In 1735 a new disease seized British North America. While the mysterious throat distempers never achieved the notoriety of other diseases in the colonial era, no single epidemic of the period proved more deadly to European settlers. By 1739 the death toll in New England exceeded 5,000 from a population of 200,000. Ninety-eight percent were children. In spite of the distempers’ extreme and skewed mortality rate, no modern in-depth study has ever investigated this event. If we assume that events of high lethality should have discernible impacts on the afflicted culture and society, then it is remarkable we find little trace of it in the extensive secondary literature concerning this period and locale.
Using the New England Throat Distemper Epidemic as a case study, this dissertation argues that high mortality in combination with survivors’ withdrawals from social networks together reduce direct reference to the epidemic in the historical record. Through a combination of traditional research methodologies and digital humanities technology, this study links tens of thousands of parish, probate, and burials records in a single database. From such a point of view a range of the epidemic’s consequences become visible, from parents relocating to new communities or parishes where their surviving families could make new beginnings, or to those for whom this isolation—consciously initiated or not—may have contributed to an early demise. The scarcity of documents has apparently led historians to assume that epidemics like the throat distempers were not as important as those for which greater documentary evidence exists. This dissertation corrects that assumption and provides a method for examining epidemics similar to post-colonial techniques of recovering “lost voices.” However, in contrast to subaltern studies, the only oppressor is the epidemic and the silence is voluntary—silence in the face of unspeakable loss.