History of the Plague in England

§ 5

Daniel Defoe

I HAD in my family only an ancient woman that managed the house, a maidservant, two apprentices, and myself; and, the plague beginning to increase about us, I had many sad thoughts about what course I should take and how I should act. The many dismal objects which happened everywhere as I went about the streets had filled my mind with a great deal of horror, for fear of the distemper itself, which was indeed very horrible in itself, and in some more than others. The swellings, which were generally in the neck or groin, when they grew hard, and would not break, grew so painful that it was equal to the most exquisite torture; and some, not able to bear the torment, threw themselves out at windows, or shot themselves, or otherwise made themselves away, and I saw several dismal objects of that kind. Others, unable to contain themselves, vented their pain by incessant roarings; and such loud and lamentable cries were to be heard, as we walked along the streets, that would pierce the very heart to think of, especially when it was to be considered that the same dreadful scourge might be expected every moment to seize upon ourselves.

I cannot say but that now I began to faint in my resolutions. My heart failed me very much, and sorely I repented of my rashness, when I had been out, and met with such terrible things as these I have talked of. I say I repented my rashness in venturing to abide in town, and I wished often that I had not taken upon me to stay, but had gone away with my brother and his family.

Terrified by those frightful objects, I would retire home sometimes, and resolve to go out no more; and perhaps I would keep those resolutions for three or four days, which time I spent in the most serious thankfulness for my preservation and the preservation of my family, and the constant confession of my sins, giving myself up to God every day, and applying to him with fasting and humiliation and meditation. Such intervals as I had, I employed in reading books and in writing down my memorandums of what occurred to me every day, and out of which, afterwards, I took most of this work, as it relates to my observations without doors. What I wrote of my private meditations I reserve for private use, and desire it may not be made public on any account whatever.

I also wrote other meditations upon divine subjects, such as occurred to me at that time, and were profitable to myself, but not fit for any other view, and therefore I say no more of that.

I had a very good friend, a physician, whose name was Heath, whom I frequently visited during this dismal time, and to whose advice I was very much obliged for many things which he directed me to take by way of preventing the infection when I went out, as he found I frequently did, and to hold in my mouth when I was in the streets. He also came very often to see me; and as he was a good Christian, as well as a good physician, his agreeable conversation was a very great support to me in the worst of this terrible time.

It was now the beginning of August, and the plague grew very violent and terrible in the place where I lived; and Dr. Heath coming to visit me, and finding that I ventured so often out in the streets, earnestly persuaded me to lock myself up, and my family, and not to suffer any of us to go out of doors; to keep all our windows fast, shutters and curtains close, and never to open them, but first to make a very strong smoke in the room, where the window or door was to be opened, with rosin and pitch, brimstone and gunpowder, and the like; and we did this for some time. But, as I had not laid in a store of provision for such a retreat, it was impossible that we could keep within doors entirely. However, I attempted, though it was so very late, to do something towards it; and first, as I had convenience both for brewing and baking, I went and bought two sacks of meal, and for several weeks, having an oven, we baked all our own bread; also I bought malt, and brewed as much beer as all the casks I had would hold, and which seemed enough to serve my house for five or six weeks; also I laid in a quantity of salt butter and Cheshire cheese; but I had no flesh meat, and the plague raged so violently among the butchers and slaughterhouses on the other side of our street, where they are known to dwell in great numbers, that it was not advisable so much as to go over the street among them.

And here I must observe again, that this necessity of going out of our houses to buy provisions was in a great measure the ruin of the whole city; for the people catched the distemper, on these occasions, one of another; and even the provisions themselves were often tainted (at least I have great reason to believe so), and therefore I cannot say with satisfaction, what I know is repeated with great assurance, that the market people, and such as brought provisions to town, were never infected. I am certain the butchers of Whitechapel, where the greatest part of the flesh meat was killed, were dreadfully visited, and that at last to such a degree that few of their shops were kept open; and those that remained of them killed their meat at Mile End, and that way, and brought it to market upon horses.

However, the poor people could not lay up provisions, and there was a necessity that they must go to market to buy, and others to send servants or their children; and, as this was a necessity which renewed itself daily, it brought abundance of unsound people to the markets; and a great many that went thither sound brought death home with them.

