History of the Plague in England

§ 4

Daniel Defoe

THIS SHUTTING UP of houses was at first counted a very cruel and unchristian method, and the poor people so confined made bitter lamentations. Complaints of the severity of it were also daily brought to my lord mayor, of houses causelessly, and some maliciously, shut up. I cannot say but upon inquiry many that complained so loudly were found in a condition to be continued; and others again, inspection being made upon the sick person, and the sickness not appearing infectious, or, if uncertain, yet, on his being content to be carried to the pesthouse, was released.

As I went along Houndsditch one morning, about eight o’clock, there was a great noise. It is true, indeed, there was not much crowd, because the people were not very free to gather together, or to stay long together when they were there, nor did I stay long there; but the outcry was loud enough to prompt my curiosity, and I called to one, who looked out of a window, and asked what was the matter.

A watchman, it seems, had been employed to keep his post at the door of a house which was infected, or said to be infected, and was shut up. He had been there all night, for two nights together, as he told his story, and the day watchman had been there one day, and was now come to relieve him. All this while no noise had been heard in the house, no light had been seen, they called for nothing, sent him of no errands (which used to be the chief business of the watchmen), neither had they given him any disturbance, as he said, from Monday afternoon, when he heard a great crying and screaming in the house, which, as he supposed, was occasioned by some of the family dying just at that time. It seems the night before, the “dead cart,” as it was called, had been stopped there, and a servant maid had been brought down to the door dead; and the “buriers” or “bearers,” as they were called, put her into the cart, wrapped only in a green rug, and carried her away.

The watchman had knocked at the door, it seems, when he heard that noise and crying, as above, and nobody answered a great while; but at last one looked out and said with an angry, quick tone, and yet a kind of crying voice, or a voice of one that was crying, “What d’ye want, that you make such a knocking?” He answered, “I am the watchman. How do you do? What is the matter?” The person answered, “What is that to you? Stop the dead cart.” This, it seems, was about one o’clock. Soon after, as the fellow said, he stopped the dead cart, and then knocked again, but nobody answered; he continued knocking, and the bellman called out several times, “Bring out your dead;” but nobody answered, till the man that drove the cart, being called to other houses, would stay no longer, and drove away.

The watchman knew not what to make of all this, so he let them alone till the morning man, or “day watchman,” as they called him, came to relieve him. Giving him an account of the particulars, they knocked at the door a great while, but nobody answered; and they observed that the window or casement at which the person looked out who had answered before, continued open, being up two pair of stairs.

Upon this, the two men, to satisfy their curiosity, got a long ladder, and one of them went up to the window and looked into the room, where he saw a woman lying dead upon the floor, in a dismal manner, having no clothes on her but her shift. But though he called aloud, and, putting in his long staff, knocked hard on the floor, yet nobody stirred or answered, neither could he hear any noise in the house.

He came down again upon this, and acquainted his fellow, who went up also; and finding it just so, they resolved to acquaint either the lord mayor or some other magistrate of it, but did not offer to go in at the window. The magistrate, it seems, upon the information of the two men, ordered the house to be broke open, a constable and other persons being appointed to be present, that nothing might be plundered; and accordingly it was so done, when nobody was found in the house but that young woman, who having been infected, and past recovery, the rest had left her to die by herself, and every one gone, having found some way to delude the watchman, and to get open the door, or get out at some back door, or over the tops of the houses, so that he knew nothing of it. And as to those cries and shrieks which he heard, it was supposed they were the passionate cries of the family at this bitter parting, which, to be sure, it was to them all, this being the sister to the mistress of the family; the man of the house, his wife, several children and servants, being all gone and fled: whether sick or sound, that I could never learn, nor, indeed, did I make much inquiry after it.

At another house, as I was informed, in the street next within Aldgate, a whole family was shut up and locked in because the maidservant was taken sick. The master of the house had complained by his friends to the next alderman, and to the lord mayor, and had consented to have the maid carried to the pesthouse, but was refused: so the door was marked with a red cross, a padlock on the outside, as above, and a watchman set to keep the door, according to public order.

