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Exploring the Darker Side of Everything

Fire and Blood: A Series of Unfortunate Events for London

Death: the inevitable end for any living thing. Dying is to life as coal is to fire. There is no way around the end. So why are we so petrified of this inherent truth? Maybe it is because as humans we are not scared of the end itself, but more of what leads up to said death. Death itself is calm, it is quiet, it is still. But dying? Dying can be filled with untold pain, humiliation, and ear splitting screams. So,  we are not scared of death; we are scared of dying. On another hand, maybe this fear is a good thing? After all, humanity has witnessed the worst of what dying can be. Every time you get a cold, or a scratch in your throat, or everytime you see a mark on your skin that wasn’t there yesterday, the deepest parts of your mind recall what you learned in your history books. Your subconscious remembers images of burning blackened skin, boils the size of goose eggs, and decaying corpses on cobblestone streets. 

Perhaps the most terrifying ways to die are the most natural. Sure, it is frightening to think of the axe murderer down the street, but what about the invisible killer that floats off a cough? What about the spark that hops from your candle onto the curtain and ignites your home in a blaze? The horrific part about sickness or fire, is that they are completely natural. Sure, remedies are developed and procedures are followed to avoid them, but flames and illness will always be the greatest threat to humanity. What is a bomb but a device to deliver flames from the sky? What is a stab wound but an infection waiting to fester?

Without our security blankets from the terrifying reality of death, like modern safety codes or medical practices, the world would face the same level of devastation that it did in the past. Advancements in medicine have allowed humanity to move past the likes of the plague, a disease that brought death to Europe in the most horrific way possible. Changes in the way infrastructure is contrustuted have aided to prevent catastrophes like the Great Fire of London which destroyed a beautiful city and its booming population. It is in the face of atrocity that achievements in safety and modern medicine were made. One day we may be a more proactive society, however it is crucial to look back on the events that influenced such important change. 

Blood: The Great Plague sweeps London from 1665 through 1666.

A street during the plague in London by  Wellcome Images is licensed under CC-BY

As the last in a series of Plagues to wreak havoc across Europe, the Great Plague of London in 1665 made sure to finish off with a bang. Snaking its way through mud caked streets by scampering on the backs of rats, disease infiltrated London. Scientifically known as yersinia pestis, the bacterium that causes the plague finds its host through a miniscule flea bite. Y. pestis can result in many different types of plague however the three most common are: pneumonic, septicemic, and bubonic. Each category of plague has a distinct set of symptoms, and none of them pretty. While all three forms of plague are deadly and highly contagious, the symptoms of bubonic plague are arguably the most horrific. 

Bubonic plague takes its name from the large “buboes” that form on its host. These protrusions swell from inside of the lymph nodes as y. petsis collects and multiplies. Eventually, these buboes grow to the size of large eggs and balloon under the skin from the neck, armpit, and groin. As the buboes grow, some even begin to ooze as they leach the life out of their victims. Alongside the buboes, symptoms also include raging headaches, violent nausea, vomiting, and a swollen tongue. As the host dies, tissue covering the areas of the buboes also begin to decay and turn the skin a sickly black shade. This necrosis of the skin is what gives bubonic plague its infamous moniker, “The Black Death.” 

By late 1664,  news of the Black Death’s return swept London. Stemming from the small suburb of St. Giles, illness passed through the impoverished villages in the Whitechaple and Stepney Perishes, and y. pestis found its way to the overcrowded alleyways of London. The Great Plague began its spread slowly, having only taken a recorded 43 people by May of 1665. However, as spring sprung across the country, so did yersinia pestis. 

The bubonic plague began in households: one family member falling ill and then quickly spreading it to the others. Homes were sealed and quarantined off to prevent further contagion to the community. Words painted over the doors of the sick read, “Lord have mercy on us,” pleading to God to end their suffering. Many of the attempts to slow the bubonic plague failed miserably, mostly due to how easily it spread from person to person. Wealthy residents of London whisked away to the safe countryside, while poorer residents of the squalled city streets were left behind to battle The Black Death.

Communities during this time were ill equipped to handle an outbreak such as this. In an example of tragic bravery, the village of Eyam in Derbyshire England  witnessed the viciousness of y. pestis as it swarmed their community. Before the outbreak, Eyam was a prosperous suburb of London. With an estimated population of 344 people living in Eyam, residents boosted their local economy through farming lead mining. Everything seemed to be ordinary for the village of Eyam, but regrettably, this would change in september of 1665. A tailor, Alexander Hadfield, sent his assistant to London for a bundle of cloth samples, neglecting to think about the current outbreak of plague there. When his assistant, George Vickers, returned he unknowingly brought passengers along with him. The box containing the cloth samples from London was infested with fleas. While the town did not know it at the time, those fleas would explode plague into Eyam. George Vickers allegedly hung the samples out to dry on the hearth, rousing the fleas within, and would be the first to die in the village.

