Strange New England - Smallpox Den

Recently I was digging through the cold cases and decide to pull out the Smallpox den file. I had known of the den for over ten years. Though it was a fantastic story, all I was left with was the name of the town and brook it lies near. The brook stretched for miles through fields and forest.  Without more clues it would be like trying to find a needle in a hay stack.  I thought I’d review the material to see if I could find something I might have missed.

The local lore says that in 1786 Israel Allen of North Brookfield Massachusetts contracted Smallpox. The residents of the town gathered to discuss how to prevent this from being the beginning of a pandemic. It was clear that they would have to ask Israel to leave the town immediately. They knew of a small cave near Sucker Brook that would an excellent home for him and keep him a safe distance from residents.

The village pastor was the person who delivered the verdict of the townsman. Israel agreed with their decision. He knew that this might prevent others from the suffering and possible death of this disease. He gathered the things he would need and disappeared into the forest to his new home. Though nobody ever saw Israel again, the following winter hunters heard the sound of hammer and chisel echoing from the hollow where Israel had taken refuge. No man in town was brave enough to investigate the source of the noise for fear of crossing paths with the ill Israel .

In 1790 Israel Allen was found dead in his cave. Brazened on the wall were his last words, 

I had the small pox April 19, 1788 I. Allen 
Read these lynds and ponder

turning his former home into a massive grave stone. Nobody is sure what his exact intentions were but it has proven to be an effective monument. Over 200 years later; those North Brookfield resident that banished him from the town have been long forgotten, yet Israel Allen’s memory still lives on. 

In Massachusetts Smallpox has a long and sinister history.  It was introduced to New England in 1617 by the English and Dutch fishermen, killing 90% of the Massachusetts Bay ’s Native American Indian population.  Smallpox is the most deadly of the pox viruses. Once the victim has been contaminated with the virus, symptoms will begin to appear in about ten to twelve days. A very high fever, quick pulse, severe headache, pains in the back, pains in the loins, and vomiting are the first symptoms which often last for a period of about three days. As the virus progresses, the symptoms become much worse and far too grotesque to describe. The lethality of smallpox depends upon a number of factors. Typically, of those infected, there prevailed a forty percent fatality rate. When it has been an epidemic, it has shown itself to be a reliable assassin, so reliable; many believe that Lord Jeffrey Amherst (for whom Amherst MA and Amherst College were named after) used small

pox as a form of genocide by distributing smallpox infected blankets to the Indians in 1763. 

In 1721, inoculation for Smallpox was introduced to North America in colonial Massachusetts by Cotton Mathers and Dr. Zabdiel Boylston. Though it appeared to be very successful, they were targets of public harangue, articles of condemnation, and vandalism. Bostonians objected to interference with what they perceived to be the will of God. They trusted that only the sinful would be infected, and that the Lord would spare the just. Though the practice of inoculation finally gained a widespread acceptance in about 1750, Smallpox continued to bare its ugly head well into the 1800’s. 

 After combing through the data I was still drawing a blank. I decide to do a shake down on some of my new resource and see what turned up. Luck was with me. I came across an old map of historical locations in the Brookfield area. There on the index was Smallpox den. The map was crude and had outdated. After close examination I realized I had four points of reference; the main road which was the same today, the lakes and rivers, the railroad and the town boundaries which haven’t change at all. I could easily figure out where the den was relative to those that were close by. Quickly I was able to vaguely triangulate it location on the old map and replicate the results on a more modern topographical map. The brook I found it near was not Sucker Brook, it was Coy’s Brook. This didn’t surprise me at all. Considering that information was not as easily accessible as it is today, often I find local explores from days gone by are incorrect concerning certain details of their stories.

smallp1I made a trek up to North Brookfield the next weekend. Strangely enough it wasn’t anything like I had imagined. It appeared to be a quiet little New England town frozen in time. The modern world was buffered by the surrounding farms and unsoiled forests. It reminded me of Mayberry all it needed was a sheriff Andy and Floyd the barber. Though I never did find Floyd, I bumped into the mild mannered police of the town. I make it a habit to speak to the local authorities before I go bush whacking in unfamiliar territory. When I explained what I was up to, they advised me as to whose property I might trespass (a fellow officer) and said that if they heard of a stranger sneaking around the property they wouldn’t worry since they knew it would be me.

