History of the Plague in England

§ 15

Daniel Defoe

AND HERE let me take leave to enter again, though it may seem a repetition of circumstances, into a description of the miserable condition of the city itself, and of those parts where I lived, at this particular time. The city, and those other parts, notwithstanding the great numbers of people that were gone into the country, was vastly full of people; and perhaps the fuller because people had for a long time a strong belief that the plague would not come into the city, nor into Southwark, no, nor into Wapping or Ratcliff at all; nay, such was the assurance of the people on that head, that many removed from the suburbs on the west and north sides into those eastern and south sides as for safety, and, as I verily believe, carried the plague amongst them there, perhaps sooner than they would otherwise have had it.

Here, also, I ought to leave a further remark for the use of posterity, concerning the manner of people’s infecting one another; namely, that it was not the sick people only from whom the plague was immediately received by others that were sound, but the well. To explain myself: by the sick people, I mean those who were known to be sick, had taken their beds, had been under cure, or had swellings or tumors upon them, and the like. These everybody could beware of: they were either in their beds, or in such condition as could not be concealed.

By the well, I mean such as had received the contagion, and had it really upon them and in their blood, yet did not show the consequences of it in their countenances; nay, even were not sensible of it themselves, as many were not for several days. These breathed death in every place, and upon everybody who came near them; nay, their very clothes retained the infection; their hands would infect the things they touched, especially if they were warm and sweaty, and they were generally apt to sweat, too.

Now, it was impossible to know these people, nor did they sometimes, as I have said, know themselves, to be infected. These were the people that so often dropped down and fainted in the streets; for oftentimes they would go about the streets to the last, till on a sudden they would sweat, grow faint, sit down at a door, and die. It is true, finding themselves thus, they would struggle hard to get home to their own doors, or at other times would be just able to go into their houses, and die instantly. Other times they would go about till they had the very tokens come out upon them, and yet not know it, and would die in an hour or two after they came home, but be well as long as they were abroad. These were the dangerous people; these were the people of whom the well people ought to have been afraid: but then, on the other side, it was impossible to know them.

And this is the reason why it is impossible in a visitation to prevent the spreading of the plague by the utmost human vigilance; viz., that it is impossible to know the infected people from the sound, or that the infected people should perfectly know themselves. I knew a man who conversed freely in London all the season of the plague in 1665, and kept about him an antidote or cordial, on purpose to take when he thought himself in any danger; and he had such a rule to know, or have warning of the danger by, as indeed I never met with before or since: how far it may be depended on, I know not. He had a wound in his leg; and whenever he came among any people that were not sound, and the infection began to affect him, he said he could know it by that signal, viz., that the wound in his leg would smart, and look pale and white: so as soon as ever he felt it smart it was time for him to withdraw, or to take care of himself, taking his drink, which he always carried about him for that purpose. Now, it seems he found his wound would smart many times when he was in company with such who thought themselves to be sound, and who appeared so to one another; but he would presently rise up, and say publicly, “Friends, here is somebody in the room that has the plague,” and so would immediately break up the company. This was, indeed, a faithful monitor to all people, that the plague is not to be avoided by those that converse promiscuously in a town infected, and people have it when they know it not, and that they likewise give it to others when they know not that they have it themselves; and in this case, shutting up the well or removing the sick will not do it, unless they can go back and shut up all those that the sick had conversed with, even before they knew themselves to be sick; and none knows how far to carry that back, or where to stop, for none knows when, or where, or how, they may have received the infection, or from whom.

This I take to be the reason which makes so many people talk of the air being corrupted and infected, and that they need not be cautious of whom they converse with, for that the contagion was in the air. I have seen them in strange agitations and surprises on this account. “I have never come near any infected body,” says the disturbed person; “I have conversed with none but sound healthy people, and yet I have gotten the distemper.” “I am sure I am struck from Heaven,” says another, and he falls to the serious part. Again the first goes on exclaiming, “I have come near no infection, or any infected person; I am sure it is in the air; we draw in death when we breathe, and therefore it is the hand of God: there is no withstanding it.” And this at last made many people, being hardened to the danger, grow less concerned at it, and less cautious towards the latter end of the time, and when it was come to its height, than they were at first. Then, with a kind of a Turkish predestinarianism, they would say, if it pleased God to strike them, it was all one whether they went abroad, or staid at home: they could not escape it. And therefore they went boldly about, even into infected houses and infected company, visited sick people, and, in short, lay in the beds with their wives or relations when they were infected. And what was the consequence but the same that is the consequence in Turkey, and in those countries where they do those things, namely, that they were infected too, and died by hundreds and thousands?

