History of the Plague in England

§ 12

Daniel Defoe

I HAVE given an account already of what I found to have been the case down the river among the seafaring men, how the ships lay in the “offing,” as it is called, in rows or lines, astern of one another, quite down from the Pool as far as I could see. I have been told that they lay in the same manner quite down the river as low as Gravesend, and some far beyond, even everywhere, or in every place where they could ride with safety as to wind and weather. Nor did I ever hear that the plague reached to any of the people on board those ships, except such as lay up in the Pool, or as high as Deptford Reach, although the people went frequently on shore to the country towns and villages, and farmers’ houses, to buy fresh provisions (fowls, pigs, calves, and the like) for their supply.

Likewise I found that the watermen on the river above the bridge found means to convey themselves away up the river as far as they could go; and that they had, many of them, their whole families in their boats, covered with tilts and bales, as they call them, and furnished with straw within for their lodging; and that they lay thus all along by the shore in the marshes, some of them setting up little tents with their sails, and so lying under them on shore in the day, and going into their boats at night. And in this manner, as I have heard, the riversides were lined with boats and people as long as they had anything to subsist on, or could get anything of the country; and indeed the country people, as well gentlemen as others, on these and all other occasions, were very forward to relieve them, but they were by no means willing to receive them into their towns and houses, and for that we cannot blame them.

There was one unhappy citizen, within my knowledge, who had been visited in a dreadful manner, so that his wife and all his children were dead, and himself and two servants only left, with an elderly woman, a near relation, who had nursed those that were dead as well as she could. This disconsolate man goes to a village near the town, though not within the bills of mortality, and, finding an empty house there, inquires out the owner, and took the house. After a few days he got a cart, and loaded it with goods, and carries them down to the house. The people of the village opposed his driving the cart along, but, with some arguings and some force, the men that drove the cart along got through the street up to the door of the house. There the constable resisted them again, and would not let them be brought in. The man caused the goods to be unloaded and laid at the door, and sent the cart away, upon which they carried the man before a justice of peace; that is to say, they commanded him to go, which he did. The justice ordered him to cause the cart to fetch away the goods again, which he refused to do; upon which the justice ordered the constable to pursue the carters and fetch them back, and make them reload the goods and carry them away, or to set them in the stocks till they came for further orders; and if they could not find them, and the man would not consent to take them away, they should cause them to be drawn with hooks from the house door, and burned in the street. The poor distressed man, upon this, fetched the goods again, but with grievous cries and lamentations at the hardship of his case. But there was no remedy: self-preservation obliged the people to those severities which they would not otherwise have been concerned in. Whether this poor man lived or died, I cannot tell, but it was reported that he had the plague upon him at that time, and perhaps the people might report that to justify their usage of him; but it was not unlikely that either he or his goods, or both, were dangerous, when his whole family had been dead of the distemper so little a while before.

I know that the inhabitants of the towns adjacent to London were much blamed for cruelty to the poor people that ran from the contagion in their distress, and many very severe things were done, as may be seen from what has been said; but I cannot but say also, that where there was room for charity and assistance to the people, without apparent danger to themselves, they were willing enough to help and relieve them. But as every town were indeed judges in their own case, so the poor people who ran abroad in their extremities were often ill used, and driven back again into the town; and this caused infinite exclamations and outcries against the country towns, and made the clamor very popular.

And yet more or less, maugre all the caution, there was not a town of any note within ten (or, I believe, twenty) miles of the city, but what was more or less infected, and had some died among them. I have heard the accounts of several, such as they were reckoned up, as follows:—

Enfield 32
Hornsey 58
Newington 17
Tottenham 42
Edmonton 19
Barnet and Hadley 43
St. Albans 121
Watford 45
Uxbridge 117
Hertford 90
Ware 160
Hodsdon 30
Waltham Abbey 23
Epping 26
Deptford 623
Greenwich 631
Eltham and Lusum             85
Croydon 61
Brentwood 70
Rumford 109
Barking about 200
Brandford 432
Kingston 122
Staines 82
Chertsey 18
Windsor 103
 cum aliis.

Another thing might render the country more strict with respect to the citizens, and especially with respect to the poor, and this was what I hinted at before; namely, that there was a seeming propensity, or a wicked inclination, in those that were infected, to infect others.