After combing the woods for a few hours, I found an interesting small cave. At that point in time it was the only smallp2thing close to a den I had seen. It was a rather impressive small cave for the area. Unfortunately it didn’t really look quite like what I expected to find. Worst of all I couldn’t find the carving anywhere on the stone walls. Quickly I realized that the carving should be very easily visible. It had already lasted over 200 years since the most recent photo of it I had seen. It was getting late so I packed up my stuff and headed home.

I inquired a fellow explorer concerning the cave I found and Smallpox Den. He was very familiar with the area and explained that I had found what he referred to as “ Church Cave ”. He mentioned I was warm but the Den, a much less impressive over-hanging, was more to the West.

On my follow up visit I began my search from the “ Church Cave ”. Moving West I came across a dirt road. I could see where it concluded on another road to the south so I followed it to the north where I came across a house and a very angry dog. I assumed that this must be the land owner I had been told about. I had hoped the dogs barking would get the attention of his master and waited for the door to open. Eventually I realized I had to suck up enough confidence and knock on the door. So not to excite the dog any more, I slowly walk to house and rapped on the door. The vicious bark and growl of the dog was unnerving. I tried to ignore the dog as I waited for an answer but fosmallp3und it difficult. With the amount of rage pouring out of that beast, I could just imagine him busting free and proceeding to tear though me like a meat grinder. Though I knew I was safe and had nothing to fear, this monster tapped into the deep instinct for survival. My body naturally was cueing up energy for fight or flight but my brains higher functions knew well enough to ignore them. Again I knock on the door. This time my pause for an answer was much briefer. With no response I began to walk back down to where I exited to the road. Then I realized that my pace was increasing with each step. Subconsciously, the pent up energy cause by the encounter had taken the opportunity to channel itself to my legs.

Spying across a rock outcropping across the road, I proceeded. As I navigated around the ledge I found myself in a small hollow carved by a brook or draining from the higher land to the east. Encourage by this discovery, I began to follow it north. There were many small crevasses and over-hangings but each turned out to be disappointing. Then I saw it. Event though I was still quite a distance away I knew that I had found it. I recognized the distinct pattern cause by the separating layers of bedrock I had seen in the close-up pictures of Israel Allen last words. Again I found the pace of my gate increasing but this time it was energized by the anticipation of finally reaching my goal.

There they were, the words Israel had chiseled so long ago. The first line has been preserved much better than the line below. Most likely since it is better shielded from being worn by the rain and sun. Today the den itself would smallp9not provide much shelter. Most of the over hanging rock had collapsed long ago. It was situated on the upper edge of the slopping valley. Set in a wall of over ten feet of rock shielding its western side and the steep rising slopes of the hollow to the east, the den could provide excellent shelter from the elements. I sat there trying to imagine what life must have been like for poor Israel . Though I could see how beautiful and rich with game the area may have been, I could only think of how lonely it must have felt knowing that his friends were so near but he was never to see them again. I was over a mile from the center of town, but I cold hear the echoes of modern civilization from roads only a half mile or so away. Since many of these roads were present on the oldest of maps I examined I’m sure some were present during the last 1700’s. It must have been difficult for him to feel so cut off from what was literally just over the hill. 

One thing that puzzled me about Israel ’s story is the fact that it seems like he lived at the den for over 2 years. After researching Smallpox, I discovered that Smallpox ran through various stages over a time of a few months. If after this time it did not kill you, you were cured and no longer would transmit the disease. This was something I wasn’t smallp7aware of when I made the visit to the den. What confuses me is why Israel did not eventually go back to town. Since the story mentions he contracted Smallpox in 1786, was heard chiseling in the winter of 1787 or 1788 and found dead in 1790 then he did not die from smallpox. If he survived then he would be in good health not long after the disease ran its course. No longer having any symptoms eventually I would assume he’s realized he was cured. Since the survival rate was greater than the amount of deaths it was common knowledge at the time. I can only assume that the only correct date was chiseled in stone by Israel and over the years the story tied to him has evolved with each retelling.  Unless I can find a town record buried in the archives concerning Israel ’s plight, I’ll never be sure where the truth end and the fiction begins. At the moment I’ll assume that since his words seem incomplete, they were scribed while he had Smallpox and he didn’t survive. Though it’s a sad story, it much more humane end for Israel rather than the idea that he suffered years of loneliness and exile from the town of North Brookfield . 

~Strange New England

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