Phillis, Rose, and Phillis: Slaves and Illness at Forty Acres

                            Phillis' chest

                           Phillis' chest

With the little records we have of slaves who lived at Forty Acres, it can be difficult to piece together the connections between objects in the house and the lives of those who were used to support the farmstead’s survival. The chest upstairs, known as Phillis’ chest, is central to one of the inescapable factors of life as a slave in the North: illness. Between 1775 and 1783, three young female slaves died at Forty Acres. The last of them, Phillis, died within the chest, as she was being nursed by her owner Elizabeth Porter Phelps.

Rose (1761-1781) and Phillis (1765-1775, namesake of the second Phillis born 1775) both died at age 10 with no specific illness attributed to them; Elizabeth mentions in her diary the months before each of their deaths that they had been “poorly.”  Funerals were held for both, as was common, though we do not know where they would have been buried. It is unlikely that a headstone or a marker would have been placed at their grave.

Elizabeth writes in her diary that Phillis (1775-1783) suffered from the “King’s evil” the last year of her life when she was only 7 years old. Though king’s evil was the term for scrofula. her illness was most likely tuberculosis, as it was commonly misdiagnosed in slaves as scrofula (known as “struma Africana). [1] Slaves in the North were generally thought to be more prone to illness, especially because of the harsher climate and were often kept in outbuildings and garrets that offered no protection from the cold. There is currently no evidence that points to where the slaves lived at Forty Acres—they may have resided in the garret which would have been frigid in the winter and scorching in the summer, or in outbuildings that no longer survive on the property (the garret at Forty Acres locks from the outside). Thus, it is not surprising that Rose, Phillis, and Phillis had been ‘poorly’ during the winter months.


The two deceased girls, Rose and Phillis, age 10, had visited doctors, but Phillis age 7 received a slightly different treatment. In February 1783, Elizabeth notes “Thursday my husband and I up to Mr. Arams’ at Muddy Brook. He a seventh son—we took Phillis with us—think she has a Kings evil.” [2] It was believed that seventh sons of kings, or in this case seventh sons of seventh sons, could cure the King’s Evil by stroking the neck of the invalid. Phillis was brought to Mr. Arams’ to be stroked several times, all in vain. [3] She died a year later in May 1783.

                           Detail of the chest

                           Detail of the chest

Elizabeth, who is often terse and brief in her diary entries, writes rather sentimentally about the deaths of the three girls. She had cared personally for Phillis, bringing the chest downstairs to her study in the Pine Room to place her by the fire. By lining the chest with blankets, Phillis could rest by the warmth of the fire without being hit by sparks. After Phillis passed, Elizabeth wrote “she was a very prety Child, I hope she sleeps in Jesus, being washed in his Blood. Oh Lord grant it may make a suitable impression on all our hearts—remember the Children with mercy—enable us that have the care of ‘em to discharge our Duty faithfully.” [4] She exhibits empathy to the three girls, yet is unaware that their living conditions might ultimately have caused their deaths.


1. Warren 50

2. Phelps 127

3. Carlisle 104

4. Phelps 136



Carlisle, Elizabeth. Earthbound and Heavenbent: Elizabeth Porter Phelps and Life at Forty Acres. New York: Scribner. 2004.

Diary of Elizabeth Porter Phelps, in Porter-Phelps-Huntington Family Papers, Box 8 Folder 2, on deposit at Amherst College Archives and Special Collections, Amherst College Library.

Phelps, Elizabeth Porter. The Diary of Elizabeth (Porter) Phelps, edited by Thomas Eliot Andrews with an introduction by James Lincoln Huntington in The New England Historical Genealogical Register. Boston: New England Historic Genealogical Society, Jan. 1964.

Romer, Robert H. Slavery in the Connecticut River Valley. Florence, Massachusetts: Levellers Press. 2009.

Warren, Christian. “Northern Chills, Southern Fevers: Race-Specific mortality in American Cities, 1730-1900.” The Journal of Southern History, Vol. 63, No. 1, pp. 23-56.