In 1657, Mary Green of Hampton, New Hampshire developed a deep, running sore on her lower leg that at times robbed her of the ability to walk. The infection had to be treated, but, as her father Henry would soon learn, there was no one in town with the skill to diagnose, let alone cure, such a serious ailment.
Henry Green is best remembered as one of the New Hampshire justices who in 1684 convicted Reverend Joshua Moodey of Portsmouth for refusing to administer Anglican sacraments in his Puritan church. When Mary fell ill, Henry took her to Joanna Tuck, whose husband Robert ran the local tavern and dabbled in surgery. Joanna’s treatments proved ineffective, and Henry took his daughter to the home of Dr. Thomas Starr of Charlestown, Massachusetts, where she lived for the next several months while Starr attempted to heal her infected leg. When Starr failed to affect a cure, Henry took her to the “doctoress” Ann Edmonds, who with her husband ran a tavern in Lynn, Massachusetts. Ann diagnosed Mary’s disease as the King’s Evil, also known as scrofula, an infectious swelling in the lymph nodes and bones.
The royal touch
Since the time of Edward the Confessor of England (1003-1066) it was believed that the King’s royal touch could cure the afflicted, and hence the disease was called the King’s Evil. Ceremonies were held in which hundreds of sick people stood in line to be touched by the monarch and to receive special gold coins called “touchpieces.” Some monarchs were known to have laid hands on more than a thousand people in a single ceremony. Queen Anne (1665-1714) was the last English monarch to apply the touch, but French monarchs would continue the healing magic for at least another century.
Scarred for life
In America, the scars left from lymphatic King’s Evil were used to identify fugitive criminals, servants, and slaves. In 1731 a Pennsylvania sheriff’s notice described an escaped prisoner as having “two scars upon his neck which came by the King’s evil.” In 1738 a master described his runaway servant as “an Englishman, bred to the sea, much disfigured on the Face and Throat from the King’s Evil.” In 1783 a Philadelphia jailer advised the public to be on the lookout for an escaped inmate who had “in his throat the marks of the king’s evil.” In 1825 a New Jersey slave owner advertised for the return of a slave named Bob, who could be known by his scar “from the king’s evil.”
Curing the disease
During the second half of the eighteenth-century only four cases of death by the King’s Evil were recorded in Hampton, while many more were attributed to “consumption” (pulmonary tuberculosis). Ancient remedies such as bloodletting, expectorants, and purgatives were the usual treatments. With no real cure, enterprising quacks of a later era looked to profit from the disease. A Dr. Evans advertised his “superior method” for curing scrofula, William Swaim peddled his eponymous Panacea, A. Stewart offered Compound Vegetable Systematic Pills, and Dr. S. N. Niderburg’s “galvanic machine” was touted for its curative abilities. It was not until the late nineteenth century that scientists discovered the pathogen responsible for the King’s Evil: mycobacterium tuberculosis, passed to humans through the consumption of raw milk from an infected cow. In 1921 a vaccine was introduced to prevent the disease.
Although Ann Edmonds had at her disposal the practices of bloodletting, purges, and vomits, she concentrated instead on giving Mary a healthy diet of fresh vegetables and meat and applying poultices to the infected leg. No record exists to show what ingredients she used in her poultices, but one contemporary recipe called for goat dung mixed with honey and vinegar. Another was a mixture of barley meal, pitch, frankincense, and the urine of a child. At one point Edmonds removed a six-inch piece of rotted bone from the leg, and from then on Mary’s condition improved. After eleven months of care, Edmonds declared her cured and ready to return home.
A dispute arises
For the expense of Mary’s room and board, Henry Green paid Edmonds a cow, and for the treatment he gave her a colt. A legal suit arose when Edmonds claimed that the colt was not the same one as originally promised. This one was “small, thin, and lowsey,” and certainly not worth the twenty pounds value of her treatments. Green responded by saying that the treatments had not cured his daughter, whom he taken to the tavern in Salisbury, Massachusetts to get the opinion of the lady of the house. She was said to have observed a “running sore” on the girl’s leg.
In 1659 the suit was presented to the Hampton court. Green’s witnesses—including Dr. Starr of Charlestown, Dr. Crosby of Rowley, and Robert Tuck of Hampton—testified that Mary’s leg had not been cured. Edmonds brought in witnesses to testify that it had. The court ruled that Green had lied and dealt fraudulently with Edmonds, but the following year the Ipswich court overturned the decision when Ann’s husband William inexplicably agreed that they had made no bargain with Green for the more valuable colt.
Mary Green survived the King’s Evil and the attempts to cure her leg. A quarter century later she faced another evil, as one of the many persons accused and imprisoned during the Salem witchcraft trials. After nearly four months in jail, she was released on bond and allowed to return home, never having stood trial.
Originally published in the Hampton Union on October 20, 2017.
History Matters is a monthly column devoted to the history of Hampton and Hampton Beach, New Hampshire. Cheryl Lassiter is the author of several books of local history, including “Marked: the Witchcraft Persecution of Goodwife Unise Cole," available at amazon.com, Marelli's Market, and the Tuck Museum in Hampton. Her website is lassitergang.com.