The Great Events by Famous Historians, Vol 12

Author: Daniel Defoe  | Date: A.D. 1665

Great Plague in London

A.D. 1665


None of the great visitations of disease that have afflicted Europe within historic times has wholly spared England. But from the time of the "Black Death" (1349) the country experienced no such suffering from any epidemic as that which fell upon London in 1665. That year the "Great Plague" is said to have destroyed the lives of nearly one hundred thousand people in England’s capital. The plague had previously cropped up there every few years, from lack of proper sanitation. At the time of this outbreak the water-supply of the city was notoriously impure. In 1665 the heat was uncommonly severe. Pepys said that June 7th of that year was the hottest day that he had ever known.

The plague of 1665 is said, however, to have been brought in merchandise directly from Holland, where it had been smoldering for several years. Its ravages in London have often been described, and Defoe found in the calamity a subject for a special story on history. Probably he was not more than six years old when the plague appeared; but he assumes throughout the pose of a respectable and religious householder of the period. All his own recollections, all the legends of the time, and the parish records are grouped in masterly fashion to form a single picture. The account has been described as a "masterpiece of verisimilitude."

In the first place a blazing star or comet appeared for several months before the plague, as there did the year after, a little before the great fire; the old women and the weak-minded portion of the other sex, whom I could almost call old women too, remarked—especially afterward, though not till both those judgments were over—that those two comets passed directly over the city, and that so very near the houses that it was plain they imported something peculiar to the city alone; that the comet before the pestilence was of a faint, dull, languid color, and its motion very heavy, solemn, and slow; but that the comet before the fire was bright and sparkling, or, as others said, flaming, and its motion swift and furious; and that, accordingly, one foretold a heavy judgment, slow, but severe, terrible, and frightful, as theplague was; but the other foretold a stroke, sudden, swirl, and fiery, like the conflagration. Nay, so particular some people were that, as they looked upon that comet preceding the fire, they fancied that they not only saw it pass swiftly and fiercely, and could perceive the motion with the eye, but they even heard it; that it made a rushing, mighty noise, fierce and terrible, though at a distance and but just perceivable.

I saw both these stars, and I must confess, had so much of the common notion of such things in my head that I was apt to look upon them as the forerunners and warnings of God’s judgments; and especially, when after the plague had followed the first, I yet saw another of the like kind, I could not but say, God had not yet sufficiently scourged the city.

But I could not at the same time carry these things to the height that others did, knowing, too, that natural causes are assigned by the astronomers for such things; and that their motions, and even their evolutions, are calculated, or pretended to be calculated; so that they cannot be so perfectly called the forerunners or foretellers, much less the procurers of such events as pestilence, war, fire, and the like.

But let my thoughts, and the thoughts of the philosophers, be or have been what they will, these things had a more than ordinary influence upon the minds of the common people, and they had, almost universally, melancholy apprehensions of some dreadful calamity and judgment coming upon the city; and this principally from the sight of this comet, and the little alarm that was given in December by two people dying in St. Giles.

The apprehensions of the people were likewise strangely increased by the error of the times; in which, I think the people, from what principles I cannot imagine, were more addicted to prophecies, and astrological conjurations, dreams, and old wives’ tales, than ever they were before or since. Whether this unhappy temper was originally raised by the follies of some people who got money by it—that is to say, by printing predictions and prognostications—I know not; but certain it is books frightened them terribly; such as Lilly’s Almanack, Gadbury’s Allogical Predictions, Poor Robin’s Almanack, and the like; also several pretended religious books—one entitled Come out of her, my people, lest you be partaker of her plagues; another, called FairWarning; another, Britain’s Remembrancer; and many such, all or most part of which foretold directly or covertly the ruin of the city: nay, some were so enthusiastically bold as to run about the streets with their oral predictions, pretending they were sent to preach to the city; and one in particular, who like Jonah to Nineveh, cried in the streets, "Yet forty days, and London shall be destroyed." I will not be positive whether he said "yet forty days" or "yet a few days."

Another ran about naked, except a pair of drawers about his waist, crying day and night. As a man that Josephus mentions, who cried, "Woe to Jerusalem!" a little before the destruction of that city, so this poor naked creature cried, "O the great and the dreadful God!" and said no more, but repeated these words continually, with a voice and countenance full of horror, a swift pace; and nobody could ever find him to stop or rest or take any sustenance, at least that ever I could hear of. I met this poor creature several times in the streets, and would have spoken to him, but he would not enter into conversation with me, or anyone else, but held on his dismal cries continually. These things terrified the people to the last degree; and especially when two or three times, as I have mentioned already, they found one or two in the bills dead of the plague at St. Giles.

