Events & Appearances

About the FEVER OF 1721

“In 1721, Boston was a dangerous place. The Massachusetts colonial government barely maintained order, though it needed to. Abenaki Indians were threatening colonists on land while pirates were marauding at sea.  Alternative sources of authority were scarce. Fallout from the Salem with trials of 1692 had discredited the colony’s Congregationalist ministers. Perhaps most dangerously, smallpox had spread from an infected ship to people ashore. The resulting epidemic is the “fever” Stephen Coss places at the center of his first book, “The Fever of 1721,” though his title bundles up all the city’s hot troubles in one big crisis.

– New York Times Book Review
March 6, 2016



For the first time, though not the last, inoculation became a political flashpoint that divided American opinion. The risk of the procedure needed to be balanced against the case for concerted action and the liberties of the individual against the common good. Yet as Stephen Coss shows in his deeply researched account, “The Fever of 1721,” Boston society divided along lines that we would not expect today.”

– Wall Street Journal
March 3, 2016


"Coss's gem of colonial history immerses readers into 18th-century Boston and introduces a collection of fascinating people and intriguing circumstances. The author's masterly work intertwines Boston's smallpox epidemic with the development of New England Courant publisher James Franklin's radical press. . . . Unlike many other works on colonial America . . . Coss's focus on a specific location at a specific time fleshes out the complex and exciting scene in sharp detail, creating a historical account that is fascinating, informational, and pleasing to read."

– Library Journal


"Nothing occurs in a vacuum, and Coss’ intelligent and sweeping account of a crucial year in medical history proves that point. His book also demonstrates that the more things change, the more they stay the same. Perhaps smallpox could have been eradicated decades before the crisis of 1721, had persistent opposition to scientific study not thwarted Dr. Zabdiel Boylston in his efforts to immunize people against the disease. But that is just one part of the colonial Massachusetts picture. Another fever, a figurative one, was raging over visions of governance and independence, which were also opposed by skeptics and naysayers. The upshot (no spoilers) is that, doubters notwithstanding, progress did win out, and those, among them John Adams and Benjamin Franklin, who believed in a future free from the tyranny of both a literal king and what was often called the king of diseases had reached a turning point. The people portrayed in this public health story, their struggles and interactions, feel at once intimate and urgent, thanks to Coss’ lucid telling of this fascinating story."

– Booklist

"The Fever of 1721 is an all-American tale: a fire-and-brimstone minister, sensational media, hardball politics, a health panic. Stephen Coss depicts an uproarious colonial past not unlike our present."

– Richard Brookhiser,
 author of
Founders’ Son: A Life of Abraham Lincoln

"Stephen Coss has written an engrossing, original book about Boston a half century before the Revolution. It is a tale of medical drama, philosophical ferment, and journalistic beginnings--and it is a tale well worth reading!"

– Jon Meacham,
 author of
Destiny and Power: The American Odyssey
of George Herbert Walker Bush

"The Fever of 1721 skillfully reveals early Americans who challenged both the dominant political order and prevailing scientific ideas about disease. That rebelliousness--embodied in bold figures like Rev. Cotton Mather, Dr. Boylston, and the teenaged Ben Franklin--would lead directly to revolution before the century was out."

– David O. Stewart,
 author of
Madison’s Gift and The Summer of 1787

"Long before the American Revolution colonial Boston was a hotbed of social and political ferment, key factors that produced, in the face of lethal epidemic, the first public trial of general inoculation ever practiced in the western world. In this lively and engaging book, Stephen Coss brings to life the key players in that bold experiment--including Puritan icon Cotton Mather and Boston prodigy Ben Franklin--and unfolds in intimate detail their halting progress toward a genuine medical breakthrough. Closely observed, driven by quirks of character as well as fate, Coss delivers a story that illuminates the rambunctious soul of the budding new republic."

Charles Rappleye,
 author of
Sons of Providence and Herbert Hoover in the White House


"A fascinating glimpse inside the Boston mindset of the era."

– Kirkus Reviews

Reviews & Praise


More than fifty years before the American Revolution, Boston was in revolt against the tyrannies of the Crown, Puritan authority, and superstition.

THIS IS THE STORY of a fateful year that prefigured the events of 1776. Stephen Coss brings to life an amazing cast of characters in a year that changed the course of medical history, American journalism, and colonial revolution. We meet Cotton Mather, the great Puritan preacher; Zabdiel Boylston, a doctor whose family name is on one of Boston’s grand streets; James Franklin and his younger brother Benjamin; and Elisha Cooke, who became the political mentor, model, and lodestar to Samuel Adams and the Patriots.

During the worst smallpox epidemic in Boston history, Mather convinced Dr. Boylston to try a radical procedure. Public outrage forced Boylston into hiding, and Mather’s house was firebombed.

