The carts, called “dead carts,” came to the pits at night piled high with corpses, until the pits could hold no more. They came at the rate of as many as 400 bodies a week. The rule was that once the corpses reached within six feet of the surface a pit should be closed.
And so it went in London through the summer, fall, and winter of 1665 as the Great Plague raged unchecked through the foul and narrow streets. Before it ended in 1666, 100,000 people, almost a quarter of the city’s population, were dead.
One of the pits was at Bone Hill, so named because a century earlier more than 1,000 cartloads of human bones had been dumped there after a charnel house was closed. The plague-ravaged bodies were thrown on top of the dry bones before the pit was closed.
Today, Bone Hill is Bunhill Fields, a beautifully tended small park and graveyard just half a block from a perpetual traffic snarl known as Silicon Roundabout because it’s where high-tech company campuses are clustered on the edge of London’s financial district.
The Church of England never consecrated the graveyard and for that reason, as small as it was, it became the future burial ground for hundreds of prominent nonconformists. If you look carefully at some of the headstones you will see the names of dissenters executed by order of the notorious “Hanging Judge” George Jeffreys in the late 17th century.
Among the illustrious corpses interred there is that of Daniel Defoe, the author of Robinson Crusoe, who died in 1731. In 1857 the headstone was struck by lightning and broken. It was later replaced by a small obelisk, which you can find there today—only a few feet away from the grave of the radical poet and artist William Blake.
But Defoe has a stronger connection to the site than his literary distinction; he wrote an account of the Great Plague, A Journal of the Plague Year, that remains one of the most original and harrowing accounts of living through a virulent pandemic, and is as full of meaning about human suffering today as it was when it was written.
Like the current coronavirus epidemic, the Great Plague had its origins in China. It first appeared in 1331, as bubonic plague, and in the following centuries was the cause of two pandemics, including the Black Death that killed as many as 200 million people in Eurasia, and many other more localized outbreaks. During that time nobody understood that the cause was fleas carried by black rats.
Defoe wrote his account 57 years after the event, instantly creating a book that defied category—was it fiction, fact, or a new kind of documentary record? It purported to be an eye-witness account by a person known as H.F., “a citizen who continued all the while in London,” whose trade was saddler. (Defoe used the same first person viewpoint in Robinson Crusoe.)
Defoe deliberately gave the narrative some of the flaws to be expected of an amateur chronicler—repetitions, digressions, and abrupt changes of scene but, at the same time, it was layered with his own deep knowledge of a city that was an infested, insanitary crush of people attempting to survive while in the presence of a capricious killer that skipped some streets while decimating others.
As he observes, he is critical: “I must here take farther notice that nothing was more fatal to the inhabitants of this city, than the supine negligence of the people themselves, who during the long notice, or warning they had of the visitation, yet made no provision for it, by laying in store of provisions, or of other necessaries; by which they might have liv’d retir’d, and within their own houses, as I have observed, others did, and who were in a great measure preserv’d by that caution…”
But then, making himself human, he owns to his own errors: “I acknowledge I was one of those thoughtless ones, that had made so little provision, that my servants were obliged to go out of doors to buy every trifle by penny and half-penny, just as before it begun, even till my experience shewing me the folly, I began to be wiser so late, that had scarce time to store my self sufficient for our common subsistence for a month.”
Defoe gave these personal details a larger documentary frame by directly quoting the emergency measures imposed by the Lord Mayor and aldermen of London as they attempted, with their limited understanding of the plague, to arrest its spread:
“The master of every house, as soon as any one in his house complaineth, either of botch, or purple, or swelling in any part of his body, or falleth otherwise dangerously sick, without apparent cause of some other disease, shall give knowledge thereof to the Examiner of Health, within two hours after the said sign shall appear.
“As soon as any man shall be found by this Examiner, chirurgeon [surgeon] or searcher to be sick of the plague, he shall the same night be sequestered, in the same house, and in case he be so sequestered, then, though he afterwards die not, the house wherein he sickened, should be shut up for a month…”
These simple but firmly applied measures were often effective.
