History of the Plague in England

§ 13

Daniel Defoe

IT IS HERE, however, to be observed, that after the funerals became so many that people could not toll the bell, mourn or weep, or wear black for one another, as they did before, no, nor so much as make coffins for those that died, so, after a while, the fury of the infection appeared to be so increased, that, in short, they shut up no houses at all. It seemed enough that all the remedies of that kind had been used till they were found fruitless, and that the plague spread itself with an irresistible fury; so that, as the fire the succeeding year spread itself and burnt with such violence that the citizens in despair gave over their endeavors to extinguish it, so in the plague it came at last to such violence, that the people sat still looking at one another, and seemed quite abandoned to despair. Whole streets seemed to be desolated, and not to be shut up only, but to be emptied of their inhabitants: doors were left open, windows stood shattering with the wind in empty houses, for want of people to shut them. In a word, people began to give up themselves to their fears, and to think that all regulations and methods were in vain, and that there was nothing to be hoped for but an universal desolation. And it was even in the height of this general despair that it pleased God to stay his hand, and to slacken the fury of the contagion in such a manner as was even surprising, like its beginning, and demonstrated it to be his own particular hand; and that above, if not without the agency of means, as I shall take notice of in its proper place.

But I must still speak of the plague as in its height, raging even to desolation, and the people under the most dreadful consternation, even, as I have said, to despair. It is hardly credible to what excesses the passions of men carried them in this extremity of the distemper; and this part, I think, was as moving as the rest. What could affect a man in his full power of reflection, and what could make deeper impressions on the soul, than to see a man almost naked, and got out of his house or perhaps out of his bed into the street, come out of Harrow Alley, a populous conjunction or collection of alleys, courts, and passages, in the Butcher Row in Whitechapel,—I say, what could be more affecting than to see this poor man come out into the open street, run, dancing and singing, and making a thousand antic gestures, with five or six women and children running after him, crying and calling upon him for the Lord’s sake to come back, and entreating the help of others to bring him back, but all in vain, nobody daring to lay a hand upon him, or to come near him?

This was a most grievous and afflicting thing to me, who saw it all from my own windows; for all this while the poor afflicted man was, as I observed it, even then in the utmost agony of pain, having, as they said, two swellings upon him, which could not be brought to break or to suppurate; but by laying strong caustics on them the surgeons had, it seems, hopes to break them, which caustics were then upon him, burning his flesh as with a hot iron. I cannot say what became of this poor man, but I think he continued roving about in that manner till he fell down and died.

No wonder the aspect of the city itself was frightful. The usual concourse of the people in the streets, and which used to be supplied from our end of the town, was abated. The Exchange was not kept shut, indeed, but it was no more frequented. The fires were lost: they had been almost extinguished for some days by a very smart and hasty rain. But that was not all. Some of the physicians insisted that they were not only no benefit, but injurious to the health of the people. This they made a loud clamor about, and complained to the lord mayor about it. On the other hand, others of the same faculty, and eminent too, opposed them, and gave their reasons why the fires were and must be useful to assuage the violence of the distemper. I cannot give a full account of their arguments on both sides; only this I remember, that they caviled very much with one another. Some were for fires, but that they must be made of wood and not coal, and of particular sorts of wood too, such as fir, in particular, or cedar, because of the strong effluvia of turpentine; others were for coal and not wood, because of the sulphur and bitumen; and others were neither for one or other. Upon the whole, the lord mayor ordered no more fires, and especially on this account, namely, that the plague was so fierce that they saw evidently it defied all means, and rather seemed to increase than decrease upon any application to check and abate it; and yet this amazement of the magistrates proceeded rather from want of being able to apply any means successfully than from any unwillingness either to expose themselves or undertake the care and weight of business; for, to do them justice, they neither spared their pains nor their persons. But nothing answered. The infection raged, and the people were now terrified to the last degree, so that, as I may say, they gave themselves up, and, as I mentioned above, abandoned themselves to their despair.

