Story of a Monster Plague

Coronavirus is fierce, but it could be worse, a lot worse. Take the disease that overwhelmed London in 1665, killing a quarter of the population with no cure and incredible suffering. It shows how far we have come and how fortunate we are compared to our vulnerable ancestors.

We have an all too detailed record of the event, β€œA Journal of the Plague Year, β€œ written by Daniel Defoe through the eyes of a narrator who managed to survive while describing those who didn’t. He didn’t miss much, from the black boils on the body that indicated the disease to the so-called pesthouse where victims were taken to die and then tossed into mass graves. There were no hospitals, and doctors were at a loss.

Then as now, they knew that humans should be separated to avoid contagion.

Easier said than done. Watch guards were posted at suspect houses to keep inhabitants inside, but as some died others were desperate to escape, sometimes bribing, sometimes killing their guards. The streets were filled with crying, shrieking people not knowing where to turn, appealing not very successfully to God’s mercy.

There was a shortage of everything, especially horses to escape the city. All amusements were banned: gaming tables, music rooms, puppet shows, rope dancers. As the disease struck and spread, some in their agony confessed to long concealed crimes, while others seized the the opportunity to commit crimes. There was no telling how human nature would react under the onslaught. If life was cheap, it was never more valued.

Defoe does not stint to describe the suffering. β€œIt was equal to the most exquisite torture. And some, not able to bear the torment, threw themselves out of windows or shot themselves or otherwise made themselves away. Others, unable to contain themselves, vented their pain by incessant roarings. and such loud and lamentable cries were to be heard as we walked along the streets that would pierce the very heart.”

In about a year the disease abated and London recovered. The memory lingered but thankfully not the disease. Medicine came to the rescue and today antibiotics have prevented all but a small outbreak of bubonic plague that originated in China (where else?) and spread from rats to fleas to humans. Fittingly, Daniel Defoe is much better known for his novel Robinson Crusoe, about a shipwrecked sailor who spends 28 years on a deserted island far from any plague.

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