Dr. Barnett’s Journal
Two hundred and one years ago, Dr. John Barnett took up his quill pen and began a daily journal that would become a unique chronicle of everyday affairs in the village of St. Michaels, Talbot County in the State of Maryland.
He called it his diurnal journal, diurnal being a fancy word for daily, but since he was fresh from several courses of University of Pennsylvania’s medical school, we can excuse him this little flourish.
Born near Trappe in 1780, John Barnett was the son of Thomas Barnett and Eleanor Delahay. He began his practice in St. Michaels in the fall of 1803, renting lodgings from Capt. Greenbury Griffin on Water Street.
Although his journalizing lasted less than two years, he jotted down everything that interested him and sprinkled everything with news and gossip. A social man, he names over 750 people, including slaves, Free Blacks, and all classes of whites from poor, through the middle class to the rich: their adventures and misadventures.
Some of the events mentioned are rumors of two slave insurrections, and inquest on the suspicious death of a newborn, the whipping of the slave Jess who was given 15 lashes for stealing a handkerchief, a creepy account of a mentally disturbed man, a knife fight on a schooner, tea parties, birthday parties, dinner parties, quilting parties, the building and launching of ships and much more. He even attended an unusual feast at Prince’s Tavern in Easton. The main course was a 250-pound sea turtle.
The journal also documents the beginning of what would be Dr. Barnett’s fifty-year practice of medicine in the St. Michaels area. Dr. B’s notes on some of his house calls provide us with an insider’s look at the practice of medicine on the Eastern Shore two centuries ago.
Unfortunately, medicine hadn’t changed much in the past two thousand years. The body was thought to be composed of four humors: blood, black bile, yellow bile and phlegm. Disease was the result if any of these humors got out of balance. Humors could be brought back into balance by one or more of the four P’s of country doctoring: phlebotomy (bleeding), puking, purging or plastering. That was the theory anyway. In fact, most patients probably recovered in spite of the doctor’s efforts. Plastering was the application of an irritant, often a substance containing powdered mustard, which was so painful that some patients preferred the disease to the treatment.
Doctors also thought that the human body contained much more blood than it did, and would drain off alarming quantities in their efforts to achieve a cure. This was the case with Dr. James Boardley, who was Dr. Barnett’s first big case. Boardley had been suffering from aches, chills and loss of appetite. Well versed in 19th century medicine, Dr. Boardley had already directed his servant to bleed him several times, but his condition grew worse, so he called in the young Dr. Barnett.
Dr. Barnett bled Dr. Boardley, but eventually, as Boardley’s health continued to deteriorate, he refused to bleed him anymore, despite Boardley’s pleas. This was in complete defiance to the accepted practice of the day. Dr. Barnett had been a student of the celebrated Dr. Benjamin Rush, then the foremost doctor in the U.S., who was a big proponent of venesection, which is another fancy word for bleeding your patient for anything and everything and as often as possible. Dr. B. showed remarkable intuition in refusing to bleed Dr. Boardley. Unfortunately it was too late.
Dr. Barnett also dosed Boardley with mercury, the cure-all of the day. We now know that mercury is toxic in any form with various side effects, all bad, which is why contact with it in almost any form will make you vomit, give you diarrhea, make you sweat and so forth. Imagine how popular it must have been with doctors who thought they were balancing out those humors. Actually, this was the result of the body trying to expel the poison of the “medicine” itself.
Dr. Barnett wrote up a detailed summary of Boardley’s condition noting that it was the only case of black vomit he had ever seen. This was probably blood from stomach ulcers caused by all of the caustic medicines. For not only was Dr. Barnett prescribing medicines, but Dr. Boardley was dosing and bleeding himself in Dr. B.’s absence and unknown to Dr. Barnett.
Poor Dr. Boardley died. In Dr. B.’s words, he “expired without a struggle or a groan.” And no wonder, the life was literally drained right out of him. All of the bleeding, not to mention the applications of mercury, left him dehydrated, anemic and poisoned. And probably all that had been wrong with poor dead Dr. Boardley was a bad case of the flu. His case is similar to that of George Washington, who is now thought to have been bled to death by his physician because he had a bad cold.
This was the accepted treatment of the day. Dr. B. had gone to medical school at a time when few doctors anywhere had any formal training whatsoever, but given the state of medicine then, if the disease didn’t kill you, the doctor would.
And there was only one thing that would kill you faster than having one doctor, and that was having two doctors. Actually, Dr. Boardley also called in Dr. Tristram Thomas, so there were three doctors. The poor guy didn’t have a chance.