But let me observe here, that when I say the people abandoned themselves to despair, I do not mean to what men call a religious despair, or a despair of their eternal state; but I mean a despair of their being able to escape the infection, or to outlive the plague, which they saw was so raging, and so irresistible in its force, that indeed few people that were touched with it in its height, about August and September, escaped; and, which is very particular, contrary to its ordinary operation in June and July and the beginning of August, when, as I have observed, many were infected, and continued so many days, and then went off, after having had the poison in their blood a long time. But now, on the contrary, most of the people who were taken during the last two weeks in August, and in the first three weeks in September, generally died in two or three days at the farthest, and many the very same day they were taken. Whether the dog days (as our astrologers pretended to express themselves, the influence of the Dog Star) had that malignant effect, or all those who had the seeds of infection before in them brought it up to a maturity at that time altogether, I know not; but this was the time when it was reported that above three thousand people died in one night; and they that would have us believe they more critically observed it pretend to say that they all died within the space of two hours, viz., between the hours of one and three in the morning.

As to the suddenness of people dying at this time, more than before, there were innumerable instances of it, and I could name several in my neighborhood. One family without the bars, and not far from me, were all seemingly well on the Monday, being ten in family. That evening one maid and one apprentice were taken ill, and died the next morning, when the other apprentice and two children were touched, whereof one died the same evening and the other two on Wednesday. In a word, by Saturday at noon the master, mistress, four children, and four servants were all gone, and the house left entirely empty, except an ancient woman, who came to take charge of the goods for the master of the family’s brother, who lived not far off, and who had not been sick.

Many houses were then left desolate, all the people being carried away dead; and especially in an alley farther on the same side beyond the bars, going in at the sign of Moses and Aaron. There were several houses together, which they said had not one person left alive in them; and some that died last in several of those houses were left a little too long before they were fetched out to be buried, the reason of which was not, as some have written very untruly, that the living were not sufficient to bury the dead, but that the mortality was so great in the yard or alley that there was nobody left to give notice to the buriers or sextons that there were any dead bodies there to be buried. It was said, how true I know not, that some of those bodies were so corrupted and so rotten, that it was with difficulty they were carried; and, as the carts could not come any nearer than to the alley gate in the High Street, it was so much the more difficult to bring them along. But I am not certain how many bodies were then left: I am sure that ordinarily it was not so.

As I have mentioned how the people were brought into a condition to despair of life, and abandoned themselves, so this very thing had a strange effect among us for three or four weeks; that is, it made them bold and venturous. They were no more shy of one another, or restrained within doors, but went anywhere and everywhere, and began to converse. One would say to another, “I do not ask you how you are, or say how I am. It is certain we shall all go: so ’tis no matter who is sick or who is sound.” And so they ran desperately into any place or company.

As it brought the people into public company, so it was surprising how it brought them to crowd into the churches. They inquired no more into who they sat near to or far from, what offensive smells they met with, or what condition the people seemed to be in; but, looking upon themselves all as so many dead corpses, they came to the churches without the least caution, and crowded together as if their lives were of no consequence compared to the work which they came about there. Indeed, the zeal which they showed in coming, and the earnestness and affection they showed in their attention to what they heard, made it manifest what a value people would all put upon the worship of God if they thought every day they attended at the church that it would be their last. Nor was it without other strange effects, for it took away all manner of prejudice at, or scruple about, the person whom they found in the pulpit when they came to the churches. It cannot be doubted but that many of the ministers of the parish churches were cut off among others in so common and dreadful a calamity; and others had not courage enough to stand it, but removed into the country as they found means for escape. As then some parish churches were quite vacant and forsaken, the people made no scruple of desiring such dissenters as had been a few years before deprived of their livings, by virtue of an act of Parliament called the “Act of Uniformity,” to preach in the churches, nor did the church ministers in that case make any difficulty in accepting their assistance; so that many of those whom they called silent ministers had their mouths opened on this occasion, and preached publicly to the people.

