Featured Story

Links to the living past of Shelter Island: 18th Century letter surfaces about an epidemic

If we often think there’s something unique about the times we’re living through, history will just as often wake us from that delusion.

Take the case of a 250 year-old letter that has recently surfaced of a man writing from Islip to a relative on Shelter Island about a public health crisis he terms “one of the greatest scourges.”

William Nicoll II, writing to his nephew, Jonathan Nicoll Havens, also makes the case for innoculation against smallpox, urging his nephew to be vaccinated.

Mr. Nicoll, who sent the letter on Dec. 14, 1770, had just recently been released from a “Pock House,” a place of quarantine against the spread of smallpox, usually a house separated from a town or village. Mr. Nicoll had also been inoculated against the disease, which was a fairly novel medical procedure in those days.

Isolation was thought by many to be the only defense against the disease and vaccination was a cause of extreme controversy, as it is today, with all sorts of spurious motives attached to a tool to protect public health.

Mr. Nicoll writes: “… I was only sick enough not to be well, now after such an old fellow has run the Gauntlet of Innoculation, and besides being therewith a very bad subject with a Rheumatick Constitution and the shakes of a severe fit of sickness, with what fare even you in full health and with the vigour of youth on your side, I say how can you hesitate one moment, whom your country and family demand your assistance, to free yourself from one of the greatest scourges …”

The letter is now for sale by Manhattan’s Gosen Rare Books & Old Paper. Owner Gary Gosen told the Reporter he has several other items of historical interest relating to Shelter Island that are going on sale, as well. Speaking about the similarity of the smallpox epidemic of the 18th century and the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic, Mr. Gosen, an astute observer of American history, noted: “What worked 250 years ago still works. Surprise, surprise.”

The scourge

Smallpox rampaged through New England and points south in the 18th century, with wave after wave of epidemics striking all segments of society. According to a 2014 Harvard University publication, in Boston, a city of 11,000 in 1721, 6,000 people were infected and 850 died from the disease. When a vaccine was introduced to the city 70 years later, the number of deaths plummeted to double digits.

Smallpox is a virus that’s been around for centuries, reported as long ago as ancient Egypt. It’s mortality rate, according to the Harvard publication, was around 30% for those who contracted it. Transmitted person-to-person “either by direct or indirect contact with the respiratory droplets from an infected individual,” the Harvard report states, the disease takes hold “with the infection of the mucous membrane of the upper respiratory system, then invasion of the bloodstream … Death can result from toxins in the blood, blood clots, and septic shock.”

There had been some breakthroughs in vaccinations done in western Europe by Edward Jenner in the late 1700s, but before that time, inoculation was a well known preventive measure practiced for a millennia in Asian and African countries.

One of the breakthroughs in vaccinations in the western world came decades before Jenner’s research, from an enslaved West African man, named Onesimus. He was owned by Cotton Mather, a Puritan minister whose involvement in the Salem Witch Trials overshadowed his later public health efforts.

Mather wrote that Onesimus “told me that he had undergone the operation which had given something of the smallpox and would forever preserve him from it, adding that it was often used in West Africa.”

Mather became an energetic proponent of Onesimus’ experience and knowledge, and during the 1721 Boston epidemic campaigned ceaselessly about the life-saving benefit of vaccinations. He, like other pro-vaccination proponents, was vilified for the misunderstood lifesaving properties of vaccinations, and misinformation spread widely that it was all the work of the devil.

It took a while, nearly 300 years, before the World Health Organization in 1980 declared that smallpox had been eradicated from the planet due to widespread use of inoculation against the disease.

The Nicolls of Shelter Island

William Nicoll II was bequeathed his property on Shelter Island from his father, a huge estate encompassing a large part of the Island. The elder Nicoll, who had enormous holdings in Islip and the south shore of Long Island, was a significant figure in early Long Island government. He took possession of his Shelter Island holdings from Giles Sylvester in 1706, according to Ralph G. Duvall’s “History of Shelter Island.”

Shelter Island was organized as a township in April 1730 and his son, William Nicoll II, who resided at Sachem’s Neck, was elected the first supervisor.

His nephew Jonathan Nicoll Havens, whom he had urged in his letter to be vaccinated against the scourge of smallpox, was born and died on Shelter Island. He had a long and distinguished public life during the early years of the Republic — which is why his uncle wrote to him to think of his country and get vaccinated — and was a member of the State Convention that ratified the Constitution and was elected to Congress and served three terms.

The long, unbroken line

More historical items will be on the market soon, Mr. Gosen, the rare book dealer, said, which will include letters and documents concerning 18th century people and events on Shelter Island.

The Nicoll family is still a presence on the Island. Their family cemetery is set deep within Mahsomack’s meadows and woods, where Nicolls have been buried in a sheltered grove at the top of the hill. Its surroundings have been unchanged since 1772.

For a Reporter story on the cemetery a few years ago, it was noted that the last member of the family to be buried there was Delancey Nicoll, whose remains were laid to rest in the autumn of 2009, his daughter, Jessica Nicoll, said.

Ms. Nicoll, the director and chief curator of the Smith College Museum of Art, was reached at home in Northampton, Mass. Growing up in Bayport, she remembered going to Mashomack and the family cemetery on summer days.

“We’d go out and have a picnic, a real treat,” she said, recalling the beauty and serenity of the place, and her father’s sense “of being anchored. We’d read the tombstones and think of the people and their times.”

Just as stations on a train’s route link an ongoing journey, so memories, family picnics, and a letter from long ago seeing the light of day again, connect one piece of history, one era, with another.