It is true, people used all possible precaution. When any one bought a joint of meat in the market, they would not take it out of the butcher’s hand, but took it off the hooks themselves. On the other hand, the butcher would not touch the money, but have it put into a pot full of vinegar, which he kept for that purpose. The buyer carried always small money to make up any odd sum, that they might take no change. They carried bottles for scents and perfumes in their hands, and all the means that could be used were employed; but then the poor could not do even these things, and they went at all hazards.

Innumerable dismal stories we heard every day on this very account. Sometimes a man or woman dropped down dead in the very markets; for many people that had the plague upon them knew nothing of it till the inward gangrene had affected their vitals, and they died in a few moments. This caused that many died frequently in that manner in the street suddenly, without any warning: others, perhaps, had time to go to the next bulk or stall, or to any door or porch, and just sit down and die, as I have said before.

These objects were so frequent in the streets, that when the plague came to be very raging on one side, there was scarce any passing by the streets but that several dead bodies would be lying here and there upon the ground. On the other hand, it is observable, that though at first the people would stop as they went along, and call to the neighbors to come out on such an occasion, yet afterward no notice was taken of them; but that, if at any time we found a corpse lying, go across the way and not come near it; or, if in a narrow lane or passage, go back again, and seek some other way to go on the business we were upon. And in those cases the corpse was always left till the officers had notice to come and take them away, or till night, when the bearers attending the dead cart would take them up and carry them away. Nor did those undaunted creatures who performed these offices fail to search their pockets, and sometimes strip off their clothes, if they were well dressed, as sometimes they were, and carry off what they could get.

But to return to the markets. The butchers took that care, that, if any person died in the market, they had the officers always at hand to take them up upon handbarrows, and carry them to the next churchyard; and this was so frequent that such were not entered in the weekly bill, found dead in the streets or fields, as is the case now, but they went into the general articles of the great distemper.

But now the fury of the distemper increased to such a degree, that even the markets were but very thinly furnished with provisions, or frequented with buyers, compared to what they were before; and the lord mayor caused the country people who brought provisions to be stopped in the streets leading into the town, and to sit down there with their goods, where they sold what they brought, and went immediately away. And this encouraged the country people greatly to do so; for they sold their provisions at the very entrances into the town, and even in the fields, as particularly in the fields beyond Whitechapel, in Spittlefields. Note, those streets now called Spittlefields were then indeed open fields; also in St. George’s Fields in Southwark, in Bunhill Fields, and in a great field called Wood’s Close, near Islington. Thither the lord mayor, aldermen, and magistrates sent their officers and servants to buy for their families, themselves keeping within doors as much as possible; and the like did many other people. And after this method was taken, the country people came with great cheerfulness, and brought provisions of all sorts, and very seldom got any harm, which, I suppose, added also to that report of their being miraculously preserved.

As for my little family, having thus, as I have said, laid in a store of bread, butter, cheese, and beer, I took my friend and physician’s advice, and locked myself up, and my family, and resolved to suffer the hardship of living a few months without flesh meat rather than to purchase it at the hazard of our lives.

But, though I confined my family, I could not prevail upon my unsatisfied curiosity to stay within entirely myself, and, though I generally came frighted and terrified home, yet I could not restrain, only that, indeed, I did not do it so frequently as at first.

I had some little obligations, indeed, upon me to go to my brother’s house, which was in Coleman Street Parish, and which he had left to my care; and I went at first every day, but afterwards only once or twice a week.

In these walks I had many dismal scenes before my eyes, as, particularly, of persons falling dead in the streets, terrible shrieks and screechings of women, who in their agonies would throw open their chamber windows, and cry out in a dismal surprising manner. It is impossible to describe the variety of postures in which the passions of the poor people would express themselves.

Passing through Token-House Yard in Lothbury, of a sudden a casement violently opened just over my head, and a woman gave three frightful screeches, and then cried, “O death, death, death!” in a most inimitable tone, and which struck me with horror, and a chillness in my very blood. There was nobody to be seen in the whole street, neither did any other window open, for people had no curiosity now in any case, nor could anybody help one another: so I went on to pass into Bell Alley.