After the master of the house found there was no remedy, but that he, his wife, and his children, were locked up with this poor distempered servant, he called to the watchman, and told him he must go then and fetch a nurse for them to attend this poor girl, for that it would be certain death to them all to oblige them to nurse her, and told him plainly that if he would not do this the maid would perish either of the distemper, or be starved for want of food, for he was resolved none of his family should go near her; and she lay in the garret, four story high, where she could not cry out or call to anybody for help.

The watchman consented to that, and went and fetched a nurse as he was appointed, and brought her to them the same evening. During this interval, the master of the house took his opportunity to break a large hole through his shop into a bulk or stall, where formerly a cobbler had sat before or under his shop window; but the tenant, as may be supposed, at such a dismal time as that, was dead or removed, and so he had the key in his own keeping. Having made his way into this stall, which he could not have done if the man had been at the door, the noise he was obliged to make being such as would have alarmed the watchman,—I say, having made his way into this stall, he sat still till the watchman returned with the nurse, and all the next day also; but the night following, having contrived to send the watchman of another trifling errand (which, as I take it, was to an apothecary’s for a plaster for the maid, which he was to stay for the making up, or some other such errand that might secure his staying some time), in that time he conveyed himself and all his family out of the house, and left the nurse and the watchman to bury the poor wench, that is, throw her into the cart, and take care of the house.

Not far from the same place they blowed up a watchman with gunpowder, and burned the poor fellow dreadfully; and while he made hideous cries, and nobody would venture to come near to help him, the whole family that were able to stir got out at the windows (one story high), two that were left sick calling out for help. Care was taken to give them nurses to look after them; but the persons fled were never found till, after the plague was abated, they returned. But as nothing could be proved, so nothing could be done to them.

In other cases, some had gardens and walls, or pales, between them and their neighbors, or yards and backhouses; and these, by friendship and entreaties, would get leave to get over those walls or pales, and so go out at their neighbors’ doors, or, by giving money to their servants, get them to let them through in the night. So that, in short, the shutting up of houses was in no wise to be depended upon; neither did it answer the end at all, serving more to make the people desperate, and drive them to such extremities as that they would break out at all adventures.

And that which was still worse, those that did thus break out spread the infection farther, by their wandering about with the distemper upon them in their desperate circumstances, than they would otherwise have done; for whoever considers all the particulars in such cases must acknowledge, and cannot doubt, but the severity of those confinements made many people desperate, and made them run out of their houses at all hazards, and with the plague visibly upon them, not knowing either whither to go, or what to do, or indeed what they did. And many that did so were driven to dreadful exigencies and extremities, and perished in the streets or fields for mere want, or dropped down by the raging violence of the fever upon them. Others wandered into the country, and went forward any way, as their desperation guided them, not knowing whither they went or would go, till, faint and tired, and not getting any relief, the houses and villages on the road refusing to admit them to lodge, whether infected or no, they have perished by the roadside, or gotten into barns, and died there, none daring to come to them or relieve them, though perhaps not infected, for nobody would believe them.

On the other hand, when the plague at first seized a family, that is to say, when any one body of the family had gone out, and unwarily or otherwise catched the distemper and brought it home, it was certainly known by the family before it was known to the officers, who, as you will see by the order, were appointed to examine into the circumstances of all sick persons, when they heard of their being sick.

In this interval, between their being taken sick and the examiners coming, the master of the house had leisure and liberty to remove himself, or all his family, if he knew whither to go; and many did so. But the great disaster was, that many did thus after they were really infected themselves, and so carried the disease into the houses of those who were so hospitable as to receive them; which, it must be confessed, was very cruel and ungrateful.