There have been great debates among our physicians as to the reason of this. Some will have it to be in the nature of the disease, and that it impresses every one that is seized upon by it with a kind of rage and a hatred against their own kind, as if there were a malignity, not only in the distemper to communicate itself, but in the very nature of man, prompting him with evil will, or an evil eye, that as they say in the case of a mad dog, who, though the gentlest creature before of any of his kind, yet then will fly upon and bite any one that comes next him, and those as soon as any, who have been most observed by him before.

Others placed it to the account of the corruption of human nature, who cannot bear to see itself more miserable than others of its own species, and has a kind of involuntary wish that all men were as unhappy or in as bad a condition as itself.

Others say it was only a kind of desperation, not knowing or regarding what they did, and consequently unconcerned at the danger or safety, not only of anybody near them, but even of themselves also. And indeed, when men are once come to a condition to abandon themselves, and be unconcerned for the safety or at the danger of themselves, it cannot be so much wondered that they should be careless of the safety of other people.

But I choose to give this grave debate quite a different turn, and answer it or resolve it all by saying that I do not grant the fact. On the contrary, I say that the thing is not really so, but that it was a general complaint raised by the people inhabiting the outlying villages against the citizens, to justify, or at least excuse, those hardships and severities so much talked of, and in which complaints both sides may be said to have injured one another; that is to say, the citizens pressing to be received and harbored in time of distress, and with the plague upon them, complain of the cruelty and injustice of the country people in being refused entrance, and forced back again with their goods and families; and the inhabitants, finding themselves so imposed upon, and the citizens breaking in, as it were, upon them, whether they would or no, complain that when they were infected, they were not only regardless of others, but even willing to infect them: neither of which was really true, that is to say, in the colors they were described in.

It is true there is something to be said for the frequent alarms which were given to the country, of the resolution of the people of London to come out by force, not only for relief, but to plunder and rob; that they ran about the streets with the distemper upon them without any control; and that no care was taken to shut up houses, and confine the sick people from infecting others; whereas, to do the Londoners justice, they never practiced such things, except in such particular cases as I have mentioned above, and such like. On the other hand, everything was managed with so much care, and such excellent order was observed in the whole city and suburbs, by the care of the lord mayor and aldermen, and by the justices of the peace, churchwardens, etc., in the outparts, that London may be a pattern to all the cities in the world for the good government and the excellent order that was everywhere kept, even in the time of the most violent infection, and when the people were in the utmost consternation and distress. But of this I shall speak by itself.

One thing, it is to be observed, was owing principally to the prudence of the magistrates, and ought to be mentioned to their honor; viz., the moderation which they used in the great and difficult work of shutting up houses. It is true, as I have mentioned, that the shutting up of houses was a great subject of discontent, and I may say, indeed, the only subject of discontent among the people at that time; for the confining the sound in the same house with the sick was counted very terrible, and the complaints of people so confined were very grievous: they were heard in the very streets, and they were sometimes such that called for resentment, though oftener for compassion. They had no way to converse with any of their friends but out of their windows, where they would make such piteous lamentations as often moved the hearts of those they talked with, and of others who, passing by, heard their story; and as those complaints oftentimes reproached the severity, and sometimes the insolence, of the watchmen placed at their doors, those watchmen would answer saucily enough, and perhaps be apt to affront the people who were in the street talking to the said families; for which, or for their ill treatment of the families, I think seven or eight of them in several places were killed. I know not whether I should say murdered or not, because I cannot enter into the particular cases. It is true, the watchmen were on their duty, and acting in the post where they were placed by a lawful authority; and killing any public legal officer in the execution of his office is always, in the language of the law, called “murder.” But as they were not authorized by the magistrate’s instructions, or by the power they acted under, to be injurious or abusive, either to the people who were under their observation or to any that concerned themselves for them, so that, when they did so, they might be said to act themselves, not their office; to act as private persons, not as persons employed; and consequently, if they brought mischief upon themselves by such an undue behavior, that mischief was upon their own heads. And indeed they had so much the hearty curses of the people, whether they deserved it or not, that, whatever befell them, nobody pitied them; and everybody was apt to say they deserved it, whatever it was. Nor do I remember that anybody was ever punished, at least to any considerable degree, for whatever was done to the watchmen that guarded their houses.

