Love in the Time of Smallpox

John & Abigail’s inoculation letters, and my own modern love.

Smallpox ravaged the world from 10,000 BC up until 1979. In the 20th century alone, it killed between 300 – 500 million people. I have trouble putting numbers that big in perspective, so I created this helpful chart.

That should clear things up.

250 years ago, smallpox was also responsible for the first of many separations between John and Abigail Adams. An epidemic in April 1764 forced them to postpone their wedding while John got inoculated. Their letters during this time provide fascinating insights into both the inoculation process and their unique relationship. In their intimate lines I found glimpses of myself and my own spirited wife, Jess, and the foundations of our relationship.

Inoculation back then meant at least three weeks of quarantine while suffering through a mild version of the virus to build a lifelong immunity. One percent of patients didn’t survive the process. For weeks leading up to the inoculation John was put on a strict diet – no meat, milk, or butter. He ignored this advice. Right before the procedure he drank an ipecac to cleanse his system. I’m guessing “ipecac” is an onomatopoeia named for the sound you make when your guts violently evacuate through your throat.

Compared to the prep, the inoculation procedure itself was fairly painless and about as sophisticated as growing a flower. A deadly flower. The doctor cut a small slice in John’s left arm, deposited an infected thread in the wound, and put a bandage on it. They basically planted smallpox in John Adams and waited for the pustules to sprout.

That waiting period produced more correspondence between John and Abigail than ever before, which is impressive since it wasn’t easy getting letters through his quarantine. To protect her from the virus, John had to “smoke” each letter before sending and Abigail’s family’s slave, Tom did the same on her end. She described her excitement when receiving a letter from John by asking him:

“Did you never rob a birds nest? Do you remember how the poor bird would fly round and round, fearful to come nigh, yet not know how to leave the place – just so they say I hover round for Tom whilst he is smokeing my Letters.”

This speaks to her love, impatience, and penchant for bird torture.

Smoking your mail was the 18th century version of Norton Antivirus.

Their letters almost came to a stop when John’s doctors forbade him from writing, encouraging him instead to stick to amusements like checkers and cards. That didn’t make sense to Abigail any more than it would to my wife, who has anxiety dreams about exactly this sort of scenario where some authoritarian force is keeping us apart – usually at a shopping mall. My love sleeps with furrowed brow. If, God forbid, a real-life doctor told me I couldn’t communicate with her, she’d probably sneak herself into the sick house and take her chances.

Instead of infiltrating his quarantine, Abigail fought this injustice with humor. She supposed “it may be those who forbid you cannot conceive that writing to a lady is any amusement, perhaps they rank it under the head of drudgery, and hard labour.” She followed with a subtle trap: “However all I insist upon is that you follow that amusement which is most agreeable to you whether it be cards, chequers, musick, writing, or romping.” So he should only write to her if he enjoys it. In 250 years, not much about the female language has changed. It still must be decoded.

John kept writing. And, I can only hope, romping.

They teased each other often, which led to John sending Abigail a helpful list of all her faults. Most were playful and actually compliments – she doesn’t play enough cards and has bad habits of reading, writing, and thinking – but he took the opportunity to let loose with real problem areas too.

“You could never yet be prevail’d on to learn to sing… you very often hang your head like a bulrush, you do not sit erected as you ought…another fault, which seems to have been obstinately persisted in, after frequent remonstrances, advices and admonitions of your friends, is that of sitting with the leggs across.” 

So she can’t sing and she’s an utter failure at sitting. Could she at least walk?

“A sixth imperfection is that of walking,” he told her, “with the toes bending inward. This imperfection is commonly called parrot-toed, I think, I know not for what reason.” One of John’s imperfections is commonly called being a dick, I think, I know not for what reason.

Regarding her scandalous leg-crossing, Abigail shut him down with, “I think a gentleman has no business to concern himself about the leggs of a lady.” She also said he shouldn’t complain about her lack of singing because she had “a voice harsh as the screech of a peacock.” An interesting choice for a comparison since peacocks are known for their outstanding beauty and not their voice. Well played, Abby.

Everything comes back to birds for her – she hovers like them, screeches like them, and does a shit job walking like them.

She leveled her own criticism on Adams too, telling him he was intimidating and it was “impossible for a stranger to be tranquil in your presence.” She felt at greater ease expressing her feelings in letters than she did in person.

