Excerpts from A Journal of the Plague Year

KeskusteluClub Read 2020

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Excerpts from A Journal of the Plague Year

Muokkaaja: huhtikuu 11, 2020, 9:12pm

I have interrupted my regularly scheduled reading program (The Year of the Novella) to read books about plague, pestilence, disease, and loss. Because everyone is thinking about them anyway.

Daniel Defoe's A Journal of the Plague Year has made a fascinating read, and there are some interesting (and sad) parallels between the London bubonic plague outbreak of 1665 and our worldwide coronavirus crisis.

So my plan is to offer an excerpt per day in case anyone wants to read along.

A word about bubonic plague: What was not known by Defoe and his contemporaries was that the plague originates with a bacteria in fleas carried by rats. The plague could infect people through rat bites or, more indirectly, through house cats that were infected by rats. (Dogs posed less threat because they have more natural immunity to plague.) Once people become infected with plague, person-to-person transmission becomes possible through coughing or contact with plague-affected areas on skin.

Cases of plague wax and wane with weather and flea population. It dies down in winter and increases in spring.

There are 20 or fewer cases of bubonic plague in the U.S. each year. Most victims survive thanks to antibiotic treatment.

Muokkaaja: huhtikuu 7, 2020, 6:39pm

In 1664, rumors of plague in Amsterdam circulate in London, and government officials begin to make plans to address a possible outbreak:

We had no such thing as printed newspapers in those days to spread rumours and reports of things, and to "improve" them by the invention of men, as I have lived to see practised since. But such things as these were gathered from the letters of merchants and others who corresponded abroad, and from them was handed about by word of mouth only; so that things did not spread instantly over the whole nation, as they do now.

But it seems that the Government had a true account of it, and several councils were held about ways to prevent its coming over; but all was kept very private. Hence it was that this rumour died off again, and people began to forget it....

In November or the beginning of December, 1664, when two men, said to be Frenchmen, died of the plague in Long Acre, or rather at the upper end of Drury Lane, the family they were in endeavoured to conceal it as much as possible.... However the Secretaries of State got knowledge of it; and concerning themselves to inquire about it in order to be certain of the truth, two physicians and a surgeon were ordered to go to the house and make inspection. This they did and finding evident tokens of the sickness upon both bodies that were dead, they gave their opinions publicly that they died of the plague ... and it was printed in the weekly bill of mortality in the usual manner thus--

Plague, 2
Parishes infected, 1

The people showed great concern at this, and began to be alarmed all over the town.

huhtikuu 8, 2020, 2:25pm

>2 nohrt4me2: Wow, the more things change...

huhtikuu 8, 2020, 2:48pm

>3 bragan:, Oh, we're just gettin' started!

Muokkaaja: huhtikuu 21, 2020, 2:13am

In the latter part of 1664 and early months of 1665, cases of plague begin to rise, but people believe them to be localized and contained. However, as the mortality statistics kept by parishes begin to rise, the authorities conduct house-to-house inspections and determine the plague to be widespread.

We were easy again for about six weeks when, none having died with any marks of infection, it was said the distemper was gone; but after that, I think it was about the 12th of February, another died in another house, but in the same parish and in the same manner....

The usual number of burials within the bills of mortality for a week was from about 240 or thereabouts to 300. The last was esteemed a pretty high bill; but after this we found the bills successively increasing as follows:

December 20-27: 291
December 27- January 3: 349
January 3-10: 394
January 10-17: 415
January 17-24: 474

This last bill was really frightful, being a higher number than had been known to have been buried in one week since the preceding visitation (of the plague) in 1656. However, all this went off again, and the weather proving cold, and the frost, which began in December, still continuing very severe ... the bills decreased again, and the city grew healthy, and everybody began to look upon the danger as good as over....

(At the beginning of May) we continued in these hopes for a few days. (But the local authorities) searched the houses and found that the plague was really spread every way, and that many died of it every day. So that now all our extenuations abated, and it was no more to be concealed; nay, it quickly appeared that the infection had spread itself beyond all hopes of abatement....

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Muokkaaja: huhtikuu 10, 2020, 4:25pm

In June, King Charles II moves the court to Oxford. Rich people with second homes outside London flee the city, resulting in crowded streets and a scarcity of horses and conveyances. News of the plague spreads to the countryside, and smaller towns begin blocking London travelers who do not have certificates of health.

The weather set in hot, and from the first week in June the infection spread in a dreadful manner.... All that could conceal their distempers did it to prevent their neighbours shunning and refusing to converse with them, and also to prevent authority shutting up their houses, which, though it was not yet practised, yet was threatened, and people were extremely terrified at the thoughts of it....

The richer sort of people, especially the nobility and gentry ... thronged out of town with their families and servants.... Indeed, nothing was to be seen but waggons and carts, with goods, women, servants, children, etc.; coaches filled with people of the better sort and horsemen attending them, and all hurrying away. Then empty waggons and carts appeared and spare horses with servants, who, it was apparent, were returning or sent from the countries to fetch more people....

This hurry of the people was such for some weeks that there was no getting at the Lord Mayor's door without exceeding difficulty; there were such pressing and crowding there to get passes and certificates of health for such as travelled abroad, for without these there was no being admitted to pass through the towns upon the road or to lodge in any inn....

I had two important things before me: the one was the carrying on my business and shop ... and the other was the preservation in my life in so dismal a calamity as I saw apparently coming ...

(I made plans with my brother to leave the city, but) the next day I found myself very much out of order (sick), so that if I would have gone away, I could not, and I continued ill three or four days, and this entirely determined my stay. So I took my leave of my brother, who went way to Surrey....

It was a very ill time to be sick in, for if anyone complained, it was immediately said he had the plague. And though I had indeed no symptom of that distemper, yet being very ill both in my head and in my stomach, I was not without apprehension that I really was infected. But in about three days I grew better. The third night I rested well, sweated a little, and was much refreshed.

ITEM: Northern Michigan to downstate residents: Stay home during coronavirus! https://www.bridgemi.com/quality-life/northern-michigan-downstate-residents-stay...

Muokkaaja: huhtikuu 30, 2020, 4:48pm

As the plague ramps up, people turn to charlatans and quacks hoping to cash in on public apprehensions. Misinformation is printed in books and pamphlets. Some ministers practice fearmongering. The poor and family servants, who rely on their masters for livelihood and protection, are especially vulnerable.

The astrologers added stories of the conjunctions of planets in a malignant manner and with a mischievous influence ... and they filled the people's heads with prediction on these signs in the heavens, intimating that those conjunctions foretold drought, famine, and pestilence....

Neither can I acquit those ministers that in their sermons rather sank than lifted up the hearts of their hearers. Many of them no doubt did it for the strengthening the resolution of the people, and especially for quickening them to repentance, but it certainly answered not their end, at least not in proportion to the injury it did another away (by causing undue despair).... As God Himself through the whole Scriptures rather draws to him (through) invitations and calls to turn to him and live, than drives us by terror ... so I must confess I thought the ministers should have done also (emphasizing that the) whole Gospel is full of declarations from heaven of God's mercy, and his readiness to receive penitents and forgive them.

