Popular Science Monthly/Volume 3/May 1873/The Black Death in New England


THE ancient leprosy, the red plague, and the disease known in Europe as the Black Death, have ceased to afflict mankind. They seem to belong to the evils of the past; their banishment is due to human progress, to a better knowledge of hygiene, and a clearer understanding of the causes that develop infection and produce contagious and epidemic diseases. It is an interesting question to ask, "Will not the small-pox and the cholera, whose effects science has already modified, become extinct diseases?"

The disease known as the black death made its first appearance in Europe at Constantinople in 1347. It was brought there from Asia, probably from the northern coasts of the Black Sea. From Turkey it gradually spread over Europe, almost depopulating whole districts as it travelled north. Florence was terribly smitten. Boccaccio, in the preface to his "Decameron," has left us an account of the sweeping destruction of the Florentines by the scourge, which one who reads can never forget. From Florence it travelled into Spain, swept over France, and crossed the Straits of Dover.

It made its appearance in England late in the summer of 1348. From June to December of that year there was an almost incessant fall of rain. The ground was continually damp, and the streams were polluted by surface drainage. When the sun shone, it was through a misty sky, producing a vapory heat, particularly unhealthy and enervating. In August, a few cases of a disease supposed to be the black death were reported. In September the plague was surely among the people. In November it reached London, and from the capital it rapidly spread into all parts of the kingdom.

The symptoms of this terrible disease, which usually proved fatal, were inflammatory boils and swelling of the glands, similar to those that appear in the worst eruptive fevers, with black patches all over the skin, from which the disease received the name Black Death. The patient was next seized with violent vomitings of blood; he sometimes died at once, and he seldom survived more than two days. It is stated that, toward the end of the pestilence, many lives were saved by puncturing the boils.

It was a fearful time. The population of England and Wales numbered probably between three and four millions, and of these at least one-half, or more than a million persons, perished. Stowe says that the scourge "so wasted and spoyled the people that scarce the tenth person of all sorts was left alive." Another old writer says: "There died an innumerable sort, for no man but God only knew how many." In six months from January 1st there died in the city of Norwich more than 57,000 persons. In the graveyard of Spittle Croft, thirteen acres of land, which was used for the burial of the dead, because the London graveyards were "choke full," there were buried 50,000 persons. Parliament was prorogued in January, on account of the plague having broken out in Westminster, and again in March, on account of the increase of the disease. On the 16th of June, 1350, an important public regulation was made, "because," as the law ran, "a great part of our people is dead of the plague."

Not only the people but the cattle were infected. The disease was highly contagious. Death was in the air. "The pestilential breath of the sick who spat blood," says Hecker, "caused a terrible contagion far and near, for even the vicinity of those who had fallen of the plague was certain death, so that parents abandoned their infected children, and all the ties of kindred were dissolved!"

Half the population, or more than a million souls! What a stretch of the imagination does it require to cover such an appalling calamity! Cities were reduced to towns; towns to hamlets. The work of the husbandman ceased. The dead were unburied, and lay in the fields rotting in the sun. People stayed in their own houses, often half clothed and half famished, waiting for the destroyer to come.

In the year 1664 a similar visitation of the plague came upon London. The disease was perhaps not as swift and violent as had been the black death three hundred years before, but it was of the same general character. It broke out in Drury Lane in December. It had been raging for a considerable period in Holland, and the minds of the English people had been filled with apprehension for months. If Defoe's narrative is true, the people believed that they had supernatural warnings of the impending catastrophe. The symptoms of this disorder were similar to the black death, except that it was usually preceded by dimness of vision, and the discolored patches on the body were livid, instead of black. At the beginning of the following summer the disease fearfully increased. We may get an idea of the scene at the beginning of the calamity, from some little incidents recorded in the journal of Pepys. "June 7th," says this writer, "was the hottest that ever I felt in my life. This day, much against my will, did I see in Drury Lane two or three houses marked with a red cross upon the doors, and 'Lord, have mercy upon us!' writ there—a sad sight to me, being the first of the kind I ever saw." Again, on the 17th of the same month, he says: "It struck me very deep this afternoon, going with a hackney coach down Holborn, from the Lord Treasurer's, I found the coachman to drive easily and easily, and the coach stood still. He told me that he was suddenly struck very sick and almost blind. I took another coach, with a sad heart for the poor man, and fearing for myself also, lest he should have been struck with the plague."

As the calamity increased, shops were closed, dwellings were left empty, and the public thoroughfares were deserted. The markets were removed beyond the city-walls, coaches were seldom seen, except when people were fleeing from the city; a solemn stillness prevailed in many districts, and grass grew in the streets. People might be heard crying out of the windows for help, but the cry returned echoless. Some went mad; some rushed into the river, and ended their tortures by suicide. On a single night in the month of September 10,000 people died.