That struck a nerve in me, as I too have been called intimidating. I’m not sure why. It could be that my default facial expression lacks humanity and seems to say Get out of my way, I need a toilet. I can’t help it, and it’s less creepy than my forced smile which suggests I’m relieving myself right then. I also have trouble judging the distance between things, namely my body and people in the way of where I’m going. It’s best to keep me away from children and the elderly at airports and supermarkets.

Also, I have a tendency to lace my strong opinions with condescending humor aimed at whoever dares to disagree with me, and I do it loudly so they can’t hear their own wrong thoughts. These are things I’m working on – as I plod through the presidents, so too do I plod through self-improvement. But that could be why Jess, like Abigail, felt it was easier to be open with me in writing…especially when it came to one of the most important things she ever asked me.

Late on the night of June 8, 2010, after two years of platonic friendship, she used our favorite form of written communication, instant message, to ask me out.

If she had seen my face then, she wouldn’t have been intimidated. I was on a giddy high, trying to play it cool while being absolutely certain I understood her feelings before putting my own on the line. The tricky thing about writing, as John Adams knows, is that it can forever preserve the moments when you’re kind of an ass.

I’m sure it’s crossed my mind?! It’s a miracle she stuck with me through this conversation, let alone matrimony.

I promise I was a better human being in the rest of our chat. Eventually. It’s bizarre for me to look back at those words and not see the affection so ingrained in our relationship now.

John and Abigail’s affection for each other was always evident, despite their teasing. He called her “Miss Adorable” and “Diana” after the goddess of the moon and she called him “Lysander” after the Spartan war hero. Their early letters show a playful tenderness that set the foundation for a lifelong love.

Miss Adorable wasn’t shy about letting her intimidating Spartan know how to behave, but she was crafty. As his quarantine drew to a close, she wrote about an unemotional reunion she just witnessed between a couple who barely said “how do ye” and smiled at each other. “I was affected with it,” she said, “and thought whether Lysander, under like circumstances could thus coldly meet his Diana, and whether Diana could with no more emotion receive Lysander. What think you?”

In other words, she was hoping for a passionate display of emotion after their separation. Can’t wait to see you soon, babe! Don’t fuck it up. 

Nearly two years after our fateful online chat, Jess had similar fears about our wedding kiss. I guess because I didn’t usually kiss her passionately in front of other people like some kind of depraved exhibitionist, she feared our nuptials would be sealed with a peck on the cheek and a high five. Looking back, it’s possible my coy coldness in our relationship-initiating chat caused this complex of hers, but her fears turned out to be unfounded. Our actual wedding kiss was just right, and the practice runs she required were quite nice too.

Sometimes I wish we wrote long expressive letters like the Adamses did, but then I realize they only wrote so much because of their long frequent separations. I couldn’t imagine any prolonged separation from the passionate force of nature that is my own Miss Adorable. And we do actually write to each other often in our own modern correspondence:

John survived his inoculation with flying colors. The worst parts for him were “a long and total abstinence from every thing in nature that has any taste, two heavy vomits, one heavy cathartick, four and twenty mercurial and antimonial pills, and three weeks close confinement to an house.”

He was much luckier than those who got the disease in the “natural way” like a man he described to Abigail. “They say he is no more like a Man than he is like an Hog or an Horse – swelled to three time his size, black as bacon, blind as a stone.” It makes me feel very fortunate to be born into a world where this disease is eradicated and bacon is not burned beyond recognition.

Smallpox may be gone, but many potentially life-threatening diseases are not, and John Adams would have no kind words for modern parents who choose not to vaccinate their children. Even with the risks back then, he was upset with Abigail’s parents for not letting her get inoculated, saying, “Parents must be lost in Avarice or Blindness, who restraint their Children” from inoculation.

Today there is no chance of a smallpox resurgence as the disease exists in only two of the most peaceful places on Earth – a federal facility in Atlanta and a research facility in Russia. So we’re totally safe.

Just in case, it couldn’t hurt to drop a line to those you love while you have the chance. Don’t wait for a quarantine to tell them how you feel – even if they’re overcritical asses or graceless birds who think too much and suck at sitting.

Rare photo of the Jess-Bird in flight, 2013.

Sources: John Adams by David McCullough, Abigail Adams by Woody Holton, masshist.org
Top Images: Abigail Adams and John Adams by Benjamin Blyth


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