Maid servants especially and men servants were the chief of the customers (of fortune tellers), and their questions generally was, after the first demand of "Will there be a plague?" was, "Oh, sir, for the Lord's sake, what will become of me? Will my mistress keep me, or will she turn me off? Will she stay here, or will she go into the country? And if she goes into the country, will she take me with her, or leave me here to be starved and undone?"...

(The people) ran to conjurers and witches and all sorts of deceivers to know what should become of them, (and they were equally) mad upon their running after quacks and mountebanks, and every practicing old woman for medicines and remedies, storing themselves with such multitudes of pills, potions, and preservatives as they were called that they not only spent their money but even poisoned themselves beforehand for fear of the poison of infection and prepared their bodies for the plague instead of preserving them against it.

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Muokkaaja: huhtikuu 11, 2020, 3:57pm

John Lawrence, Lord Mayor of London, acts to stem medical quackery. By early July, as commerce slows, many people are out of work and in danger of losing their homes or starving as the plague spreads. Parishes need more personnel to track sickness and enforce quarantines. The mayor and aldermen enlist citizens to form teams of public health workers in each parish to track the location of the plague, to keep death records, and to quarantine houses where there is sickness.

The Lord Mayor, a very sober and religious gentleman, appointed physicians and surgeons for relief of the poor ... and ordered the College of Physicians to publish directions for cheap remedies.... This, indeed, was one of the most charitable and judicious things that could be done at that time, for this drove the people from haunting the doors of every disperser of pills, and from taking down blindly and without consideration poison for physic and death instead of life....

(On July 1, the mayor's office decrees that) in every parish there be one, two or more persons of good sort and credit chosen and appointed by the alderman ... (as) examiners, to inquire and learn from time to time what houses in every parish be visited (with sickness), and what persons be sick, and of what diseases, as near as they can inform themselves....

To every infected house there be appointed two watchmen, one for every day, and the other for the night; and these watchmen (who are also charged to bring necessaries to those quarantined) have a special care that no person go in or out of such infected houses....

Women searchers in every parish, such as are of honest reputation, and of the best sort ... (are) sworn to make due search and true report to the utmost of their knowledge whether the persons whose bodies they are appointed to search do die of the infection, or of what other diseases as near as they can.

(Chirugeons, physician assistants trained as coroners, are appointed to assist searchers) and forasmuch as the said chirurgeons are to be sequestered from all other cures and kept only to this disease ..., it is ordered that every of the said chirugeons shall have twelve-pence a body searched by them, to be paid out of the goods of the party searched, if he be able, or otherwise by the parish.

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huhtikuu 12, 2020, 1:09pm

I don't have anything very specific to say about any of this, but I just wanted to say that I am still finding it fascinating. Although I'm not remotely sure if seeing all of these parallels makes me feel better about the current situation or worse.

huhtikuu 12, 2020, 1:28pm

Defoe's book is a favorite of mine, and encouraged me to look into him further. Thanks for this!

Muokkaaja: huhtikuu 12, 2020, 3:53pm

>9 bragan: I think the message is generally hopeful. If Defoe's observations are correct, all the hand-wringing over the economy will turn out to be a bit misplaced.

>10 tungsten_peerts: You are very welcome. My favorite book in high school was Moll Flanders. It was a boy's adventure book only with a girl! Defoe is an interesting character, and seems like a generous spirit.

huhtikuu 12, 2020, 3:51pm

The Lord Mayor, with the advice of the College of Physicians, sets up stringent rules to guard against spread of infection. Fires of coal or cedar wood are set burning at strategic locations around the city on the theory that the sulfur or turpentine fumes would kill the "seeds" of the plague. Ordinances are established governing the dead, the sick, and public cleanliness. Though the root cause of the plague was unknown at the time, many of the Lord Mayor's injunctions might actually have reduced the rat population responsible for the plague, as well as person-to-person transmission.

The burial of the dead (must) be always either before sun-rising or after sun-setting, ... and no neighbors nor friends be suffered to accompany the corpse to church, or to enter the house visited, upon pain of having his house shut up or be imprisoned.... And that all the graves shall be at least six feet deep. And further, all public assemblies at other burials are to be foreborne during the continuance of this visitation (of the plague).

No clothes, stuff, bedding, or garments (may) be suffered to be carried or conveyed out of any infected houses, and (selling of) bedding or old apparel ... be utterly prohibited.... and if any broker or other person shall buy any bedding, apparel, or other stuff out of any infected house within two months after the infection hath been there, his house shall be shut up as infected....

Every house visited (by plague is to be) marked with a red cross of a foot long in the middle of the door, evident to be seen, and with these usual printed words, that is to say, "Lord, have mercy upon us," ... there to continue until lawful opening of the same house. Constables (must) see every house shut up to be attended with watchmen, which may keep them in and minister necessaries unto them at their own charge, if they be able, or at the common charge, if they are unable. The shutting up on the house to be for four weeks after all (inhabitants be free of the illness).

... Searchers, chirugeons, keepers, and buriers are not to pass the streets without holding a red rod or wand of three feet in length in their hands, open and evident to be seen, and are not to go into any other house than into their own, or into that whereunto they are directed or sent for, but to forbear and abstain from company...

(Care must be taken) of hackney coachmen, that they may not (as some have been observed to do after carrying of infected persons to the pest-house and other places) be admitted to common use till their coaches be well aired, and have stood unemployed by the space of five or six days after such service....

Every householder (must) cause the street to be daily prepared before his door, and so to keep it clean swept all the week long. (And) the sweeping and filth of house (shall) be daily carried away by the rakers, and that the raker shall give notice of his coming by the blowing of a horn...

That no hogs, dogs, or cats, or tame pigeons, or conies (rabbits) be suffered to be kept within any part of the city or any swine to be or stray in the streets or lanes, but that such swine be impounded by the beadle or any other office and the owner punished, and that the dogs be killed by the dog killers appointed for the purpose....

Constables, and others whom this matter may any way concern, (must) take special care that no wandering beggars be suffered in the streets of this city in any fashion or manner whatsoever.

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huhtikuu 13, 2020, 4:28pm

The Lord Mayor's office also restricts public gatherings, establishes a 9 p.m. curfew on taverns, and urges that money usually spent on dinners in eateries be donated to the poor.

All plays, bear-baitings, games, singing of ballads, buckler-play, or such like causes of assemblies of people (are) utterly prohibited, and the parties offending severely punished.

All public feasting and particularly by the companies of this city, and dinners at taverns, ale-houses, and other places of common entertainment, (must) be forborne till further order and allowance. And that the money thereby spared be preserved and employed for the benefit and relief of the poor visited with the infection.

Disorderly tippling in taverns, ale-houses, coffee-houses, and cellars (must) be severely looked (on) as the common sin of this time and greatest occasion of (spreading) the plague. No company or person (shall) be suffered to remain or come into any tavern,, ale-house, or coffee-house to drink after nine of the clock in the evening.