But Defoe, as the eye-witness, describes victims being driven mad by the infection: “Some broke out into the streets, perhaps naked, and would run directly down to the river, if they were not stopt by the watchmen, or other officers, and plunge themselves into the water, wherever they found it.”
Standing in an alley outside a house, he hears and sees horrors: “…the whole family was in a terrible fright, and I could hear women and children run skreaming about the rooms like distracted, when a garret window opened, and some body from a window on the other side of the alley, call’d and ask’d, What is the matter? Upon which, from the first window, it was answered, O Lord, my old master has hang’d himself! The other asked again, Is he quite dead? And the first answer’d, Ay,ay; quite dead; quite dead and cold! This person was a merchant, and a deputy alderman and very rich. I care not to mention the name, tho’ I knew his name, too, but that would be a hardship to the family, which is now flourishing again.”
And, the city being what it was, there were villains who fell upon the victims:
“We had at this time a great many frightful stories told us of nurses and watchmen, who looked after the dying people, that is to say, hir’d nurses, who attended infected people, using them barbarously, starving them, smothering them, or by other wicked means, hastening their end, that is to say, murthering them; and watchmen being set to guard houses that were shut up, when there has been but one person left, and perhaps, that one lying sick, that they have broke in and murthered that body, and immediately thrown them out into the dead cart! And so they gone scarce cold to the grave.”
With A Journal of the Plague Year Defoe had invented the long narrative form reconstructing a major event in immersive detail. He drew on contemporary documents to build tension—for example, by inserting the weekly “Bills of Mortality” recorded by the authorities that showed the relentless progress of the plague. In just two months, August and September 1665, 50,000 deaths were attributed to the plague, although the deaths certainly were undercounted at the time.
Although this was not objective journalism by our terms, it was a precursor of modern narrative journalism, the equal of, for example, John Hersey’s landmark reconstruction of the bombing of Hiroshima that was given a whole issue of the The New Yorker in 1946.
In fact, there was no journalism as we know it in Defoe’s day, but he was a radical pamphleteer and satirist who was jailed for his attacks on the ruling order, after making an enemy of Queen Anne. (This was the same Queen Anne portrayed recently at the heart of a feuding lesbian triangle in the movie The Favourite. She was a religious zealot who loathed nonconformists like Defoe.)
In 1703, Defoe wrote a satirical pamphlet, The Shortest-Way with the Dissenters, that ridiculed the High Church. He was found guilty of seditious libel and sentenced to public humiliation in a pillory and imprisonment, but was freed after the intervention of a highly placed friend. His later eminence as a novelist made him untouchable.
He was certainly astute enough, after being an author for 40 years, not to end his account of the plague on a low note. Instead, he portrays the lifting of the terror as a kind of miracle:
“…the poyson was taken out of the sting, it was wonderful, even the physicians themselves were surprized at it; wherever they visited, they found their patients better, either they had sweated kindly, or the tumours were broke, or the carbuncles went down, and the Inflammations round them chang’d colour, or the fever was gone, or the violent head-ach was asswag’d, or some good symptom was in the case; so that in a few days, every body was recovering…”
And the end of it was a mystery. Having no idea of the cause, there was no understanding of why it ended: “…it was evidently from the secret invisible hand of him, that had first sent this disease as a judgment upon us” wrote Defoe, resorting to an unusual, for him, biblical tone.
One theory was that the Great Fire of 1666 that swept through the oldest parts of the city could have consumed the pestilence—it certainly consumed the rats. But some of the parishes worst hit by the plague did not burn.
England suffered no further outbreaks, although there were several in continental Europe in 1709, 1711 and 1712, and a calamitous outbreak in 1720 in southern France, beginning in Marseilles, that raged for two years.
Bubonic plague is rare today. There are about 650 cases a year, and it can be successfully treated with antibiotics—although treatment is needed within 24 hours once the symptoms appear, otherwise the risk of death is high. At least we know our present plague is not the work of a “secret invisible hand,” but human folly, “supine negligence,” is just as evident.