The first round of disease for Eyam only took a recorded 42 people between September and December of 1665. As the colder seasons crept in, the plague seemed to die off, however this rest would not last long and by the spring of 1666, y. pestis hit back even harder. Many people fled from Eyam, but for those who remained, hell would ensue. William Mompesson, the newly appointed rector to Eyam, would make the fateful decision to stop the spread of disease outside of his community. Mompesson declared a quarantine on the village, essentially condemning the residents to death. Mompesson had the difficult task of convincing his people to stay, but eventually they agreed and he and his wife stayed as well. This painful choice proved to be a necessary evil, and as Dr Michael Sweet, a wildlife disease specialist at the University of Derby, said,

The decision to quarantine the village meant that human-to-human contact, especially with those outside of the village was basically eliminated which would have certainly significantly reduced the potential of the spread of the pathogen… Without the restraint of the villagers many more people, especially from neighbouring villages, would have more than likely have succumbed to the disease…It is remarkable how effective the isolation was in this instance,” 

In the height of the summer, Eyam was facing devastation. Five to six people were dying every day, but despite this, the villagers continued their quarantine. Elizabeth Hancock was recorded to have buried her entire family, six children as well as her husband, in the span of eight days. However, their isolation proved remarkably effective for Eyam, and by November of 1666, the plague had subsided in the village. Although William Mompesson did survive the ordeal, his wife Catherine would not. 

Unfortunately, most communities were not as lucky as Eyam. William Boghurst, a general physician in 1665, was quick to criticize medical practices where doctors bled plague patients and fumigated their houses with incense. Physicians and Surgeons treated the disease by lancing the victims’ buboes and black spots to “bleed out” the “bad humors” of the body. Boghurst was adamant that the diseases’ spread was attributed to the dire living conditions and lack of nutrition for the poorest inhabitants of the city, as well as unhygienic sewage practices that spread filth over the streets. Boghurst’s criticisms would fall on deaf ears and infection exponentially rose over the summer of 1665. 

As the threat grew, officials stuck to plague orders given by the Privy Council, originally issued in 1578. These statutes prohibited body collectors from intermingling with the rest of the community, as well as barred churches from housing corpses that had succumbed to plague. However, these measures did little to prevent the illness from spreading. At night, carriages collected the dead and brought them to the “plague pits,” or large mass graves. It is not known exactly how many of these pits were dug; guesses range from tens to hundreds across London and the English countryside. Originally, these graves would have been on sacred church grounds. However, as the plague of London took hold, graveyards across the country became overcrowded and officials were forced to hastily dig mass graves for the victims. Years later in 1685, Lord Macaulay wrote about the Plague Pit of Golden Square in Soho, 

“[it was] a field not to be passed without a shudder by any Londoner of that age. There, as in a place far from the haunts of men, had been dug, twenty years before, when the great plague was raging, a pit into which the dead carts had nightly shot corpses by scores. It was popularly believed that the earth was deeply tainted with infection and could not be disturbed without imminent risk to human life.”

The largest of the recorded mass graves sits in Charter House Square of Faringdon England, and is estimated to house more than 50,000 bodies from the Great Plague of London. 

By summer of 1665, King Charles the II had fled to the countryside. Nearly 1,000 people were dying on average every week in London alone. The official recorded fatalities between 1665 and 1666 are disputed between historians, however it is estimated that The Great Plague took more than 100,000 lives by its end. This number could potentially be much higher given the poor documentation of the time, but that is something we may never know. 

Fire: The Great Fire of London following in the wake of disease.

This painting shows the great fire of London as seen from a boat in vicinity of Tower Wharf
This painting shows the great fire of London as seen from a boat in vicinity of Tower Wharf

Fire, humanity’s greatest invention and yet one of our greatest enemies. Overcrowded and impoverished areas were a breeding ground for sickness and fire hazards before the introduction of safety codes and proper sanitation. Unfortunately, safety regulations are often implemented after tragic incidents. Before the Great Fire of London in 1666, the general population was unaware of the danger they placed themselves in by building homes with extremely flammable materials. These homes and buildings were often hastily constructed and tightly squeezed in next to one another due to the rapid population growth that London was seeing.

With an estimated residential population of 350,000 people during the summer of 1666, London was the largest city in Europe. Despite the ongoing plague, the city was still bustling with people and animals. Since it would be years until the invention of trolley cars or trains, numerous buildings housed bales of hay and straw to feed work horses across the city. To make matters even worse, the summer of 1666 had been a long, hot, and extremely dry one. London was facing a serious drought by the end of August, and the matchbox was about to ignite. 

Conditions lined up on September 2nd 1666 as the perfect recipe of disaster was born; and it all began with bread. The blaze that started in the Kings Bakery on Pudding Lane near London Bridge would grow to apocalyptic temperatures. Thomas Farynor, owner of the bakery, was adamant that he had extinguished the flames by 10PM that night, but three hours later the inferno would consume his home. Given that fires were a common occurrence for the city, officials were not particularly worried. Upon being informed of the growing embers on Pudding Lane, Lord Mayor Sir Thomas Bloodworth was so unbothered by the news that he is quoted as saying, “Pish, a woman might piss it out!” However, this attitude of indifference would be London’s downfall. Fierce winds from the east helped to sweep the fire down Pudding Lane and towards the Thames. Upon reaching the river, the blaze quickly erupted over warehouses near the docks. Within seconds the fire ignited highly combustible oil and tallow housed within. Thankfully, the fire did not venture south of the Thames given the previous fire of 1633 had already destroyed a good section of that area. Alas, the blaze did go on to consume the rest of the city. 