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Muokkaaja: huhtikuu 14, 2020, 2:51pm

Fear of the plague and plague victims take hold of Londoners. To avoid quarantine, sick people sometimes go out with neck scarves or hats to disguise the telltale signs of swellings in their necks. Healthy people quarantined with sick family members and servants look for ways to escape their homes for fear of becoming infected themselves. It is believed that those sick from the plague would go mad and infect others on purpose.

(Every quarantined house) had but one (watchman), and as he had the whole house to guard, and that many houses were so situated as that they had several ways out, some more, some less, and some into several streets. (So) it was impossible for one man so to guard all the passages as to prevent the escape of people made desperate by the fright of their circumstances....

The (enforced) shutting up of houses was in no wise to be depended upon. Neither did it answer the end at all, serving more to make the people desperate, and drive them to such extremities as that they would break out at all adventures. And that which was still worse, those that did thus break out spread the infection farther by their wandering about with the distemper upon them....

The general notion, or scandal rather, which went about of the temper of people infected: namely that they did not take the least care or make any scruple of infecting others, though I cannot say but there might be some truth in it too, but not as general as was reported. What natural reason could be given for so wicked a thing at a time when they might conclude themselves just going to appear at the Bar of Divine Justice, I know not.

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huhtikuu 14, 2020, 9:33pm

This is a fascinating thread, nohrt4me2—thank you! Hey, at least we're not killing pets.

Muokkaaja: huhtikuu 16, 2020, 5:03pm

>15 lisapeet: That was really sad, but at least bear-baiting was stopped, so there's that!

Defoe noted that nearly every household had a cat to keep down the vermin population. But at the time, the thinking was that any animals running loose could carry contagion, so they took drastic animal control measures.

It comes through really clearly that doctors were trying hard to figure out the root causes of the plague logically. And they were coming close to germ theory, but without microscopes, they really could only make educated guesses. To their credit, the city officials assumed that any or all of the theories might have merit and took measures to try anything that might work.

Muokkaaja: huhtikuu 18, 2020, 4:19pm

As the plague reaches its height in August and September, city officials arrange for mass burial pits for the dead. In hopes of reducing the spread of infection and to prevent people from having to confront the horror of body collection, the dead carts operate after dark and buriers work to ensure the dead are covered before dawn. The narrator observes a pit 40 feet long, 15 feet wide, and about 20 feet deep, which is as far as the pit can be dug without striking water. Bodies are covered with at least six feet of earth, again in hopes of reducing the spread of the plague.

The pit (was) finished the 4th of September, I think, they began to bury in it the 6th, and by the 20th, which was just two weeks, they had thrown into it 1,114 bodies when they were obliged to fill it up, the bodies being then come to be within six feet of the surface...

I resolved to go in the night and see some of (the bodies) thrown in. There was a strict order to prevent people coming to those pits, and that was only to prevent infection. But after some time that order was more necessary, for people that were infected and near their end and delirious also would run to those pits, wrapped in blankets or rugs, and throw themselves in, and as they said, bury themselves....

(I heard) the bellman, and then appeared a dead-cart, as they called it, coming over the streets.... There was nobody, as I could perceive at first, in the churchyard, or going into it... (but then a man entered,) muffled up in a brown cloak and making motions with his hands under his cloak, as if he was in great agony (and) sighed as he would break his heart.... His wife and several of his children (were) all in the cart just come in with him, and calmly defying the buriers ...said he would only see the bodies thrown in and go away. But no sooner was the cart turned round and the bodies shot into the pit promiscuously, which was a surprise to him, for he at least expected they would have been decently laid in, (that) he cried out aloud unable to contain himself.... The buriers ran to him and took him up, and in a little while he came to himself, and they led him away to the Pie Tavern over against the end of Houndsditch, where, it seems, the man was known and where they took care of him....

This was a mournful scene indeed, ... but the other was awful and full of terror. The cart had in it sixteen or seventeen bodies; some were wrapped up in linen sheets, some in rags, some little other than naked, or so loose that what covering they had fell from them in the shooting out of the cart, and they fell quite naked among the rest. But the matter was not much to them, or the indecency much to anyone else, seeing they were all dead and were to be huddled together into the common grave of mankind, as we may call it, for here was no difference made, but poor and rich went together. There was no other way of burials, neither was it possible there should, for coffins were not to be had for the prodigious numbers that fell in such a calamity as this.

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huhtikuu 16, 2020, 3:51pm

>16 nohrt4me2: I was going to say that about the bear-baiting! (after reading your latest entries, I note that I am thankful for antibiotics)

huhtikuu 16, 2020, 5:02pm

Household quarantines are increasingly hard to enforce. Many citizens do not comply with the Lord Mayor's requirement that householders notify examiners within two hours of any plague symptoms in any family member or servant. In addition, many healthy people in quarantined houses try to escape to avoid infection. The narrator concludes that voluntary quarantine of the sick in pest-houses would have reduced infection and death rates.

It was a great mistake that such a great city as this had but one pest-house. For had there been, instead of one pest-house ... several pest houses, every one able to contain a thousand people, without being two to a bed, or two beds in a room, and had every master of the family, as soon as any servant especially had been taken sick in his house, been obliged to send them to the next pest-house, if they were willing, as many were, and had the examiners done the like among the poor people whom any had been stricken with the infection, I say, had this been done where the people were willing (not otherwise), and the houses not been shut, I am persuaded, and was all the while of that opinion, that not so many, by several thousands, had died.

For it was observed, and I could give several instances within the compass of my own knowledge, where a servant had been taken sick, and the family had either time to send him out or retire from the house and leave the sick person, as I have said above, they had all been preserved.

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huhtikuu 16, 2020, 5:09pm

>18 avaland: ... antibiotics and vaccines. You might remember the polio days. If we complained of a headache in the summertime, my mom would always ask if we could touch our chin to our chest, as one symptom was a stiff neck. I remember being taken to the local school where we got a drop of vaccine on a sugar cube. It was totally free.

Muokkaaja: huhtikuu 17, 2020, 2:28pm

In the beginning of August, the narrator's friend, Dr. Heath, pleads with him to stay inside with his household and not to open the house without what was believed to be disinfecting smoke. Market supplies begin to run low, and it is feared that, despite precautions, the plague is spread by shopping.

(Dr. Heath persuaded us) to keep all our windows fast, shutters and curtains close, and never to open them (unless we first made) a very strong smoke in the room where the window or door was to be opened, with rozen and pitch, brimstone or gunpowder and the like. And we did this for some time. But as I had not laid in a store of provisions for such a retreat, it was impossible that we could keep within doors entirely....

I went and bought two sacks of meal, and for several weeks, having an oven, we baked all our own bread. (We) also bought malt, and brewed as much beer as all the casks I had would hold, and which seemed enough to serve my house for five or six weeks. Also I laid in a quantity of salt butter and Cheshire cheese. But I had no flesh-meat, and the plague raged so violently among the butchers and slaughter-houses on the other side of our street, where (great numbers had fallen sick) that it was not advisable so much as to go over the street among them....

