A terrifying diphtheria epidemic swept through New England. In some cases, entire families died of the disease. In one New Hampshire town, 32% of children under 10 died of diphtheria. The case-fatality ratio was almost 40%. Noah Webster (1758-1843) later wrote: “It was literally the plague among children. Many families lost three of four children—many lost all.” Treatments were largely ineffective. One approach was described in a Boston newspaper:
METHOD OF CURE OF THROAT DISTEMPER.
What is used is as follows. First be sure that a vein be opened under the tongue, and if that can't be done, open a vein in the arm, which must be first done, as all other means will be ineffectual. Then take borax or honey to bathe or annoint the mouth and throat, and lay on the Throat a plaister Vngiuntum Dialthae. To drink a decoction of Devil's bitt or Robbin's Plantain, with some Sal Prunelle dissolved therein, as often as the patient will drink. If the body be costive use a clyster agreeable to the nature of the Distemper. I have known many other things used, especially a root called Physick Root, filarie or five-leaved physick; also a root that I know no name for, only Canker Root. But be sure and let blood, and that under the tongue. We havemany times made Blisters under the arms, but that has proved sometimes dangerous.