Steven Gerlach models what doctors wore 400 years ago during his presentation on “the plague doctor” last weekend. Dating to the 1600s, the mask’s nose funnel held good-smelling herbs, usually lavender, to absorb the miasma believed to be emitted by diseases like smallpox making them contagious. The table beside Gerlach holds the medicines of the 18th century.

A downpour of rain with booming thunder and lightning didn’t stop the Massiac Marines on Saturday afternoon during their monthly visit to Fort Massac State Park. As re-enactors of military and civilian life in the 18th century, they’re used to all kinds of weather.

Steven Gerlach, of Sparta, was just beginning his presentation on “the plaque doctor” when the rain came and forced those attending to the small shelter over the stone oven where his wife Judy had just fixed an apple-raspberry cobbler.

While the park had to cancel its annual Encampment, events with smaller attendance numbers are continuing.

The Fort’s next weekend activity is scheduled for Saturday, Sept. 26. Les Winkler, the outdoors writer for The Southern, will hold a nature photography class from 1-3 p.m. Winkler will show attendees how to take photographs of wildlife, the Fort and nature. Due to COVID restrictions, registration is requested by calling 524-4712.

Story at the Fort is conducted the first and third Sunday of each month at 1 p.m. at the Fort’s visitor’s center. Natural resources coordinator Amy Keigher reads all or part of a child-geared history book on a specific topic which is followed by making a craft. Keigher noted that due to COVID restrictions, Story at the Fort is limited to 15 children.

The Massiac Marines provide living history demonstrations the second Saturday of each month from 10 a.m. until 2 p.m. Their location and availability depend on the time of year and the weather.

Gerlach became a Massiac Marines member two years after the group’s founding in the early 1980s. According to member Tracey Johnson, of Vienna, the family-oriented group represents the Marines who built Fort Massac in 1757. It consists of members from southern Illinois and Kentucky who meet monthly to show the military and civilian life of the 18th century.

In January, Gerlach’s presentation on 18th-century medicine focused on battlefield amputations. Saturday’s presentation focused on smallpox, a contagious disease characterized by a skin eruption with pustules, sloughing and scar formation. While the disease’s pock-marks have been seen on an Egyptian mummy, the earliest written record dates to 1127 BC China.

For the American Colonies, there were eight major smallpox epidemics in the 1700s. During that 100-year period, Gerlach said the disease impacted every other generation with 20 to 40% of children dying before turning 11. “You had to survive smallpox to reach 16,” he said. “Fifty-four% of children died from smallpox, malaria, diphtheria or the measles, which is why the population over age 50 was so low.”

The Colonies’ first recorded epidemic was in 1702 when 5000 died on Boston. Vaccines were known about during the 1721 epidemic, but their use in the Colonies didn’t reach their peak until after 1775 when George Washington during the Revolutionary War began requiring troops entering the Continental Army receive them.

Gerlach explained that smallpox covered the entire body, inside and out. It took up to a week for the infection to show itself beginning with red spots on the arms and face accompanied by a fever and chills. By either day 17 or 24, it would be known if the patient would survive. After 21 days, the pustules dried and drop off. “It was 21 days of torment,” he said.

While treatments varied greatly through that 100-year period, Gerlach noted that doctors’ advice sounded very familiar.

“They told them to stay away from their neighbors, to wear a mask or a handkerchief with lavender and to wash their hands,” he said. “They had the same rules for the malaria epidemics, the Spanish Flu in 1918, and we began hearing it in February of this year. Much of the medicine from the 18th century is still the foundation of medicine today.”

For more information on weekend activities at Fort Massac, call 524-4712.

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