This necessity of going out of our houses to buy provisions was in a great measure the ruin of the whole city, for the people catched the distemper on these occasions, one of another, and even the provisions themselves were often tainted, at least I have great reason to believe so....

People used all possible precaution. When anyone bought a joint of meat in the market, they would not take it off the butcher's hand, but took it off the hooks themselves. On the other hand, the butcher would not touch the money, but have it put into a pot full of vinegar, which he kept for that purpose. The buyer carried always small money to make up any odd sum, that they might take no change.

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Muokkaaja: huhtikuu 18, 2020, 3:10pm

I'm thoroughly enjoying (if that's the right word) this thread, and especially the comparison between the 17th century bubonic plague and the current COVID-19 pandemic.

>21 nohrt4me2: Baking bread, indeed. I haven't been able to find active dry yeast in any supermarket in the past month, but I was able to purchase 12 packets of Fleischmann's Active Dry Yeast from Amazon Shopping for just over $7, with a $5 delivery charge. I was lucky, as the last time I checked 3 packets of that same yeast were going for $35, with a $25 shipping charge.

huhtikuu 18, 2020, 4:14pm

>22 kidzdoc: Glad you find the excerpts interesting!

My husband had some "champagne yeast" leftover from his wine-making project last summer, and it worked fine. I'll be interested to see if we get any yeast with our next groc order.

We ran out of coffee and, I am ashamed to say, paid close to $40 to have the craft coffee people grind and run a couple pounds out to our car. Normally, if we run out, we do without until regular runs on Wednesdays. Once the store got restocked, I ordered double, so that tragedy doesn't happen again.

huhtikuu 19, 2020, 12:20am

The Plague will return after a brief intermission to get my computer keyboard back. Too hard to type long bits with my thumbs on a tablet.

Meantime, British writer Ann Morgan has a blog titled after Defoe's book in which she chronicles the Covid19 outbreak. https://ajournaloftheplagueyear.com/blog/

And Simon Kane reads Defoe's "Journal" on Youtube. Installment 1 starts here: https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=6tFSeWRoztg

huhtikuu 19, 2020, 9:16am

>20 nohrt4me2: I got the Sabin polio sugar cube vaccine in school in '61 or '62. My mother had TB in '46. She thought she would be at the sanatorium for a couple of weeks, it was 8 months. Antibiotics were just starting to be used; I guess it took some time to get it to Maine. I am thankful my children never had the parade of diseases I did, only ever had chicken pox; and my grandchildren will not even have that.

An arresting sight was a little riverside graveyard of tiny, worn and mostly unreadable headstones on the Magalloway River way up on the border of Maine & NH near the Canadian border. Family had clearly erected this new stone. The local historian who drove me there, also drove me across the river on the Maine side to another little cemetery that was set to face the first one. This one also had 4 of 5 small, old stones to mark the burial places of their cousins who died in the same epidemic. The local lore says that they wanted the cousins, who all died that summer in the diphtheria epidemic, to be able to "see" each other.

Muokkaaja: huhtikuu 21, 2020, 12:41pm

>25 avaland: That is so sad. Eight people dead in two weeks. It beggars the imagination.

Is that a memorial stone or were they all buried together?

People forget that TB was once the leading cause of death, and other infectious diseases were killers of children and of people. Antibiotics and vaccines are a big reason lifespans have increased, though misuse of antibiotics has created other problems.

Muokkaaja: huhtikuu 27, 2020, 12:12am

>25 avaland:, >26 nohrt4me2: There are several above ground marble burial chambers in New Orleans' famed Lafayette Cemetery No. 1 in the Garden District where people who died during the 1878 yellow fever epidemic were buried; 20,000 people in New Orleans, Memphis and other cities in the Mississippi Valley died that year. Several of my partners and I visited the cemetery when we were in town for a medical conference several years ago, and we all stopped and paused for quite a while when we saw the Ferguson gravesite, where three of the family's children, aged 4 years (Edwin Given), 22 months (Mary Love) and 1 day (Sercy), died in two days, on August 30-31, 1878.

We went there early on a Sunday morning, before the formal tours started, and didn't know anything about who was housed there, so it came as a shock to see these memorials, especially this one.

ETA: After our visit I bought and read the fascinating book The American Plague by Molly Caldwell Crosby, which described this yellow fever epidemic in Memphis, a major US city at the time, and documented its decimation by the disease, from which it never truly recovered, even to this day.

huhtikuu 19, 2020, 4:13pm

As the plague continues unabated, unemployment rises and supplies grow scarce. The Lord Mayor looks for ways to provision the city and minimize infection. At first, outside sellers are allowed in, but stopped and told sell their goods where they stood. Later, markets for outside sellers are organized at specified times just inside the city limits and personally supervised by the London officials.

But now the fury of the distemper increased to such a degree that even the markets were but very thinly furnished with provisions or frequented with buyers compared to what they were before. And the Lord Mayor caused the country people, who brought provisions to be stopped in the streets leading into the town, and to sit down there with their wares, where they sold what they brought and went immediately away....

(After realizing the need for outside providers), it was one of (the aldermens') particular cares to see the orders for the freedom of the markets observed. And in this part either the Lord Mayor or one or both sheriffs were every market-day on horseback to see their orders executed and to see that the country people had all possible encouragement and freedom in their coming to the markets ... and that no nuisances or frightful objects should be seen in the streets to terrify them or make them unwilling to come.

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Muokkaaja: huhtikuu 21, 2020, 12:41pm

The plight of poor Londoners becomes a topic of comment, particularly in light of the lack of a plan to deal with a calamity like the plague. Donations to assist the beleaguered city begin to flow in from around the country.

Though the plague was chiefly among the poor, yet were the poor the most adventurous and fearless of it, and went about their employment with a sort of brutal courage. I must call it so, for it was founded on neither religion nor prudence. Scarce did they use any caution, but ran into any business which they could get employment in, though it was the most hazardous. Such was that of tending the sick, watching houses (that had been) shut up, carrying infected persons to the pest-house, and, which was still worse, carrying the dead away to their graves....

Surely, never a city, at least of this bill and magnitude, was taken in a condition so perfectly unprepared for such a dreadful visitation (because it came without) warning or expectation ... and consequently the least provision imaginable was made for it in a public way. For example, the Lord Mayor and sheriffs had made no provision as magistrates for the regulations which were to be observed. They had gone into no measures for the relief of the poor. The citizens had no public magazines or storehouse for corn or meal for the subsistence of the poor, which if they had provided themselves, as in such cases is done abroad, many miserable families who were now reduced to the utmost distress would have been relieved....

The absent (Londoners), who, though they were fled for safety into the countey, were here greatly interested in the welfare of those whom they left behind, and forgot not to contribute liberally to the relief of the poor. And large sums were also collected among the trading towns... The King also, as I was told, ordered a thousand pounds a week to be distributed....