I would be far from lessening the awe of the judgments of God, and the reverence to his providence, which ought always to be on our minds on such occasions as these. Doubtless the visitation itself is a stroke from Heaven upon a city, or country, or nation, where it falls; a messenger of his vengeance, and a loud call to that nation, or country, or city, to humiliation and repentance, according to that of the prophet Jeremiah (xviii. 7, 8): “At what instant I shall speak concerning a nation, and concerning a kingdom, to pluck up, and to pull down, and to destroy it; if that nation, against whom I have pronounced, turn from their evil, I will repent of the evil that I thought to do unto them.” Now, to prompt due impressions of the awe of God on the minds of men on such occasions, and not to lessen them, it is that I have left those minutes upon record.

I say, therefore, I reflect upon no man for putting the reason of those things upon the immediate hand of God and the appointment and direction of his providence; nay, on the contrary, there were many wonderful deliverances of persons from infection, and deliverances of persons when infected, which intimate singular and remarkable providence in the particular instances to which they refer; and I esteem my own deliverance to be one next to miraculous, and do record it with thankfulness.

But when I am speaking of the plague as a distemper arising from natural causes, we must consider it as it was really propagated by natural means. Nor is it at all the less a judgment for its being under the conduct of human causes and effects; for as the Divine Power has formed the whole scheme of nature, and maintains nature in its course, so the same Power thinks fit to let his own actings with men, whether of mercy or judgment, to go on in the ordinary course of natural causes, and he is pleased to act by those natural causes as the ordinary means, excepting and reserving to himself, nevertheless, a power to act in a supernatural way when he sees occasion. Now it is evident, that, in the case of an infection, there is no apparent extraordinary occasion for supernatural operation; but the ordinary course of things appears sufficiently armed, and made capable of all the effects that Heaven usually directs by a contagion. Among these causes and effects, this of the secret conveyance of infection, imperceptible and unavoidable, is more than sufficient to execute the fierceness of divine vengeance, without putting it upon supernaturals and miracles.

The acute, penetrating nature of the disease itself was such, and the infection was received so imperceptibly, that the most exact caution could not secure us while in the place; but I must be allowed to believe—and I have so many examples fresh in my memory to convince me of it, that I think none can resist their evidence,—I say, I must be allowed to believe that no one in this whole nation ever received the sickness or infection, but who received it in the ordinary way of infection from somebody, or the clothes, or touch, or stench of somebody, that was infected before.

The manner of its first coming to London proves this also, viz., by goods brought over from Holland, and brought thither from the Levant; the first breaking of it out in a house in Longacre where those goods were carried and first opened; its spreading from that house to other houses by the visible unwary conversing with those who were sick, and the infecting the parish officers who were employed about persons dead; and the like. These are known authorities for this great foundation point, that it went on and proceeded from person to person, and from house to house, and no otherwise. In the first house that was infected, there died four persons. A neighbor, hearing the mistress of the first house was sick, went to visit her, and went home and gave the distemper to her family, and died, and all her household. A minister called to pray with the first sick person in the second house was said to sicken immediately, and die, with several more in his house. Then the physicians began to consider, for they did not at first dream of a general contagion; but the physicians being sent to inspect the bodies, they assured the people that it was neither more or less than the plague, with all its terrifying particulars, and that it threatened an universal infection; so many people having already conversed with the sick or distempered, and having, as might be supposed, received infection from them, that it would be impossible to put a stop to it.

Here the opinion of the physicians agreed with my observation afterwards, namely, that the danger was spreading insensibly: for the sick could infect none but those that came within reach of the sick person; but that one man, who may have really received the infection, and knows it not, but goes abroad and about as a sound person, may give the plague to a thousand people, and they to greater numbers in proportion, and neither the person giving the infection, nor the persons receiving it, know anything of it, and perhaps not feel the effects of it for several days after. For example:—

Many persons, in the time of this visitation, never perceived that they were infected till they found, to their unspeakable surprise, the tokens come out upon them, after which they seldom lived six hours; for those spots they called the tokens were really gangrene spots, or mortified flesh, in small knobs as broad as a little silver penny, and hard as a piece of callus or horn; so that when the disease was come up to that length, there was nothing could follow but certain death. And yet, as I said, they knew nothing of their being infected, nor found themselves so much as out of order, till those mortal marks were upon them. But everybody must allow that they were infected in a high degree before, and must have been so some time; and consequently their breath, their sweat, their very clothes, were contagious for many days before.