Here we may observe, and I hope it will not be amiss to take notice of it, that a near view of death would soon reconcile men of good principles one to another, and that it is chiefly owing to our easy situation in life, and our putting these things far from us, that our breaches are fomented, ill blood continued, prejudices, breach of charity and of Christian union so much kept and so far carried on among us as it is. Another plague year would reconcile all these differences; a close conversing with death, or with diseases that threaten death, would scum off the gall from our tempers, remove the animosities among us, and bring us to see with differing eyes than those which we looked on things with before. As the people who had been used to join with the church were reconciled at this time with the admitting the dissenters to preach to them, so the dissenters, who, with an uncommon prejudice, had broken off from the communion of the Church of England, were now content to come to their parish churches, and to conform to the worship which they did not approve of before. But, as the terror of the infection abated, those things all returned again to their less desirable channel, and to the course they were in before.

I mention this but historically: I have no mind to enter into arguments to move either or both sides to a more charitable compliance one with another. I do not see that it is probable such a discourse would be either suitable or successful; the breaches seem rather to widen, and tend to a widening farther, than to closing: and who am I, that I should think myself able to influence either one side or other? But this I may repeat again, that it is evident death will reconcile us all: on the other side the grave we shall be all brethren again. In heaven, whither I hope we may come from all parties and persuasions, we shall find neither prejudice nor scruple: there we shall be of one principle and of one opinion. Why we cannot be content to go hand in hand to the place where we shall join heart and hand without the least hesitation, and with the most complete harmony and affection,—I say, why we cannot do so here, I can say nothing to; neither shall I say anything more of it, but that it remains to be lamented.

I could dwell a great while upon the calamities of this dreadful time, and go on to describe the objects that appeared among us every day,—the dreadful extravagances which the distraction of sick people drove them into; how the streets began now to be fuller of frightful objects, and families to be made even a terror to themselves. But after I have told you, as I have above, that one man being tied in his bed, and finding no other way to deliver himself, set the bed on fire with his candle (which unhappily stood within his reach), and burned himself in bed; and how another, by the insufferable torment he bore, danced and sung naked in the streets, not knowing one ecstasy from another,—I say, after I have mentioned these things, what can be added more? What can be said to represent the misery of these times more lively to the reader, or to give him a perfect idea of a more complicated distress?

I must acknowledge that this time was so terrible that I was sometimes at the end of all my resolutions, and that I had not the courage that I had at the beginning. As the extremity brought other people abroad, it drove me home; and, except having made my voyage down to Blackwall and Greenwich, as I have related, which was an excursion, I kept afterwards very much within doors, as I had for about a fortnight before. I have said already that I repented several times that I had ventured to stay in town, and had not gone away with my brother and his family; but it was too late for that now. And after I had retreated and staid within doors a good while before my impatience led me abroad, then they called me, as I have said, to an ugly and dangerous office, which brought me out again; but as that was expired, while the height of the distemper lasted I retired again, and continued close ten or twelve days more, during which many dismal spectacles represented themselves in my view, out of my own windows, and in our own street, as that particularly, from Harrow Alley, of the poor outrageous creature who danced and sung in his agony; and many others there were. Scarce a day or a night passed over but some dismal thing or other happened at the end of that Harrow Alley, which was a place full of poor people, most of them belonging to the butchers, or to employments depending upon the butchery.

Sometimes heaps and throngs of people would burst out of the alley, most of them women, making a dreadful clamor, mixed or compounded of screeches, cryings, and calling one another, that we could not conceive what to make of it. Almost all the dead part of the night, the dead cart stood at the end of that alley; for if it went in, it could not well turn again, and could go in but a little way. There, I say, it stood to receive dead bodies; and, as the churchyard was but a little way off, if it went away full, it would soon be back again. It is impossible to describe the most horrible cries and noise the poor people would make at their bringing the dead bodies of their children and friends out to the cart; and, by the number, one would have thought there had been none left behind, or that there were people enough for a small city living in those places. Several times they cried murder, sometimes fire; but it was easy to perceive that it was all distraction and the complaints of distressed and distempered people.