What variety of stratagems were used to escape, and get out of houses thus shut up, by which the watchmen were deceived or overpowered, and that the people got away, I have taken notice of already, and shall say no more to that; but I say the magistrates did moderate and ease families upon many occasions in this case, and particularly in that of taking away or suffering to be removed the sick persons out of such houses, when they were willing to be removed, either to a pesthouse or other places, and sometimes giving the well persons in the family so shut up leave to remove, upon information given that they were well, and that they would confine themselves in such houses where they went, so long as should be required of them. The concern, also, of the magistrates for the supplying such poor families as were infected,—I say, supplying them with necessaries, as well physic as food,—was very great: and in which they did not content themselves with giving the necessary orders to the officers appointed; but the aldermen, in person and on horseback, frequently rode to such houses, and caused the people to be asked at their windows whether they were duly attended or not, also whether they wanted anything that was necessary, and if the officers had constantly carried their messages, and fetched them such things as they wanted, or not. And if they answered in the affirmative, all was well; but if they complained that they were ill supplied, and that the officer did not do his duty, or did not treat them civilly, they (the officers) were generally removed, and others placed in their stead.

It is true, such complaint might be unjust; and if the officer had such arguments to use as would convince the magistrate that he was right, and that the people had injured him, he was continued, and they reproved. But this part could not well bear a particular inquiry, for the parties could very ill be well heard and answered in the street from the windows, as was the case then. The magistrates, therefore, generally chose to favor the people, and remove the man, as what seemed to be the least wrong and of the least ill consequence; seeing, if the watchman was injured, yet they could easily make him amends by giving him another post of a like nature; but, if the family was injured, there was no satisfaction could be made to them, the damage, perhaps, being irreparable, as it concerned their lives.

A great variety of these cases frequently happened between the watchmen and the poor people shut up, besides those I formerly mentioned about escaping. Sometimes the watchmen were absent, sometimes drunk, sometimes asleep, when the people wanted them; and such never failed to be punished severely, as indeed they deserved.

But, after all that was or could be done in these cases, the shutting up of houses, so as to confine those that were well with those that were sick, had very great inconveniences in it, and some that were very tragical, and which merited to have been considered, if there had been room for it: but it was authorized by a law, it had the public good in view as the end chiefly aimed at; and all the private injuries that were done by the putting it in execution must be put to the account of the public benefit.

It is doubtful whether, in the whole, it contributed anything to the stop of the infection; and indeed I cannot say it did, for nothing could run with greater fury and rage than the infection did when it was in its chief violence, though the houses infected were shut up as exactly and effectually as it was possible. Certain it is, that, if all the infected persons were effectually shut in, no sound person could have been infected by them, because they could not have come near them. But the case was this (and I shall only touch it here); namely, that the infection was propagated insensibly, and by such persons as were not visibly infected, who neither knew whom they infected, nor whom they were infected by.

A house in Whitechapel was shut up for the sake of one infected maid, who had only spots, not the tokens, come out upon her, and recovered; yet these people obtained no liberty to stir, neither for air or exercise, forty days. Want of breath, fear, anger, vexation, and all the other griefs attending such an injurious treatment, cast the mistress of the family into a fever; and visitors came into the house and said it was the plague, though the physicians declared it was not. However, the family were obliged to begin their quarantine anew, on the report of the visitor or examiner, though their former quarantine wanted but a few days of being finished. This oppressed them so with anger and grief, and, as before, straitened them also so much as to room, and for want of breathing and free air, that most of the family fell sick, one of one distemper, one of another, chiefly scorbutic ailments, only one a violent cholic; until, after several prolongings of their confinement, some or other of those that came in with the visitors to inspect the persons that were ill, in hopes of releasing them, brought the distemper with them, and infected the whole house; and all or most of them died, not of the plague as really upon them before, but of the plague that those people brought them, who should have been careful to have protected them from it. And this was a thing which frequently happened, and was indeed one of the worst consequences of shutting houses up.

I had about this time a little hardship put upon me, which I was at first greatly afflicted at, and very much disturbed about, though, as it proved, it did not expose me to any disaster; and this was, being appointed, by the alderman of Portsoken Ward, one of the examiners of the houses in the precinct where I lived. We had a large parish, and had no less than eighteen examiners, as the order called us: the people called us visitors. I endeavored with all my might to be excused from such an employment, and used many arguments with the alderman’s deputy to be excused; particularly, I alleged that I was against shutting up houses at all, and that it would be very hard to oblige me to be an instrument in that which was against my judgment, and which I did verily believe would not answer the end it was intended for. But all the abatement I could get was only, that whereas the officer was appointed by my lord mayor to continue two months, I should be obliged to hold it but three weeks, on condition, nevertheless, that I could then get some other sufficient housekeeper to serve the rest of the time for me; which was, in short, but a very small favor, it being very difficult to get any man to accept of such an employment that was fit to be intrusted with it.