This occasioned a vast variety of cases, which physicians would have much more opportunity to remember than I; but some came within the compass of my observation or hearing, of which I shall name a few.

A certain citizen who had lived safe and untouched till the month of September, when the weight of the distemper lay more in the city than it had done before, was mighty cheerful, and something too bold, as I think it was, in his talk of how secure he was, how cautious he had been, and how he had never come near any sick body. Says another citizen, a neighbor of his, to him one day, “Do not be too confident, Mr. ——: it is hard to say who is sick and who is well; for we see men alive and well to outward appearance one hour, and dead the next.”—“That is true,” says the first man (for he was not a man presumptuously secure, but had escaped a long while; and men, as I have said above, especially in the city, began to be overeasy on that score),—“that is true,” says he. “I do not think myself secure; but I hope I have not been in company with any person that there has been any danger in.”—“No!” says his neighbor. “Was not you at the Bull Head Tavern in Gracechurch Street, with Mr. ——, the night before last?”—“Yes,” says the first, “I was; but there was nobody there that we had any reason to think dangerous.” Upon which his neighbor said no more, being unwilling to surprise him. But this made him more inquisitive, and, as his neighbor appeared backward, he was the more impatient; and in a kind of warmth says he aloud, “Why, he is not dead, is he?” Upon which his neighbor still was silent, but cast up his eyes, and said something to himself; at which the first citizen turned pale, and said no more but this, “Then I am a dead man too!” and went home immediately, and sent for a neighboring apothecary to give him something preventive, for he had not yet found himself ill. But the apothecary, opening his breast, fetched a sigh, and said no more but this, “Look up to God.” And the man died in a few hours.

Now, let any man judge from a case like this if it is possible for the regulations of magistrates, either by shutting up the sick or removing them, to stop an infection which spreads itself from man to man even while they are perfectly well, and insensible of its approach, and may be so for many days.

It may be proper to ask here how long it may be supposed men might have the seeds of the contagion in them before it discovered itself in this fatal manner, and how long they might go about seemingly whole, and yet be contagious to all those that came near them. I believe the most experienced physicians cannot answer this question directly any more than I can; and something an ordinary observer may take notice of which may pass their observation. The opinion of physicians abroad seems to be, that it may lie dormant in the spirits, or in the blood vessels, a very considerable time: why else do they exact a quarantine of those who come into their harbors and ports from suspected places? Forty days is, one would think, too long for nature to struggle with such an enemy as this, and not conquer it or yield to it; but I could not think by my own observation that they can be infected, so as to be contagious to others, above fifteen or sixteen days at farthest; and on that score it was, that when a house was shut up in the city, and any one had died of the plague, but nobody appeared to be ill in the family for sixteen or eighteen days after, they were not so strict but that they would connive at their going privately abroad; nor would people be much afraid of them afterwards, but rather think they were fortified the better, having not been vulnerable when the enemy was in their house: but we sometimes found it had lain much longer concealed.

Upon the foot of all these observations I must say, that, though Providence seemed to direct my conduct to be otherwise, it is my opinion, and I must leave it as a prescription, viz., that the best physic against the plague is to run away from it. I know people encourage themselves by saying, “God is able to keep us in the midst of danger, and able to overtake us when we think ourselves out of danger;” and this kept thousands in the town whose carcasses went into the great pits by cartloads, and who, if they had fled from the danger, had, I believe, been safe from the disaster: at least, ’tis probable they had been safe.

And were this very fundamental only duly considered by the people on any future occasion of this or the like nature, I am persuaded it would put them upon quite different measures for managing the people from those that they took in 1665, or than any that have been taken abroad that I have heard of: in a word, they would consider of separating the people into smaller bodies, and removing them in time farther from one another, and not let such a contagion as this, which is indeed chiefly dangerous to collected bodies of people, find a million of people in a body together, as was very near the case before, and would certainly be the case if it should ever appear again.

The plague, like a great fire, if a few houses only are contiguous where it happens, can only burn a few houses; or if it begins in a single, or, as we call it, a lone house, can only burn that lone house where it begins; but if it begins in a close-built town or city, and gets ahead, there its fury increases, it rages over the whole place, and consumes all it can reach.

