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April 22nd, 1721: Boston is one of the biggest cities in colonial America with a population of 12,000 Puritans. The Puritans, constituting all of the population, were severe and took their convictions very seriously, and unless you wished to be hanged, whipped, or exiled, your best option was to conform and keep any differing beliefs to yourself. Of course there were some heretics who didn’t follow this: in 1651Boston, Obadiah Holmes was imprisoned and publicly whipped for being a Baptist, Anne Hutchison and John Wheelwright were banned from Boston for expressing dissident beliefs, and Mary Dyer was hanged for being a Quaker and still repeatedly entering Boston to express discontent with the Anti-Quaker law.
To the people of Boston, this treatment to the different was normal; religion was a huge part of their daily life, a reason for living, an idea that seeped into different facets of behavior: hard work, rigid morals, and education, all of which helped them to build a stable society upon which to expand and to try to please the Lord; and anyone who threatened that deserved to be punished. The people of Boston liked to believe that they had a special connection with God unlike anyone else, and prided themselves on it. God was the ultimate answer in times of struggle as well as times of prosperity; to the people of Boston, God mattered more than anything else.
During this time, Boston was still taking shape. It had more intellectuals than most other colonies; there were philosophers, inventors, eleven doctors, and one doctor with an actual, certified degree. These people were working hard to improve Boston, coming up with new remedies, inventions, and ideas that helped expand people’s way of thinking (while of course staying within Puritan guidelines).
On this particular day in April, the HMS Seahorse, a British Naval vessel returning from the Caribbean, waited in the Boston Harbor. The ship was inspected, given the go-ahead to dock in Boston, and the sailors entered town, passing the printing presses, houses, and various shops. As the men invariably looked for somewhere to rest or eat and drink, one sailor amongst them began to scratch at the sores sprouting within his mouth.
December 13, 1706: Boston is very cold this
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Though Mather had high hopes for Onesimus, he soon began to have trouble with him, noting in a 1711 journal entry that he needed to keep a “strict eye” on Onesimus, concerning the people he kept company with, and Mather hoped he would repent for “some actions of a thievish aspect”. The minister still held out hope that converting and educating Onesimus would persuade him to be a compliant slave, but this seemed not to work; Mather wrote in 1716 that Onesimus “proves wicked, and grows useless, Froward [ungovernable] and Immorigerous [rebellious].” Furthermore, that same year Onesimus attempted to purchase his freedom by giving his master money to acquire a new slave; his master gave in and let him go.
Though Mather’s Puritan teachings didn’t seem to rub off, he did get crucial information out of the experience. A Smallpox outbreak had damaged Boston in 1692, and Onesimus having heard this -whilst being Mather’s slave- informed Mather of his experience with Smallpox in Africa and his “inoculation”, something that Mather had never heard of before that piqued his interest. That very year he wrote a letter to the Royal Society of London about the method he heard from “my Negro-Man Onesimus, who is a pretty intelligent fellow” and how he had,
“-undergone an Operation, which had given him something of ye Small-Pox, and would forever preserve him from it, adding, That it was often used among [Africans] and whoever had ye Courage to use it, was forever free from ye Fear of the Contagion. He described ye Operation to me, and showed me in his Arm ye Scar.”
Despite Mather’s initial excitement over what he deemed to be a promising new piece of information in the world of Smallpox, most white doctors rejected this process because of their prejudices against African medicine, and so Mather let his intentions of inoculating people go for the time being, but the theory never strayed far from his mind.
April 23rd, 1721: A low buzz of prayer and gossip must have filled the air that day as the Puritans heard of the new outbreak of Smallpox in their city, and as news spread of the sailor in his quarantined dwelling, his only companion being the sign: ''God have mercy on this house.'' planted in the ground before his temporary residence.