Azor Orne and the Essex Hospital Riots

Azor Orne and the Essex Hospital Riots

Azor Orne was a leader in Massachusetts politics during the Revolutionary War.

Most of this article take place in the few years before the outbreak of war, but the feelings regarding smallpox and inoculations were extremely important to the Founding Period and therefore, in my opinion, the riot herein described are essential to a more complete understanding of late 18th century America.

Azor Orne

Growing up in the fishing town of Marblehead, Massachusetts, Azor Orne was a member of a wealthy merchant family. When he reached adulthood, Azor held multiple streams of income, including owning a fleet of ships and several rental properties throughout town.

By the time tensions rose with the Mother Country, Orne was already a member of his colony’s Provincial Congress and a leader in his town.

Early in life, Azor became friends with fellow Marblehead resident Elbridge Gerry, a future signer of the Declaration of Independence and Articles of Confederation (as well as being a member of the Constitutional Convection, but he refused to sign that document on principle).

These two men were the leaders who formed their hometown’s Committee of Correspondence.


Just as things began to heat up between Parliament and the colonists, a smallpox epidemic broke out in Massachusetts.

One of the deadliest diseases facing those who lived in the 18th century, smallpox killed approximately 30% of its victims.

Thankfully, inoculations against the sickness were becoming popular with doctors. Unfortunately, many uneducated commoners were afraid of these vaccines. The reasons for this were twofold. First, people were afraid this procedure would only spread the disease faster. Second, they thought it should be left up to God to decide who lived and who died.

Only forty years prior to this outbreak the people of Marblehead had rioted against inoculations.

Essex Hospital

Orne and Gerry believed the people of their town should be vaccinated to protect them from this disease.

They teamed up with brothers John and Jonathan Glover to open a hospital. The town allowed them to open a facility, using their own funds, on an island off the coast.

These men built Essex Hospital, but they overestimated the acceptance from the townspeople.

The Riots

For the same reasons as four decades earlier, the people of Marblehead rioted. They broke the windows of Orne’s home and burned the supply boat which carried goods to the island.

Four men were caught breaking into the hospital. They’re intention was to steal contaminated clothing and spread the disease in order to make Azor and his companions look bad. This was too much even for the rioters who tarred and feathered the criminals.

After this ordeal, Orne and his colleagues decided to close the hospital. Shortly thereafter, the angry townspeople burned the building to the ground.


Just sixteen months later, the Battle of Lexington and Concord switched Azor Orne from would-be hospital owner to full on Revolutionary.

As a member of the Massachusetts Provincial Congress, Orne sat on several committees and helped oversee the transition from colony to State. In fact, he was a member of the convention which drafted the State’s first Constitution.

Azor also received a commission as Major General of the Massachusetts Militia, though he never saw any action in the war.

Orne continued to play an active role in the State Government, including as a Federalist at the Constitutional Ratification Convention. However, he never took an active role on the national stage.

If you would like to learn more about medicine during the American Revolution, check out our articles on Benjamin Rush and James Tilton.

To read about the effect of smallpox during the war, pick up a copy of ‘Pox Americana’ through the affiliate link below.

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