A political fever also raged. Elisha Cooke was challenging the Crown for control of the colony. A bold young printer, James Franklin, launched America’s first independent newspaper. Benjamin Franklin, a teenager, learned his trade in James’s shop. He developed the skills and convictions that would distinguish him as a writer, diplomat, scientist, and revolutionary.

The Boston smallpox epidemic of 1721 was the catalyst for the invention of American journalism, the coming-of-age of Benjamin Franklin, and the beginning of American independence. It was also a turning point in the eradication of history’s deadliest disease. The Fever of 1721 brings these remarkable stories together for the first time.

The Characters

Cotton Mather

Boston’s most famous and controversial minister. Thirty years after the Salem witch trials, he’s still struggling to redeem himself.  His inability to resist meddling in politics and the affairs of other congregations undermines that effort. When smallpox returns to Boston in 1721 he resolves to save the town—and his reputation—by introducing an exotic medical procedure he has been holding in secret for five years.

Zabdiel Boylston

Boston physician. His lack of formal education and his willingness to perform dangerous (some say “reckless”) surgeries have relegated him to the status of a second-rate practitioner. But his openness to ideas outside of mainstream European medicine makes him uniquely responsive to Cotton Mather’s appeal for an inoculation trial. In 1721 he defies his fellow physicians and the town fathers to conduct one of the most consequential experiments in medical history.

Elisha Cooke Jr.

Massachusetts politician. A staunch and passionate opponent of British control over his colony, the charismatic, hard-drinking Cooke builds a political movement to resist Governor Shute and the royal prerogative. By1721 his Boston Caucus and Popular Party have taken control of the House of Representatives, which obstructs Shute at every turn. In the decades to come, Samuel Adams and the Patriots will utilize Cooke’s strategy and infrastructure to launch a revolution.

Samuel Shute

Royal governor of Massachusetts. Four years into his administration he is losing control of his colony to Elisha Cooke and the rebellious Massachusetts House of Representatives. By the time of the 1721 smallpox epidemic, the prickly, unpopular Shute is so desperate to stave off his recall by the Crown that he exploits the threat of infection in an attempt to coerce the House into compliance.

James Franklin

Printer, newspaper publisher, troublemaker. The son of a humble tallow chandler, he returns to Boston from his printer’s apprenticeship in England determined to make his mark and shake up his staid and proper town. In 1721 he exploits the controversy over inoculation to launch America’s first independent newspaper. He satirizes the clergy and the government, and challenges Boston’s values and mores, defying the government to stop him.

Benjamin Franklin

Printer’s apprentice, boy prodigy. At age 12 Benjamin Franklin is indentured to his brother James. For the next five years he conducts his storied self-education, reading everything in the printing house library, studying the essays in the newspaper he helps James print, and eavesdropping on James and his “ingenious” friends as they discuss books, pamphlets and the issues of the day. The 1721 inoculation controversy shapes his views about science, medicine, religion, diplomacy, and freedom of expression, and spurs him to secretly author his first essays under the pseudonym “Silence Dogood.”

The printing press used by James and Benjamin Franklin.
Courtesy of the Newport Historical Society.

About the Author

Stephen Coss grew up in East Haven and North Haven, Connecticut and earned a bachelor’s degree in journalism from Temple University in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. He has worked as an advertising agency copywriter and creative director in Chicago, Detroit, and Madison, Wisconsin, where he currently resides. When he isn’t researching and writing history or working in marketing communications he serves as a Wisconsin election official.  He and his wife have four sons and an African Grey Parrot named Frankie. The Fever of 1721 is his first book.





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Elizabeth Gay
Simon & Schuster
p: 212.698.7544


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Illustration Credits:  New-England Courant: Collection of the Massachusetts Historical Society / Portrait of Cotton Mather: Courtesy, American Antiquarian Society / Portrait of Samuel Sewall: Collection of the Massachusetts Historical Society / Portrait of Benjamin Franklin: Harvard Art Museums/Fogg Museum, Harvard University Portrait Collection, Bequest of Dr. John Collins Warren, 1856, H47 / Cover of “An Historical Account”: Houghton Library, Harvard University / Woman with smallpox: Wellcome Library, London / Portrait of Elisha Cooke: Courtesy, American Antiquarian Society / John Bonner Map of Boston: Map image courtesy of Norman B. Leventhal Map Center at the Boston Public Library / Boston, as seen between Castle Williams and Governor’s Island, distant 4 miles…. (Detail): Map image courtesy of the Norman B. Leventhal Map Center at the Boston Public Library

Stephen Coss






Stephen Coss


All rights reserved. Copyright 2016 Stephen Coss.