I believe it was everywhere thus at that time, for the plague raged for six or seven weeks beyond all that I have expressed, and came even to such a height, that, in the extremity, they began to break into that excellent order of which I have spoken so much in behalf of the magistrates, namely, that no dead bodies were seen in the streets, or burials in the daytime; for there was a necessity in this extremity to bear with its being otherwise for a little while.

One thing I cannot omit here, and indeed I thought it was extraordinary, at least it seemed a remarkable hand of divine justice; viz., that all the predictors, astrologers, fortune tellers, and what they called cunning men, conjurers, and the like, calculators of nativities, and dreamers of dreams, and such people, were gone and vanished; not one of them was to be found. I am verily persuaded that a great number of them fell in the heat of the calamity, having ventured to stay upon the prospect of getting great estates; and indeed their gain was but too great for a time, through the madness and folly of the people: but now they were silent; many of them went to their long home, not able to foretell their own fate, or to calculate their own nativities. Some have been critical enough to say that every one of them died. I dare not affirm that; but this I must own, that I never heard of one of them that ever appeared after the calamity was over.

But to return to my particular observations during this dreadful part of the visitation. I am now come, as I have said, to the month of September, which was the most dreadful of its kind, I believe, that ever London saw; for, by all the accounts which I have seen of the preceding visitations which have been in London, nothing has been like it, the number in the weekly bill amounting to almost forty thousands from the 22d of August to the 26th of September, being but five weeks. The particulars of the bills are as follows: viz.,—

Aug. 22 to Aug. 29 7,496
Aug. 29 to Sept. 5 8,252
Sept. 5 to Sept. 12 7,690
Sept. 12 to Sept. 19     8,297
Sept. 19 to Sept. 26 6,460

This was a prodigious number of itself; but if I should add the reasons which I have to believe that this account was deficient, and how deficient it was, you would with me make no scruple to believe that there died above ten thousand a week for all those weeks, one week with another, and a proportion for several weeks, both before and after. The confusion among the people, especially within the city, at that time was inexpressible. The terror was so great at last, that the courage of the people appointed to carry away the dead began to fail them; nay, several of them died, although they had the distemper before, and were recovered; and some of them dropped down when they have been carrying the bodies even at the pitside, and just ready to throw them in. And this confusion was greater in the city, because they had flattered themselves with hopes of escaping, and thought the bitterness of death was past. One cart, they told us, going up Shoreditch, was forsaken by the drivers, or, being left to one man to drive, he died in the street; and the horses, going on, overthrew the cart, and left the bodies, some thrown here, some there, in a dismal manner. Another cart was, it seems, found in the great pit in Finsbury Fields, the driver being dead, or having been gone and abandoned it; and the horses running too near it, the cart fell in, and drew the horses in also. It was suggested that the driver was thrown in with it, and that the cart fell upon him, by reason his whip was seen to be in the pit among the bodies; but that, I suppose, could not be certain.

In our parish of Aldgate the dead carts were several times, as I have heard, found standing at the churchyard gate full of dead bodies, but neither bellman, or driver, or any one else, with it. Neither in these or many other cases did they know what bodies they had in their cart, for sometimes they were let down with ropes out of balconies and out of windows, and sometimes the bearers brought them to the cart, sometimes other people; nor, as the men themselves said, did they trouble themselves to keep any account of the numbers.

The vigilance of the magistrate was now put to the utmost trial, and, it must be confessed, can never be enough acknowledged on this occasion; also, whatever expense or trouble they were at, two things were never neglected in the city or suburbs either:—

1. Provisions were always to be had in full plenty, and the price not much raised neither, hardly worth speaking.

2. No dead bodies lay unburied or uncovered; and if any one walked from one end of the city to another, no funeral, or sign of it, was to be seen in the daytime, except a little, as I have said, in the first three weeks in September.