It is true that shutting up of houses had one effect which I am sensible was of moment; namely, it confined the distempered people, who would otherwise have been both very troublesome and very dangerous in their running about streets with the distemper upon them, which, when they were delirious, they would have done in a most frightful manner, as, indeed, they began to do at first very much until they were restrained; nay, so very open they were, that the poor would go about and beg at people’s doors, and say they had the plague upon them, and beg rags for their sores, or both, or anything that delirious nature happened to think of.

A poor unhappy gentlewoman, a substantial citizen’s wife, was, if the story be true, murdered by one of these creatures in Aldersgate Street, or that way. He was going along the street, raving mad, to be sure, and singing. The people only said he was drunk; but he himself said he had the plague upon him, which, it seems, was true; and, meeting this gentlewoman, he would kiss her. She was terribly frightened, as he was a rude fellow, and she run from him; but, the street being very thin of people, there was nobody near enough to help her. When she saw he would overtake her, she turned and gave him a thrust so forcibly, he being but weak, as pushed him down backward; but very unhappily, she being so near, he caught hold of her and pulled her down also, and, getting up first, mastered her and kissed her, and, which was worst of all, when he had done, told her he had the plague, and why should not she have it as well as he. She was frightened enough before; but when she heard him say he had the plague, she screamed out, and fell down into a swoon, or in a fit, which, though she recovered a little, yet killed her in a very few days; and I never heard whether she had the plague or no.

Another infected person came and knocked at the door of a citizen’s house where they knew him very well. The servant let him in, and, being told the master of the house was above, he ran up, and came into the room to them as the whole family were at supper. They began to rise up a little surprised, not knowing what the matter was; but he bid them sit still, he only come to take his leave of them. They asked him, “Why, Mr. ——, where are you going?”—“Going?” says he; “I have got the sickness, and shall die to-morrow night.” It is easy to believe, though not to describe, the consternation they were all in. The women and the man’s daughters, which were but little girls, were frightened almost to death, and got up, one running out at one door and one at another, some downstairs and some upstairs, and, getting together as well as they could, locked themselves into their chambers, and screamed out at the windows for help, as if they had been frightened out of their wits. The master, more composed than they, though both frightened and provoked, was going to lay hands on him and throw him downstairs, being in a passion; but then, considering a little the condition of the man and the danger of touching him, horror seized his mind, and he stood still like one astonished. The poor distempered man, all this while, being as well diseased in his brain as in his body, stood still like one amazed. At length he turns round. “Ay!” says he with all the seeming calmness imaginable, “is it so with you all? Are you all disturbed at me? Why, then, I’ll e’en go home and die there.” And so he goes immediately downstairs. The servant that had let him in goes down after him with a candle, but was afraid to go past him and open the door; so he stood on the stairs to see what he would do. The man went and opened the door, and went out and flung the door after him. It was some while before the family recovered the fright; but, as no ill consequence attended, they have had occasion since to speak of it, you may be sure, with great satisfaction. Though the man was gone, it was some time, nay, as I heard, some days, before they recovered themselves of the hurry they were in; nor did they go up and down the house with any assurance till they had burned a great variety of fumes and perfumes in all the rooms, and made a great many smokes of pitch, of gunpowder, and of sulphur. All separately shifted, and washed their clothes, and the like. As to the poor man, whether he lived or died, I do not remember.

It is most certain, that if, by the shutting up of houses, the sick had not been confined, multitudes, who in the height of their fever were delirious and distracted, would have been continually running up and down the streets; and even as it was, a very great number did so, and offered all sorts of violence to those they met, even just as a mad dog runs on and bites at every one he meets. Nor can I doubt but that, should one of those infected diseased creatures have bitten any man or woman while the frenzy of the distemper was upon them, they (I mean the person so wounded) would as certainly have been incurably infected as one that was sick before and had the tokens upon him.