I am speaking now of people made desperate by the apprehensions of their being shut up, and their breaking out by stratagem or force, either before or after they were shut up, whose misery was not lessened when they were out, but sadly increased. On the other hand, many who thus got away had retreats to go to, and other houses, where they locked themselves up, and kept hid till the plague was over; and many families, foreseeing the approach of the distemper, laid up stores of provisions sufficient for their whole families, and shut themselves up, and that so entirely, that they were neither seen or heard of till the infection was quite ceased, and then came abroad sound and well. I might recollect several such as these, and give you the particulars of their management; for doubtless it was the most effectual secure step that could be taken for such whose circumstances would not admit them to remove, or who had not retreats abroad proper for the case; for, in being thus shut up, they were as if they had been a hundred miles off. Nor do I remember that any one of those families miscarried. Among these, several Dutch merchants were particularly remarkable, who kept their houses like little garrisons besieged, suffering none to go in or out, or come near them; particularly one in a court in Throckmorton Street, whose house looked into Drapers’ Garden.

But I come back to the case of families infected, and shut up by the magistrates. The misery of those families is not to be expressed; and it was generally in such houses that we heard the most dismal shrieks and outcries of the poor people, terrified, and even frightened to death, by the sight of the condition of their dearest relations, and by the terror of being imprisoned as they were.

I remember, and while I am writing this story I think I hear the very sound of it: a certain lady had an only daughter, a young maiden about nineteen years old, and who was possessed of a very considerable fortune. They were only lodgers in the house where they were. The young woman, her mother, and the maid had been abroad on some occasion, I do not remember what, for the house was not shut up; but about two hours after they came home, the young lady complained she was not well; in a quarter of an hour more she vomited, and had a violent pain in her head. “Pray God,” says her mother, in a terrible fright, “my child has not the distemper!” The pain in her head increasing, her mother ordered the bed to be warmed, and resolved to put her to bed, and prepared to give her things to sweat, which was the ordinary remedy to be taken when the first apprehensions of the distemper began.

While the bed was airing, the mother undressed the young woman, and just as she was laid down in the bed, she, looking upon her body with a candle, immediately discovered the fatal tokens on the inside of her thighs. Her mother, not being able to contain herself, threw down her candle, and screeched out in such a frightful manner, that it was enough to place horror upon the stoutest heart in the world. Nor was it one scream, or one cry, but, the fright having seized her spirits, she fainted first, then recovered, then ran all over the house (up the stairs and down the stairs) like one distracted, and indeed really was distracted, and continued screeching and crying out for several hours, void of all sense, or at least government of her senses, and, as I was told, never came thoroughly to herself again. As to the young maiden, she was a dead corpse from that moment: for the gangrene, which occasions the spots, had spread over her whole body, and she died in less than two hours. But still the mother continued crying out, not knowing anything more of her child, several hours after she was dead. It is so long ago that I am not certain, but I think the mother never recovered, but died in two or three weeks after.

I have by me a story of two brothers and their kinsman, who, being single men, but that had staid in the city too long to get away, and, indeed, not knowing where to go to have any retreat, nor having wherewith to travel far, took a course for their own preservation, which, though in itself at first desperate, yet was so natural that it may be wondered that no more did so at that time. They were but of mean condition, and yet not so very poor as that they could not furnish themselves with some little conveniences, such as might serve to keep life and soul together; and finding the distemper increasing in a terrible manner, they resolved to shift as well as they could, and to be gone.

One of them had been a soldier in the late wars, and before that in the Low Countries; and having been bred to no particular employment but his arms, and besides, being wounded, and not able to work very hard, had for some time been employed at a baker’s of sea biscuit, in Wapping.

The brother of this man was a seaman too, but somehow or other had been hurt of one leg, that he could not go to sea, but had worked for his living at a sailmaker’s in Wapping or thereabouts, and, being a good husband, had laid up some money, and was the richest of the three.

The third man was a joiner or carpenter by trade, a handy fellow, and he had no wealth but his box or basket of tools, with the help of which he could at any time get his living (such a time as this excepted) wherever he went; and he lived near Shadwell.

They all lived in Stepney Parish, which, as I have said, being the last that was infected, or at least violently, they staid there till they evidently saw the plague was abating at the west part of the town, and coming towards the east, where they lived.

