Since February is Black History Month, I thought it would be interesting to remember an important, but now largely forgotten, resident of the North End, an African slave named Onesimus.
In 1706, Cotton Mather received a slave as a gift from his congregants. This was an extravagant gift because slaves were not only expensive to purchase, but costly to maintain. Mather named this slave Onesimus, which means “useful” after the runaway slave who was saved and converted to Christianity by St. Paul. Christian tradition has it that Onesimus became a bishop in the early church and was martyred under the Emperor Domitian by either stoning or beheading. His feast day is celebrated on February 16th.
Mather, a graduate of Boston Latin School and Harvard College, followed his father, Increase Mather, as the minister of the North Church. At that time, this church was located in North Square near where the Sacred Heart Church now stands. Mather was also the judge who infamously presided over the Salem witchcraft trials.
Although Onesimus lived in Mather’s household for many years, Mather didn’t always trust him. In his diary, Mather bemoans Onesimus’ “thievish” behavior and calls him, “wicked and useless.” Nevertheless, in a later diary entry Mather conceded Onesimus was “a pretty intelligent fellow.” This change of heart was prompted by a devastating smallpox epidemic that swept through Boston in the early 18th century.
Smallpox was a horrible and disfiguring disease for which there was no known cure. It was highly contagious, similar to measles today, and was caused by the Variola virus, although this wasn’t known at the time. The mortality rate was as high as 30% and even more for infants and children. Those who survived were often left terribly scarred and disfigured.
Onesimus related to Mather that when he was in the West Indies he learned that slaves who had smallpox and survived were rendered immune to any subsequent infections. Moreover, many Africans knew that if they inoculated themselves with the pus or scabs from those who were actively infected with the disease they would often develop a minor infection. This process would confer a high degree of immunity and was termed variolation. When a smallpox epidemic ravaged the city in 1721, Mather encouraged a local physician, Zabdiel Boylston, to try it. Of the 300 people Boylston variolated, only six died, as opposed to 1,000 of the 6,000 inhabitants who were not treated. So successful was this procedure that in 1775 George Washington ordered all troops in the Continental Army be variolated.
Variolation had one significant drawback; those patients who were exposed to the variola virus could transmit the full-blown disease to people who were not variolated. In 1796, Edward Jenner in London discovered that inoculating patients with the pus from cow pox vesicles would also confer immunity to smallpox. The age of vaccination and the eradication of many horribly infectious diseases, such as polio and measles, had arrived.
When I was a boy growing up in the North End, it was still common for mothers to have “chicken pox parties” when they would purposely expose their infants to someone who already had the disease, thereby conferring immunity of their own child. They often did this for measles and mumps as well.
So, during this Black History Month, let’s remember Onesimus, a former North Ender, who began as a slave in the West Indies, sailed to Boston, and was instrumental in saving the lives of thousands of Bostonians from the scourge of smallpox.
Nicholas Dello Russo is a lifelong North Ender and columnist. Often using vintage photographs, Nick tells the stories of growing up in the North End along with its culture and traditions. It was a time when the apartments were so small that residents were always on the streets enjoying “Life on the Corner.” Read more of Nick’s columns.