Way Back When... 1778
Inside the newly renovated Sun Tavern, located on the Museum Commons behind the Fairfield Museum, is an exhibition called “Seeking Justice.” The exhibition features a “You Be the Judge” or “You Be the Defendant” area where visitors can review colonial cases and play the role of judge or defendant. A variety of scripts (and several judge’s robes!) are on hand. One of the cases showcased in the exhibition is a 1778 case against Peter Banks for illegal Smallpox inoculation.
Smallpox was the most feared disease in the American colonies. It was very contagious, and there was a major epidemic going on at the same time at the Revolutionary War. Inoculation was available starting in the 1720s. However, it was very controversial, because it involved exposing the person to a small dose of the infection in hopes that they would get a mild case of the disease and be immune after a few weeks of recovery. Inoculation was expensive, so it was not available to everybody. Also, people who had been inoculated were not always careful to stay isolated. The state passed a law making it illegal for civilians to be inoculated without permission:
“And be it further enacted, That no person hereafter within the limits of any town in this state, shall receive, give or communicate the infection of the small-pox by way of inoculation… without first obtaining a certificate from the major part of the civil authority, and of the select-men of such town….”
Peter Banks was accused of getting inoculated without obtaining a certificate. Should he have been found guilty? Visitors at Sun Tavern can “be the judge” and decide for themselves.
In truth, Peter Banks did not even show up for his court appearance. However, the judge must have determined that Banks did not pose a significant danger to the community. The case against Banks was dismissed, although he did have to pay nine pounds, nine shillings, and eight pence to cover the court costs.
Visitors can read scripts and role-play as the judge or defendant in a variety of colonial cases at the “Seeking Justice” exhibition inside Sun Tavern on the Museum Commons. The Museum Commons is open Friday-Sunday, 10am-2pm through September 3rd.
Learn more about the history and culture of Fairfield, view rotating exhibitions and purchase Fairfield-themed gifts at the Fairfield Museum and History Center, 370 Beach Road. (203) 259-1598; Fairfieldhistory.org. The Museum and Museum Shop are open daily, 10am to 4pm. The Fairfield Museum is an independent non-profit organization that relies on a diverse funding platform of earned income, contributed income, corporate sponsorship, grants and support from the State of Connecticut and Town of Fairfield, with special thanks to Fairfield County’s Community Foundation for its leadership support.