I could propose many schemes on the foot of which the government of this city, if ever they should be under the apprehension of such another enemy, (God forbid they should!) might ease themselves of the greatest part of the dangerous people that belong to them: I mean such as the begging, starving, laboring poor, and among them chiefly those who, in a case of siege, are called the useless mouths; who, being then prudently, and to their own advantage, disposed of, and the wealthy inhabitants disposing of themselves, and of their servants and children, the city and its adjacent parts would be so effectually evacuated that there would not be above a tenth part of its people left together for the disease to take hold upon. But suppose them to be a fifth part, and that two hundred and fifty thousand people were left; and if it did seize upon them, they would, by their living so much at large, be much better prepared to defend themselves against the infection, and be less liable to the effects of it, than if the same number of people lived close together in one smaller city, such as Dublin, or Amsterdam, or the like.

It is true, hundreds, yea thousands, of families fled away at this last plague; but then of them many fled too late, and not only died in their flight, but carried the distemper with them into the countries where they went, and infected those whom they went among for safety; which confounded the thing, and made that be a propagation of the distemper which was the best means to prevent it. And this, too, is evident of it, and brings me back to what I only hinted at before, but must speak more fully to here, namely, that men went about apparently well many days after they had the taint of the disease in their vitals, and after their spirits were so seized as that they could never escape it; and that, all the while they did so, they were dangerous to others. I say, this proves that so it was; for such people infected the very towns they went through, as well as the families they went among; and it was by that means that almost all the great towns in England had the distemper among them more or less, and always they would tell you such a Londoner or such a Londoner brought it down.

It must not be omitted, that when I speak of those people who were really thus dangerous, I suppose them to be utterly ignorant of their own condition; for if they really knew their circumstances to be such as indeed they were, they must have been a kind of willful murderers if they would have gone abroad among healthy people, and it would have verified indeed the suggestion which I mentioned above, and which I thought seemed untrue, viz., that the infected people were utterly careless as to giving the infection to others, and rather forward to do it than not; and I believe it was partly from this very thing that they raised that suggestion, which I hope was not really true in fact.

I confess no particular case is sufficient to prove a general; but I could name several people, within the knowledge of some of their neighbors and families yet living, who showed the contrary to an extreme. One man, the master of a family in my neighborhood, having had the distemper, he thought he had it given him by a poor workman whom he employed, and whom he went to his house to see, or went for some work that he wanted to have finished; and he had some apprehensions even while he was at the poor workman’s door, but did not discover it fully; but the next day it discovered itself, and he was taken very ill, upon which he immediately caused himself to be carried into an outbuilding which he had in his yard, and where there was a chamber over a workhouse, the man being a brazier. Here he lay, and here he died, and would be tended by none of his neighbors but by a nurse from abroad, and would not suffer his wife, nor children, nor servants, to come up into the room, lest they should be infected, but sent them his blessing and prayers for them by the nurse, who spoke it to them at a distance; and all this for fear of giving them the distemper, and without which, he knew, as they were kept up, they could not have it.

And here I must observe also that the plague, as I suppose all distempers do, operated in a different manner on differing constitutions. Some were immediately overwhelmed with it, and it came to violent fevers, vomitings, insufferable headaches, pains in the back, and so up to ravings and ragings with those pains; others with swellings and tumors in the neck or groin, or armpits, which, till they could be broke, put them into insufferable agonies and torment; while others, as I have observed, were silently infected, the fever preying upon their spirits insensibly, and they seeing little of it till they fell into swooning and faintings, and death without pain.

I am not physician enough to enter into the particular reasons and manner of these differing effects of one and the same distemper, and of its differing operation in several bodies; nor is it my business here to record the observations which I really made, because the doctors themselves have done that part much more effectually than I can do, and because my opinion may in some things differ from theirs. I am only relating what I know, or have heard, or believe, of the particular cases, and what fell within the compass of my view, and the different nature of the infection as it appeared in the particular cases which I have related; but this may be added too, that though the former sort of those cases, namely, those openly visited, were the worst for themselves as to pain (I mean those that had such fevers, vomitings, headaches, pains, and swellings), because they died in such a dreadful manner, yet the latter had the worst state of the disease; for in the former they frequently recovered, especially if the swellings broke; but the latter was inevitable death. No cure, no help, could be possible; nothing could follow but death. And it was worse, also, to others; because, as above, it secretly and unperceived by others or by themselves, communicated death to those they conversed with, the penetrating poison insinuating itself into their blood in a manner which it was impossible to describe, or indeed conceive.

This infecting and being infected without so much as its being known to either person is evident from two sorts of cases which frequently happened at that time; and there is hardly anybody living, who was in London during the infection, but must have known several of the cases of both sorts.

