In 1720, writer and self-designated medical expert Joseph Browne published his A Practical Treatise of the Plague, in which he extolled the benefits of the “firing of Guns, especially Cannon” to “purify” an atmosphere laden with pestilence. In recommending this approach, Browne had significant company. It appears that igniting gunpowder had been the folk medicine of soldiers, sailors, and city-dwellers for decades, if not centuries. Stephen Bradwell, a seventeenth century English physician, in addition to dispensing sound public health advice like keeping the streets clean, and avoiding throngs, recommended launching fireworks and firing guns in the public streets so that the gunpowder would “dry” the air. Daniel Defoe, in his Journal of the Plague Year (1722) also writes of the common practice of sanitizing dwellings by burning gunpowder. (Defoe includes the story of one poor man who used so much that he destroyed his house.)
For the Founding Fathers (for whom the germ theory of disease was by no means universally accepted), the idea of shooting cannon and firing guns to cleanse the air of “miasma” may have seemed reasonable – no matter how risible it is today. The technique’s widespread acceptance as good practice in the 1700s may not be a problem for medicine, but it does present a problem for law.