Tag Archives: Frederick Ayer

The North Shore: Home of the Ayers and the Pattons

Made up of villages so small one doesn’t realize when one ends and the next begins, Massachusetts’ North Shore (and environs) was the home of the Ayers beginning in the eighteen-fifties.

Frederick Ayer moved from Syracuse, NY, to Lowell, MA, to join his brother in the patent medicine business and eventually became a major player in the textile industry along the Merrimack River. As his family grew, he built homes in Lowell, Pride’s Crossing, and Boston, creating a bond with the area that would last for generations.

The Pattons eventually settled in South Hamilton at Green Meadows, three miles from Beatrice’s brothers Chilly and Fred at Juniper Ridge and Ledyard Farm, respectively, and eight miles from her sister Kay at Avalon in Pride’s Crossing.

The North Shore is a great place to visit, and what’s more fun than visiting the places one has read (or written) about? Make sure to take along a copy of Lady of the Army: The Life of Mrs. George S. Patton to learn more about the Pattons’ connections to these beautiful places.

General George S. Patton Jr. was viewed by “his townspeople, neighbors and friends” as a “true gentleman, affable, warm-hearted, cheery in his greetings, popular with everyone.” Beatrice was equally loved in South Hamilton; the chief of police said she was “always law-abiding” with a pleasant word for everyone, while the owner of the local diner called her one of the best and often joined her fishing for pickerel in the Ipswich River at the back of Green Meadows. –Lady of the Army: The Life of Mrs. George S. Patton

South Hamilton

Green Meadows

Patton Homestead (Green Meadows) – 650 Asbury Street, South Hamilton

Purchased by the Pattons in 1927 so Beatrice would be surrounded by family when it was time for George to go to war, Green Meadows was home to the Patton family until about ten years ago. It is now open for tours, still filled with the spoils of war George sent home. Walk to the back of the property for a beautiful view of the Ipswich River, or join the Patton Homestead for movie or music night. In the backyard, near the cannon George sent home from North Africa, is Beatrice’s (unofficial) place of burial. Reservations are necessary for tours, but the grounds are open free-of-charge from sunrise to sunset.

Patton Park – Asbury St & MA-1A, South Hamilton

In 1946, the Myopia Hunt Club donated a piece of land along Route 1A to create Patton Park, and in 1947 Beatrice had a 67,000 pound Sherman tank donated from the Army. The tank proudly sits in Patton Park to this day, together with an artillery gun and two Liberty Road Markers in honor of the 83rd Division of the Third Army and the 4th Armored Division.

Sherman Tank in Patton Park
Polo game at Myopia

Myopia Club – 435 Bay Road, South Hamilton

Pick up a picnic at Appleton Farms a few miles up the road and head to Gibney Field on Sunday afternoons for an exciting game of polo with one of the oldest polo and hunt clubs in the country. The Pattons and Ayers were longstanding and enthusiastic members, and Beatrice died in 1953 not long after setting out on the hunt, across the road on Ledyard Farm.

Wenham Museum – 132 Main Street, Wenham

In charge of the Patton archives and the Patton tours at Green Meadows, the Wenham Museum focuses, among many other things, on the equine traditions of the North Shore. If you are hungry, try the steak tips at Post Hamilton, located in the old South Hamilton Post Office. Built in 1924, it isn’t hard to imagine Beatrice picking up her mail there and sending hundreds of letters to her husband during WWII.

Saddles shown at the Wenham Museum


View from Ocean Lawn

Coolidge Reservation – 15 Coolidge Point, Manchester-by-the-Sea

About a twenty-minute walk from the parking lot, Coolidge Reservation offers unparalleled views of Massachusetts Bay and the North Shore. The Ocean Lawn once housed the home of the Coolidge family—the foundation of the house can still be seen—and is reminiscent of the views the Ayers would have enjoyed from their country home Avalon.

Saint John’s Episcopal Church – 705 Hale Street, Beverly Farms

Built in 1902, St. John’s was the place of many Ayer and Patton family events, from Beatrice and George’s wedding in 1910—the area’s first military nuptials in decades—to Beatrice’s funeral in 1953.

St John's
The station as it appears now

Pride’s Crossing Station – 590 Hale Street, Beverly

Right across the road that lead to Avalon, Pride’s Crossing station was where Cadet Patton often arrived to visit his betrothed. It is now home to Pride’s Crossing Confections, a heavenly aroma of homemade chocolate filling the air.

Plum Cove – Route 127, Gloucester

Grab a lobster roll at the Blue Collar Lobster Company before taking the scenic route to Eastern Point Lighthouse. You will pass Plum Cove along the way, the location where Beatrice and George saved three boys from drowning during a sudden gale in August 1923.

Plum Cove


When and If in the harbor

When and If – 10 Blaney Street, Salem

“When the war is over, and if I live through it, Bea and I are going to sail her around the world.” The Pattons never had the chance to sail their 63-foot schooner built in 1938 around the world, but her current owners are working hard toward that goal. The When and If can be found in Salem Harbor during the summer (and Key West during the winter), available for sunset sails and private charters.


Frederick Fanning Ayer House – 357 Pawtucket Street, Lowell

Now an apartment complex with renovated condominiums, the house was once the home of Frederick Ayer and his family. Part of the Spindle City Exploration route, a plaque near the front door reads: “Frederick Ayer joined his brother, the patent medicine manufacturer J. C. Ayer, in Lowell. In time he managed to gain control of several companies and in the 1870s built this magnificent Second Empire style house to reflect his new position and wealth. Beatrice Ayer, the wife of General Patton, was born here.”

Outside view of the Frederick Fanning Ayer House
The clocktower of the Ayer Mill

Ayer Mill – 67 Kirk Street, Lowell

At one point one of the largest mills in the world—a part of the American Woolen Company—the Ayer Mill was completed in 1910 and measured close to half-a-mile long. The Ayer Clock, with a face just six inches smaller than Big Ben, still towers over Lawrence, and was recently restored with the help of the Wood and Ayer families, as was the building, which are now offices and residences. If you want to learn the history of the mills along the Merrimack River, check out the Boott Cotton Mills Museum.

Lowell Cemetery – 77 Knapp Avenue, Lowell

Frederick Ayer (1822 – 1918) is buried underneath the tallest monument of the cemetery, together with his wives—Cornelia Wheaton (1835 – 1878) and Ellen Barrows Banning (1853 – 1918)—son, daughter, and son-in-law—Charles Fanning Ayer (1865 – 1956), Katharine Ayer Merrill (1890 – 1981) and Keith Merrill (1887 – 1958). Just a few paces away stands the Ayer Lion, marking the J.C. Ayer lot, where Frederick’s brother James is buried with his family.

Frederick Ayer monument at Lowell Cemetery


Shawsheen Village building

Shawsheen Village Historic District – 342 North Main Street, Andover

William Wood—president of the American Woolen Company and Frederick Ayer’s son-in-law—began purchasing property in Frye Village in the twenties. He turned the area into a self-sufficient town to house the managers and office employees of the American Woolen Company. Download the Virtual Andover app and step back into time as you explore the history of Shawsheen Village and the American Woolen Company.


Drumlin Farm – 208 South Great Road, Lincoln

After her marriage to Donald Gordon in 1900, Louise Ayer Gordon Hatheway, Beatrice’s sister, began purchasing land in Lincoln. Ahead of her time with a focus on organic and sustainable food, Louise wanted Drumlin Farm to be “a place to help educate the public, especially children, about the source of their food as well as the wonders of the natural world.” She left Drumlin Farm, totaling 232 acres, to the Massachusetts Audubon Society which continues to run it as part animal refuge, part organic farm, and part livestock operation.

Cows at Drumlin Farm


Outside view of the Tiffany Mansion

Tiffany – Ayer Mansion – 395 Commonwealth Avenue, Boston

The Ayer Mansion was unusually progressive when it was commissioned by Frederick and Ellie Banning, and its white-marbled exterior with colorful mosaics and stained glass windows still stands out among the red brick townhouses prevalent along Commonwealth Avenue. Completed in 1902, it was the home where George admitted to Beatrice that he loved her, and where she went on hunger strike to convince her father to let her marry the only man she ever loved. Tours are no longer offered since the house has been put up for sale, but just walking past the last fully Tiffany designed house in the world is worth it.

Hatch Shell – 47 David G Mugar Way, Boston

Created by famed sculptor James Earle Fraser with the input of Beatrice, this statue—a copy of the one at West Point—was unveiled in 1953 along the Charles River Esplanade where George gave his first speech upon his return from WWII on June 7, 1945.

Patton statue at the Hatch Shell

Other places of interest

Flowers in the garden at Long Hill

Long Hill – 576 Essex Street, Beverly

Once the home of the Sedgwick family, Long Hill’s beauty lies in its exquisite gardens surrounded by acres of woodland. The gardens and home are open from April until October.

Castle Hill on the Crane Estate – 290 Argilla Road, Ipswich

The majestic estate of the Crane family, with a lawn leading to the ocean and spectacular views of the Ipswich River, is reminiscent of Avalon. Make sure to drive down to Crane Beach for a refreshing walk along the water.

The lawn at Castle Hill

Stevens-Coolidge House & Gardens – 153 Chickering Road, North Andover

This gentleman’s farm was once the summer home of Helen Stevens and John Gardner Coolidge, a nephew to Isabella Stewart Gardner. The gardens and home are open from May until October.

AnnTiques – 47 South Main Street, Ipswich

Just one example of the exquisite antique shops dotting the area; another recommendation is David Neligan Antiques. Make sure to check opening times or call ahead to make sure you don’t end up in front of a locked door.

Antique offerings
The hotel

Briar Barn Inn101 Main Street, Rowley

My favorite spot to stay in the area, Briar Barn Inn not only offers exceptional service and beautiful rooms with fireplaces, but also one of the best restaurants around. Other good places to eat are the Clam Box of Ipswich and the Boat House Grille.

Snippet: Like birds on a telegraph wire

A gentle knock on the hotel room door awoke Second Lieutenant and Mrs. Patton, who had been married for less than twenty-four hours. In walked Ellen Banning Ayer, the bride’s mother, carrying a rose, followed by the bride’s brothers and sisters carrying the breakfast tray.

The seven Ayer siblings—the first four from the union of Frederick Ayer (1822-1918) and Cornelia Wheaton (1835-1878), and the last three from the union of Frederick and Ellen “Ellie” Banning (1853-1918)—were so devoted to each other that Ellie accused them “of behaving at parties like birds on a telegraph wire.”

George Patton knew that when he married Beatrice Ayer, he married all members of her close-knit family. He loved her parents and siblings “as though they were the nearest people on earth to me,” secure in the knowledge that his wife and children would be well-taken care of when he went to war. Not only did the Ayers influence and support him throughout all the ups and downs of his career, they always brought out the best in him.

Ellen Wheaton Ayer Wood (1859 – 1951)

Ellen was a free-spirited woman who spent six months studying at Les Ruches, a young ladies’ school in Fontainebleau founded by Marie Souvestre—she later founded the Allenswood Academy in England and became a great influence on Eleanor Roosevelt. She continued her education at Radcliffe College, but nursing her mother through her final illness scarred the eighteen-year-old Ellen for life.

Left with a delicate constitution but blessed with the heart of a lion, Ellen married William Wood, a dashing man who transformed her father’s company into the premier textile factory in the world. She survived one tragedy after another—her mother’s illness, the death of two of her four children, and the suicide of her husband—becoming a valuable source of comfort to her sister when Beatrice lost both their parents in the span of one month in 1918 and her husband in 1945.

James “Jamie” Cook Ayer (1862 – 1939)

Jamie was the only Ayer who left the North Shore area, moving to New York after graduating from Harvard to pursue a career in medicine. He was a well-respected surgeon at Bellevue Hospital until management passed him over for a promotion, which should have been his based on seniority. He was never the same after he lost the lawsuit against his former employer, despite continuing to run a successful private practice and becoming quite “distinguished as a painter.”

Married to May Hancock Boyd in 1907, Jamie enjoyed an active life sailing and hunting. He frequently hosted his brother-in-law at Shadowland, his Long Island estate, during the 1910s and 1920s when George participated in the local horse races. Dedicated to his family, Jamie traveled wherever someone needed him, whether Egypt in 1897 or England in 1922.

Charles “Chilly” Fanning Ayer (1865 – 1956)

Chilly was a quiet and sensible man who enjoyed the simple life of sitting around the fireplace telling stories. Even though he wanted to go into forestry, he attended Harvard and followed his father into business. A prominent industrialist in the textile and mining business who also ran the family trust with his brother Fred, Chilly was known to be extremely honest and upstanding.

Married to Sara Theodora Ilsley in 1904, the Ayers divided their time between a townhouse on Boston’s Back Bay and Juniper Ridge, their country estate in South Hamilton, where they were prominent members of the Myopia Hunt Club. Chilly was master of the hunt for several years, and both his wife and daughters, who enjoyed being taught by Uncle George, were notable riders. During WWII, Chilly often lent Beatrice a helping hand in South Hamilton and offered an eyewitness account of life on the homefront to George.

Louise Raynor Ayer (1876 – 1955)

Louise never outgrew the shyness caused by the loss of her mother when she was just two years old, and she always preferred a life of simplicity. When she married Donald Gordon—who met Louise tutoring her brother Fred while working his way through Harvard Law School—she settled at Drumlin Farm in Lincoln, Massachusetts. Widowed and left with two young children, she married Conrad Hatheway in 1925, only to be widowed again twelve years later.

Strong of character and sensible like all the Ayers, Louise was the only one of Cornelia’s children still living at home when Beatrice was born, and she became a devoted sister and friend for life. Louise spent most of her time on her farm, educating children about nature and focusing on organic and sustainable food. She left Drumlin Farm to the Massachusetts Audubon Society, which continues to run it to this day.

Beatrice Banning Ayer (1886 – 1953)

Frederick “Fred” Ayer (Jr.) (1888 – 1969)

With a long, illustrious list of directorships across various industries and a manager of the Ayers’ trust and the Pattons’ finances, the Harvard graduate was president of Beverly Hospital. As honest as his brother and as courageous as his brother-in-law, Fred was an accomplished equestrian who didn’t shy away from risking life and limb on the polo and hunting field. He married Hilda Proctor Rice, an equally fierce equestrian who never had any problems standing up to her brother-in-law whenever he behaved outrageously.

Not only was he Beatrice’s “joy and delight,” Fred was one of the few people George trusted implicitly and one of his closest friends. Besides his wife, his brother-in-law was the one George asked to come to Heidelberg after his accident in December 1945 and the only other family member present at his funeral. One of the few entrusted with George’s papers, Fred spent many evenings at Green Meadows—the Pattons’ home in South Hamilton, MA, within riding distance of all the siblings—helping Beatrice transcribe the thousands of letters and diary entries.

Katharine “Kay” Ayer (1890 – 1981)

Fun-loving and fashionable Kay was a willing accomplish throughout the Pattons’ courtship and a frequent guest at Army posts until she married Keith Merrill at the outbreak of WWI. She was as helpful to her husband’s career in the Foreign Service as her sister was to George’s in the Army. A graduate of the Masters School in Dobbs Ferry, NY, Kay was always socially engaged—for one, she was a founder of the Planned Parenthood Association of Washington.

A great source of strength to Beatrice and her daughters—especially Little Bee when her husband became a POW—Kay was the glue who held the family together. She took over Avalon, the family estate in Pride’s Crossing, MA, when Frederick and Ellie died, and her home in Washington, DC, became a home away from home for Beatrice during WWII. After George’s death, Keith helped organize his brother-in-law’s papers and helped Beatrice fight the proposed (second) move of the General’s grave at the Luxembourg American Cemetery.

Pictures taken from the following sources (in order): Before the Colors Fade, Andover Center for History and Culture, Memories of an Unplanned Life, The Button Box, Find a Grave, Private Album, Light and Life.

Spotlight: The Ayer-Tiffany Mansion on Boston’s Commonwealth Avenue

It was said that men who came face-to-face with the Tiffany Chapel at the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair (a.k.a. the World’s Columbian Exposition) doffed their hats in reverence. Whether the chapel’s mosaic columns and stained glass windows had that effect on Frederick Ayer is unknown, but his wife Ellie–a famed horticulturalist in the Boston area–undoubtedly would have been equally impressed with Tiffany’s ability to showcase the diverse flora of the United States in a vase. The Magnolia Vase, also shown at the World’s Columbian Exposition, depicted pinecones and needles to symbolize the North and East, cacti to symbolize the Southwest, and magnolias to symbolize the South and West.

When the Ayers moved from Lowell to Boston at the turn of the century, they commissioned Alfred John Manning and Louis Comfort Tiffany to build their dream home at 395 Commonwealth Avenue. Neither Frederick nor Ellie “made any pretense of being ‘Proper Bostonians,’” and the five-story mansion was a slap in the face of the Boston Brahmins, the traditional upper class who ruled Commonwealth Avenue. The home was “unusually progressive for turn-of-the-century Boston,” not surprising since Frederick’s “thoughts were always of the future.” Commissioning Manning and Tiffany to build an Art Nouveau-influenced home inspired by the family’s recent travels to Europe and the Orient came as easy to him as investing in Alexander Bell’s telephone and the New York subway.

The Ayer-Tiffany Mansion lies west of Massachusetts Avenue, and its white-marbled exterior with colorful mosaics and stained glass windows still stands out among the red brick townhouses prevalent along Commonwealth Avenue. Tiffany specified almost every detail of the house, from walls to light fixtures, and even designed custom furniture. His favorite motif throughout the house was the lotus, a detail that blended well with the Ayers’ exotic decorations they brought back from their grand tour. Ellie’s style and personality were reflected throughout the house, nowhere more so than in the foyer staircase, which doubled as a stage. The wall was a mosaic trompe l’oeil of an ancient Greek temple, the columns “composed of semi-transparent glass backed by gold foil.”

Forty-three years later–on the day General Patton returned victorious from the war in Europe and Boston welcomed him as a hero–Beatrice Ayer Patton’s mind filled with memories as the motorcade drove by 395 Commonwealth Avenue. Her family had sold the home a long time ago, but the memories remained: the living room with the grand piano she played with remarkable skill; the foyer, which acted like a stage; the library where George had finally admitted his love; and the third-floor bedroom in which she had locked herself when her father was reluctant to give his permission to marry.

Snippet – A Magical Place Called Avalon

Thirty miles from Boston, in the Pride’s Crossing section of Beverly, stood the Ayer family’s majestic country home. Avalon was a magical place along the rocky Massachusetts’ North Shore George Patton described as “almost more beautiful than it is possible to imagine.” Completed in 1906 in a mere eight months, Avalon was named after the little town on Catalina Island, California, and the mythological place where King Arthur’s legendary sword, Excalibur, was forged.

The entrance foyer of Avalon – Beverly Public Library

The ten thousand square foot Renaissance Revival mansion featured a three-story main building flanked by two-story wings. The elliptical hallway was three stories high with a striking spiral staircase, its black-and-white marbled tiles leading to the living room which faced the ocean and measured 65ft in length and 30ft in width. A mezzanine gallery, where musicians would play regular afternoon concerts and dances, flanked the walls of the living room which contained a fireplace big enough to roast an ox. There was a library with “handsomely finished bookcases… their shelves filled with numerous rare volumes” and a room for flower arranging which included a trash-chute leading down to the basement for dead flowers.

The grounds were designed by the firm of Frederick Law Olmsted and included a rose garden, two greenhouses, three vegetable gardens, a garage, and stables. Avalon’s most striking feature was the terrace which ran from one side of the building to the other, flanked on either side by covered verandas. When the living room windows were opened, guests were treated to unobstructed views of the Atlantic Ocean, which could be reached by walking down the terrace’s set of stairs and down the grassy hill.

A Garden Party at Avalon – Banning Family Collection of Photographs at the Huntington Library

In the summer of 1909, Beatrice and her family would be on the terrace breathing in the salty air when they noticed a horse approach in the distance. It was a beautiful white charger, the kind of horse the cavalry would ride into battle, mounted by Second Lieutenant George S. Patton Jr. Already a master horseman who often advised Beatrice on her riding skills, he rode up the twenty-six steps to the terrace, stopped in front of his sweetheart, and doffed his cap as he made his horse bow in front of her. 

Family holidays were spent at Avalon, where Uncle George and his brother-in-law Keith Merrill enjoyed setting off fireworks on July 4. George’s first attempt at teaching his daughter Ruth Ellen to swim was at Avalon when she was four years old. He threw her into Salem Harbor, exclaiming to an enraged Beatrice that “all little animals” swim naturally. It soon became obvious that his daughter was one little animal who did not swim naturally, so he was obliged to jump after her, ruining his new flannel pants, a horror he lamented for years to come. He repeated his performance a few years later when he threw four-year-old George into the water in front of the shocked Merrills, but his son calmly swam to shore, having learned to swim while in Hawaii.

Rear view of Avalon – Beverly Public Library.

Frederick Ayer and the Suppression of the 1871 Smallpox Epidemic in Lowell, Massachusetts

Frederick Ayer — born on December 8, 1822, in Ledyard, Connecticut — was a man of character, honesty and hard work. He possessed a “quick vision and keen judgement,” but the one characteristic which defined him above all else was his firm belief in progress. His “extraordinary youthfulness of mind” allowed him to discuss “all manner of subjects, however foreign to the interests which had always crowded his life.” In 1917, at ninety-five, Frederick advised his son-in-law, Captain George S. Patton Jr., to be open to “new means to win the Great War, particularly the adoption and development of the tank.”

“Unostentatious, modest, unassuming,” Frederick Ayer “never paraded his achievements nor permitted others to do so.” It took his daughter Beatrice years to convince him to tell her his life’s story, from his humble beginnings on his grandparents’ farm where he began to work at the age of three gathering sticks, to a titan of business at the head of the J. C. Ayer & Company and the American Woolen Company. However, of all the countless achievements throughout his illustrious life, Frederick always said he took most “pride in suppressing the small-pox epidemic in Lowell in 1871.”

Lowell, located along the Merrimack River about thirty miles NW of Boston, was the cradle of the American Industrial Revolution. Chimneys dotted the cityscape and thousands of residents of every age and nationality trotted to work every morning at one of the textile mills the town was famous for. According to a report by the Board of Consulting Physicians, the smallpox epidemic began in January 1871 at the home of the Kennedys on Mill Street, not long after the family returned from Liverpool. There was some “uncertainty about the origin,” but the Kennedy children likely contracted the variola virus one of two ways: either from a recently purchased secondhand mattress or from the Atlantic crossing. After all, Europe was in the midst of a smallpox outbreak, triggered by the Franco-Prussian War, which would last four years and claim five hundred thousand lives.

View of Lowell, Massachusetts at the confluence of the Merrimack and Concord rivers, with a row of textile mills or factories mainly along the Merrimack River. – Lowell New Hampshire Massachusetts Merrimack River, None. [Place not identified: publisher not identified, between 1840 and 1860] Photograph. https://www.loc.gov/item/94515606/.

Unlike the Prussian army where vaccination was mandatory, the French army was largely unprotected against smallpox. Even though a safe and effective vaccine was invented in 1796 by the British Edward Jenner and could be administered up to seven days after exposure to prevent severe illness, many still regarded vaccination “with great suspicion.” In Lowell, it had been six or seven years since the last mandatory smallpox vaccination and the high population turnover made it very difficult to keep track of who had been vaccinated. Since the virus easily spread through face-to-face contact and could survive for weeks on items such as clothing and bedding, vaccination and revaccination with a booster shot every three to five years was of the utmost importance.

Highly contagious and with a mortality rate of 30 percent, by the time Lowell’s Board of Health started keeping track, there were twenty-one confirmed cases of smallpox and twenty-seven people had died. The first signs of illness appeared ten to fourteen days after exposure, but patients weren’t contagious until sores appeared in their mouths and their bodies were covered in a rash. Isolation was paramount at this point but many of the sick refused to leave their homes as “neither was there a suitable hospital nor a sufficient supply of nurses.” Reluctant to enforce the law, the Board of Health merely resorted to flying a red flag from the homes where cases were present, but they did manage to get nine thousand people vaccinated (only a minor fraction of the total population though).

Cases kept rising — 32 in June, 61 in July, and 93 in August — but the public was told that the number “in the city was very limited, and the expectation was held out that the epidemic would soon come to an end.” In an effort to stave off a panic and prevent the mills from shutting down, the Board of Health claimed the smallpox numbers were based on “exaggerated and unauthorized reports.” The inadequate response of the Board — which had the same members for years, none of whom were physicians — tragically and unnecessarily prolonged the epidemic with devastating effects. “Many left the city; people from surrounding towns were deterred from coming here with their products and for business purposes, and the commercial and other business enterprises of our city became almost paralyzed.”

When the North Middlesex District Medical Society met in July, they agreed “that by proper measures this epidemic could be suppressed in a short time” and recommended the creation of a commission “whose exclusive duty it should be, so long as may be necessary, to do all in their power, by proper and legal means, to get rid of the disease now existing in our midst.” These recommendations languished with the City Council for six weeks during which time “the epidemic was raging to an alarming extent, and many lives were being sacrificed.” When more than one hundred cases were recorded in the first half of September alone, the citizens of Lowell finally had enough of “the political smallpox.”

A prominent resident of Lowell since 1855 when he joined his brother in the patent medicine business and an alderman for many years, Frederick was described as “a leader because others were proud to follow” and “powerful because he was kind and just.” On September 15 he arrived at a special meeting convened by the City Council carrying a petition signed by hundreds of Lowell residents protesting the efficiency of the Board of Health and urging “prompt and efficient action” against the smallpox epidemic. A hefty debate with a “political tone” ensued, which resulted in Frederick Ayer and four other aldermen being “declared the [new] Board of Health, — thus having imposed upon us onerous duties and a grave responsibility, against our will and most earnest protest.”

The new Board of Health was organized “on September 18, and at once appointed a Board of Consulting Physicians, seven in number, to take charge of the medical situation.” Despite his initial reluctance at being elected chairman, Frederick immediately “acted with vigor” and did what the old Board was unwilling to do. “In handling the legal situation my father had the able and whole-hearted co-operation of his attorney, Mr. A. P. Bonney,” Frederick Ayer Jr. later wrote. “They conferred with the Governor and decided that (with the situation as critical as it was, and with the Governor’s promise to support them in so far as he was able) they would take such measures as were called for, regardless of legal authority, and trusting in popular sentiment to back them up.”

Rules and Regulations pertaining to the 1871 smallpox epidemic in Lowell, Massachusetts
Lowell Daily Citizen and News – September 23, 1871

Within days, a temporary hospital with an adjacent smoke-house was built, ready to fumigate every doctor, patient, and resident who came in contact with the sick. Patients were taken to the hospital (this time without reluctance because of the good care provided by the temporary doctors and nurses from neighboring towns), or were made to quarantine at home under the watchful eye of a newly sworn in volunteer police force. Fresh cases were immediately reported to the Board of Health, and a team was sent to fumigate the patients’ homes and burn their linens. The wagons used for transportation were fumigated after each trip and the Fire Department washed down the streets every night. The Board prosecuted and fined two cases “for concealment, and four cases for refusing to be vaccinated,” but an additional fifteen thousand mill workers, about a third of the city’s population, were quickly vaccinated.

The Board “proceeded vigorously to exterminate the disease, which they effectually accomplished in about six weeks.” The Complete Report Of The Board Of Health, and Board of Consulting Physicians, As Presented To The City Council, December 12th, 1871, concluded this sudden turnaround was due “to the prompt report of cases and suspected cases to the Board; to the removal and isolation of all cases as soon as reported; to the immediate destruction or thorough fumigation of all infected material and… all infected persons and premises; to every precautionary measure, to prevent spread of the disease, that could be devised; and to vaccination.”

Lowell’s smallpox epidemic lasted eight months, sickened 570, and killed 172. If “duty to the public and the cause of humanity” had been as important to the old Board as economical and political issues were, far fewer lives would have been “sacrificed.” When the City Council received The Complete Report of the Board of Health and Board of Consulting Physicians, they wanted certain parts critical of their conduct amended or deleted. After “candid consideration,” Frederick Ayer and his four colleagues “respectfully [declined] to accede to this request, or make any change in their Report, and herewith return the same as original presented.”

Fully invested with “ample powers under the law,” the new Board of Health brought the number of cases down from 212 in September to just 6 in November. The Board of Consulting Physicians concluded that this “demonstrates what skill and science can do, sustained by wise management and efficient action.” They ended their report with a scathing rebuke of the City Council and the old Board of Health: “How frequently, of late, has the whole community been shocked by the loss of life, in the fall of some building, some railroad disaster, explosion, or by the wreck of some vessel at sea, but here in our midst, this very year, have the lives of one hundred and seven-five individuals been quietly sacrificed, which, apparently, might and ought to have been saved!”

The World Health Organization declared the world free of smallpox on May 8, 1980, but we once again find ourselves in a similar situation with Covid-19. Unfortunately, it appears that not much has changed in the last one hundred and fifty years and the lessons learned from Lowell’s smallpox epidemic, and other such similar cases, have been lost to history.


  • The Complete Report Of The Board Of Health And Board Of Consulting Physicians, As Presented To The City Council, December 12th, 1871. United States: Stone & Huse, book & job printers, 1871.
  • Ayer, Frederick. The Reminiscences of Frederick Ayer. United States: Priv. print., 1923.
  • “Small-pox.: How The Disease Was Exterminated In Lowell, Mass.” New York Times (1857-1922), Dec 25, 1872.
  • “Smallpox in Lowell.” Boston Daily Evening Transcript, 16 Sept. 1871. 
  • “Frederick Ayer, Winter Resident, Died Yesterday.” Daily Times Enterprise, Mar 15, 1918.
  • “Frederick Ayer Dead In Georgia.” The Boston Daily Globe, 15 Mar. 1918. 
  • “Libguides: The Town & The City: Lowell before the Civil War: The 1871 Smallpox Epidemic.” The 1871 Smallpox Epidemic – The Town & the City: Lowell Before The Civil War – LibGuides at University of Massachusetts Lowell, https://libguides.uml.edu/early_lowell/smallpox_1871. 
  • “History of Smallpox.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 20 Feb. 2021, https://www.cdc.gov/smallpox/history/history.html.