Songs, Art, and Epidemics

Songs, Art and Epidemics at Trinity

The coronavirus epidemic of 2020 is not the only epidemic to ravage New Haven or Trinity parish. The marshy and corpse-soaked Green in New Haven, with its densely packed burial ground, its public well nearby on the Green itself, and the open sewers along the city streets, were lethal to much of New Haven in the eighteenth century. We read in Blake’s Chronicles of New Haven Green:

“In 1794 out of a total population of 5,000 there were 180 deaths, of which 64 were from yellow fever. In 1795 there were 750 cases of dysentery alone, of which 75 proved fatal. The total mortality in the two years of 1794 and 1795 was 339.”

The town lost almost one in twelve people due to epidemics in just two years. Many were children. It was so bad, New York City banned ships from New Haven. Dr. Eneas Munson Sr. (who would join Trinity Church when the Rev. Harry Croswell arrived in 1814) and his son Dr. Eaneas Munson Jr. found the sudden epidemics so horrible that they wrote lengthy letters about it. The letters were published by Noah Webster, and are considered an important contribution to medical history.  

At the Trinity Annual Parish Meeting in 1795, a committee was raised to inquire into the probable cost of building a gallery in the church: only a few years previously twenty feet had been added to the building, and the  church was growing rapidly.  The estimate for the gallery exceeded 100 pounds – they still used English currency though they would switch to dollars in 1798. The proposal was postponed, according to the parish records, as “the town had been put to great expense during the illness which had prevailed the previous year.”

Because of the epidemic, and a fear of miasma from all the bodies under the Green,  in 1796 the city fathers, decided to move the cemetery on the green to a new planned cemetery on Grove Street, then at the edge of town. The move was organized by U.S. Senator James Hillhouse (the adopted son of Trinity member and donor Mary Hillhouse). The first burial took p lace on November 9, 1797.

Tablets in Narthax of Trinity Church (Amos Doolittle, 1803)

One artist’s response to the epidemic may be inferred from the tablets hanging in Trinity’s narthex at the entrance of the church.  They were painted by Trinity’s Amos Doolittle in 1803. Long before Trinity had a boys’ choir, you see boys with wings among the clouds holding what appears to be sheet music, and presumably singing.  On the left tablet they are gathered around the blazing eye of God, and on the right the triangular glory of God.  They are looking down at the core scriptures of the Christian Church: the Ten Commandants, the Lord’s Prayer, and the Apostles’ Creed — or perhaps they are looking down on those on earth below.

From the Tune Book The Chorister’s Companion, 1782

Amos Doolittle (1754–1832) was a militia patriot, popular engraver, prolific book illustrator, silversmith, dye manufacturer, political cartoonist, mapmaker, artist, and seminal Freemason illustrator, who spent most of his life in New Haven. Amos Doolittle also published sheet music and “tune books”, including the popular The Chorister’s Companion, or Church Music Revised, 1782, with “fuguing tune” style four party harmony songs by Simeon Jocelyn – who happened to be the apprentice to our first warden, the clockmaker Isaac Doolittle. It is noted for its four part round note score, replacing the old square notes of previous scores. Along with American composer, singing master, comb maker, and merchant Daniel Read, in 1786 Doolittle also printed the  American Musical Magazine, the first music periodical in America.

Daniel Read for a time led the North Church (now United Church) choir, but also established a musical society bringing together the three Congregationalist churches. However, like many musicians he was ecumenical: his daughter Mary learned the organ at a time when only Trinity Church had an instrument, and she eventually became the organist at North Church — his work and life has recently been the subject of much scholarship.

Gravestone of Henry Caner, architect of the first Yale College and Trinity’s first member, at Grove Street Cemetery.

While skull heads with wings were common in Puritan colonial America, Doolittle replaced the skulls with images of young boys with wings in heaven.  Given the tragically high death rates, many of Trinity’s members had lost children in the epidemics, It is possible that Doolittle was painting a memorial for them as a comfort to the parents and siblings of the lost children of the 1790’s epidemic. Though Simeon Joyclyn and Daniel Read are largely forgotten, and not performed much even in New Haven, there are a few performances of Read’s music around.  Indeed, Read’s tunes Greenwich, Windham, and Sherburne, are still sung in American churches. His work is popular among Sacred Harp singers, and eleven of his tunes appear in The Sacred Harp, 1991 Edition.

One of Read’s most popular song’s is Windham, which is sort of like a Protestant version of Dies Irae. There are a half dozen “video” performances of it on the web, including a traditional arrangement,  a large choir video version, a sacred harp version, and my own favorite, a wonderful one arranged with a drum.

A more upbeat Christmas song is Read’s Sherburne, or While shepherds watched their flocks. Almost as popular as Windham, it has been performed by the Harvard University Choir.


Words from Isaac Watts, Hymns and Spir­it­u­al Songs 1707–09
Music by Daniel Read

Broad is the road that leads to death,
And thousand walk together there;
But wisdom shows a narrow path,
With here and there a traveler.

Deny thyself and take thy cross,
Is the Redeemers great command;
Nature must count her gold but dross,
If she would gain this heavenly land.

The fearful soul that tires and faints,
And walks the ways of God no more,
Is but esteemed almost a saint,
And makes his own destruction sure.

Lord, Let not all my hopes be vain,
Create my heart entirely new,
Which hypocrites could ne’er attain,
Which false apostates never knew.