Washington on Bioterrorism
Everyone knows John Hancock had quite a signature. He is less famous, however, for being the first recipient of a full-blown bioterrorism warning. Not exactly "Bin Laden Determined to Strike," but a longhand letter from General George Washington, written to Hancock in the winter of 1775 from the continental army's base in Cambridge, Mass., comes close.
Washington had spent the last decade and a half tending his crops and slaves in Mount Vernon. But when the Second Continental Congress called a meeting in Philadelphia, he left Virginia and traveled north. Soon he was even further away from home, in Cambridge, relaying bad news. The revolutionary troops, Washington informed Hancock, then president of the continental congress, might be at risk of becoming victims of bioterrorism. "A Sailor," wrote Washington, "Says that a number of these [British soldiers] Comeing out have been inoculated, with design of Spreading the Smallpox." A series of similar letters in the same month from Washington to congress continued to mention the threat.
Whether Washington's fears came true cannot be proved; it is known, however, that between 1775 and 1782, smallpox killed more revolutionary soldiers than did the revolution. Having once battled the disease himself, Washington knew how much damage it could do. But in this letter to Hancock he was mum on his personal history. Of the British, he merely wrote: "I hope they will be disappointed."