1. Fathers and mothers have gone about as if they had been well, and have believed themselves to be so, till they have insensibly infected and been the destruction of their whole families; which they would have been far from doing if they had had the least apprehensions of their being unsound and dangerous themselves. A family, whose story I have heard, was thus infected by the father, and the distemper began to appear upon some of them even before he found it upon himself; but, searching more narrowly, it appeared he had been infected some time, and, as soon as he found that his family had been poisoned by himself, he went distracted, and would have laid violent hands upon himself, but was kept from that by those who looked to him; and in a few days he died.

2. The other particular is, that many people, having been well to the best of their own judgment, or by the best observation which they could make of themselves for several days, and only finding a decay of appetite, or a light sickness upon their stomachs,—nay, some whose appetite has been strong, and even craving, and only a light pain in their heads,—have sent for physicians to know what ailed them, and have been found, to their great surprise, at the brink of death, the tokens upon them, or the plague grown up to an incurable height.

It was very sad to reflect how such a person as this last mentioned above had been a walking destroyer, perhaps for a week or fortnight before that; how he had ruined those that he would have hazarded his life to save, and had been breathing death upon them, even perhaps in his tender kissing and embracings of his own children. Yet thus certainly it was, and often has been, and I could give many particular cases where it has been so. If, then, the blow is thus insensibly striking; if the arrow flies thus unseen, and cannot be discovered,—to what purpose are all the schemes for shutting up or removing the sick people? Those schemes cannot take place but upon those that appear to be sick or to be infected; whereas there are among them at the same time thousands of people who seem to be well, but are all that while carrying death with them into all companies which they come into.

This frequently puzzled our physicians, and especially the apothecaries and surgeons, who knew not how to discover the sick from the sound. They all allowed that it was really so; that many people had the plague in their very blood, and preying upon their spirits, and were in themselves but walking putrefied carcasses, whose breath was infectious, and their sweat poison, and yet were as well to look on as other people, and even knew it not themselves,—I say they all allowed that it was really true in fact, but they knew not how to propose a discovery.

My friend Dr. Heath was of opinion that it might be known by the smell of their breath; but then, as he said, who durst smell to that breath for his information, since to know it he must draw the stench of the plague up into his own brain in order to distinguish the smell? I have heard it was the opinion of others that it might be distinguished by the party’s breathing upon a piece of glass, where, the breath condensing, there might living creatures be seen by a microscope, of strange, monstrous, and frightful shapes, such as dragons, snakes, serpents, and devils, horrible to behold. But this I very much question the truth of, and we had no microscopes at that time, as I remember, to make the experiment with.

It was the opinion, also, of another learned man that the breath of such a person would poison and instantly kill a bird, not only a small bird, but even a cock or hen; and that, if it did not immediately kill the latter, it would cause them to be roupy, as they call it; particularly that, if they had laid any eggs at that time, they would be all rotten. But those are opinions which I never found supported by any experiments, or heard of others that had seen it, so I leave them as I find them, only with this remark, namely, that I think the probabilities are very strong for them.

Some have proposed that such persons should breathe hard upon warm water, and that they would leave an unusual scum upon it, or upon several other things, especially such as are of a glutinous substance, and are apt to receive a scum, and support it.

But, from the whole, I found that the nature of this contagion was such that it was impossible to discover it at all, or to prevent it spreading from one to another by any human skill.

Here was indeed one difficulty, which I could never thoroughly get over to this time, and which there is but one way of answering that I know of, and it is this; viz., the first person that died of the plague was on December 20th, or thereabouts, 1664, and in or about Longacre: whence the first person had the infection was generally said to be from a parcel of silks imported from Holland, and first opened in that house.

But after this we heard no more of any person dying of the plague, or of the distemper being in that place, till the 9th of February, which was about seven weeks after, and then one more was buried out of the same house. Then it was hushed, and we were perfectly easy as to the public for a great while; for there were no more entered in the weekly bill to be dead of the plague till the 22d of April, when there were two more buried, not out of the same house, but out of the same street; and, as near as I can remember, it was out of the next house to the first. This was nine weeks asunder; and after this we had no more till a fortnight, and then it broke out in several streets, and spread every way. Now, the question seems to lie thus: Where lay the seeds of the infection all this while? how came it to stop so long, and not stop any longer? Either the distemper did not come immediately by contagion from body to body, or, if it did, then a body may be capable to continue infected, without the disease discovering itself, many days, nay, weeks together; even not a quarantine of days only, but a soixantine,—not only forty days, but sixty days, or longer.