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huhtikuu 23, 2020, 12:08am

As Londoners have fled the city in large numbers and many stay at home to avoid infection, trade dries up. News of the plague spreads abroad, and London ships are barred entry in foreign ports, affecting the important shipping industry. As income dwindles, servants are turned into the streets.

All trade except such as related to immediate subsistence was, as it were, at a stop. This is so lively a case and contains in it so much of the real condition of the people that I think I cannot be too particular in (describing) it.... For example:

... All master workmen, especially such as belonged to ornamentation and the less necessary parts of people's dress, clothes, and furniture for houses ... stopped their work, dismissed their journeymen and workmen, and all their dependents....

Very few ships ventured to come up the river, and none at all went out, so all extraordinary officers of the customs, likewise the watermen, the carriers, porters, and all the poor whose labor depended upon the merchants were at once dismissed and put out of business....

People were far from wanting to build (or remodel) houses when so many thousands of houses were stripped of their inhabitants, so that this one article turned all the ordinary workmen of that kind out of business, such as bricklayers, masons, carpenters, joiners, plasterers, painters, glaziers, plumbers, and all the laborers depending on such.

As navigation was at a stop, our ships neither coming in or going out as before, so the seamen were all out of employment ... and with the seamen were all the several tradesmen and workmen belonging to and depending upon the building and fitting out of ships, such as ship-carpenters, caulkers, rope makers, dry coopers, sail makers, anchor smiths, carvers, gun smiths ...

All families retrenched their living as much as possible ... so that innumerable multitude of footmen, serving men, shop keepers, journeymen, merchants' bookkeepers, and especially maid servants ... were turned off and left friendless and helpless.

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Muokkaaja: huhtikuu 23, 2020, 6:13pm

Starvation and civil unrest due to unemployment become a primary focus of the city authorities as the plague hits its deadliest period between August and October, with an estimated death rate of 1,000 people per day. With the King's soldiers gone with the court to Oxford and only a few men in the Tower, there are only a handful of armed peacekeepers to prevent violence and looting. The Lord Mayor devises a program of employment and relief to head off problems.

(Many poor people) might be said to perish, not by the infection itself but by the consequences of it. Indeed, namely by hunger, distress, and the want of all things, being without lodging, without money, without friends, without means to get their bread, and without anyone to give it them. For many of them were without what we call legal settlements, and so could not claim of the parishes, and all the support they had was by application to the magistrates for relief, which relief was, to give the magistrates their due, carefully and cheerfully administered....

Had not the sums of money distributed in charity by well-disposed people ... been prodigiously great, it had not been in the power of the Lord Mayor and sheriffs to have kept the public peace. Not were they without apprehensions, as it was, that desperation should push the people in tumults, and cause them to rifle the houses of rich men and plunder the markets of provisions, in which case, the country people, who brought provisions very freely and boldly to town, would have been terrified from coming anymore, and the town would have sunk under an unavoidable famine....

But the vigilance of the Lord Mayor and such magistrates as could be had, for some were dead and some absent, prevented this. They (provided relief) by the most kind and gentle methods they could think of, as particularly by relieving the most desperate with money, and by putting others into business, and particularly that of watching houses that were infected and shut up. As the number of these were very great--it was said that there was at one time ten thousand houses shut up, and every house had two men to guard it--this gave opportunity to employ a very great number of poor men at a time. The women and servants that were turned off from their places were likewise employed as nurses to tend the sick in all places, and this took off a very great number of them.

And, though a melancholy article in itself, yet was a deliverance in its kind, namely the plague itself ... which carried off (between mid-August and mid-October) thirty or forty thousand of these very people which, had they been left, would certainly have been an insufferable burden by their poverty....

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Muokkaaja: toukokuu 6, 2020, 11:31am

Keeping accurate mortality statistics is important in trying to determine whether the plague is beginning to abate, where death rates are highest, and which infection methods used are most helpful. However, the actual number of dead becomes difficult to count. The official count ends up to be nearly 70,000, but some observers at the time dispute that number, estimating it closer to 100,000. Some historians now believe the actual number was closer to 200,000--one quarter of the city's population.

When I say that the parish officers did not give in a full account (of the number of deaths), or were not to be depended upon for their account, let anyone consider but how men could be exact in such a time of dreadful distress, and when many of them were taken sick themselves and perhaps died in the very time when their accounts were to be given in...

I saw it under the hand of one that made as strict an examination into that part he could, that there really died an hundred thousand people of the Plague in that one year whereas in the bills (of mortality) ... it was but 68,590....

I do verily believe the same, (that is) that there died at least 100,000 of the plague only. (Many) died in the fields and highways (trying to escape from the city) and secret places out of the compass of communication as it was called, and who were not put down in the bills though they really belonged to the body of inhabitants (of London).

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huhtikuu 25, 2020, 6:01pm

>26 nohrt4me2: There are a number of little individual gravestones in poor condition and mostly unreadable in front of the modern stone. They are all buried separately I believe.

>27 kidzdoc: Very sad.

huhtikuu 25, 2020, 9:44pm

With people in voluntary isolation or under enforced quarantine, and commerce at a standstill, streets become so empty of traffic that grass begins to grow.

The great streets ... had grass growing in them in several places. Neither cart or coach were seen in the streets from morning to evening, except some country carts to bring (produce) to the market, and those but very few compared to what was usual. As for coaches, they were scarce used but to carry sick people to the pest-houses and to other hospitals, and some few to carry physicians ....

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huhtikuu 26, 2020, 6:43pm

Today is the anniversary of Defoe's death in 1731.

Muokkaaja: huhtikuu 28, 2020, 5:57pm

Believing the plague is spread by bad air on land, some Londoners seek to wait out the plague on board one of hundreds of ships stuck in port as trade dwindles. Unfortunately, rats are a common problem on ships at this time, and ships loaded with stores of food attract rats that carry plague. So what the narrator sees as a great epidemic evasion strategy was probably not helpful. Also: Rats can swim and crawl up anchor ropes.

It was a surprising sight to see the number of ships which lay in rows, two and two, and in some places two or three such lines in the breadth of the river....

I cannot guess at the number of ships. But I think there must (have been) several hundred of sail, and I could not but applaud the contrivance. For ten thousand people or more who attended ship affairs were certainly sheltered there from the violence of the contagion, and lived there very safe and easy....

But it was also true that not all the people who thus left the land and thus lived on board the ships were not entirely safe from the infection, for many died and were thrown overboard into the river, some in coffins, and some, as I heard, without coffins, whose bodies were seen sometimes to drive up and down with the tide in the river. But I believe I may venture to say that in those ships which were thus infected, it either happened where the people ... did not fly to the ships till they had stayed too long on shore and had the distemper upon them (though they might not perceive it) and so the distemper did not come with them on board the ships but they carried it with them.... Or it was in these ships where the poor watermen said they had not had time to furnish (themselves with ample provisions), but were obliged often to send on shore to buy what they had occasion for....