Just in Bell Alley, on the right hand of the passage, there was a more terrible cry than that, though it was not so directed out at the window. But the whole family was in a terrible fright, and I could hear women and children run screaming about the rooms like distracted, when a garret window opened, and somebody from a window on the other side the alley called, and asked, “What is the matter?” Upon which from the first window it was answered, “O Lord, my old master has hanged himself!” The other asked again, “Is he quite dead?” and the first answered, “Ay, ay, quite dead; quite dead and cold!” This person was a merchant and a deputy alderman, and very rich. I care not to mention his name, though I knew his name too; but that would be a hardship to the family, which is now flourishing again.

But this is but one. It is scarce credible what dreadful cases happened in particular families every day,—people, in the rage of the distemper, or in the torment of their swellings, which was indeed intolerable, running out of their own government, raving and distracted, and oftentimes laying violent hands upon themselves, throwing themselves out at their windows, shooting themselves, etc.; mothers murdering their own children in their lunacy; some dying of mere grief as a passion, some of mere fright and surprise without any infection at all; others frighted into idiotism and foolish distractions, some into despair and lunacy, others into melancholy madness.

The pain of the swelling was in particular very violent, and to some intolerable. The physicians and surgeons may be said to have tortured many poor creatures even to death. The swellings in some grew hard, and they applied violent drawing plasters, or poultices, to break them; and, if these did not do, they cut and scarified them in a terrible manner. In some, those swellings were made hard, partly by the force of the distemper, and partly by their being too violently drawn, and were so hard that no instrument could cut them; and then they burned them with caustics, so that many died raving mad with the torment, and some in the very operation. In these distresses, some, for want of help to hold them down in their beds or to look to them, laid hands upon themselves as above; some broke out into the streets, perhaps naked, and would run directly down to the river, if they were not stopped by the watchmen or other officers, and plunge themselves into the water wherever they found it.

It often pierced my very soul to hear the groans and cries of those who were thus tormented. But of the two, this was counted the most promising particular in the whole infection: for if these swellings could be brought to a head, and to break and run, or, as the surgeons call it, to “digest,” the patient generally recovered; whereas those who, like the gentlewoman’s daughter, were struck with death at the beginning, and had the tokens come out upon them, often went about indifferently easy till a little before they died, and some till the moment they dropped down, as in apoplexies and epilepsies is often the case. Such would be taken suddenly very sick, and would run to a bench or bulk, or any convenient place that offered itself, or to their own houses, if possible, as I mentioned before, and there sit down, grow faint, and die. This kind of dying was much the same as it was with those who die of common mortifications, who die swooning, and, as it were, go away in a dream. Such as died thus had very little notice of their being infected at all till the gangrene was spread through their whole body; nor could physicians themselves know certainly how it was with them till they opened their breasts, or other parts of their body, and saw the tokens.

We had at this time a great many frightful stories told us of nurses and watchmen who looked after the dying people (that is to say, hired nurses, who attended infected people), using them barbarously, starving them, smothering them, or by other wicked means hastening their end, that is to say, murdering of them. And watchmen being set to guard houses that were shut up, when there has been but one person left, and perhaps that one lying sick, that they have broke in and murdered that body, and immediately thrown them out into the dead cart; and so they have gone scarce cold to the grave.

I cannot say but that some such murders were committed, and I think two were sent to prison for it, but died before they could be tried; and I have heard that three others, at several times, were executed for murders of that kind. But I must say I believe nothing of its being so common a crime as some have since been pleased to say; nor did it seem to be so rational, where the people were brought so low as not to be able to help themselves; for such seldom recovered, and there was no temptation to commit a murder, at least not equal to the fact, where they were sure persons would die in so short a time, and could not live.

That there were a great many robberies and wicked practices committed even in this dreadful time, I do not deny. The power of avarice was so strong in some, that they would run any hazard to steal and to plunder; and, particularly in houses where all the families or inhabitants have been dead and carried out, they would break in at all hazards, and, without regard to the danger of infection, take even the clothes off the dead bodies, and the bedclothes from others where they lay dead.