It is true there was, as I observed at first, and is well known to many yet living, a very cold winter and a long frost, which continued three months; and this, the doctors say, might check the infection. But then the learned must allow me to say, that if, according to their notion, the disease was, as I may say, only frozen up, it would, like a frozen river, have returned to its usual force and current when it thawed; whereas the principal recess of this infection, which was from February to April, was after the frost was broken and the weather mild and warm.

But there is another way of solving all this difficulty, which I think my own remembrance of the thing will supply; and that is, the fact is not granted, namely, that there died none in those long intervals, viz., from the 20th of December to the 9th of February, and from thence to the 22d of April. The weekly bills are the only evidence on the other side, and those bills were not of credit enough, at least with me, to support an hypothesis, or determine a question of such importance as this; for it was our received opinion at that time, and I believe upon very good grounds, that the fraud lay in the parish officers, searchers, and persons appointed to give account of the dead, and what diseases they died of; and as people were very loath at first to have the neighbors believe their houses were infected, so they gave money to procure, or otherwise procured, the dead persons to be returned as dying of other distempers; and this I know was practiced afterwards in many places, I believe I might say in all places where the distemper came, as will be seen by the vast increase of the numbers placed in the weekly bills under other articles of diseases during the time of the infection. For example, in the months of July and August, when the plague was coming on to its highest pitch, it was very ordinary to have from a thousand to twelve hundred, nay, to almost fifteen hundred, a week, of other distempers. Not that the numbers of those distempers were really increased to such a degree; but the great number of families and houses where really the infection was, obtained the favor to have their dead be returned of other distempers, to prevent the shutting up their houses. For example:—

Dead of other Diseases besides the Plague.

From the 18th to the 25th of July 942
To the 1st of August 1,004
To the 8th 1,213
To the 15th 1,439
To the 22th 1,331
To the 29th 1,394
To the 5th of September 1,264
To the 12th 1,056
To the 19th 1,132
To the 26th 927

Now, it was not doubted but the greatest part of these, or a great part of them, were dead of the plague; but the officers were prevailed with to return them as above, and the numbers of some particular articles of distempers discovered is as follows:—

 Aug. 1-8. Aug. 8-15. Aug. 15-22. Aug. 22-29.
Fever 314 353 348 383
Spotted fever 174 190 166 165
Surfeit 85 87 74 99
Teeth 90 113 111 133
 —— —— —— ——
 663 743 699 780

 Aug. 29-Sept. 5.     Sept. 5-12.     Sept. 12-19.     Sept. 19-26.
Fever 364 332 309 268
Spotted Fever 157 97 101 65
Surfeit 68 45 49 36
Teeth 138 128 121 112
 —— —— —— ——
 727 602 580 481

There were several other articles which bore a proportion to these, and which it is easy to perceive were increased on the same account; as aged, consumptions, vomitings, imposthumes, gripes, and the like, many of which were not doubted to be infected people; but as it was of the utmost consequence to families not to be known to be infected, if it was possible to avoid it, so they took all the measures they could to have it not believed, and if any died in their houses, to get them returned to the examiners, and by the searchers, as having died of other distempers.

This, I say, will account for the long interval which, as I have said, was between the dying of the first persons that were returned in the bills to be dead of the plague, and the time when the distemper spread openly, and could not be concealed.

Besides, the weekly bills themselves at that time evidently discover this truth; for while there was no mention of the plague, and no increase after it had been mentioned, yet it was apparent that there was an increase of those distempers which bordered nearest upon it. For example, there were eight, twelve, seventeen, of the spotted fever in a week when there were none or but very few of the plague; whereas before, one, three, or four were the ordinary weekly numbers of that distemper. Likewise, as I observed before, the burials increased weekly in that particular parish and the parishes adjacent, more than in any other parish, although there were none set down of the plague; all which tell us that the infection was handed on, and the succession of the distemper really preserved, though it seemed to us at that time to be ceased, and to come again in a manner surprising.

It might be, also, that the infection might remain in other parts of the same parcel of goods which at first it came in, and which might not be, perhaps, opened, or at least not fully, or in the clothes of the first infected person; for I cannot think that anybody could be seized with the contagion in a fatal and mortal degree for nine weeks together, and support his state of health so well as even not to discover it to themselves: yet, if it were so, the argument is the stronger in favor of what I am saying, namely, that the infection is retained in bodies apparently well, and conveyed from them to those they converse with, while it is known to neither the one nor the other.

