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The Mather - Elliot House was built by Pastor Increase Mather in 1677, after the family’s previous home burned down in the fire of 1677. It housed the family for many years, including Increase’s famed son, Cotton Mather. Cotton Mather was what one would call a “fire-and-brimstone” preacher in colonial Boston, Massachusetts, personally fanning the flame of the Salem Witch Trials. However, while Cotton is generally seen as a vaguely controversial historical figure, he, through information given to him by his slave Onesimus, managed to strong-arm the colony of Massachusetts and consequently the rest of the colonies to begin using smallpox vaccinations, cutting mortality rates from the disease drastically. Though the original Mather - Elliot House no longer exists parts of it were incorporated into neighboring buildings for many years.


  • Onesimus, Cotton Mather's slave that brought the idea of inoculation against smallpox to the American colonies.
  • The original Mather-Elliot House, before it was replaced by updated buildings
  • Today, a 7-11 stands in the place of the Mather-Elliot Home on Hanover Street
  • The preacher, Cotton Mather, and a pamphlet on the benefits of smallpox vaccines.

Increase Mather became the pastor of the Second Church at the age of 25, and immediately boosted the membership and the prestige of the church.  He was considered a man who had a way with words, by earning the first honorary degree in American history, writing the first book printed in Boston, and personally negotiating the new charter for the colony in 1688.

Mather’s son, Cotton, was even more historically poignant.  Cotton Mather followed in his father’s footsteps in the church, becoming an assistant pastor to his father at the Second Church before eventually gaining full pastoral responsibility in 1685.  Mather is remembered most for his vehement support of the Salem witch trials and even wrote two books on witchcraft that no doubt fanned the fires.  

However, Mather Jr. was able to affect history in a more positive way, thanks to his slave Onesimus.  Onesimus was an African slave gifted to Cotton Mather by his church congregation in 1706, four years after the most recent bout of Boston’s smallpox problem.  Upon learning of this, Onesimus told Cotton of a procedure he had in Africa that placed a small bit of the disease into a person’s body that made them immune to the smallpox disease.

Mather freed Onesimus conditionally in 1716, but it wasn’t until five years later that he put the knowledge Onesimus had given him to use.  Mather contacted people like Dr. John Woodward of Gresham College in London, as well as local authorities and doctors, relaying the knowledge of innovations that Onesimus had given him. He finally convinced Dr. Zabdiel Boylston to test out the smallpox vaccines during an outbreak of smallpox in Boston in late summer of 1721.  Boylston’s tests proved successful, and the city was smallpox-free by February 1722.   

Niven, Steven J. Onesimus (fl. 1706-1717) Slave and Medical Pioneer. Hutchins Center for African and African American Research. . Accessed March 19, 2018. http://hutchinscenter.fas.harvard.edu/onesimus-fl-1706-1717-slave-and-medical-pioneer-was-born.

Widmer, Ted. "How an African Slave Helped Boston Fight Smallpox." The Boston Globe(Boston)October 17, 2014. . Link to Article - https://www.bostonglobe.com/ideas/2014/10/17/how-african-slave-helped-boston-fight-smallpox/XFhsMMvTGCeV62YP0XhhZI/story.html

The Mather Home. Atlas Obscura. . Accessed March 19, 2018. https://www.atlasobscura.com/places/mather-home.