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Life on the Corner: Onesimus

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.

10 Replies to “Life on the Corner: Onesimus

  1. Another Great story, and a lot of interesting information! You always have some wonderful History to share. Keep the Corner coming! I really enjoy and look forward to it.

  2. Fascinating story. When I saw the ad for the slave auction, I thought of research a friend did years ago in locating the shop of Benjamin Franklin’s father, where he held slave auctions. It was at the Hanover St-Congress St. corner of the Boston Public Market building. The researcher wanted to City or Bostonian Society to put up a historic plaque on the building. It never happened.

  3. Although Cotton Mather was highly influential in matters spiritual as well as secular, and his practices and writings convinced others of the real existence of witches, he was not a judge at the trials.

    1. You’re right. While Cotton Mather was not an actual judge at the witch trials his fiery preachings and his belief that the devil was afoot in New England certainly fanned the flames and led to the execution of innocent girls.
      Mather was originally interested in medicine as a career but had a very bad stutter. This interfered with his scholarly pursuits and he struggled mightily to overcome his speech impediment. His own son almost died of smallpox. This and his original interest in medicine must have been what made him trust his slave, Onesimus, and try variolation.

  4. Nick,enjoyed reading this interesting essay. Cotton Mather, another Boston Latin School boy does well. Sumus primi!

  5. I have seen this well-known newspaper ad image and have often referenced it in relation to the history of rice growing in the early U.S. and its connection to Sierra Leone (which was then called the Rice Coast). Its only through your article that I make the fascinating connection between small pox variolation, Onesimus and my native Sierra Leone. One of the observations in Boylston’s famous “Account of the Small-Pox Inoculated in New England” is an actual quote of the Africans conveying the information to Mather in their “broken English”, who basically say: “down on the plantation we don’t suffer from smallpox because we practice this variolation procedure…”. It is quoted as a conversation with a group of Africans who all corroborate the veracity — not just Onesimus. So back to the image above: Knowledge of lowland rice-growing was a basis for demanding slave prices up to 20% more for captives from the Rice Coast. Evidently, the concern about small pox was that this precious cargo might be infected by the natives of Charlestown or any other New World encounter in transit. The N.B. to the ad emphasizes that 50% of the captives on board had already had small pox– I am curious about how this statistic relates to small pox incidence in New World plantations compared to 1720s Boston.

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