The story of those three men, if the reader will be content to have me give it in their own persons, without taking upon me to either vouch the particulars or answer for any mistakes, I shall give as distinctly as I can, believing the history will be a very good pattern for any poor man to follow in case the like public desolation should happen here. And if there may be no such occasion, (which God of his infinite mercy grant us!) still the story may have its uses so many ways as that it will, I hope, never be said that the relating has been unprofitable.

I say all this previous to the history, having yet, for the present, much more to say before I quit my own part.

I went all the first part of the time freely about the streets, though not so freely as to run myself into apparent danger, except when they dug the great pit in the churchyard of our parish of Aldgate. A terrible pit it was, and I could not resist my curiosity to go and see it. As near as I may judge, it was about forty feet in length, and about fifteen or sixteen feet broad, and at the time I first looked at it about nine feet deep. But it was said they dug it near twenty feet deep afterwards, in one part of it, till they could go no deeper for the water; for they had, it seems, dug several large pits before this; for, though the plague was long a-coming to our parish, yet, when it did come, there was no parish in or about London where it raged with such violence as in the two parishes of Aldgate and Whitechapel.

I say they had dug several pits in another ground when the distemper began to spread in our parish, and especially when the dead carts began to go about, which was not in our parish till the beginning of August. Into these pits they had put perhaps fifty or sixty bodies each; then they made larger holes, wherein they buried all that the cart brought in a week, which, by the middle to the end of August, came to from two hundred to four hundred a week. And they could not well dig them larger, because of the order of the magistrates, confining them to leave no bodies within six feet of the surface; and the water coming on at about seventeen or eighteen feet, they could not well, I say, put more in one pit. But now, at the beginning of September, the plague raging in a dreadful manner, and the number of burials in our parish increasing to more than was ever buried in any parish about London of no larger extent, they ordered this dreadful gulf to be dug, for such it was rather than a pit.

They had supposed this pit would have supplied them for a month or more when they dug it; and some blamed the churchwardens for suffering such a frightful thing, telling them they were making preparations to bury the whole parish, and the like. But time made it appear, the churchwardens knew the condition of the parish better than they did: for, the pit being finished the 4th of September, I think they began to bury in it the 6th, and by the 20th, which was just two weeks, they had thrown into it eleven hundred and fourteen bodies, when they were obliged to fill it up, the bodies being then come to lie within six feet of the surface. I doubt not but there may be some ancient persons alive in the parish who can justify the fact of this, and are able to show even in what place of the churchyard the pit lay, better than I can: the mark of it also was many years to be seen in the churchyard on the surface, lying in length, parallel with the passage which goes by the west wall of the churchyard out of Houndsditch, and turns east again into Whitechapel, coming out near the Three Nuns Inn.

It was about the 10th of September that my curiosity led, or rather drove, me to go and see this pit again, when there had been near four hundred people buried in it. And I was not content to see it in the daytime, as I had done before,—for then there would have been nothing to have been seen but the loose earth, for all the bodies that were thrown in were immediately covered with earth by those they called the “buriers,” which at other times were called “bearers,”—but I resolved to go in the night, and see some of them thrown in.

There was a strict order to prevent people coming to those pits, and that was only to prevent infection. But after some time that order was more necessary; for people that were infected and near their end, and delirious also, would run to those pits wrapped in blankets, or rugs, and throw themselves in, and, as they said, “bury themselves.” I cannot say that the officers suffered any willingly to lie there; but I have heard that in a great pit in Finsbury, in the parish of Cripplegate (it lying open then to the fields, for it was not then walled about), many came and threw themselves in, and expired there, before they threw any earth upon them; and that when they came to bury others, and found them there, they were quite dead, though not cold.

This may serve a little to describe the dreadful condition of that day, though it is impossible to say anything that is able to give a true idea of it to those who did not see it, other than this: that it was indeed very, very, very dreadful, and such as no tongue can express.

