Saturday, May 10, 2014

The Worst Two Years: “London’s Dreadful Visitation”

The plague hit London in 1664, but its great death machine did not get fully ramped up until 1665. It was a repeat engagement: London had suffered nearly 40 outbreaks of plague since 1348. But this was the most vicious bout yet, and it turned the city into a credible vision of Hell on earth.

The disease started by claiming a trickle of victims, but the toll from the “Dreadful Visitation,” as the official weekly death report called it, soon soared into the hundreds and even thousands per week. Early efforts to fight the disease may have made it worse. The moment a house was found to have a plague victim, the city sealed it up with all its occupants inside. Nobody was allowed out for forty days, during which time the illness often killed off every member of the family, one by one, and wiped out their servants for good measure.

This policy not only guaranteed prolonged close contact with the disease – it gave people a powerful incentive to hide signs of the plague. Deaths were recorded by indigent old women hired by the parishes as a form of welfare, so it was easy for a family to bribe its way out of a plague diagnosis. While some Londoners were locked up with their dying family members, others who were secretly infected were going about their business and spreading the disease around the city.

Leasor’s The Plague and The Fire argues that many victims could have been saved with proper medical care, but most of the doctors fled the city when the epidemic began, while others were more interested in peddling quack cures than treating fevers and cleaning sores.

“Plague nurses” sent to people’s homes sometimes provided elementary care. On the other hand, they sometimes decided to suffocate you and steal your belongings instead. They were a crapshoot, those plague nurses.

Image: Wellcome Museum, London, on Flickr
In the end, the sheer number of dead brought the city to its knees. There were hardly enough living people left to bury them all. Many were tipped into mass graves with no record taken of their passing. Victims in the last stages of delirium wandered the mostly-deserted streets, sometimes attacking a healthy passerby out of spite. Only the arrival of winter stopped the disease.

Thus ended Year One.

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