Chaos continued to reign on September 3rd . A stampede of people rushed to the Thames attempting to escape from the flames, and sightseers gathered from the surrounding villages to witness the blaze. Once informed of the gravity of the situation, King Charles II ordered a ‘fire-break’ to be created by tearing down the line of buildings and houses on the fires path. This would prove useless against the strength of the inferno. Samuel Peyps wrote in his diary on September 3rd

“About four o’clock in the morning, my Lady Batten sent me a cart to carry away all my money, and plate, and best things, to Sir W. Rider’s at Bednall-greene. Which I did riding myself in my night-gowne in the cart; and Lord! to see how the streets and the highways are crowded with people running and riding and getting of carts at any rate to fetch away things.”

By September 4th, the King himself had joined in with the fire brigade by tossing water on the flames with rudimentary leather buckets. When their efforts fell short, the fire raged on, and drastic measures were needed to stop the flames. King Charles II ordered a new ‘fire-break’ to be created, but this time they would blow up the houses and buildings with gun powder as a more efficient tactic for time. Unfortunately, the explosions incited a panic as people mistook them for an invasion by the French. The masses sought refuge outside of the city, but as people poured out, St. Paul’s Cathedral would quickly go up in the blaze. On September 5th Samuel Peyps recounts the sheer level of terror the fire brought, ”Lord! what sad sight it was by moone- light to see, the whole City almost on fire…” Eventually, coals did settle on London, and the fire ceased as the sun rose on September 6th, 1666. 

With the flames extinguished, the destruction was plain to see. Only one-fifth of London was left in the wake of the Great Fire. Nearly 13,000 residential homes had been destroyed, and nearly all the civic buildings had collapsed. Astoundingly, despite the panic and bedlam that ensued over the three days, only six people were confirmed dead after the disaster. Thousands of people were left homeless as their city was a burnt-out shell of its former self. To add insult to injury, a mentally handicapped French watchmaker, Lucky Hubert, came out in the aftermath and confessed to starting the fire on purpose. Without a second thought, officials in London condemned him to death by hanging. Later, it was revealed that Hubert’s confession was false as he was not even in London when the flames began. 

Sir Christopher Wren was tasked with rebuilding London after the disaster. As his piece-de-resistance, Wren began reconstructing St. Paul’s Cathedral, starting in 1675. A 200-foot monument was also erected on the ground where the flames began to commemorate the event that took place on the fateful September of 1666. London would never be the same, but her reconstruction brought forth the best in her people. 

Connecting the Dots: One catastrophe after another.

It may be easy to speculate, as many have, that the Great Fire of London had a hand in ending the plague. However, new evidence has emerged to suggest that infection was in decline by September of 1666, and the Great Fire did not have anything to do with the disappearance of plague.  It is true that the flames would have killed off many fleas and rats that aided in the spread of disease, and it forced the community to rebuild the city in a more methodical and orderly way than they had previously. But, as history often reminds us, correlation does not equal causation. Historians are even puzzled as to when people began to form this connection between the fire and plague. As Christoph Heyl, a professor at the University of Duisburg-Essen, Germany stated,

“If you look at the discourse of the time, there was never any connection between the end of plague and Great Fire… Even in a text like this [loyalist propaganda from the time], there’s no trace of a connection whatsoever between fire and the end of the plague.”

In February of 1666, months before the fire’s outbreak, King Charles II had returned to London, which perpetuated the idea that the city was “reasonably” safe from disease. Even still, bubonic plague continued after the fire all the way through 1679- granted these cases were few and far between compared to the major outbreak of 1665-1666. Historians speculate that we may never know exactly why the plague ended. However, the evolution of city planning, and social engineering may have had a hand in preventing outbreaks of similar magnitude. 

The unsettling truth is that the bubonic plague and its cousins stemming from y. pestis have not disappeared in our modern world. Recently, in 2017, Madagascar had its own outbreak of 2,417 cases and 209 deaths from the bubonic plague. Thankfully, antibiotics have proven extremely effective against the infection but only when caught in time. Without these modern advancements the plague would be just as fatal as it was for Europe in the 1600s. 

Fire and disease will always be humanity’s greatest enemy. New viruses and bacteria will inevitably mutate to defeat even our largest achievements in medicine. It is a war of attrition, constantly being battled in the background of society and there will never be a generation that is not impacted by illness. Death is a funny thing. Dying is terrifying, and for good reason, but in the end death itself is not scary. All that we can hope for is a quiet kind of dying. A dying that is warm and cozy in our beds, and not filled with the horrors of Fire or Plague. We should all be grateful for the ability to die quietly, for many of our ancestors could not.

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