I heard of one infected creature, who, running out of his bed in his shirt, in the anguish and agony of his swellings (of which he had three upon him), got his shoes on, and went to put on his coat; but the nurse resisting, and snatching the coat from him, he threw her down, run over her, ran downstairs and into the street directly to the Thames, in his shirt, the nurse running after him, and calling to the watch to stop him. But the watchman, frightened at the man, and afraid to touch him, let him go on; upon which he ran down to the Still-Yard Stairs, threw away his shirt, and plunged into the Thames, and, being a good swimmer, swam quite over the river; and the tide being “coming in,” as they call it (that is, running westward), he reached the land not till he came about the Falcon Stairs, where, landing and finding no people there, it being in the night, he ran about the streets there, naked as he was, for a good while, when, it being by that time high water, he takes the river again, and swam back to the Still Yard, landed, ran up the streets to his own house, knocking at the door, went up the stairs, and into his bed again; and that this terrible experiment cured him of the plague, that is to say, that the violent motion of his arms and legs stretched the parts where the swellings he had upon him were (that is to say, under his arms and in his groin), and caused them to ripen and break; and that the cold of the water abated the fever in his blood.

I have only to add, that I do not relate this, any more than some of the other, as a fact within my own knowledge, so as that I can vouch the truth of them; and especially that of the man being cured by the extravagant adventure, which I confess I do not think very possible, but it may serve to confirm the many desperate things which the distressed people, falling into deliriums and what we call light-headedness, were frequently run upon at that time, and how infinitely more such there would have been if such people had not been confined by the shutting up of houses; and this I take to be the best, if not the only good thing, which was performed by that severe method.

On the other hand, the complaints and the murmurings were very bitter against the thing itself.

It would pierce the hearts of all that came by, to hear the piteous cries of those infected people, who, being thus out of their understandings by the violence of their pain or the heat of their blood, were either shut in, or perhaps tied in their beds and chairs, to prevent their doing themselves hurt, and who would make a dreadful outcry at their being confined, and at their being not permitted to “die at large,” as they called it, and as they would have done before.

This running of distempered people about the streets was very dismal, and the magistrates did their utmost to prevent it; but as it was generally in the night, and always sudden, when such attempts were made, the officers could not be at hand to prevent it; and even when they got out in the day, the officers appointed did not care to meddle with them, because, as they were all grievously infected, to be sure, when they were come to that height, so they were more than ordinarily infectious, and it was one of the most dangerous things that could be to touch them. On the other hand, they generally ran on, not knowing what they did, till they dropped down stark dead, or till they had exhausted their spirits so as that they would fall and then die in perhaps half an hour or an hour; and, which was most piteous to hear, they were sure to come to themselves entirely in that half hour or hour, and then to make most grievous and piercing cries and lamentations, in the deep afflicting sense of the condition they were in. There was much of it before the order for shutting up of houses was strictly put into execution; for at first the watchmen were not so rigorous and severe as they were afterwards in the keeping the people in; that is to say, before they were (I mean some of them) severely punished for their neglect, failing in their duty, and letting people who were under their care slip away, or conniving at their going abroad, whether sick or well. But after they saw the officers appointed to examine into their conduct were resolved to have them do their duty, or be punished for the omission, they were more exact, and the people were strictly restrained; which was a thing they took so ill, and bore so impatiently, that their discontents can hardly be described; but there was an absolute necessity for it, that must be confessed, unless some other measures had been timely entered upon, and it was too late for that.

Had not this particular of the sick being restrained as above been our case at that time, London would have been the most dreadful place that ever was in the world. There would, for aught I know, have as many people died in the streets as died in their houses: for when the distemper was at its height, it generally made them raving and delirious; and when they were so, they would never be persuaded to keep in their beds but by force; and many who were not tied threw themselves out of windows when they found they could not get leave to go out of their doors.

It was for want of people conversing one with another in this time of calamity, that it was impossible any particular person could come at the knowledge of all the extraordinary cases that occurred in different families; and particularly, I believe it was never known to this day how many people in their deliriums drowned themselves in the Thames, and in the river which runs from the marshes by Hackney, which we generally called Ware River or Hackney River. As to those which were set down in the weekly bill, they were indeed few. Nor could it be known of any of those, whether they drowned themselves by accident or not; but I believe I might reckon up more who, within the compass of my knowledge or observation, really drowned themselves in that year than are put down in the bill of all put together, for many of the bodies were never found who yet were known to be lost; and the like in other methods of self-destruction. There was also one man in or about Whitecross Street burnt himself to death in his bed. Some said it was done by himself, others that it was by the treachery of the nurse that attended him; but that he had the plague upon him, was agreed by all.