Although Dr. B. had an office, it seems that most of the time he was out on house calls at any time of the day or night. Here is an example of one very dark night near Wittman:
“Sunday, April 21st, 1805 ...I was called up in the night at twelve to visit Nathaniel Grace in Pot Pie Neck - got there at two and arrived home at 1/2 after five in [sic] morn.g – a most disagreeable ride I had of it - rode three miles where I could not see 10 feet before me, and had only a cart path –”
Now that was a house call. Horses don’t have headlights. And what did he do after the worst ice storm in twenty years? He hopped on his horse and rode 13 miles down Bay Hundred:
“Friday Jan. 11th, 1805 This morn.g was ushered in with a clear sky and keen N.W. wind. The most transcendent scene, that my Eyes ever beheld was the refraction and reflection of the Rays of light against the Icy covering of the vegetable Kingdom. What added to the scene was the gentle wavering of the bows of the trees and herbs when the sun shone with full force on them, it appeared as if they were all silvered over, by an ingenious artist. The sleet that fell last night was so great as to bend and twist the tops of pines in various directions. Hence there was scarcely any such thing as traveling... I saw a number of tops of trees broke off and number more borne down by the sleet & torn up by the Roots. All the Earth was covered with the Ice but not quite hard enough to bare the horse except in some places. Hence I rode entirely on the ice from St. Michaels to Thos. Wayman’s which is about 13 miles – My horse slipped very much and in danger of falling (I may say) every step that he took.”
Many of us remember the great ice storm of February 1994 in Talbot County where there was also “scarcely any such thing as traveling.” Some of us were frozen in without electricity for a week or more. Actually, people in 1805 weathered the storm better than we did – they had no power to lose, their wood stoves worked just fine and they had no refrigerated food to spoil. Dr. B.’s biggest problem was that it got so cold that his ink froze, and it was hanging only a few inches from the fireplace and a roaring fire.
A few days later, he had his horse’s shoes “upset” and put back on in a rough manner to give better traction. Probably the 19th-century answer to snow chains, or the equine version of all-season radials.
Some modern readers might think that there was too much weather in his journal. He makes daily notations of not only the wind direction, but the passing of storms and any other unusual meteorological goings on. In the days before air conditioning and central heating this is a reminder that the weather was a big part of people’s lives. People lived in the weather then, they just didn’t stare out the window at it and then adjust the thermostat.
Temperature also dictated when Dr. B. donned his summer linens (June 1) or donned his flannel drawers in preparation for cold weather (Nov. 19).
And speaking for horses – here is only one example of how dangerous travel by horse could be back then:
“Monday Sept. 2nd, 1805 I went down to Shadrack Liddenhams to see his wife put my horse in Mr. Kemp’s carriage [i.e. hitched it] he went extremely well – when I got down, they went to feed him while I was in the house and put a tub of bran before him to eat, they pulled off the bridle to [let him] eat, as soon as it was out of his mouth, he started with the carriage upset it and broke it all to pieces, thus by a little neglect a carriage is destroyed. I borrowed a saddle and rode up a horse back, in the even.g”
He does not say what he told Mr. Kemp about the smashed carriage. Some months later, Dr. B. would buy his own carriage. It cost $150 which in 1805 money must have been the equivalent of buying a new car today.
Like other doctors of the day, Dr. B. was prepared to accept a variety of payment options. His medical ledger shows him accepting payment not only in cash, but in oysters, crabs, three bushels of fish, a barrel of meal, sweet potatoes, two pistols (to be repaired), hay and oats. Still some accounts were closed with the notation “insolvent.”
But Dr. B. also had a social life. Another interesting and extended entry is the result of a boat ride with some ladies and an encounter with a fish net. But, I’ll let Dr. B. tell the story. It is also interesting that Dr. Barnett recorded actual conversation here. So often in letters and journals of the period, the language is stiff and formal. Note that his spelling is sometimes phonetic. Dictionaries were not at all common then:
“Friday 18th April 1806 Clear and pleasant wind fresh at N.W. in the morn.g late in Even.g S-W- and fell calm about sundown – drank tea this even’g at Mrs. Rachel Kemp’s with Miss Polly Blake, Nancy Jeffries, and Miss Mary and Dorothy Spencer. They came from Col. Spencers in a small vessel, left Mrs. K’s for home after sundown, I went with them, got hung in a set net by crossing it in the dark, when we got to Spencers creek, we had to push her for a 150 years on mud, it not being deeper than six inches I caught cold this even.g by labouring so hard, got all in a sweat dried in suddenly which produced it – I staid [sic] until 1/2 after ten then came off home my Boy carried my horse there for me – I spent a most agreeable even.g with what delight and pleasure did I squire the charming Miss ––– never shall I forget the Blissfull moments – No! – !!!!!!!”
