procedure involved depositing “a small quantity of pus from the pock of a patient with mild disease into a shallow cut in the arm or leg. The resulting disease was usually localized, and the inoculee only mildly ill” (Charles Leach, M.D., Fighting Smallpox at Hospital Rock, Connecticut Explored). However, inoculation was not without danger to the surrounding community, as “inoculees continued to remain contagious long after they felt well enough to travel about” (Ben Mutschler, The Province of Affliction: Illness and the Making of Early New England, p. 214).

Still, undergoing inoculation was safer than getting smallpox naturally. “During Boston’s epidemic in 1764, for example, when the selectmen approved a general inoculation, thousands underwent the procedure, including hundreds of outsiders allowed to enter the city. An official count taken toward the end of the epidemic registered 699 ‘natural’ cases (with 124 deaths) and 4,977 inoculations (with 46 deaths)” (Mutschler, The Province of Affliction, p. 149). Stanley Aronson and Lucile Newman estimate that “the mortality rate of the intentional form hovered around 1 to 3 percent while the mortality rate for naturally arising cases of smallpox ranged between 10 and 25 percent” (God Have Mercy on This House: Being a Brief Chronicle of Smallpox in Colonial New England, Brown University News Service).

Several prominent leaders and thinkers of the day took public stances on the subject. As mentioned in a previous post, Cotton Mather—the reverend we remember for his Puritanical zeal in rooting out witchcraft—was a passionate advocate of inoculation during the 1721 Boston outbreak, to the point where one of his equally passionate opponents threw a bomb through his window. Surprisingly, Benjamin Franklin—the Founding Father we esteem as a brilliant inventor ahead of his time—did not fully embrace inoculation until later in life. Per his autobiography:

In 1736 I lost one of my sons, a fine boy of four years old, by the smallpox taken in the common way. I long regretted bitterly and still regret that I had not given it to him by inoculation. This I mention for the sake of the parents who omit that operation, on the supposition that they should never forgive themselves if a child died under it; my example showing that the regret may be the same either way, and that, therefore, the safer should be chosen (M. Best, A. Katamba, and D. Neuhauser, Making the right decision: Benjamin Franklin's son dies of smallpox in 1736, National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI)).

During the American Revolution, George Washington likewise grappled with the question of inoculation. Smallpox was a much greater threat to the Patriots than it was to the British troops, as the latter were more likely to be immune due to the disease being endemic in London. Ultimately, Washington decided that the reputed rewards of the procedure were worth the risk. In the winter of 1777, he “ordered mass inoculations for soldiers of the Continental Army—a policy that had a significant impact on the outcome of the revolution” by minimizing outbreaks of smallpox among the American regiments (Cristobal Silva, Miraculous Plagues: An Epidemiology of Early New England Narrative, p. 164).


Even though inoculation led to a demonstrable drop in smallpox deaths, it was still a dangerous procedure because it involved exposure to the live virus. While the possibility of fatality resulting from inoculation was low, it was not nonexistent. In addition, given an inoculee’s potential to spread contagion, “the process was still suspect in the late eighteenth century, as inoculated persons often walked about communities while they were still infectious to others, thus fueling epidemics” (Mutschler, The Province of Affliction, p. 144).

Due to the possibility for public health catastrophe, some colonies enacted laws against unauthorized inoculation. In Connecticut, the law decreed as follows:

That no person hereafter within the limits of any town in this state, shall receive, give or communicate the infection of the small-pox by way of inoculation, or in any such like method, without first obtaining a certificate from the major part of the civil authority, and of the select-men of such town approving of and permitting the same; nor shall any person be aiding or assisting therein without such liberty first obtained as aforesaid (An Act providing in Case of Sickness, p. 614).

Those who received inoculations without official permission could be fined, and the law further stated that when such cases were brought to court, the burden of proof was on the defendant to demonstrate he didn’t violate the law, “unless he exculpate himself on oath” (An Act providing in Case of Sickness, p. 615).

In 1777—the same year General Washington ordered mass inoculations of the troops—four men in the jurisdiction of New Haven County ran afoul of this law, and the Court summoned them to answer for their actions at the April session. As a reflection of rebellion against Britain, the prosecution was in the name of the Governor and Company of the State of Connecticut, rather than Rex, the King of England.

The Guilty

The State of Connecticut’s complaint against Simon Hide of New Haven charged that he “did Voluntarily receive the infection of the Smallpox by way [of] innoculation in S[ai]d Newhaven to the Greatly Endangering [of] the inhabitants of S[ai]d Town & Contrary to the Statute Law in Such Case mad[e] & provided.”

three pieces of paper with handwriting

Court papers for the Governor and Company of the State of Connecticut vs. Simon Hide

The State of Connecticut’s complaint against William Russel of New Haven likewise claimed that he “did voluntary receive the Smallpox by way of innoculation in Said Newhaven to the Greatly indangering the inhabitant[s] of S[ai]d Town & Contrary to the Statute Law in Such Case made And provided.”

three pieces of paper with handwriting

Court papers for the Governor and Company of the State of Connecticut vs. William Russel

The State of Connecticut’s complaint against Moses Gaylord of Durham alleged that he “did volontarily give & Communicate the Infection of the small Pox by way of Innoculation unto Abraham Scrantom Jnr of s[ai]d Durham Contrary to the form, force & Effect of the Statute in that case Provided.”

single piece of paper with handwriting

Court papers for the Governor and Company of the State of Connecticut vs. Moses Gaylord

All three men pled not guilty to the charges during their respective trials. However, upon consideration, the Court ruled that they were guilty. Each man was ordered to pay 50 pounds apiece to the treasurer of the County of New Haven, along with his court costs (County Court Records, New Haven County, Vol. 8, 1774 to 1783, pp. 268, 282).

The Not Guilty

Similar to the cases above, Jesse Cole of Durham was accused of “communicating the small Pox [by way] of Inoculation to sundry of his Family” (meaning that he had them undergo the procedure of inoculation). These charges were split into two separate trials, one concerning the inoculation of Salle Cole, the other concerning the inoculation of Polly Cole.

single piece of paper with handwriting

Evidence summons for the Governor and Company of the State of Connecticut vs. Jesse Cole

Although the writs for these cases stated that “Cole on his examination confesses he is guilty as in s[ai]d complaint is alleged,” the official record book notes that he pled not guilty at his trials. Interestingly, the Court agreed that he was “not guilty in manner and form as is alledged in the Information” (County Court Records, New Haven County, Vol. 8, 1774 to 1783, p. 239).

However, this felicitous verdict didn’t come without financial impact. The Court still decreed that Cole must “pay and satisfy” his court costs for both trials, which came out to a grand total of 7 pounds, 30 shillings, and 20 pence.

As noted in a previous post, the records for these cases, as well as several of the cases previously profiled in this blog, are currently in the process of being digitized. They will eventually be available for public viewing at the Connecticut Digital Archive (CTDA).

The Connecticut State Library would like to thank the National Historical Publications and Records Commission (NHPRC) for their generous support of this project.

logo of eagle with text National Archives National Historical Publications ampersand Records Commission

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