It was a merciful disposition of Providence, also, and which I have many times thought of at that time, that no fires, or no considerable ones at least, happened in the city during that year, which, if it had been otherwise, would have been very dreadful; and either the people must have let them alone unquenched, or have come together in great crowds and throngs, unconcerned at the danger of the infection, not concerned at the houses they went into, at the goods they handled, or at the persons or the people they came among. But so it was, that excepting that in Cripplegate Parish, and two or three little eruptions of fires, which were presently extinguished, there was no disaster of that kind happened in the whole year. They told us a story of a house in a place called Swan Alley, passing from Goswell Street near the end of Old Street into St. John Street, that a family was infected there in so terrible a manner that every one of the house died. The last person lay dead on the floor, and, as it is supposed, had laid herself all along to die just before the fire. The fire, it seems, had fallen from its place, being of wood, and had taken hold of the boards and the joists they lay on, and burned as far as just to the body, but had not taken hold of the dead body, though she had little more than her shift on, and had gone out of itself, not hurting the rest of the house, though it was a slight timber house. How true this might be, I do not determine; but the city being to suffer severely the next year by fire, this year it felt very little of that calamity.

Indeed, considering the deliriums which the agony threw people into, and how I have mentioned in their madness, when they were alone, they did many desperate things, it was very strange there were no more disasters of that kind.

It has been frequently asked me, and I cannot say that I ever knew how to give a direct answer to it, how it came to pass that so many infected people appeared abroad in the streets at the same time that the houses which were infected were so vigilantly searched, and all of them shut up and guarded as they were.

I confess I know not what answer to give to this, unless it be this: that, in so great and populous a city as this is, it was impossible to discover every house that was infected as soon as it was so, or to shut up all the houses that were infected; so that people had the liberty of going about the streets, even where they pleased, unless they were known to belong to such and such infected houses.

It is true, that, as the several physicians told my lord mayor, the fury of the contagion was such at some particular times, and people sickened so fast and died so soon, that it was impossible, and indeed to no purpose, to go about to inquire who was sick and who was well, or to shut them up with such exactness as the thing required, almost every house in a whole street being infected, and in many places every person in some of the houses. And, that which was still worse, by the time that the houses were known to be infected, most of the persons infected would be stone dead, and the rest run away for fear of being shut up; so that it was to very small purpose to call them infected houses and shut them up, the infection having ravaged and taken its leave of the house before it was really known that the family was any way touched.

This might be sufficient to convince any reasonable person, that as it was not in the power of the magistrates, or of any human methods or policy, to prevent the spreading the infection, so that this way of shutting up of houses was perfectly insufficient for that end. Indeed, it seemed to have no manner of public good in it equal or proportionable to the grievous burthen that it was to the particular families that were so shut up; and, as far as I was employed by the public in directing that severity, I frequently found occasion to see that it was incapable of answering the end. For example, as I was desired as a visitor or examiner to inquire into the particulars of several families which were infected, we scarce came to any house where the plague had visibly appeared in the family but that some of the family were fled and gone. The magistrates would resent this, and charge the examiners with being remiss in their examination or inspection; but by that means houses were long infected before it was known. Now, as I was in this dangerous office but half the appointed time, which was two months, it was long enough to inform myself that we were no way capable of coming at the knowledge of the true state of any family but by inquiring at the door or of the neighbors. As for going into every house to search, that was a part no authority would offer to impose on the inhabitants, or any citizen would undertake; for it would have been exposing us to certain infection and death, and to the ruin of our own families as well as of ourselves. Nor would any citizen of probity, and that could be depended upon, have staid in the town if they had been made liable to such a severity.

Seeing, then, that we could come at the certainty of things by no method but that of inquiry of the neighbors or of the family (and on that we could not justly depend), it was not possible but that the uncertainty of this matter would remain as above.

It is true, masters of families were bound by the order to give notice to the examiner of the place wherein he lived, within two hours after he should discover it, of any person being sick in his house, that is to say, having signs of the infection; but they found so many ways to evade this, and excuse their negligence, that they seldom gave that notice till they had taken measures to have every one escape out of the house who had a mind to escape, whether they were sick or sound. And while this was so, it was easy to see that the shutting up of houses was no way to be depended upon as a sufficient method for putting a stop to the infection, because, as I have said elsewhere, many of those that so went out of those infected houses had the plague really upon them, though they might really think themselves sound; and some of these were the people that walked the streets till they fell down dead: not that they were suddenly struck with the distemper, as with a bullet that killed with the stroke, but that they really had the infection in their blood long before, only that, as it preyed secretly on their vitals, it appeared not till it seized the heart with a mortal power, and the patient died in a moment, as with a sudden fainting or an apoplectic fit.