Many incidents of this terrible visitation are preserved, the best known being from the pen of Defoe. Rev. Thomas Vincent describes some touching scenes, of which he himself was a witness. "Among other spectacles," he says, "two, methought, were very affecting; one of a woman coming alone and weeping by the door where I lived, with a little coffin under her arm, carrying it to the new church-yard. I did judge that it was the mother of the child, and that all the family besides were dead."

An old writer thus describes an impressive scene in London during the reign of the plague:

"O unrejoicing Sabbath! not of yore
Did thy sweet evenings die along the Thames
Thus silently. Now, every sail is furled,
The oar hath dropped from out the rower's hand,
And on thou flowest in lifeless majesty,
River of a desert lately filled with joy!
O'er all the mighty wilderness of stone
The air is clear and cloudless, as the sea
Above the gliding ship. All fires are dead,
And not one single wreath of smoke ascends
Above the stillness of the towers and spires.
How idly hangs that arch magnificent
Across the idle river! Not a speck
Is seen to move along it. There it hangs
Still as a rainbow in the pathless sky."

John Wilson.

These are old facts, and are generally well known to the readers of old histories. But it may not be as well known to our readers that the black death, or at least a most malignant form of the true plague, prevailed in North America during the first part of the seventeenth century, sweeping off the Indian tribes on the Atlantic coast, and especially the tribes of New England. In the charter of New England, granted by James I., and bearing date of November 3, 1620, the king states "that he had been given certainly to know, that, within these late years, there hath, by God's visitation, reigned a wonderful plague, etc., to the depopulation of that whole territory, so that there is not left, for many leagues together in a manner, any that do claim or challenge any kind of interest therein."

"These late years" seem to have been 1617, 1618, and 1619. Its ravages from the Narragansett Bay to the Penobscot were of the most fearful character, constantly destroying one-fourth, and, according to some authorities, one-thirtieth of the natives. The old Indians gave a frightful account of it to the Pilgrims, saying that the victims had "died in heaps," and that the disease swept them off so rapidly that "the living were not able to bury the dead."

It is stated that, of the Indians inhabiting Patuxet, Squanto only remained. Norton, in his "New England Canaan" (Amsterdam, 1637), says: "They died in heaps, as they lay in their houses, and the living that were able to shift for themselves would run away and let them dy, and let their carkases ly above the ground without burill. For, in the place where many inhabited, there hath been but one left alive to tell what became of the rest, the living being, it seems, not able to bury the dead. They were left for crowes, kites, and vermine, to pray upon. And the bones and skulls, upon the several places of their habitation, made such a spectacle after my coming into these parts that, as I travelled in that forest near the Massachusetts, it seemed to me a new-found Golgotha." We should add that Mr. Norton came to this country in 1622.

Sir Fernando Gorges, who sent a ship to the East Atlantic coast at this period, tells us that, according to the reports given to him, those of the savages who had escaped the wars had been sore afflicted with the plague: "Notwithstanding, Vines" (his navigator), "and the rest with him that lay in the cabins with those people who died, did not so much as feel their heads ache while they stayed there."

It has been stated that the tribe of the Wampanoags was reduced from thirty thousand to a few hundred people, which will account for the small number of braves who appeared with Massasoit during his early visits to Plymouth. The Massachusetts, a tribe about as large as the Wampanoags, according to an early authority, were reduced in like proportion.

Some have supposed that this disease was the yellow fever, because an old Indian had told one of the early historians that the bodies of the deceased turned the color of his blanket, which was yellow. But, in most allusions to it, we find it spoken of as the true plague, or the pestilence in its worst and most destructive form.

The solitude of the forest at this time must have been most solemn and awe-inspiring. Of villages once populous, nothing remained but decaying huts, tenanted by birds and beasts, who had left white and bare the human bones scattered around. The desolations of Athens, of Constantinople, of Florence, and of London, were all unequalled by the spectacle of depopulation that has been presented on our very shores.

The Indian plague becomes an interesting fact of medical science, since it has been supposed that our climate has prophylactic virtues which render the pestilence, that, after an interval of centuries, has again and again ravaged Europe, impossible. We have strong reason to hope that the progress of science has banished this swift minister of death from the civilized races, and that even the modified forms of the disease are gradually yielding and disappearing. Still it is by no means certain that it may not come travelling from the East again, and, if so, we are no more protected by territorial or climatic influences than the inhabitants of the Old World. At least, so we might reasonably infer from this last fearful but interesting chapter of history.