The justices of peace for Middlesex, by direction of the secretary of state, had begun to shut up houses in the parishes of St. Giles-in-the-Fields, St. Martin’s, St. Clement Danes, etc., and it was with good success; for in several streets where the plague broke out, after strictly guarding the houses that were infected, and taking care to bury those that died immediately after they were known to be dead, the plague ceased in those streets. It was also observed that the plague decreased sooner in those parishes, after they had been visited in detail, than it did in the parishes of Bishopsgate, Shoreditch, Aldgate, Whitechapel, Stepney, and others; the early care taken in that manner being a great check to it.

This shutting up of houses was a method first taken, as I understand, in the plague which happened in 1603, on the accession of King James I to the crown; and the power of shutting people up in their own houses was granted by an act of Parliament entitled "An act for the charitable relief and ordering of personsinfected with the plague." On which act of Parliament the lord mayor and aldermen of the city of London founded the order they made at this time, viz., June, 1665; when the numbers infected within the city were but few, the last bill for the ninety-two parishes being but four. By these means, when there died about one thousand a week in the whole, the number in the city was but twenty-eight; and the city was more healthy in proportion than any other place all the time of the infection.

These orders of my lord mayor were published, as I have said, toward the end of June. They came into operation from July 1st, and were as follows:

"Orders conceived and published by the lord mayor and aldermen of the city of London, concerning the infection of the plague, 1665.

"Whereas, in the reign of our late sovereign, King James, of happy memory, an act was made for the charitable relief and ordering of persons infected with the plague; whereby authority was given to justices of the peace, mayors, bailiffs, and other head officers, to appoint within their several limits, examiners, searchers, watchmen, surgeons, and nurse-keepers, and buriers, for the persons and places infected, and to minister unto them oaths for the performance of their offices. And the same statute did also authorize the giving of other directions, as unto them for the present necessity should seem good in their discretions. It is now upon special consideration thought very expedient for preventing and avoiding of infection of sickness (if it shall so please Almighty God) that these officers be appointed, and these orders hereafter duly observed."

Then follow the orders giving these officers instructions in detail and prescribing the extent and limits of their several duties. Next, "Orders concerning infected houses and persons sick of the plague." These had reference to the "notice to be given of the sickness," "sequestration of the sick," "airing the stuff," "shutting up of the house," "burial of the dead," "forbidding infected stuff to be sold, and of persons leaving infected houses," "marking of infected houses," and "regulating hackney coaches that have been used to convey infected persons."

Lastly there followed "Ordersfor cleansing and keeping the struts and houses sweet" and "Orders concerning loose personsand idle assemblies," such as "beggars," "plays," "feasts," and "tippling-houses."

     "(Signed)      SIR JOHN LAWRENCE, Lord Mayor.

I need not say that these orders extended only to such places as were within the lord mayor’s jurisdiction; so it is requisite to observe that the justices of the peace, within those parishes, and those places called the hamlets and out-parts, took the same method: as I remember, the orders for shutting up of houses did not take place so soon on our side, because, as I said before, the plague did not reach the eastern parts of the town, at least not begin to be very violent, till the beginning of August.

Now, indeed, it was coming on amain; for the burials that same week were in the next adjoining parishes thus:

                         The next week          To the
                         prodigiously          1st of
                         increased, as          Aug. thus
St. Leonard’s, Shoreditch...      64          84           110
St. Botolph, Bishopsgate...      65          105           116
St. Giles, Cripplegate...          213          421           554
                    342          610           780

The shutting up of houses was at first considered a very cruel and unchristian thing, and the poor people so confined made bitter lamentations; complaints were also daily brought to my lord mayor, of houses causelessly—and some maliciously—shut up. I cannot say, but, upon inquiry, many that complained so loudly were found in a condition to be continued; and others again, inspection being made upon the sick person, on his being content to be carried to the pesthouse, were released.