I know that some, even of our physicians, thought for a time that those people that so died in the streets were seized but that moment they fell, as if they had been touched by a stroke from heaven, as men are killed by a flash of lightning; but they found reason to alter their opinion afterward, for, upon examining the bodies of such after they were dead, they always either had tokens upon them, or other evident proofs of the distemper having been longer upon them than they had otherwise expected.

This often was the reason that, as I have said, we that were examiners were not able to come at the knowledge of the infection being entered into a house till it was too late to shut it up, and sometimes not till the people that were left were all dead. In Petticoat Lane two houses together were infected, and several people sick; but the distemper was so well concealed, the examiner, who was my neighbor, got no knowledge of it till notice was sent him that the people were all dead, and that the carts should call there to fetch them away. The two heads of the families concerted their measures, and so ordered their matters as that, when the examiner was in the neighborhood, they appeared generally at a time, and answered, that is, lied for one another, or got some of the neighborhood to say they were all in health, and perhaps knew no better; till, death making it impossible to keep it any longer as a secret, the dead carts were called in the night to both the houses, and so it became public. But when the examiner ordered the constable to shut up the houses, there was nobody left in them but three people (two in one house, and one in the other), just dying, and a nurse in each house, who acknowledged that they had buried five before, that the houses had been infected nine or ten days, and that for all the rest of the two families, which were many, they were gone, some sick, some well, or, whether sick or well, could not be known.

In like manner, at another house in the same lane, a man, having his family infected, but very unwilling to be shut up, when he could conceal it no longer, shut up himself; that is to say, he set the great red cross upon the door, with the words, “LORD, HAVE MERCY UPON US!” and so deluded the examiner, who supposed it had been done by the constable, by order of the other examiner (for there were two examiners to every district or precinct). By this means he had free egress and regress into his house again and out of it, as he pleased, notwithstanding it was infected, till at length his stratagem was found out, and then he, with the sound part of his family and servants, made off and escaped; so they were not shut up at all.

These things made it very hard, if not impossible, as I have said, to prevent the spreading of an infection by the shutting up of houses, unless the people would think the shutting up of their houses no grievance, and be so willing to have it done as that they would give notice duly and faithfully to the magistrates of their being infected, as soon as it was known by themselves; but as that cannot be expected from them, and the examiners cannot be supposed, as above, to go into their houses to visit and search, all the good of shutting up houses will be defeated, and few houses will be shut up in time, except those of the poor, who cannot conceal it, and of some people who will be discovered by the terror and consternation which the thing put them into.

I got myself discharged of the dangerous office I was in as soon as I could get another admitted, whom I had obtained for a little money to accept of it; and so, instead of serving the two months, which was directed, I was not above three weeks in it; and a great while too, considering it was in the month of August, at which time the distemper began to rage with great violence at our end of the town.

In the execution of this office, I could not refrain speaking my opinion among my neighbors as to the shutting up the people in their houses, in which we saw most evidently the severities that were used, though grievous in themselves, had also this particular objection against them; namely, that they did not answer the end, as I have said, but that the distempered people went day by day about the streets. And it was our united opinion that a method to have removed the sound from the sick, in case of a particular house being visited, would have been much more reasonable on many accounts, leaving nobody with the sick persons but such as should, on such occasions, request to stay, and declare themselves content to be shut up with them.

Our scheme for removing those that were sound from those that were sick was only in such houses as were infected; and confining the sick was no confinement: those that could not stir would not complain while they were in their senses, and while they had the power of judging. Indeed, when they came to be delirious and light-headed, then they would cry out of the cruelty of being confined; but, for the removal of those that were well, we thought it highly reasonable and just, for their own sakes, they should be removed from the sick, and that, for other people’s safety, they should keep retired for a while, to see that they were sound, and might not infect others; and we thought twenty or thirty days enough for this.

Now, certainly, if houses had been provided on purpose for those that were sound, to perform this demiquarantine in, they would have much less reason to think themselves injured in such a restraint than in being confined with infected people in the houses where they lived.

History of the Plague in England - Contents    |     § 13

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