This, I suppose, must be the case of a family in Houndsditch, where a man and his daughter (the rest of the family being, as I suppose, carried away before by the dead cart) were found stark naked, one in one chamber and one in another, lying dead on the floor, and the clothes of the beds (from whence it is supposed they were rolled off by thieves) stolen, and carried quite away.

It is indeed to be observed that the women were, in all this calamity, the most rash, fearless, and desperate creatures. And, as there were vast numbers that went about as nurses to tend those that were sick, they committed a great many petty thieveries in the houses where they were employed; and some of them were publicly whipped for it, when perhaps they ought rather to have been hanged for examples, for numbers of houses were robbed on these occasions; till at length the parish officers were sent to recommend nurses to the sick, and always took an account who it was they sent, so as that they might call them to account if the house had been abused where they were placed.

But these robberies extended chiefly to wearing-clothes, linen, and what rings or money they could come at, when the person died who was under their care, but not to a general plunder of the houses. And I could give you an account of one of these nurses, who several years after, being on her deathbed, confessed with the utmost horror the robberies she had committed at the time of her being a nurse, and by which she had enriched herself to a great degree. But as for murders, I do not find that there was ever any proofs of the fact in the manner as it has been reported, except as above.

They did tell me, indeed, of a nurse in one place that laid a wet cloth upon the face of a dying patient whom she tended, and so put an end to his life, who was just expiring before; and another that smothered a young woman she was looking to, when she was in a fainting fit, and would have come to herself; some that killed them by giving them one thing, some another, and some starved them by giving them nothing at all. But these stories had two marks of suspicion that always attended them, which caused me always to slight them, and to look on them as mere stories that people continually frighted one another with: (1) That wherever it was that we heard it, they always placed the scene at the farther end of the town, opposite or most remote from where you were to hear it. If you heard it in Whitechapel, it had happened at St. Giles’s, or at Westminster, or Holborn, or that end of the town; if you heard it at that end of the town, then it was done in Whitechapel, or the Minories, or about Cripplegate Parish; if you heard of it in the city, why, then, it happened in Southwark; and, if you heard of it in Southwark, then it was done in the city; and the like.

In the next place, of whatsoever part you heard the story, the particulars were always the same, especially that of laying a wet double clout on a dying man’s face, and that of smothering a young gentlewoman: so that it was apparent, at least to my judgment, that there was more of tale than of truth in those things.

A neighbor and acquaintance of mine, having some money owing to him from a shopkeeper in Whitecross Street or thereabouts, sent his apprentice, a youth about eighteen years of age, to endeavor to get the money. He came to the door, and, finding it shut, knocked pretty hard, and, as he thought, heard somebody answer within, but was not sure: so he waited, and after some stay knocked again, and then a third time, when he heard somebody coming downstairs.

At length the man of the house came to the door. He had on his breeches, or drawers, and a yellow flannel waistcoat, no stockings, a pair of slip shoes, a white cap on his head, and, as the young man said, death in his face.

When he opened the door, says he, “What do you disturb me thus for?” The boy, though a little surprised, replied, “I come from such a one; and my master sent me for the money, which he says you know of.”—“Very well, child,” returns the living ghost; “call, as you go by, at Cripplegate Church, and bid them ring the bell,” and with these words shut the door again, and went up again, and died the same day, nay, perhaps the same hour. This the young man told me himself, and I have reason to believe it. This was while the plague was not come to a height. I think it was in June, towards the latter end of the month. It must have been before the dead carts came about, and while they used the ceremony of ringing the bell for the dead, which was over for certain, in that parish at least, before the month of July; for by the 25th of July there died five hundred and fifty and upwards in a week, and then they could no more bury in form rich or poor.

I have mentioned above, that, notwithstanding this dreadful calamity, yet that numbers of thieves were abroad upon all occasions where they had found any prey, and that these were generally women. It was one morning about eleven o’clock, I had walked out to my brother’s house in Coleman Street Parish, as I often did, to see that all was safe.

My brother’s house had a little court before it, and a brick wall and a gate in it, and within that several warehouses, where his goods of several sorts lay. It happened that in one of these warehouses were several packs of women’s high-crowned hats, which came out of the country, and were, as I suppose, for exportation, whither I know not.