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Muokkaaja: huhtikuu 30, 2020, 4:55pm

Pregnant women are prey to the plague infection as well as the high maternal and infant mortality rates of the time. (It is estimated that women, under ordinary conditions in the 1600s, had a 1 percent chance of dying in every pregnancy, while 35 to 45 percent of children did not live past the age of 5.) The safety of pregnant women and infants is further compromised by a lack of midwives or even neighbors, many of whom have died nursing plague victims or have run away from London to safer locations.

Alas, this was a time when everyone's private safety lay so near them that they had no room to pity the distress of others. For everyone had death, as it were, at his door, and many even in their families....

One of the most deplorable cases in all of the present calamity was that of women with child, ... who, when their pains (came) upon them, could neither have help of one kind or another, neither neighboring women or midwife to come near them. Most of the midwives were dead, especially of such as served the poor. And many of the midwives of note were fled into the country, so that it was next to impossible that a poor woman who could not pay an unmoderated price to get any midwife to come to her, and if they did, those they could get were generally ignorant and unskillful creatures.

(So many infants died in childbirth) that it is hard to judge of them. Something of it will appear in the unusual numbers which (were) put into the weekly bills (of mortality)...

Deaths from miscarriage, stillbirth, and childbed: 647

Deaths from miscarriage, stillbirth, and childbed: 1,242

As to those who were with child, we have seen some calculation made: 291 women dead in childbed in (the nine weeks when the plague was at its worst) ... out of the usual number of whom there usually died in that time but eighty-four. Let the reader calculate the proportion.

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Muokkaaja: toukokuu 1, 2020, 2:38pm

I am currently reading A Journal of the Plague Year. A little each morning instead of watching the news. The similiarities between what I've been reading and what is happening on the news are remarkable. This should be required reading. I wonder is any high school English teachers are having students read it right now.

toukokuu 1, 2020, 2:45pm

>37 nohrt4me2: Only 1% under normal circumstances? That seems low. My daughter is pregnant and they believe she had the virus in February (via community spread; they live near DC, near Dulles). They will test her for antibodies in a month at 12 weeks, they said.

Muokkaaja: toukokuu 1, 2020, 5:18pm

>38 DavidX: Fascinating, isn't it. Seems clear to me that the Lord Mayor tried really hard to act sensibly, and to anticipate and end run around problems. Of course, the next year was the Great Fire and a different mayor wasn't as vigilant in that disaster.

The fire did put a lot of people back to work, though.

>39 avaland: That seemed low to me, too. Oh, that must be a worry for all of you. Sending best hopes!

toukokuu 1, 2020, 4:39pm

The plague brings England's international trade to a standstill as rumors of the number of plague victims run through Western European ports. England is embroiled in the Second Anglo-Dutch War when the plague hits. (The two nations were vying for commercial supremacy, and English pirateering and attacks on Dutch ships was an effort to become the top global trader.) Not surprisingly, the Dutch turn the plague to commercial advantage.

As to foreign trade, there needs little to be said. The trading nations of Europe were all afraid of us. No port of France or Holland or Spain or Italy would admit our ships or correspond with us. Indeed, we stood on ill terms with the Dutch, and were in a furious war with them, but in a bad condition to fight abroad, who had such dreadful enemies to sruggle with at home.

Our merchants were accordingly at a full stop; their ships could go nowhere....

If inquiry were now to be made in Naples, or in other cities on the coast of Italy, they would tell you that there was dreadful infection in London, so many years ago, in which, as above, there died twenty thousand in a week, etc., just as we had it reported in London that there was a plague in the city of Naples in the year 1656, in which there died 20,000 people in a day, of which I had very good satisfaction that it was utterly false.

But these extravagant reports were very prejudiced to our trade, as well as unjust and injurious in themselves, for it was a long time after the plague was quite over before our trade could recover itself in those parts of the world. And the Flemings and the Dutch (but especially the last) made very great advantages of it, having all the market to themselves and even buying our manufactures in several parts of England where the plague was not, and carrying them to Holland and Flanders, and from thence transporting them to Spain and to Italy as if they had been of their own making.

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toukokuu 1, 2020, 5:04pm

We recently watched an old DVD copy of "Restoration," the film adapted from Rose Tremain's novel of same name. It occurred to me that it's set during this same plague. Not the best representation of it nor probably of the ties; mediocre entertainment value but I remember I bought the DVD at the time because of the splendid costuming....

toukokuu 1, 2020, 5:23pm

>42 avaland: Is that the one with Robert Downey and Sam Neill? I saw that one, too. It wasn't a favorite, but I enjoyed it. Costumes were very good. The men's costumes and wigs were as pretty as the women's!

toukokuu 2, 2020, 2:14pm

The survivors built modern London after the plague and fire. I hope this pandemic will be the catalyst for some positive change. I found this article very interesting. https://dailyhistory.org/How_did_the_Bubonic_Plague_make_the_Italian_Renaissance...

toukokuu 2, 2020, 5:12pm

>44 DavidX: Yes, big economic and social effects from the 14th Century outbreak! A very good novel about this is The Corner That Held them by Sylvia Townsend Warner, which follows the fortunes of an English convent through the plague years. Workers certainly took advantage of the fact that they were in high demand to increase wages and working conditions. Single women also began moving into cities from the country to work in the textile trade in the Low Countries. Women earning their own money and directing their own lives began some attitudinal shifts as well.

toukokuu 2, 2020, 5:37pm

In August and September, as the death rate spikes and whole families are wiped out in a day or two, the plague takes a toll on people's mental health. Many stop self-isolating, believing that they will not make it through the contagion. A sense of despair takes hold.

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 the fury of the plague appeared to be so increased that (no one) shut up houses at all....

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 to 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....

Most of the people who were taken during the two last weeks in August and in the three first weeks in September generally died in two or three days at furthest.... This was the time when it was reported that above 3,000 people died in one night....

People were brought into a condition to despair of life and abandon 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 all sick or who is sound." And so they ran desperately into any place or any company.

As it brought the people into public company, so it was surprisingly how it brought them to crowd into the churches. They inquired no more into whom they sat near or far from, what offensive smells they met with, or what condition the people seemed to be in, but looking upon themselves 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.

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Muokkaaja: toukokuu 3, 2020, 6:49pm

In the first three weeks of September, death rates hit their highest level. The efforts of the London authorities focuses on keeping up with burials, trying to ensure that the day's dead are in the ground before dawn of the next day to prevent further emotional trauma to the populace. Authorities also work to ensure that food is plentiful and that price-gouging is tamped down for plague survivors.

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 (of mortality) amounting to almost 40,000 from the 22nd of August to the 26th of September, being but five weeks....

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 pit side, and just ready to throw them in....

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, (and) sometimes other people. Nor, as the men themselves said, did they trouble themselves to keep any account of the numbers.

The vigilance of the magistrates was now put to the utmost trial--and, it must be confessed, can never be enough acknowledged on this occasion also (that) 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 fully plenty, and the price not much raised neither.

