History Matters Series - "The Many and Sudden Deaths"

gravestones in the Granary Burial Ground
Tuesday, October 4, 2016
Speaker: Nicholas E. Bonneau

Epidemics and Awakenings in the First Congregational Church of Haverhill, Massachusetts, 1735-1740

In May of 1736, John Boynton of Haverhill, Massachusetts, proclaimed to fellow parishioners, "I have been awakened and put upon my duty by the many and sudden deaths in this place." While intense religious revivals had sprung up across the Atlantic world, this relation of faith found its inspiration in a biological event particular to the frontier communities of Northern New England. Beginning a year earlier, John had watched a new disease take thousands of lives across Essex County, Massachusetts and Rockingham County, New Hampshire. By the end of the following decade, the total lost would exceed ten thousand individuals; ninety-eight percent would be children. Despite these high death rates and the impact such an unusual event had on a community in the midst of religious upheaval, scholars have largely ignored both the disease and its social ramifications.

Using sources held in the Congregational Library & Archives, this talk explores the reactions of one town to this horrifying disease, Haverhill, Massachusetts. Combining traditional research methodologies with digital humanities technology, it reconstructs this catastrophic event from church records to reveal the magnitude of mortality in this town and the manner by which the unprecedented loss of so many children left parents isolated from supportive community networks, and thus, from the historical record. Far from stoically internalizing this grief in a manner consistent with a reductionist interpretation of Calvinist thought, parents living in these frontier settlements detached from their communities, many times stumbling through a grieving "darkness" toward early death. These otherwise silent sufferings, like dark matter in a universe of human experience, account for a missing mass of emotional outpour contemporary to the First Great Awakening. It provides a useful medical-historical analogue to post-colonial techniques for recovering subaltern "lost voices" while furnishing a new model for understanding these silences.

Nicholas E. Bonneau is a doctoral candidate and instructor in the Department of History at the University of Notre Dame and will be the Carpenter Fellow in Early American Religious Studies and a Friends of the MCEAS Dissertation Fellow at the McNeil Center for Early American Studies for the 2016–2017 academic year. He specializes in the global environmental history of emerging infectious disease, concentrating on seventeenth to early nineteenth century North America. He is interested in the memory of epidemics and what factors influence how they succeed or fail to find a place in the historical record. Nicholas is the creator of the Death Records of Early America Database, linking hundreds of thousands of individuals' vital records from the seventeenth through the mid-nineteenth centuries across the Atlantic World. This database allows scholars to track individuals and groups through births, marriages and deaths as well as social networks including family links, parish affiliation, and common employers. He has received fellowships though the National Science Foundation IGERT, the New England Regional Fellowship Consortium, American Antiquarian Society, Philadelphia Consortium for the History of Science, Technology and Medicine (formerly PACHS), as well as research residencies at the Philadelphia College of Physicians and the Philips Library of the Peabody-Essex Museum. Nicholas teaches US History (to 1877) at the University of Notre Dame and the History of Medicine at the Westville Correctional Facility through a partnership with Holy Cross and Bard Colleges. His dissertation, "Unspeakable Loss, Distempered Awakenings: North America's Invisible Throat Distemper Epidemics, 1735 – 1765", is scheduled for defense in the spring of 2017.


Tuesday, October 4th
noon - 1:00 pm

Free.
Register through Eventbrite.

Become a Member