Seven exclamations points and three of them underlined! He must have enjoyed himself. But boating bliss turned foul the next morning, when John Bruff stormed over to Dr. B. about his wrecked net.
“Saturday 19th. April 1806 – I had the highest quarrel today with Jno Bruff that I ever had in my life, he came at my house for the express purpose – the following was the cause of the quarrel in carrying the young ladies home last night, Jno. Bruff saw the vessel and requested us to go round his nets or come inside, I observed to him in a laughing way we would stand our course, soon after it being dusk I saw two nets end and end from the shore, and in attempting to shun the second one by going out in the river, run afoul of the third which was not seen until I was almost on top of it. I steared [sic] for the middle of it after I saw I should be on it at this place I expected to press it down, and had it not hung at the bough [sic] of the vessel. I was at the stern at the time, had no idea of its hanging there but expected it would strike the rudder if anywhere I had a crutch to press it down to prevent it from hanging at the rudder, but unfortunately it caught the bough [sic] – we turned about and went round – only five feet of the lacing was torned [sic], although he made such a noise about it.
Another thing added to the quarrel was that Wm. Merchant, who at the time was twice the distance that Jno Bruff was off of me, told him that one of the ladies asked me who it was, I replied it [was] young Jno. Bruff: this he appeared to be much miffed at – hence we must title him Mr. Bruff. the fact is Merchant told a lie, I replied it was Johnny Bruff – he wanted me to make concessions and never to be guilty of the like again, I told him I would make none, that under the same circumstances I should do the same thing – because if I did a thing without knowledge of it before hand I was not culpable –”
I’m not quite convinced by Dr. B.’s logic, but whichever side of the net you are on, be you the nettor or the netted, the war between watermen and pleasure craft is still going on today. And sorry about the net, MR. Bruff.
And yes, Dr. Barnett’s “Boy” was his slave. He was born into a slave holding family and would own slaves all of his life.
But most curiously, and much to his credit, in all the 48,818 words of his journal, he never once used the word slave, nor did he make any derogatory or politically incorrect reference to an African American. His Boy probably was a boy as he seems to differentiate between boy slaves and men.
Dr. Barnett’s medical ledger shows that he treated over 50 Free Blacks. This is especially remarkable when you consider that some Talbot County doctors would not accept Black patients well into the 20th century. Dr. Barnett also treated slaves and made several trips to the slave quarters on Tilghman Island to treat outbreaks of disease.
“Thursday 8th Aug. 1805 ...went down to Tilghman Island – two negro children died since I left there, one with a sore which he had had for 20 months past, the other with a bleeding at the nose and Eyes, and a Putrid fever.”
What he called a putrid fever was possibly diptheria or some kind of contagious viral infection like typhoid fever, typhus or scarlet fever, but Dr. B.’s medical ledger provides no additional details. Outbreaks of diseases were especially common in the overcrowded slave quarters due to the appalling living conditions. But white Talbot Countians were not much better off given the epidemics of smallpox and typhoid fever in 1812 and 1813 thatDr. Thomas thought were caused by an earthquake and a comet.
Dr. B. was one of the first doctors around here to inoculate for smallpox. Surprisingly, he even inoculated a few slaves. Not that their owners were necessarily so nice, but they were probably smart enough to know that you could get more work out of a healthy slave than a sick one, and it paid to protect one’s investment.
When investigating history, one should be prepared to take the bad with the good. So in his journal pops up Peter Caulk, whom I had previously known from family genealogy as just a name and a date, followed by a question mark, but nothing more. Well, Dr. B. provided plenty more about my great-great-great-great-grand uncle. But anyone who believes that their family never had a scoundrel or two is kidding themselves. Here’s what mine did (turns out he wasn’t so great or grand after all):
“Friday Jan. 25th 1805 ...Sally Hughes was delivered of an uncommon large child and it is said that Peter Caulk is the father. She was in labour for 5 days.
Tuesday 11th Mar. 1806 ...The circulating news in St. Michaels (which by the way is a place of no little note) is that Lucretia Jones house Keeper at Capt. Peter Caulk has confessed that she is with child by the said Caulk that is the second instance of Caulk getting his house keepers with child in the course of fifteen months of each other. He is a married man and has a fine hearty and luxurious woman for a wife that is certainly able to satisfy any common and natural man, but from circumstances he appears to be the most lustfull man almost in existence, he is veryfying [sic] the old adage that it will taken seven women to satisfy one man.