2) No dead bodies lay unburied or uncovered; and if 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 above, in the three first weeks in September.

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toukokuu 4, 2020, 7:55pm

The Lord Mayor and city magistrates personally oversee areas under their jurisdictions even at the height of the infection.

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, church wardens, etc., ... 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....

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 ... to a pest-house. And sometimes (they gave) 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 and food--was very great.... They did not content themselves with giving the necessary orders to the officers (that is, the watchers set to oversee quarantined households) 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. (They were also asked) whether they wanted anything that was necessary, and if the (watchers) 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 watcher did not do his duty, or did not treat them civilly, the officers were generally removed and others placed in their stead.

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Muokkaaja: toukokuu 5, 2020, 5:53pm

As the death rate begins to drop in the last week in September, the virulence of the infection seems to drop. More people who get the plague seem to be recovering from it. Meantime, physicians urge the populace to continue practicing caution in public, warning of a resurgence of the plague.

The last week in September, the bill (of mortality) decreased (by) almost two thousand. It is true the plague was still at a frightful height. The next bill was no less than 6,46, and the next to that, 5,720.... And it did appear the people did recover faster and more in number than they (had done).... The decrease went on, and another week in October it decreased ... so that the number dead of the plague was but 2,665.

Seeing abundance of people who really fell sick recover again daily, (Londoners) took to such a precipitant courage, and grew so entirely regardless of themselves and of the infection, that they made no more of the plague than of an ordinary fever, nor indeed so much.

This I could not see (as) rational...

Even as soon as the first great decrease in the bills appeared, we found that the two next bills did not decrease in proportion. The reason I take to be the people's running so rashly into danger, giving up all their former cautions and care.

The physicians opposed this thoughtless humour of the people with all their might, and gave out printed directions, spreading them all over the city and suburbs, advising the people to continue reserved, and to use still the utmost caution in their ordinary conduct, notwithstanding the decrease of the distemper, terrifying them with the danger of bringing a relapse upon the whole city, and telling them how such a relapse might be more fatal and dangerous than the whole visitation that had been already....

But it was all to no purpose. The audacious creatures were so possessed with the first joy and so surprised with the satisfaction of seeing a vast decrease in the weekly bills, that they were impenetrable by any new terrors, and would not be persuaded but that the bitterness of death was past.

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A word about the plague:

Plague is caused by the Yrsina pestis bacteria, which lives on fleas. The plague takes three forms--bubonic, pneumonic, and septicemic--and all three facets of plague were noticed by physicians as reported in the Diary.

In its bubonic form, which involves swelling of the lymph nodes, untreated plague victims had a 50-50 chance of recovering. Victims who did not recover from the bubonic form progressed to septicemic or pneumonic plague. Septicemic plague occurs when the infection moves from the lymph system into the bloodstream. One hundred percent of those with septicemic plague die. The worst form of the plague is pneumonic, which infects the lungs. Not only do 100 percent of the victims of pneumonic plague die, often within 24 hours, but their coughs are highly contagious and spread the disease to others.

What is interesting in the Diary is that the cases in late September and into October seem to be largely of the bubonic form, since people were getting plague, but a higher number seemed to be recovering.

Quarantines were probably the most effective measure in stifling plague outbreaks, but the disease does die down in cold weather when fewer animals carrying the plague are moving about.

Here's more info about the plague:
What was the Black Death and how did it end?

Muokkaaja: toukokuu 6, 2020, 7:52pm

In late autumn, the incidence of plague and death rates decrease in London, and the epicenter of the outbreak moves to other major cities. The London authorities try to prevent widespread re-infection in London by warning against mingling with visitors from cities where plague is widespread, but residents resist cautions.

The winter weather came on apace, and the air was clear and cold with sharp frosts, ... and the health of the city began to return. There were indeed some returns of the distemper even in the month of December, and the bills increased near a hundred. But it went off again, and so in a short while things began to return to their own channel....

Some parts of England were now infected as violently as London had been. The cities of Norwich, Peterborough, Lincoln, Colchester, and other places were now visited. And the magistrates of London began to set rules for our conduct as to corresponding with those cities. It is true we could not pretend to forbid their people coming to London, because it was impossible to know them asunder. So after many consultations, the Lord Mayor and Court of Aldermen were obliged to drop it. All they could do was to warn and caution the people not to entertain in their houses or converse with any people who they knew came from such infected places.

But they might as well have talked to the air, for the people of London thought themselves so plague-free now that they were past all admonitions; they seemed to depend upon it that the air was restored, and that the air was like a man that had had the smallpox, not capable of being infected again....

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toukokuu 6, 2020, 8:05pm

Interesting article in the Guardian about plague literature, in which A Journal of the Plague Year figures heavily. Best part was the art:

Muokkaaja: toukokuu 6, 2020, 8:21pm

>51 lisapeet: Thanks! Smoke from these fires was supposed to kill the "seeds" of the plague, but after while, the magistrates and physician advisors realized they weren't doing much, and people were complaining about being made more miserable by them, so they quit. Meantime, smoke was used to disinfect the interior of homes where people had had plague. Burning gunpowder was one of the recommended disinfectant materials. I can only imagine how many problems that might have caused ...

The London magistrates did so many things right even though their scientific knowledge was limited, and they come off as incredibly caring and well-organized. They partnered with church officials, who kept death records, made numbers available to everyone, circulated free pamphlets, and pursued quacks and those who wanted to make a quick buck off the plague. They also coordinated markets, distributed money and food, and employed people who had lost work during the outbreak.

And can you imagine your own city's council members going house-to-house on bicycles asking people if they need anything, as London's officials did on horseback? That must have had a very calming and reassuring effect on people.

Muokkaaja: toukokuu 7, 2020, 4:41am

>51 lisapeet: That article also includes a photo taken from a 2017 play based on The Plague by Albert Camus at the Arcola Theatre in London that I saw with two LTers who live there. In an interesting twist Dr Rieux, a male pied noir (white French Algerian), was played by a Black British woman, Sara Powell:

We stayed for an audience discussion with the actors and a representative for the director afterward, and they said that the impetus for the play was a rise in far right populist leaders in the United States and Europe, including trump, of course. (I may have been the one who asked that question.) I'm sure they would have a much more literal take on it now.

The poster from the production is quite relevant:

Muokkaaja: toukokuu 7, 2020, 4:13pm

The play sounds interesting, doesn't it? I reviewed The Plague some years ago. It is one of my favorite books. Maybe the last quote from the novel in my review below speaks to the rise of the Right Wing as a political plague:

Every evening mothers wailed ... with distraught abstraction, as their eyes fell on those fatal stigmata on limbs and bellies; every evening hands gripped Dr. Rieux's arms, there was a rush of useless words, promises, and tears; every evening the nearing tocsin of the ambulance provoked scenes as vain as every form of grief. Rieux had nothing to look forward to but a long sequence of such scenes, renewed again and again. Yes, plague, like abstraction, was monotonous.