I got admittance into the churchyard by being acquainted with the sexton who attended, who, though he did not refuse me at all, yet earnestly persuaded me not to go, telling me very seriously (for he was a good, religious, and sensible man) that it was indeed their business and duty to venture, and to run all hazards, and that in it they might hope to be preserved; but that I had no apparent call to it but my own curiosity, which, he said, he believed I would not pretend was sufficient to justify my running that hazard. I told him I had been pressed in my mind to go, and that perhaps it might be an instructing sight that might not be without its uses. “Nay,” says the good man, “if you will venture upon that score, ‘name of God, go in; for, depend upon it, it will be a sermon to you, it may be, the best that ever you heard in your life. It is a speaking sight,” says he, “and has a voice with it, and a loud one, to call us all to repentance;” and with that he opened the door, and said, “Go, if you will.”

His discourse had shocked my resolution a little, and I stood wavering for a good while; but just at that interval I saw two links come over from the end of the Minories, and heard the bellman, and then appeared a “dead cart,” as they called it, coming over the streets: so I could no longer resist my desire of seeing it, and went in. There was nobody, as I could perceive at first, in the churchyard, or going into it, but the buriers, and the fellow that drove the cart, or rather led the horse and cart; but when they came up to the pit, they saw a man go to and again, muffled up in a brown cloak, and making motions with his hands, under his cloak, as if he was in great agony. And the buriers immediately gathered about him, supposing he was one of those poor delirious or desperate creatures that used to pretend, as I have said, to bury themselves. He said nothing as he walked about, but two or three times groaned very deeply and loud, and sighed as he would break his heart.

When the buriers came up to him, they soon found he was neither a person infected and desperate, as I have observed above, or a person distempered in mind, but one oppressed with a dreadful weight of grief indeed, having his wife and several of his children all in the cart that was just come in with him; and he followed in an agony and excess of sorrow. He mourned heartily, as it was easy to see, but with a kind of masculine grief, that could not give itself vent by tears, and, calmly desiring the buriers to let him alone, said he would only see the bodies thrown in, and go away. So they left importuning him; but no sooner was the cart turned round, and the bodies shot into the pit promiscuously,—which was a surprise to him, for he at least expected they would have been decently laid in, though, indeed, he was afterwards convinced that was impracticable,—I say, no sooner did he see the sight, but he cried out aloud, unable to contain himself. I could not hear what he said, but he went backward two or three steps, and fell down in a swoon. The buriers ran to him and took him up, and in a little while he came to himself, and they led him away to the Pye Tavern, over against the end of Houndsditch, where, it seems, the man was known, and where they took care of him. He looked into the pit again as he went away; but the buriers had covered the bodies so immediately with throwing in earth, that, though there was light enough (for there were lanterns, and candles in them, placed all night round the sides of the pit upon the heaps of earth, seven or eight, or perhaps more), yet nothing could be seen.

This was a mournful scene indeed, and affected me almost as much as the rest. But the other was awful, and full of terror: the cart had in it sixteen or seventeen bodies; some were wrapped up in linen sheets, some in rugs, some little other than naked, or so loose that what covering they had fell from them in the shooting out of the cart, and they fell quite naked among the rest; but the matter was not much to them, or the indecency much to any one else, seeing they were all dead, and were to be huddled together into the common grave of mankind, as we may call it; for here was no difference made, but poor and rich went together. There was no other way of burials, neither was it possible there should, for coffins were not to be had for the prodigious numbers that fell in such a calamity as this.

It was reported, by way of scandal upon the buriers, that if any corpse was delivered to them decently wound up, as we called it then, in a winding sheet tied over the head and feet (which some did, and which was generally of good linen),—I say, it was reported that the buriers were so wicked as to strip them in the cart, and carry them quite naked to the ground; but as I cannot credit anything so vile among Christians, and at a time so filled with terrors as that was, I can only relate it, and leave it undetermined.

Innumerable stories also went about of the cruel behavior and practice of nurses who attended the sick, and of their hastening on the fate of those they attended in their sickness. But I shall say more of this in its place.

I was indeed shocked with this sight, it almost overwhelmed me; and I went away with my heart most afflicted, and full of afflicting thoughts such as I cannot describe. Just at my going out of the church, and turning up the street towards my own house, I saw another cart, with links, and a bellman going before, coming out of Harrow Alley, in the Butcher Row, on the other side of the way; and being, as I perceived, very full of dead bodies, it went directly over the street, also, towards the church. I stood a while, but I had no stomach to go back again to see the same dismal scene over again: so I went directly home, where I could not but consider with thankfulness the risk I had run, believing I had gotten no injury, as indeed I had not.