This last article, perhaps, will hardly be believed when some accounts which others have published since that shall be seen, wherein they say that the dead lay unburied, which I am sure was utterly false; at least, if it had been anywhere so, it must have been in houses where the living were gone from the dead, having found means, as I have observed, to escape, and where no notice was given to the officers. All which amounts to nothing at all in the case in hand; for this I am positive in, having myself been employed a little in the direction of that part of the parish in which I lived, and where as great a desolation was made, in proportion to the number of the inhabitants, as was anywhere. I say, I am sure that there were no dead bodies remained unburied; that is to say, none that the proper officers knew of, none for want of people to carry them off, and buriers to put them into the ground and cover them. And this is sufficient to the argument; for what might lie in houses and holes, as in Moses and Aaron Alley, is nothing, for it is most certain they were buried as soon as they were found. As to the first article, namely, of provisions, the scarcity or dearness, though I have mentioned it before, and shall speak of it again, yet I must observe here.

1. The price of bread in particular was not much raised; for in the beginning of the year, viz., in the first week in March, the penny wheaten loaf was ten ounces and a half, and in the height of the contagion it was to be had at nine ounces and a half, and never dearer, no, not all that season; and about the beginning of November it was sold at ten ounces and a half again, the like of which, I believe, was never heard of, in any city under so dreadful a visitation, before.

2. Neither was there, which I wondered much at, any want of bakers or ovens kept open to supply the people with bread; but this was indeed alleged by some families, viz., that their maidservants, going to the bakehouses with their dough to be baked, which was then the custom, sometimes came home with the sickness, that is to say, the plague, upon them.

In all this dreadful visitation there were, as I have said before, but two pesthouses made use of; viz., one in the fields beyond Old Street, and one in Westminster. Neither was there any compulsion used in carrying people thither. Indeed, there was no need of compulsion in the case, for there were thousands of poor distressed people, who having no help, or conveniences, or supplies, but of charity, would have been very glad to have been carried thither and been taken care of; which, indeed, was the only thing that, I think, was wanting in the whole public management of the city, seeing nobody was here allowed to be brought to the pesthouse but where money was given, or security for money, either at their introducing, or upon their being cured and sent out; for very many were sent out again whole, and very good physicians were appointed to those places; so that many people did very well there, of which I shall make mention again. The principal sort of people sent thither were, as I have said, servants, who got the distemper by going of errands to fetch necessaries for the families where they lived, and who, in that case, if they came home sick, were removed to preserve the rest of the house; and they were so well looked after there, in all the time of the visitation, that there was but one hundred and fifty-six buried in all at the London pesthouse, and one hundred and fifty-nine at that of Westminster.

By having more pesthouses, I am far from meaning a forcing all people into such places. Had the shutting up of houses been omitted, and the sick hurried out of their dwellings to pesthouses, as some proposed it seems at that time as well as since, it would certainly have been much worse than it was. The very removing the sick would have been a spreading of the infection, and the rather because that removing could not effectually clear the house where the sick person was of the distemper; and the rest of the family, being then left at liberty, would certainly spread it among others.

The methods, also, in private families which would have been universally used to have concealed the distemper, and to have concealed the persons being sick, would have been such that the distemper would sometimes have seized a whole family before any visitors or examiners could have known of it. On the other hand, the prodigious numbers which would have been sick at a time would have exceeded all the capacity of public pesthouses to receive them, or of public officers to discover and remove them.

This was well considered in those days, and I have heard them talk of it often. The magistrates had enough to do to bring people to submit to having their houses shut up; and many ways they deceived the watchmen, and got out, as I observed. But that difficulty made it apparent that they would have found it impracticable to have gone the other way to work; for they could never have forced the sick people out of their beds and out of their dwellings: it must not have been my lord mayor’s officers, but an army of officers, that must have attempted it. And the people, on the other hand, would have been enraged and desperate, and would have killed those that should have offered to have meddled with them or with their children and relations, whatever had befallen them for it; so that they would have made the people (who, as it was, were in the most terrible distraction imaginable), I say, they would have made them stark mad: whereas the magistrates found it proper on several occasions to treat them with lenity and compassion, and not with violence and terror, such as dragging the sick out of their houses, or obliging them to remove themselves, would have been.

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