Indeed, many people perished in these miserable confinements, which it is reasonable to believe would not have been distempered if they had had liberty, though the plague was in the house; at which the people were at first very clamorous and uneasy, and several acts of violence were committed on the men who were set to watch the houses so shut up; also several people broke out by force, in many places, as I shall observe by and by; still it was a public good that justified the private mischief; and there was no obtaining the least mitigation by any applicationto magistrates. This put the people upon an manner of stratagems, in order, if possible, to get out; and it would fill a little volume to set down the arts used by the people of such houses to shut the eyes of the watchmen who were employed, to deceive them, and to escape or break out from them. A few incidents on this head may prove not uninteresting.

As I went along Houndsditch one morning, about eight o’clock, there was a great noise; it is true, indeed, there was not much crowd, because people were not very free to gather or to stay long together; but the outcry was loud enough to prompt my curiosity, and I called to one that looked out of a window, and asked what was the matter.

A watchman, it seems, had been employed to keep his post at the door of a house which was infected, or said to be infected, and was shut up; he had been there all night for two nights together, as he told his story, and the day watchman had been there one day, and had now come to relieve him; all this while no noise had been heard in the house, no light had been seen; they called for nothing, sent him no errands, which was the chief business of the watchman; neither had they given him any disturbance, as he said, from the Monday afternoon, when he heard great crying and screaming in the house, which, as he supposed, was occasioned by some of the family dying just at that time. It seems the night before, the dead-cart, as it was called, had been stopped there, and a servant-maid had been brought down to the door dead, and the buriers or bearers, as they were called, put her into the cart, wrapped only in a green rug, and carried her away.

The watchman had knocked at the door, it seems, when he heard that noise and crying, as above, and nobody answered a great while; but at last one looked out, and said, with an angry, quick tone, "What do ye want, that ye make such a knocking ?" He answered: "I am the watchman! how do you do? what is the matter?" The person answered: "What is that to you? Stop the dead-cart." This, it seems, was about one o’clock; soon after, as the fellow said, he stopped the dead-cart, and then knocked again, but nobody answered: he continued knocking, and the bellman called out several times, "Bring out your dead!" but nobody answered, till the man that drove the cart,being called to other houses, would stay no longer, and drove away.

The watchman knew not what to make of all this, so he let them alone till the day watchman came to relieve him, giving him an account of the particulars. They knocked at the door a great while, but nobody answered; and they observed that the window or casement at which the person had looked out continued open, being up two pair of stairs. Upon this the two men, to satisfy their curiosity, got a long ladder, and one of them went up to the window and looked into the room, where he saw a woman lying dead upon the floor in a dismal manner, having no clothes on her but her shift. Although he called aloud, and knocked hard on the floor with his long staff, yet nobody stirred or answered; neither could he hear any noise in the house.

Upon this he came down again and acquainted his fellow, who went up also, and, finding the case as above, they resolved either to acquaint the lord mayor or some other magistrate with it. The magistrate, it seems, upon the information of the two men, ordered the house to be broken open, a constable and other persons being appointed to be present, that nothing might be plundered; and accordingly it was so done, when nobody was found in the house but that young woman, who, having been infected, and past recovery, the rest had left her to die by herself. Everyone was gone, having found some way to delude the watchman and to get open the door or get out at some back door or over the tops of the houses, so that he knew nothing of it; and as to those cries and shrieks which the watchman had heard, it was supposed they were the passionate cries of the family at the bitter parting, which, to be sure, it was to them all, this being the sister to the mistress of the house.

Many such escapes were made out of infected houses, as particularly when the watchman was sent some errand, that is to say, for necessaries, such as food and physic, to fetch physicians if they would come, or surgeons, or nurses, or to order the dead-cart, and the like. Now, when he went it was his duty to lock up the outer door of the house and take the key away with him; but to evade this and cheat the watchman, people got two or three keys made to their locks, or they found means to unscrew the locks, open the door, and go out as they pleased. This wayof escape bring found out, the officers afterward had orders to padlock up the doors on the outside and place bolts on them, as they thought fit.

At another house, as I was informed, in the street near Aldgate, a whole family was shut up and locked in because the maidservant was ill: the master of the house had complained, by his friends, to the next alderman and to the lord mayor, and had consented to have the maid carried to the pesthouse, but was refused, so the door was marked with a red cross, a padlock on the outside, as above, and a watchman set to keep the door according to public order.

After the master of the house found there was no remedy, but that he, his wife, and his children were to be locked up with this poor distempered servant, he called to the watchman and told him he must go then and fetch a nurse for them to attend this poor girl, for that it would be certain death to them all to oblige them to nurse her; and that if he would not do this the maid must perish, either of the distemper, or be starved for want of food, for he was resolved none of his family should go near her, and she lay in the garret, four-story high, where she could not cry out or call to anybody for help.

