Smallpox was a horrifying disease; painful boils erupted all over the victim's body, even in the mouth and throat. It was contagious. Many died. When smallpox killed Richard Atwood of Truro at the age of 27 on Christmas Day of 1872, his parents had to apply for special permission for him to be buried in the cemetery of their congregation. According to a 1995 newspaper column called "Looking Back" written by Clive Driver, a local historian, "Initially they were turned down; upon reconsideration the trustees of the church voted 4-3 to allow the burial, but only if the grave was to be in the farthest corner of the cemetery; the top of the coffin was to be not less than five and a half feet below the surface of the ground; the coffin was to be completely encased in cement; and a fence was to be constructed around the grave, presumably to prevent contamination to anyone who might walk over it."
Wanting to contemplate such an example of misfortune, I visited Richard Atwood's gravestone Sunday before last. It's extremely weather-damaged. The prophylactic fence is still there. The inscription on the stone reads "Richard F. Atwood, Died Dec. 25, 1872. Ae. 27 Yrs 5 mo's & 8 D's. My husband."
"The young widow," Driver wrote, "after this shabby and inhumane treatment, then disappeared from Truro without a trace. We do not even know her name."
On the rear of the stone is inscribed: "Son of Temsin & Richard Atwood".