Great were the confusions at that time upon this very account; and when people began to be convinced that the infection was received in this surprising manner from persons apparently well, they began to be exceeding shy and jealous of every one that came near them. Once, on a public day, whether a sabbath day or not I do not remember, in Aldgate Church, in a pew full of people, on a sudden one fancied she smelt an ill smell. Immediately she fancies the plague was in the pew, whispers her notion or suspicion to the next, then rises and goes out of the pew. It immediately took with the next, and so with them all; and every one of them, and of the two or three adjoining pews, got up and went out of the church, nobody knowing what it was offended them, or from whom.

This immediately filled everybody’s mouths with one preparation or other, such as the old women directed, and some, perhaps, as physicians directed, in order to prevent infection by the breath of others; insomuch, that if we came to go into a church when it was anything full of people, there would be such a mixture of smells at the entrance, that it was much more strong, though perhaps not so wholesome, than if you were going into an apothecary’s or druggist’s shop: in a word, the whole church was like a smelling bottle. In one corner it was all perfumes; in another, aromatics, balsamics, and a variety of drugs and herbs; in another, salts and spirits, as every one was furnished for their own preservation. Yet I observed that after people were possessed, as I have said, with the belief, or rather assurance, of the infection being thus carried on by persons apparently in health, the churches and meetinghouses were much thinner of people than at other times, before that, they used to be; for this is to be said of the people of London, that, during the whole time of the pestilence, the churches or meetings were never wholly shut up, nor did the people decline coming out to the public worship of God, except only in some parishes, when the violence of the distemper was more particularly in that parish at that time, and even then no longer than it continued to be so.

Indeed, nothing was more strange than to see with what courage the people went to the public service of God, even at that time when they were afraid to stir out of their own houses upon any other occasion (this I mean before the time of desperation which I have mentioned already). This was a proof of the exceeding populousness of the city at the time of the infection, notwithstanding the great numbers that were gone into the country at the first alarm, and that fled out into the forests and woods when they were further terrified with the extraordinary increase of it. For when we came to see the crowds and throngs of people which appeared on the sabbath days at the churches, and especially in those parts of the town where the plague was abated, or where it was not yet come to its height, it was amazing. But of this I shall speak again presently. I return, in the mean time, to the article of infecting one another at first. Before people came to right notions of the infection and of infecting one another, people were only shy of those that were really sick. A man with a cap upon his head, or with cloths round his neck (which was the case of those that had swellings there),—such was indeed frightful; but when we saw a gentleman dressed, with his band on, and his gloves in his hand, his hat upon his head, and his hair combed,—of such we had not the least apprehensions; and people conversed a great while freely, especially with their neighbors and such as they knew. But when the physicians assured us that the danger was as well from the sound (that is, the seemingly sound) as the sick, and that those people that thought themselves entirely free were oftentimes the most fatal; and that it came to be generally understood that people were sensible of it, and of the reason of it,—then, I say, they began to be jealous of everybody; and a vast number of people locked themselves up, so as not to come abroad into any company at all, nor suffer any that had been abroad in promiscuous company to come into their houses, or near them (at least not so near them as to be within the reach of their breath, or of any smell from them); and when they were obliged to converse at a distance with strangers, they would always have preservatives in their mouths and about their clothes, to repel and keep off the infection.

It must be acknowledged that when people began to use these cautions they were less exposed to danger, and the infection did not break into such houses so furiously as it did into others before; and thousands of families were preserved, speaking with due reserve to the direction of Divine Providence, by that means.

But it was impossible to beat anything into the heads of the poor. They went on with the usual impetuosity of their tempers, full of outcries and lamentations when taken, but madly careless of themselves, foolhardy, and obstinate, while they were well. Where they could get employment, they pushed into any kind of business, the most dangerous and the most liable to infection; and if they were spoken to, their answer would be, “I must trust to God for that. If I am taken, then I am provided for, and there is an end of me;” and the like. Or thus, “Why, what must I do? I cannot starve. I had as good have the plague as perish for want. I have no work: what could I do? I must do this, or beg.” Suppose it was burying the dead, or attending the sick, or watching infected houses, which were all terrible hazards; but their tale was generally the same. It is true, necessity was a justifiable, warrantable plea, and nothing could be better; but their way of talk was much the same where the necessities were not the same. This adventurous conduct of the poor was that which brought the plague among them in a most furious manner; and this, joined to the distress of their circumstances when taken, was the reason why they died so by heaps; for I cannot say I could observe one jot of better husbandry among them (I mean the laboring poor) while they were all well and getting money than there was before; but as lavish, as extravagant, and as thoughtless for to-morrow as ever; so that when they came to be taken sick, they were immediately in the utmost distress, as well for want as for sickness, as well for lack of food as lack of health.

