We think of history in terms of the big picture of names and dates, of battles and facts. That big picture obscures our view of the little picture, the one that didn’t change the outcome of history but rather changed the people who were part of that history. The Bloody Flux in the late summer/early fall of 1775 didn’t change the outcome of the war but forever changed the lives of some people.
The OED defines dysentery as a disease characterized by inflammation of the mucous membrane and glands of the large intestine, accompanied with griping pains, and mucous and bloody evacuations. It is believed the Bloody Flux was caused by shigella, a type of dysentery found in overcrowded conditions with poor sanitation such as refugee camps or in 1775, army camps.
“The Dysentery soon prevailed in the American Army & extended itself more or less through the country. Although it prevailed most in the Town near camp, my Parish partook largely of this calamity. We buried about 50 persons in the course of the season. Some families were dreadfully bereaved. One in particular a Mr. Joseph Daniels buried an amiable wife & 6 very promising Children in about 6 weeks—we often buried 3 or 4 in a day. My time was wholly devoted to visiting the sick, attendance on the dying & the dead.” Memoirs of the Rev. Samuel West, Pastor (1764 – 1788), First Parish, Needham Massachusetts
“Death has so long stalked among us that he is become much less terrible to me than he once was…Funerals are now so frequent that for a month past you meet as many dead folks as live ones in Boston streets, and we pass them with much less emotion and attention than we used to pass dead sheep and oxen in days of yore when such sights were to be seen in in our streets”
Jonathan Sewell, Summer 1775
Some resources to let you learn more about the epidemic are below. Digitized vital records make locating information for your town much easier as you can search “1775” (alt-f)
CDC Yellow Book Shigellosis:
18th Century Medical Texts:
Primitive Physic by John Wesley: https://archive.org/details/primitivephysico00wesl/page/n4/mode/2up
Every Man His Own Doctor or The Poor Planter’s Physician: https://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=osu.32436011225123&view=1up&seq=3
List of Victims Westford 1775:
Nathaniel Ames Diary for 1775: https://archive.org/details/dedhamhistorical0304dedh/page/n153/mode/2up
Additional years can be found by checking the index https://archive.org/details/dedhamhistorical0304dedh/page/n9/mode/2up
Vital Records Massachusetts: