10 Dec 2014 UK Disability History Month Blogs 2014: Shepard v. Lore and the Curious Case of the Foul Disease: The Disabling affects of Yaws in Eighteenth-century America - Jason Chernesky


In the spring of 1784, a curious court decision was filed at the New Jersey Supreme Court. Hosea Sheppard, of Cumberland County, New Jersey, sought legal redress for a civil case that he lost to Daniel Lore a year earlier. Daniel Lore accused Hosea’s wife and child of transmitting a disease to his wife, Eve. The disease in question, according to court documents, was “called by a variety of names…yaws, the foul disease, and several other names not fit to be mentioned.” But this civil suit is about more than injured bodies.

This suit is about the disabling consequences of a disease-causing injury. The Shepard v. Lore decision offers a particularly interesting example of how we can locate disability histories within sources that, on the
surface, may not immediately reveal such stories. In other words, my interpretation of this court case is, in a sense, is an exercise in how we can begin to uncover hidden disability histories such as this one. Similar explorations will also help resurrect characters that were not only marginalized by their physical impairment, but by their particular social status as well. 


A person with yaws in the 1950s, photographed by Stanley Browne. Source: Wellcome Images

[A person with yaws in the 1950s, photographed by Stanley Browne. Source: Wellcome Images.]


Yaws: Is it disabling?

By all accounts, yaws would have made Eve’s life quite difficult. Yaws is a non-lethal bacterial infection that is spread through person-to-person contact. The organism is in the same family of spirochete bacteria that causes disease like venereal syphilis and pinta. In fact, during the eighteenth century, medical experts and lay observers often mistook yaws for syphilis and vise versa. Eighteenth-century accounts of yaws also described its symptoms. Yaws often causes open lesions on the skin, disfigurement (e.g. the loss of the nose or other deformities), and it can eat away bone and cartilage. These symptoms are found among present-day yaws suffers, who are typically found in tropical climates. According to the WHO, besides causing disfigurement, the disease can also be painful. Using such retro diagnosis, and a historical imagination, it is easy to see how the chronic, disabling and disfiguring consequences of yaws would have affected Eve’s life as well. 


A wet nurse's and woman's dilemma 

The physical consequences of yaws impacted Eve’s life in two important ways. Besides any loss in mobility, the stigma associated with carrying this disease may have affected Eve’s ability to work outside the home. According the court record, Eve contracted the disease after she “suckled the child” of another women, Elizabeth Shockwell. Though not made explicit, one can speculate that Eve was working as a wet nurse, a common trade for women in the eighteenth century. Some women, often those who could afford it, often used wet nurses to help feed and care for their children in the days and weeks immediately following birth.

It was also understood during the eighteenth century that breast milk could transmit disease, and in some cases personality traits. In fact, Eve’s husband, Daniel, claimed that “the badness” of Elizabeth’s milk was the culprit in spreading yaws to her infant, which was later spread to Eve. Such concerns were not uncommon. According to historian Paula Treckel, breast milk was perceived, as early as the seventeenth century, as vector for passing on disease and the physical traits of the woman. In this respect, we can read this lawsuit as an attempt to gain compensation for the loss of future employment. After contracting yaws, Eve’s breast milk would have been perceived as “defective.” We must also remember that yaws caused disfiguring and painful conditions. In this respect, Eve could not have passed as “normal.” The visible symptoms of yaws were not only socially stigmatizing, they would have prevented Eve form gaining employment.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, yaws and gender norms would have rendered Eve a “burden” to her husband. In eighteenth-century America, communities often made accommodations for those unable to work for pay. According to historian Kim Nielsen, disabled men found some sort of activity that allowed them to remain active contributors in their community. But what about those compromised bodies that could no longer labor inside the home? What about women like Eve who could no longer have children? Strict gender roles placed women at a disadvantage. Therefore, we can imagine how eighteenth-century social structures, patriarchal anxieties, and a rare microbial travel to New Jersey transformed Eve from an “able bodied” wet nurse and wife to a husband’s “burden.” In this respect, Daniel’s original claims that he was injured were perhaps more about the injury to his family’s future.


What is gained through a disability history perspective?

The disability history perspective thus allows us to try and track, however difficult, the lived experience of women whose bodies were transformed from normal to pathological, from able-bodied to disabled. This historical perspective adds a layer of complication to an already rich set of historical methods that attempt to understand the legal, social, medical and women’s histories of the eighteenth century. Unpacking these transformations will allow for a unique, important and needed perspective on the lives of women in eighteenth-century American—and beyond. The Sheppard v. Lore decision is a case in point. 


Jason Chernesky is a graduate student at the University of Pennsylvania

Guest post for Disability and Industiral Society's UK Disability History Month Blogs 2014.