In 1721, John Rogers of New London, the founder of the religious sect the Rogerenes, traveled to Boston during an epidemic to save some souls. When he returned home, he brought something back to his congregation: smallpox.
In 1798, Capt. Elijah Bingham of New London died of yellow fever, the first of about 100 New Londoners to succumb to the disease in just three months. Many other sea captains attended Bingham’s funeral at the Freemason’s Temple. In the following weeks, many of them got sick, too.
Rogers’ and Bingham’s are two of the stories told in a new boat tour on the Thames River in the New London area: “Shoreline Epidemics through the Centuries.”
The 90-minute sunset tour, offered on Sept. 18 and Oct. 2 and 23, focuses on fatal diseases that spread throughout Connecticut from the 17th to the 20th century. These included tuberculosis, influenza, Spanish flu, meningitis (what was then called “brain fever”), dysentery, yellow fever and most frequently smallpox, which John Adams referred to as “The King of Terrors.”
The theme of epidemics is timely, with the state and country in the unpredictable grip of the deadly coronavirus pandemic. However, Courtney McInvale Reardon, who owns the tour company Seaside Shadows, said she conceived of the epidemic theme in early March, before COVID-19 sent the entire nation into lockdown.
“I was working with the Thames River Heritage Park boat ride captain and we started talking about quarantines and sanitariums,” Reardon said. “There are so many spooky stories associated with places of disease, where people died.”
The grim theme fit well with Seaside Shadows. Since 2013, the tour company has offered tours of Mystic streets and graveyards, focusing on historical sites believed to be haunted. Reardon added historical boat tours to the mix last year.
The “Shoreline Epidemics through the Centuries” tour tells tales of historic sites along the Thames – Shaw’s Cove, Fort Trumbull, the Harbor Lighthouse, the Ledge Lighthouse, Fort Griswold, etc. – that have a historical connection to epidemics. It tells stories of Nutmeggers who battled sickness and protected their families, authorities who did what they could to stem the spread and rumors about where the diseases came from. These are historical stories reflecting what’s going on in the country today: quarantines, social distancing, masks, a progression of symptoms.
Reardon – who also is a researcher and writer focusing on “haunted history” in Connecticut – wears a historical costume to lead the tour. In October, she plans to dress as a vampire, and not just because of Halloween. “Back in the day, they thought tuberculosis was caused by vampires,” she said.
Reardon said she has been working with the Ledge Light Health District to make sure the boat tours are safe for guests concerned about sanitation and social distancing. “It’s not in the governor’s plans what a ghost tour should be doing right now. There is no paragraph for us,” Reardon said. “I talked to [the health district]. They’ve given me great reassurance that outdoor activity is one of safest things we could be doing. Outdoors is where people should be.”
Apropos of the theme of the tour, and of the current health crisis, all guests and staff must wear masks and keep distant from other parties on the boat.
Admission to “Shoreline Epidemics through the Centuries” is $35 a person. Because the tours are running at 50% capacity, each tour is limited to 21 people. Tickets must be bought in advance at seasideshadows.com/tickets. Ticket holders meet at New London City Pier. The tour on Sept. 18 begins at 5:30 p.m. The tours on Oct. 2 and 23 begin at 5:15 p.m. Reardon suggests ticket-buyers arrive in the area 20 to 30 minutes early to find parking and walk to the pier.
Susan Dunne can be reached at [email protected]
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