I was surprised that when I came near my brother’s door, which was in a place they called Swan Alley, I met three or four women with high-crowned hats on their heads; and, as I remembered afterwards, one, if not more, had some hats likewise in their hands. But as I did not see them come out at my brother’s door, and not knowing that my brother had any such goods in his warehouse, I did not offer to say anything to them, but went across the way to shun meeting them, as was usual to do at that time, for fear of the plague. But when I came nearer to the gate, I met another woman, with more hats, come out of the gate. “What business, mistress,” said I, “have you had there?”—“There are more people there,” said she. “I have had no more business there than they.” I was hasty to get to the gate then, and said no more to her; by which means she got away. But just as I came to the gate, I saw two more coming across the yard, to come out, with hats also on their heads and under their arms; at which I threw the gate to behind me, which, having a spring lock, fastened itself. And turning to the women, “Forsooth,” said I, “what are you doing here?” and seized upon the hats, and took them from them. One of them, who, I confess, did not look like a thief, “Indeed,” says she, “we are wrong; but we were told they were goods that had no owner: be pleased to take them again. And look yonder: there are more such customers as we.” She cried, and looked pitifully: so I took the hats from her, and opened the gate, and bade them begone, for I pitied the women indeed. But when I looked towards the warehouse, as she directed, there were six or seven more, all women, fitting themselves with hats, as unconcerned and quiet as if they had been at a hatter’s shop buying for their money.

I was surprised, not at the sight of so many thieves only, but at the circumstances I was in; being now to thrust myself in among so many people, who for some weeks I had been so shy of myself, that, if I met anybody in the street, I would cross the way from them.

They were equally surprised, though on another account. They all told me they were neighbors; that they had heard any one might take them; that they were nobody’s goods; and the like. I talked big to them at first; went back to the gate and took out the key, so that they were all my prisoners; threatened to lock them all into the warehouse, and go and fetch my lord mayor’s officers for them.

They begged heartily, protested they found the gate open, and the warehouse door open, and that it had no doubt been broken open by some who expected to find goods of greater value; which indeed was reasonable to believe, because the lock was broke, and a padlock that hung to the door on the outside also loose, and not abundance of the hats carried away.

At length I considered that this was not a time to be cruel and rigorous; and besides that, it would necessarily oblige me to go much about, to have several people come to me, and I go to several, whose circumstances of health I knew nothing of; and that, even at this time, the plague was so high as that there died four thousand a week; so that, in showing my resentment, or even in seeking justice for my brother’s goods, I might lose my own life. So I contented myself with taking the names and places where some of them lived, who were really inhabitants in the neighborhood, and threatening that my brother should call them to an account for it when he returned to his habitation.

Then I talked a little upon another footing with them, and asked them how they could do such things as these in a time of such general calamity, and, as it were, in the face of God’s most dreadful judgments, when the plague was at their very doors, and, it may be, in their very houses, and they did not know but that the dead cart might stop at their doors in a few hours, to carry them to their graves.

I could not perceive that my discourse made much impression upon them all that while, till it happened that there came two men of the neighborhood, hearing of the disturbance, and knowing my brother (for they had been both dependents upon his family), and they came to my assistance. These being, as I said, neighbors, presently knew three of the women, and told me who they were, and where they lived, and it seems they had given me a true account of themselves before.

This brings these two men to a further remembrance. The name of one was John Hayward, who was at that time under-sexton of the parish of St. Stephen, Coleman Street (by under-sexton was understood at that time gravedigger and bearer of the dead). This man carried, or assisted to carry, all the dead to their graves, which were buried in that large parish, and who were carried in form, and, after that form of burying was stopped, went with the dead cart and the bell to fetch the dead bodies from the houses where they lay, and fetched many of them out of the chambers and houses; for the parish was, and is still, remarkable, particularly above all the parishes in London, for a great number of alleys and thoroughfares, very long, into which no carts could come, and where they were obliged to go and fetch the bodies a very long way, which alleys now remain to witness it; such as White’s Alley, Cross Keys Court, Swan Alley, Bell Alley, White Horse Alley, and many more. Here they went with a kind of handbarrow, and laid the dead bodies on, and carried them out to the carts; which work he performed, and never had the distemper at all, but lived about twenty years after it, and was sexton of the parish to the time of his death. His wife at the same time was a nurse to infected people, and tended many that died in the parish, being for her honesty recommended by the parish officers; yet she never was infected, neither.