Here the poor unhappy gentleman’s grief came into my head again, and indeed I could not but shed tears in the reflection upon it, perhaps more than he did himself; but his case lay so heavy upon my mind, that I could not prevail with myself but that I must go out again into the street, and go to the Pye Tavern, resolving to inquire what became of him.

It was by this time one o’clock in the morning, and yet the poor gentleman was there. The truth was, the people of the house, knowing him, had entertained him, and kept him there all the night, notwithstanding the danger of being infected by him, though it appeared the man was perfectly sound himself.

It is with regret that I take notice of this tavern. The people were civil, mannerly, and an obliging sort of folks enough, and had till this time kept their house open, and their trade going on, though not so very publicly as formerly. But there was a dreadful set of fellows that used their house, and who, in the middle of all this horror, met there every night, behaving with all the reveling and roaring extravagances as is usual for such people to do at other times, and indeed to such an offensive degree that the very master and mistress of the house grew first ashamed, and then terrified, at them.

They sat generally in a room next the street; and as they always kept late hours, so when the dead cart came across the street end to go into Houndsditch, which was in view of the tavern windows, they would frequently open the windows as soon as they heard the bell, and look out at them; and as they might often hear sad lamentations of people in the streets, or at their windows, as the carts went along, they would make their impudent mocks and jeers at them, especially if they heard the poor people call upon God to have mercy upon them, as many would do at those times, in their ordinary passing along the streets.

These gentlemen, being something disturbed with the clutter of bringing the poor gentleman into the house, as above, were first angry and very high with the master of the house for suffering such a fellow, as they called him, to be brought out of the grave into their house; but being answered that the man was a neighbor, and that he was sound, but overwhelmed with the calamity of his family, and the like, they turned their anger into ridiculing the man and his sorrow for his wife and children, taunting him with want of courage to leap into the great pit, and go to heaven, as they jeeringly expressed it, along with them; adding some very profane and even blasphemous expressions.

They were at this vile work when I came back to the house; and as far as I could see, though the man sat still, mute and disconsolate, and their affronts could not divert his sorrow, yet he was both grieved and offended at their discourse. Upon this, I gently reproved them, being well enough acquainted with their characters, and not unknown in person to two of them.

They immediately fell upon me with ill language and oaths, asked me what I did out of my grave at such a time, when so many honester men were carried into the churchyard, and why I was not at home saying my prayers, against the dead cart came for me, and the like.

I was indeed astonished at the impudence of the men, though not at all discomposed at their treatment of me: however, I kept my temper. I told them that though I defied them, or any man in the world, to tax me with any dishonesty, yet I acknowledged, that, in this terrible judgment of God, many better than I were swept away, and carried to their grave; but, to answer their question directly, the case was, that I was mercifully preserved by that great God whose name they had blasphemed and taken in vain by cursing and swearing in a dreadful manner; and that I believed I was preserved in particular, among other ends of his goodness, that I might reprove them for their audacious boldness in behaving in such a manner, and in such an awful time as this was, especially for their jeering and mocking at an honest gentleman and a neighbor, for some of them knew him, who they saw was overwhelmed with sorrow for the breaches which it had pleased God to make upon his family.

I cannot call exactly to mind the hellish, abominable raillery which was the return they made to that talk of mine, being provoked, it seems, that I was not at all afraid to be free with them; nor, if I could remember, would I fill my account with any of the words, the horrid oaths, curses, and vile expressions such as, at that time of the day, even the worst and ordinariest people in the street would not use: for, except such hardened creatures as these, the most wicked wretches that could be found had at that time some terror upon their mind of the hand of that Power which could thus in a moment destroy them.