Monday 17th Mar. 1806 ...This Morning before breakfast on Capt. Griffin’s new Schooner [the Resolution in St. Michaels harbor] Peter Caulk and Wrightson Jones fought, the latter received several wounds one on the arm was long but not very deep – the former fought with a penknife which was the cause of Jones receiving those wounds, as he had nothing but his fists. This battle arose in consequence of Caulk getting Jones sister with Child...”
Wrightson Jones would pay Dr. B. $9.00 to stitch him up and then go on to build the Inn on Talbot St. in St. Michaels, which is still standing. Nothing more is known of Peggy Jones or her child, whose descendant may be reading this account. Surprise!
Peter Caulk’s marital infidelities must have cut a swath through Bay Hundred, according to Dr. Barnett. Caulk was also a patient of Dr. Barnett and, according to Dr. Barnett’s medical ledger, ran up an impressive $124.70 bill for medical services in a two-year period ending in Sept. 1805 (which did, however, include $4.00 for inoculating his wife and three children). This was paid with a promissory note. Caulk had then charged up an additional $6.50 when the entries suddenly ceased in late Oct. 1806. Dr. Barnett closed Caulk’s account with the note “dead (hung himself) insolvent.”
I should point out that my g-g-g-g-grandfather was also mentioned by Dr. B., but he was a respectable farmer with more acceptable social pursuits than the infamous Peter, so he does not make for a good story.
Another surprise in the journal was an account of an Indian massacre from Talbot’s earliest days. Hopefully, it was a tall tale, but unfortunately it probably has some truth in it. We forget that the east coast was once the wild west:
“Monday March 4th, 1805 It cleared beautiful last night without any rain and so continued clear all day - light wind to the N-d-warm and moderate... I went to visit Alexander Larrimore Senr. who sent for me yesterday, and could not go, on acct. of my indisposition... Alexander Larrimore the father of Richd. told me to day, that his grand father (whose name was Alexander) Ralph Dawson & David Fairbanks, were the first whites that ever settled in Bay side. They all came from Scotland. He further says, that his grand Father observed, that he one morning killed went our & killed 15 Indians, and came home to his breakfast, and said he had done a good mornings work, for that he had killed 15 Indians since he went out from home. He namely the grand father or the Indian crusader likewise said that an Indian had told him that they (meaning the Indians) used to walk from Tilghmans Island to Sharps Island on a fence rail, which was paid from one island to the other. At this time a day they are more than three miles distant from each other. This Alexander that told me these things is now upwards of 80 years old–”
These two remarkable anecdotes probably date from the mid-1600s and have been passed on to us thanks to Dr. B.
They have the ring of truth. Ralph Dawson is thought to have come to Bay Hundred in the 1660s from the English Scottish border area of Great Britain, so that fits in with what Dr. B. was told. It is also quite possible that Sharps Island was once part of Bay Hundred peninsula, although that thing about the fence rails is probably a later addition to the story. Native Americans weren’t known for their fences. The Bay is constantly nibbling away at the land here, and nothing is safe. It bit an inlet through Ocean City in 1933 and completely swallowed up Sharps Island in the mid-20th century. And it is still hungry.
Dr. Barnett’s journalizing would end suddenly in August 1806, possibly because his growing practice took up more of his time. He married Sally Goldsborough in 1808 and lived the rest of his life at Belle Aire farm just outside of St. Michaels. He died in 1858 and is buried in the family cemetery there along with his wife and children, and apparently a favorite slave or two.
Thanks are due to the Barnett family, who preserved Dr. Barnett’s journal and his medical ledger down through the generations and especially to Dolores duPont, who recognized their importance.
Dr. Barnett’s journal is the oldest known diary from Talbot County. The next oldest is William Bartlett’s. Bartlett records memories of his growing up in the early 1800s, but it was actually written in the period 1832 to 1864. Jeremiah Banning’s Log and Will was written in 1793, but it is an autobiographical sketch written in old age, and not a diary with contemporary accounts kept daily.
There are many stories in Dr. Barnett’s journal. I’ll bet you didn’t know that Jacob Gibson once threw hot mush on his mother-in-law. There is also a wealth of genealogical data including births, marriages and deaths. Some of the names he mentioned can probably be found nowhere else, and all have now been completely indexed.
You can read the complete journal in The Diurnal Journal of Dr. John Barnett 1805-1806, 119 pages; edited, annotated and with a glossary and index by James Dawson and illustrated by Robert Horvath. It is available at select local stores or directly from The Unicorn Bookshop; P. O. Box 154, Trappe, MD 21673. The phone number is 410-476-3838 and the web site is www.unicornbookshop.com.