He never used any preservative against the infection other than holding garlic and rue in his mouth, and smoking tobacco. This I also had from his own mouth. And his wife’s remedy was washing her head in vinegar, and sprinkling her head-clothes so with vinegar as to keep them always moist; and, if the smell of any of those she waited on was more than ordinary offensive, she snuffed vinegar up her nose, and sprinkled vinegar upon her head-clothes, and held a handkerchief wetted with vinegar to her mouth.

It must be confessed, that, though the plague was chiefly among the poor, yet were the poor the most venturous and fearless of it, and went about their employment with a sort of brutal courage: I must call it so, for it was founded neither on religion or prudence. Scarce did they use any caution, but ran into any business which they could get any employment in, though it was the most hazardous; such was that of tending the sick, watching houses shut up, carrying infected persons to the pesthouse, and, which was still worse, carrying the dead away to their graves.

It was under this John Hayward’s care, and within his bounds, that the story of the piper, with which people have made themselves so merry, happened; and he assured me that it was true. It is said that it was a blind piper; but, as John told me, the fellow was not blind, but an ignorant, weak, poor man, and usually went his rounds about ten o’clock at night, and went piping along from door to door. And the people usually took him in at public houses where they knew him, and would give him drink and victuals, and sometimes farthings; and he in return would pipe and sing, and talk simply, which diverted the people; and thus he lived. It was but a very bad time for this diversion while things were as I have told; yet the poor fellow went about as usual, but was almost starved: and when anybody asked how he did, he would answer, the dead cart had not taken him yet, but that they had promised to call for him next week.

It happened one night that this poor fellow, whether somebody had given him too much drink or no (John Hayward said he had not drink in his house, but that they had given him a little more victuals than ordinary at a public house in Coleman Street), and the poor fellow having not usually had a bellyful, or perhaps not a good while, was laid all along upon the top of a bulk or stall, and fast asleep at a door in the street near London Wall, towards Cripplegate; and that, upon the same bulk or stall, the people of some house in the alley of which the house was a corner, hearing a bell (which they always rung before the cart came), had laid a body really dead of the plague just by him, thinking too that this poor fellow had been a dead body as the other was, and laid there by some of the neighbors.

Accordingly, when John Hayward with his bell and the cart came along, finding two dead bodies lie upon the stall, they took them up with the instrument they used, and threw them into the cart; and all this while the piper slept soundly.

From hence they passed along, and took in other dead bodies, till, as honest John Hayward told me, they almost buried him alive in the cart; yet all this while he slept soundly. At length the cart came to the place where the bodies were to be thrown into the ground, which, as I do remember, was at Mountmill; and, as the cart usually stopped some time before they were ready to shoot out the melancholy load they had in it, as soon as the cart stopped, the fellow awaked, and struggled a little to get his head out from among the dead bodies; when, raising himself up in the cart, he called out, “Hey, where am I?” This frighted the fellow that attended about the work; but, after some pause, John Hayward, recovering himself, said, “Lord bless us! There’s somebody in the cart not quite dead!” So another called to him, and said, “Who are you?” The fellow answered, “I am the poor piper. Where am I?”—“Where are you?” says Hayward. “Why, you are in the dead cart, and we are going to bury you.”—“But I ain’t dead, though, am I?” says the piper; which made them laugh a little, though, as John said, they were heartily frightened at first. So they helped the poor fellow down, and he went about his business.

I know the story goes, he set up his pipes in the cart, and frighted the bearers and others, so that they ran away; but John Hayward did not tell the story so, nor say anything of his piping at all. But that he was a poor piper, and that he was carried away as above, I am fully satisfied of the truth of.

It is to be noted here that the dead carts in the city were not confined to particular parishes; but one cart went through several parishes, according as the number of dead presented. Nor were they tied to carry the dead to their respective parishes; but many of the dead taken up in the city were carried to the burying ground in the outparts for want of room.

History of the Plague in England - Contents    |     § 6

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