My family visited the Boston area in 2007, during which time I indulged my passion for all things historical, especially those things involving the Salem Witch Trials. I'm mad about the witch trials, consumed with interest about them. Being in the area where everything transpired was a remarkable experience. I spent hours wandering the cemeteries in Boston and Salem both, looking for graves related to the major players in the trials. When I came upon the graves of Increase and Cotton Mather I felt such revulsion, no matter how much time had passed, for the parts they played in the travesty. Little did I realize there was much more to the story than I'd been led to believe.
When I read a pre-pub review of 'The Pox and the Covenant' I knew I'd have my hands on it as soon as I could. All the other books in my pile shoved aside, I started reading it. And I couldn't stop. I read it straight through, start to finish.
Here, for the first time I've seen, was a Cotton Mather with a heart. A man beside himself with worry on account of his own children contracting the dread disease smallpox, but also on behalf of the families of Boston. Not only that, which was surprising enough. He actively sought out medical literature relating to inoculations, reading early positive reports highlighting relative success with the procedure, promising a glimmer of hope on the horizon.
The same man who believed in witchcraft could be modern enough to encourage a radical new medical procedure? It was a revelation to me.
Putting his own reputation, and the lives and reputations of his family, on the line, Mather pursued the matter further. Speaking with a local doctor he persuaded the man to give the idea a try - to begin the process of inoculating smallpox victims. As one success led to another, neither man could doubt this was the answer to stopping the disease afflicting Boston. The problem was convincing the people.
It's nearly impossible for us to fathom the radical nature of this idea, how the populace of Boston would have seen it. To do so we'd have to understand the superstitious nature of their everyday lives, the distrust of anything new or different, the fear of the unknown. With medical marvels a near everyday occurrence, so little seems radical to us. But to 18th century Bostonians, all medicine not based on past practices involving balancing the "humors" was a frightening, and suspicious, prospect.
On the other side, a young Benjamin Franklin was striking out as a printer, an aspiring journalist and writer. With his satiric essays appearing anonymously in his brother's newspaper, Franklin sniped at Mather, chipping away at his reputation, mocking his innovative ideas as quackery. He sided with the people, the ignorant masses standing between Mather and the elimination of a horrifying disease. For a man who would later be revered for his advancement of science, as a young man he seemed more interested in journalistic popularity than truth.
With this as a framework, Williams creates a fascinating tale of two major historical figures, one beloved and the other reviled, pitted against each other struggling to win over the trust of the citizens of Boston. The tale is a fascinating one told concisely and with much scholarship to back it up.
Though a work of history it's as compulsively readable as a novel. Only better, because it's true.
- Hardcover: 304 pages
- Publisher: Sourcebooks (April 1, 2010)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 1402236050
[I read my library's copy of this book.]