I confess I avoided this work for many years because I feared a thinly disguised treatise on abstract existentialism. And certainly this novel has been worked over on that score ad nauseam. But whatever it may be for philosophers, Camus' novel is an utter masterwork of literary style and concrete observations of people collectively and individually.

The set-up: Oran, Algeria, is hit by the Black Death in modern times. People are sophisticated. Doctors understand the nature of disease. There are drugs to fight the illness. There are health departments and the police and any number of organizations designed to deal with emergencies. And yet Oran is eventually cut off by the rest of the world, medicine cannot arrive quickly enough to stave off a catastrophe, families are separated into quarantine centers, citizens must resort to mass graves and quick lime to handle the dead, the religious find their faith shaken into new paths, and everyone finds out new things about their own characters in the course of the illness.

As the novel opens, the signs of coming plague are clear; rats crawl out of their hiding places, writhe, bleed, and die before the citizens of Oran, who mostly walk around or over them, refusing to see the beginnings of apocalypse. As Camus chronicles the spread of the disease from rats to people and its advance throughout the city, he writes that they would similarly walk past the the noises of their sick neighbors: "... under the prolonged strain it seemed that hearts had toughened; people lived beside those groans or walked past them as though they had become the normal speech of men."

"The Plague" draws on records kept by several residents of Oran during the illness, and the shifting points of view offers a richness of observation. As described in the previous paragraph, Camus sometimes chronicles the collective behavior of the citizens. At other times, he focuses on a personal account. The old man in an apartment building who spits on cats is one such individual.

The old man's chief entertainment is to scatter bits of paper from his balcony down to the stone walls of his building to attract the local cats. The cats play happily with the bits of paper. And when they settle down on the warm stones for a rest, the old man leans over, takes aim, and spits on their heads. The cats don't seem to mind; at least, they show up every day. But as the rats went, so went the cats, and then the people. And the old man, bereft of his cat friends and chief entertainment, quarantines himself in the house in utter loneliness.

The novel also imagines the logistics of a quarantined city trying to transport the dead from hospitals to mass graves as the number of individual coffins dwindles:

At one moment, the stock of coffins in Rieux's hospital was reduced to five. Once filled, all five were loaded together in the ambulance. At the cemetery they were emptied out and the iron-gray corpses put on stretchers and deposited in a shed reserved for that purpose, to wait their turn. Meanwhile, the empty coffins, after being sprayed with antiseptic fluid, were rushed back to the hospital and the process was repeated as often as necessary.

Eventually, space for the mass graves runs out, and the bodies must be taken to the crematorium. Bodies are transported at night in open carts so as not to shock the residents and to offer the dead some seemly cover of darkness. Residents are warned to keep away from burial areas and the crematorium, but even at the height of the plague, a kind of primal respect for the dead shows itself

And thought the cliffs were patrolled day and night, little groups of people contrived to thread their way unseen between the rocks and would toss flowers into the open trailers as the cars went by. And in the warm darkness of the summer nights the cars could be heard clanking on their way, laden with flowers and corpses.

At some points, the plague is personified, "a shrewd, unflagging adversary; a skilled organizer, doing his work thoroughly and well." The plague's "work," of course, is despair. As the death rate climbs, people deal with the plague more out of habit than from any sense that things will get better. They lose faith in institutions and devolve into a kind of hopeless superstition. Camus notes that residents are more likely to wear St. Roch medals as talismans than to actually go to Mass.

As the plague gradually burns itself out and sections of the city return to normality, hope returns again. The quarantine is lifted. And residents turn their attention to building "some memorial of the injustice and outrage done them ... and to state quite simply what we learn in time of pestilence: that there are more things to admire in men than to despise."

Are we to take the memorial at face value? Or as the kind of platitude people often cling to after surviving a cataclysm? Perhaps a bit of both? Toward the end of the novel, Camus offers a veiled warning about the plague and all catastrophes to come:

... the plague bacillus never dies or disappears for good; that it can lie dormant for years and years in furniture and linen-chests; that it bides its tie in bedrooms, cellars, trunks, and bookshelves; and that perhaps the day would come when, for the bane and the enlightening of men, it would rouse up its rats again and send them forth to die in a happy city.

Muokkaaja: toukokuu 8, 2020, 9:49am

By winter, plague deaths fall into the hundreds rather than the thousands, and by February, the sickness virtually burns itself out. Because the cause of the contagion remains a mystery, most pious Londoners chalk up the end of the plague to an act of God. Many citizens begin the work of airing out their homes, sometimes with dire results. And on the horizon: The Great Fire of London in 1666.

To the end of the year there were always between 200 and 300 (dead) of the plague. On any occasion, I say, we were alarmed anew.... By February following, we reckoned the distemper quite ceased, and then we were not so easily frighted again.

There was still a question among the learned, and at first perplexed the people a little: And that was in what manner to purge the house and goods where the plague had been, and how to render them habitable again, which had been left empty during the time of the plague.... In general, prudent, cautious people did enter into some measures for airing and sweetening their houses, and burned perfumes, incense, benjamin, rozin, and sulphur in their rooms close shut up, and then let the air carry it all out with a blast of gunpowder.... and one citizen's servant, I think it was in Thames Street, carried so much gunpowder into his master's house for clearing it of the infection, and managed it so foolishly, that he blew up part of the roof of the house.

But the time was not fully come that the city was to be purged by fire, nor was it far off. For within nine months more I saw it all lying in ashes when, as some of our quacking philosophers pretend, the seeds of the plague were entirely destroyed, and not before, a notion too ridiculous to speak of here....

Nothing but the immediate finger of God, nothing but omnipotent power, could have done it. The contagion despised all medicine. Death raged in every corner, and it had gone on as it did then, a few weeks more would have cleared the town of all, and everything that had a soul. Men everywhere began to despair, ever heart failed them for fear, people were made desperate through the anguish of their souls, and the terrors of death sat in the very faces and countenances of the people.

In that very moment when we might very well say, "Vain was the help of man,"--I say in that very moment it pleased God, with a most agreeable surprise, to cause the fury of it to abate even of itself....

I shall conclude the account of this calamitous year therefore with a coarse but sincere stanza of my own:

A dreadful plague in London was
In the year sixty five,
Which swept an hundred thousand souls
Away; yet I alive!

elokuu 26, 2020, 6:14am

Leaving a note here, as my notes on your profile page, or replies from my profile page, seem not to be working currently. Or, all of a sudden several messages will show up all saying the same thing!

syyskuu 23, 2020, 3:35pm

>56 avaland: Same thing as last message. Left 2 today.

syyskuu 23, 2020, 4:11pm

>57 avaland: Last message I can see over on my profile page from you is dated August 31. Hope things are going OK for you.

syyskuu 24, 2020, 6:37am

>58 nohrt4me2: For some reason I can't post a message on your profile page. I can write one but apparently when I "post" it disappears. I will try it with a different browser. Wanted to thank you for the gift you sent...