The watchman went and fetched a nurse as he was appointed and brought her to them the same evening; during this interval the master of the house took the opportunity of breaking a large hole through his shop into a star where formerly a cobbler had sat, before or under his shop window, but the tenant, as may be supposed, at such a dismal time as that, was dead or removed, and so he had the key in his own keeping. Having made his way into this stall, which he could not have done if the man had been at the door—the noise he was obliged to make being such as would have alarmed the watchman—I say, having made his way into this stall, he sat stir till the watchman returned with the nurse, and all the next day also. But the night following, having contrived to send the watchman another trifling errand, he conveyed himself and all his family out of the house, and left the nurse and the watchman to bury the poor woman, that is, to throw her into the cart and take care of the house.

I could give a great many such stories as these which in the long course of that dismal year I met with, that is, heard of, andwhich are very certain to be true or very near the truth; that is to say, true in general, for no man could at such a time learn all the particulars. There was, likewise, violence used with the watchmen, as was reported, in abundance of places; and I believe that, from the beginning of the visitation to the end, not less than eighteen or twenty of them were killed or so severely wounded as to be taken up for dead which was supposed to have been done by the people in the infected houses which were shut up, and where they attempted to come out and were opposed.

For example, not far from Coleman Street they blowed up a watchman with gunpowder, and burned the poor fellow dreadfully; and while he made hideous cries, and nobody would venture to come near to help him, the whole family that were able to stir got out at the windows one story high, two that were left sick calling out for help. Care was taken to give the latter nurses to look after them, but the fugitives were not found till after the plague abated, when they returned; but as nothing could be proved, so nothing could be done to them.

It is to be considered, too, that as these were prisons without bars or bolts, which our common prisons are furnished with, so the people let themselves down out of their windows, even in the face of the watchman, bringing swords or pistols in their hands, and threatening to shoot the poor wretch if he stirred or called for help.

In other cases some had gardens and walls or palings between them and their neighbors; or yards and back houses; and these, by friendship and entreaties, would get leave to get over those walls or palings, and so go out at their neighbors’ doors, or, by giving money to their servants, get them to let them through in the night; so that, in short, the shutting up of houses was in no wise to be depended upon. Neither did it answer the end at all; serving more to make the people desperate and drive them to violent extremities in their attempts to break out.

But what was still worse, those that did thus break out spread the infection by wandering about with the distemper upon them; and many that did so were driven to dreadful exigencies and extremities and perished in the streets or fields or dropped down with the raging violence of the fever upon them. Otherswandered into the country and went forward any way as their desperation guided them, not knowing whither they went or would go, till faint and tired; the houses and villages on the road refusing to admit them to lodge, whether infected or no, they perished by the roadside.

On the other hand, when the plague at first seized a family, that is to say, when any one of the family had gone out and unwarily or otherwise caught the distemper and brought it home, it was certainly known by the family before it was known to the officers who were appointed to examine into the circumstances of all sick persons when they heard of their being sick.

I remember—and while I am writing this story I think I hear the very shrieks—a certain lady had an only daughter, a young maiden about nineteen years old and who was possessed of a very considerable fortune. The young woman, her mother, and the maid had been out for some purpose, for the house was not shut up; but about two hours after they came home the young lady complained she was not well; in a quarter of an hour more she vomited and had a violent pain in her head. "Pray God," says her mother, in a terrible fright, "my child has not the distemper!" The pain in her head increasing, her mother ordered the bed to be warmed, and resolved to put her to bed, and prepared to give her things to sweat, which was the ordinary remedy to be taken when the first apprehensions of the distemper began.

While the bed was being aired, the mother undressed the young woman, and, on looking over her body with a candle, immediately discovered the fatal tokens. Her mother, not being able to contain herself, threw down her candle and screeched out in such a frightful manner that it was enough to bring horror upon the stoutest heart in the world. overcome by fright, she first hinted, then recovered, then ran all over the house, up the stairs and down the stairs, like one distracted. Thus she continued screeching and crying out for several hours, void of all sense, or at least government of her senses, and, as I was told, never came thoroughly to herself again. As to the young maiden, she was dead from that moment; for the gangrene which occasions the spots had spread over her whole body, and she died in less than two hours: but still the mother continued crying out, notknowing anything more of her child, several hours after she was dead.

