Sunday, November 27, 2011

Plague Tidbits

Photo: A boundary stone marking the border of the village of Eyam, England.  The high sheriff would leave food at this rock for the entire village, since the village itself voted to not let anyone in or out until the plague passed.  For a bit of this remarkable story, see my blog entry here.

A few things I thought were interesting as I continue to write and research my WIP (trilogy?) re: the same in our time--and through all time.  You'll see.  Some of the info. culled from Geraldine Brooks' Year of Wonders and Daniel Defoe's Journal of the Plague Years.  They're both fiction, though the former is infamously researched and realistic and the latter is fact masquerading as fiction, masquerading as fact.  Check it out to see what I mean.  They are both well-written and highly recommended.

--Two watchmen had to guard a plague house, so that nobody went in and nobody went out.  In many areas, they did this in eight-hour shifts, per house.  Roughly, from 10 pm to 6 am; from 6 am to 2 pm; from 2 pm to 10 pm.

--Stories abound about attempted escapes from such houses.  One I see frequently is that the trapped would lower a noose from a window, somehow get it around a guard's neck, and either strangle him, or otherwise keep him occupied until someone successfully escaped. 

--As is the usual about stories like these, you wonder about a few things, like: What about the other guard?  How would you get the rope around his neck?  How would you keep it there while he struggled?  And why wouldn't the guards confiscate things, like rope, before they guard the place?  And where would they get, and sustain, enough men so that six of them could guard each and every plague house?

--At first, you went to the wakes and funerals of the deceased.  But, after the plague hit and so many people died so quickly, it was impossible to do this.  By then, open pits were dug and bodies just thrown in, like you see in the movies about wars, the Holocaust, etc.

--The sick and despondent would at times throw themselves in these pits, and die there.  Some would lay there as dirt got thrown over them, and die suffocating.

--Until the plague hit, the depth of graves was not uniform.  But the authorities insisted on six feet separating the dead from the living; that is, there had to be at least six feet separating the body from the people walking over it.  The grave wasn't six feet deep, as is the common misconception; it must've been a little deeper than that.  There's six feet between the top of the body and the dirt that marks the grave.  Hence the phrase "six feet under" today.  And the practice still continues.

--The authorities would openly lie about the death count, vastly underestimating it to avoid panic (or for whatever reason).  The real numbers came from the gravediggers at the chapel, at the church's graveyard, or at the massive pits.  And so these people were the ones you went to for accurate information.  (Hence the title of my MS.)

--Speaking of graveyards, it was common practice in England and New England (and probably Europe) to bury most of the dead in their church's graveyard.  When this became impossible, because either they ran out of room, or because nobody from the parish was left alive to bury them, they were buried wherever, often in a family plot next to the house.  This then became a common practice, whether the dead died from the plague or not.  (This is especially true with the TB outbreak in New England, esp. RI and NH, from my research.) 

--In Boston and parts of RI, some took the separation of Church and State seriously enough that the dead were buried in the Common Ground, not near the churches.  (Some of the very rich and famous early New Englanders are buried in Boston's Commons.)  The practice of burying the dead in one large community graveyard didn't hit America until the later 1800s.

Well, there's much more, but that's it for now.


  1. Year of Wonders is an excellent book. I've read it twice a few years apart ;)

    I never really thought about plague in the "new world," although I'm assuming that there must have been. I'm really interested to read your plague story.

    I also remember you had "A Stolen Life" in your briefcase the last time we met. Have you read it yet? My book club this month chose the book "Room" by Emma Donahue and I couldn't help but read "A Stolen Life" in tandem.

  2. I've read most of "A Stolen Life," and will review it on this blog when I finish it. It's on my list of things to do. Good memory! :-) I'm really interested in my plague story, too. It's a bit fragmented right now, but if you'd like to see a few pieces, let me know. YEAR OF WONDERS is very good, too. I'm focusing on the plague books now to the exclusion of most else, since it's what I'm writing.