The Pox and the Covenant: Mather, Franklin and the Epidemic That Changed America’s Destiny by Tony Williams


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.]

2 thoughts on “The Pox and the Covenant: Mather, Franklin and the Epidemic That Changed America’s Destiny by Tony Williams

  1. Have you read any of Sara Vowell’s books?
    She is fascinated by American history and also very entertaining to read. I recommend “Assassination Vacation” and
    “The Wordy Shipmates;” both have a lot of historical content.


  2. Mary – Yes, I have read Sarah Vowell’s books, and loved them. The audio version of ‘Assassination Vacation’ is a gem, as it’s read by her. Love her voice. I saw her speaking locally right before ‘The Wordy Shipmates’ was released and bought it as soon as it came out. Hope she’s working on her next book!


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