But that which was the worst in all their devilish language was, that they were not afraid to blaspheme God and talk atheistically, making a jest at my calling the plague the hand of God, mocking, and even laughing at the word “judgment,” as if the providence of God had no concern in the inflicting such a desolating stroke; and that the people calling upon God, as they saw the carts carrying away the dead bodies, was all enthusiastic, absurd, and impertinent.

I made them some reply, such as I thought proper, but which I found was so far from putting a check to their horrid way of speaking, that it made them rail the more: so that I confess it filled me with horror and a kind of rage; and I came away, as I told them, lest the hand of that Judgment which had visited the whole city should glorify his vengeance upon them and all that were near them.

They received all reproof with the utmost contempt, and made the greatest mockery that was possible for them to do at me, giving me all the opprobrious insolent scoffs that they could think of for preaching to them, as they called it, which, indeed, grieved me rather than angered me; and I went away, blessing God, however, in my mind, that I had not spared them, though they had insulted me so much.

They continued this wretched course three or four days after this, continually mocking and jeering at all that showed themselves religious or serious, or that were any way touched with the sense of the terrible judgment of God upon us; and I was informed they flouted in the same manner at the good people, who, notwithstanding the contagion, met at the church, fasted, and prayed to God to remove his hand from them.

I say they continued this dreadful course three or four days (I think it was no more), when one of them, particularly he who asked the poor gentleman what he did out of his grave, was struck from Heaven with the plague, and died in a most deplorable manner; and, in a word, they were every one of them carried into the great pit, which I have mentioned above, before it was quite filled up, which was not above a fortnight or thereabout.

These men were guilty of many extravagances, such as one would think human nature should have trembled at the thoughts of, at such a time of general terror as was then upon us, and particularly scoffing and mocking at everything which they happened to see that was religious among the people, especially at their thronging zealously to the place of public worship, to implore mercy from Heaven in such a time of distress; and this tavern where they held their club, being within view of the church door, they had the more particular occasion for their atheistical, profane mirth.

But this began to abate a little with them before the accident, which I have related, happened; for the infection increased so violently at this part of the town now, that people began to be afraid to come to the church: at least such numbers did not resort thither as was usual. Many of the clergymen, likewise, were dead, and others gone into the country; for it really required a steady courage and a strong faith, for a man not only to venture being in town at such a time as this, but likewise to venture to come to church, and perform the office of a minister to a congregation of whom he had reason to believe many of them were actually infected with the plague, and to do this every day, or twice a day, as in some places was done.

It seems they had been checked, for their open insulting religion in this manner, by several good people of every persuasion; and that and the violent raging of the infection, I suppose, was the occasion that they had abated much of their rudeness for some time before, and were only roused by the spirit of ribaldry and atheism at the clamor which was made when the gentleman was first brought in there, and perhaps were agitated by the same devil when I took upon me to reprove them; though I did it at first with all the calmness, temper, and good manners that I could, which, for a while, they insulted me the more for, thinking it had been in fear of their resentment, though afterwards they found the contrary.

These things lay upon my mind, and I went home very much grieved and oppressed with the horror of these men’s wickedness, and to think that anything could be so vile, so hardened, and so notoriously wicked, as to insult God, and his servants and his worship, in such a manner, and at such a time as this was, when he had, as it were, his sword drawn in his hand, on purpose to take vengeance, not on them only, but on the whole nation.

I had indeed been in some passion at first with them, though it was really raised, not by any affront they had offered me personally, but by the horror their blaspheming tongues filled me with. However, I was doubtful in my thoughts whether the resentment I retained was not all upon my own private account; for they had given me a great deal of ill language too, I mean personally: but after some pause, and having a weight of grief upon my mind, I retired myself as soon as I came home (for I slept not that night), and, giving God most humble thanks for my preservation in the imminent danger I had been in, I set my mind seriously and with the utmost earnestness to pray for those desperate wretches, that God would pardon them, open their eyes, and effectually humble them.

By this I not only did my duty, namely, to pray for those who despitefully used me, but I fully tried my own heart, to my full satisfaction that it was not filled with any spirit of resentment as they had offended me in particular; and I humbly recommend the method to all those that would know, or be certain, how to distinguish between their zeal for the honor of God and the effects of their private passions and resentment.