The misery of the poor I had many occasions to be an eyewitness of, and sometimes, also, of the charitable assistance that some pious people daily gave to such, sending them relief and supplies, both of food, physic, and other help, as they found they wanted. And indeed it is a debt of justice due to the temper of the people of that day, to take notice here, that not only great sums, very great sums of money, were charitably sent to the lord mayor and aldermen for the assistance and support of the poor distempered people, but abundance of private people daily distributed large sums of money for their relief, and sent people about to inquire into the condition of particular distressed and visited families, and relieved them. Nay, some pious ladies were transported with zeal in so good a work, and so confident in the protection of Providence in discharge of the great duty of charity, that they went about in person distributing alms to the poor, and even visiting poor families, though sick and infected, in their very houses, appointing nurses to attend those that wanted attending, and ordering apothecaries and surgeons, the first to supply them with drugs or plasters, and such things as they wanted, and the last to lance and dress the swellings and tumors, where such were wanting; giving their blessing to the poor in substantial relief to them, as well as hearty prayers for them.

I will not undertake to say, as some do, that none of those charitable people were suffered to fall under the calamity itself; but this I may say, that I never knew any one of them that miscarried, which I mention for the encouragement of others in case of the like distress; and doubtless if they that give to the poor lend to the Lord, and he will repay them, those that hazard their lives to give to the poor, and to comfort and assist the poor in such misery as this, may hope to be protected in the work.

Nor was this charity so extraordinary eminent only in a few; but (for I cannot lightly quit this point) the charity of the rich, as well in the city and suburbs as from the country, was so great, that in a word a prodigious number of people, who must otherwise have perished for want as well as sickness, were supported and subsisted by it; and though I could never, nor I believe any one else, come to a full knowledge of what was so contributed, yet I do believe, that, as I heard one say that was a critical observer of that part, there was not only many thousand pounds contributed, but many hundred thousand pounds, to the relief of the poor of this distressed, afflicted city. Nay, one man affirmed to me that he could reckon up above one hundred thousand pounds a week which was distributed by the churchwardens at the several parish vestries, by the lord mayor and the aldermen in the several wards and precincts, and by the particular direction of the court and of the justices respectively in the parts where they resided, over and above the private charity distributed by pious hands in the manner I speak of; and this continued for many weeks together.

I confess this is a very great sum; but if it be true that there was distributed, in the parish of Cripplegate only, seventeen thousand eight hundred pounds in one week to the relief of the poor, as I heard reported, and which I really believe was true, the other may not be improbable.

It was doubtless to be reckoned among the many signal good providences which attended this great city, and of which there were many other worth recording. I say, this was a very remarkable one, that it pleased God thus to move the hearts of the people in all parts of the kingdom so cheerfully to contribute to the relief and support of the poor at London; the good consequences of which were felt many ways, and particularly in preserving the lives and recovering the health of so many thousands, and keeping so many thousands of families from perishing and starving.

And now I am talking of the merciful disposition of Providence in this time of calamity, I cannot but mention again, though I have spoken several times of it already on other accounts (I mean that of the progression of the distemper), how it began at one end of the town, and proceeded gradually and slowly from one part to another, and like a dark cloud that passes over our heads, which, as it thickens and overcasts the air at one end, clears up at the other end: so, while the plague went on raging from west to east, as it went forwards east, it abated in the west; by which means those parts of the town which were not seized, or who were left, and where it had spent its fury, were (as it were) spared to help and assist the other: whereas, had the distemper spread itself over the whole city and suburbs at once, raging in all places alike, as it has done since in some places abroad, the whole body of the people must have been overwhelmed, and there would have died twenty thousand a day, as they say there did at Naples, nor would the people have been able to have helped or assisted one another.

For it must be observed that where the plague was in its full force, there indeed the people were very miserable, and the consternation was inexpressible; but a little before it reached even to that place, or presently after it was gone, they were quite another sort of people; and I cannot but acknowledge that there was too much of that common temper of mankind to be found among us all at that time, namely, to forget the deliverance when the danger is past. But I shall come to speak of that part again.

History of the Plague in England - Contents    |     § 16

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