I remember a citizen, who, having broken out of his house in Aldersgate Street or thereabout, went along the road to Islington. He attempted to have gone in at the Angel Inn, and after that at the White Horse, two inns known still by the same signs, but was refused, after which he came to the Pyed Bull, an inn also still continuing the same sign. He asked them for lodging for one night only, pretending to be going into Lincolnshire, and assuring them of his being very sound, and free from the infection, which also at that time had not reached much that way.

They told him they had no lodging that they could spare but one bed up in the garret, and that they could spare that bed but for one night, some drovers being expected the next day with cattle: so, if he would accept of that lodging, he might have it, which he did. So a servant was sent up with a candle with him to show him the room. He was very well dressed, and looked like a person not used to lie in a garret; and when he came to the room, he fetched a deep sigh, and said to the servant, “I have seldom lain in such a lodging as this.” However, the servant assured him again that they had no better. “Well,” says he, “I must make shift. This is a dreadful time, but it is but for one night.” So he sat down upon the bedside, and bade the maid, I think it was, fetch him a pint of warm ale. Accordingly the servant went for the ale; but some hurry in the house, which perhaps employed her other ways, put it out of her head, and she went up no more to him.

The next morning, seeing no appearance of the gentleman, somebody in the house asked the servant that had showed him upstairs what was become of him. She started. “Alas!” says she, “I never thought more of him. He bade me carry him some warm ale, but I forgot.” Upon which, not the maid, but some other person, was sent up to see after him, who, coming into the room, found him stark dead, and almost cold, stretched out across the bed. His clothes were pulled off, his jaw fallen, his eyes open in a most frightful posture, the rug of the bed being grasped hard in one of his hands, so that it was plain he died soon after the maid left him; and it is probable, had she gone up with the ale, she had found him dead in a few minutes after he had sat down upon the bed. The alarm was great in the house, as any one may suppose, they having been free from the distemper till that disaster, which, bringing the infection to the house, spread it immediately to other houses round about it. I do not remember how many died in the house itself; but I think the maidservant who went up first with him fell presently ill by the fright, and several others; for, whereas there died but two in Islington of the plague the week before, there died nineteen the week after, whereof fourteen were of the plague. This was in the week from the 11th of July to the 18th.

There was one shift that some families had, and that not a few, when their houses happened to be infected, and that was this: the families who in the first breaking out of the distemper fled away into the country, and had retreats among their friends, generally found some or other of their neighbors or relations to commit the charge of those houses to, for the safety of the goods and the like. Some houses were indeed entirely locked up, the doors padlocked, the windows and doors having deal boards nailed over them, and only the inspection of them committed to the ordinary watchmen and parish officers; but these were but few.

It was thought that there were not less than a thousand houses forsaken of the inhabitants in the city and suburbs, including what was in the outparishes and in Surrey, or the side of the water they called Southwark. This was besides the numbers of lodgers and of particular persons who were fled out of other families; so that in all it was computed that about two hundred thousand people were fled and gone in all. But of this I shall speak again. But I mention it here on this account: namely, that it was a rule with those who had thus two houses in their keeping or care, that, if anybody was taken sick in a family, before the master of the family let the examiners or any other officer know of it, he immediately would send all the rest of his family, whether children or servants as it fell out to be, to such other house which he had not in charge, and then, giving notice of the sick person to the examiner, have a nurse or nurses appointed, and having another person to be shut up in the house with them (which many for money would do), so to take charge of the house in case the person should die.

This was in many cases the saving a whole family, who, if they had been shut up with the sick person, would inevitably have perished. But, on the other hand, this was another of the inconveniences of shutting up houses; for the apprehensions and terror of being shut up made many run away with the rest of the family, who, though it was not publicly known, and they were not quite sick, had yet the distemper upon them; and who, by having an uninterrupted liberty to go about, but being obliged still to conceal their circumstances, or perhaps not knowing it themselves, gave the distemper to others, and spread the infection in a dreadful manner, as I shall explain further hereafter.

History of the Plague in England - Contents    |     § 5

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