I went all the first part of the time freely about the streets, though not so freely as to run myself into apparent danger, except when they dug the great pit in the church-yard of our parish of Aldgate. A terrible pit it was, and I could not resist the curiosity to go and see it. So far as I could judge, it was about forty feet in length and about fifteen or sixteen feet broad, and, at the time I first looked at it, about nine feet deep; but it was said they dug it nearly twenty feet deep afterward, when they could go no deeper, for the water.

They had dug several pits in another ground when the distemper began to spread in our parish, and especially when the dead-carts began to go about, which in our parish was not till the beginning of August. Into these pits they had put perhaps fifty or sixty bodies each; then they made larger holes, wherein they buried all that the cart brought in a week, which, by the middle to the end of August, came to from two hundred to four hundred a week. They could not dig them larger, because of the order of the magistrates confining them to leave no bodies within six feet of the surface. Besides, the water coming on at about seventeen or eighteen feet, they could not well put more in one pit. But now at the beginning of September, the plague being at its height, and the number of burials in our parish increasing to more than were ever buried in any parish about London of no larger extent, they ordered this dreadful gulf to be dug, for such it was, rather than a pit.

They had supposed this pit would have supplied them for a month or more when they dug it, and some blamed the church-wardens for suffering such a frightful thing, telling them they were making preparations to bury the whole parish, and the like; but time made it appear the church-wardens knew the condition of the parish better than they did; for the pit being finished September 4th, I think they began to bury in it on the 6th, and by the 20th, which was just two weeks, they had thrown into it one thousand one hundred fourteen bodies, when they were obliged to fill it up, the bodies being within six feet of the surface.

It was about September 10th that my curiosity led or ratherdrove me to go and see this pit again, when there had been about four hundred people buried in it; and I was not content to see it in the daytime, as I had done before, for then there would have been nothing to see but the loose earth; for all the bodies that were thrown in were immediately covered with earth by those they called the buriers, but I resolved to go in the night and see some of the bodies thrown in.

There was a strict order against people coming to those pits, and that was only to prevent infection; but after some time that order was more necessary, for people that were infected and near their end, and delirious also, would run to those pits, wrapped in blankets or rags, and throw themselves in and bury themselves.

I got admittance into the church-yard by being acquainted with the sexton, who, though he did not refuse me at all, yet earnestly persuaded me not to go, telling me very seriously—for he was a good and sensible man—that it was indeed their business and duty to run all hazards, and that in so doing they might hope to be preserved; but that I had no apparent call except my own curiosity, which he said he believed I would not pretend was sufficient to justify my exposing myself to infection. I told him "I had been pressed in my mind to go, and that perhaps it might be an instructing sight that might not be without its uses." "Nay," says the good man, "if you will venture on that score, i’ name of God go in; for depend upon it, ’twill be a sermon to you; it may be the best that you ever heard in your life. It is a speaking sight," says he, "and has a voice with it, and a loud one, to call us to repentance;" and with that he opened the door and said, "Go, if you will."

His words had shocked my resolution a little and I stood wavering for a good while; but just at that interval I saw two links come over from the end of the Minories, and heard the bellman, and then appeared a dead-cart, so I could no longer resist my desire, and went in. There was nobody that I could perceive at first in the church-yard or going into it but the buriers and the fellow that drove the cart or rather led the horse and cart; but when they came up to the pit they saw a man going to and fro muffled up in a brown cloak and making motions with his hands under his cloak, as if he was in a great agony, and theburiers immediately gathered about him, supposing he was one of those poor delirious or desperate creatures that used to bury themselves. He said nothing as he walked about, but two or three times groaned very deeply and loud, and sighed as he would break his heart.

When the buriers came up to him they soon found he was neither a person infected and desperate, as I have observed above, nor a person distempered in mind, but one oppressed with a dreadful weight of grief, indeed, having his wife and several of his children in the cart that had just come in, and he followed it in an agony and excess of sorrow. He mourned heartily, as it was easy to see, but with a kind of masculine grief that could not give itself vent in tears, and, calmly desiring the buriers to let him alone, said he would only see the bodies thrown in and go away; so they left importuning him. But no sooner was the cart turned round and the bodies shot into the pit promiscuously, which was a surprise to him, for he at least expected they would have been decently hid in, though indeed he was afterward convinced that was impracticable—I say, no sooner did he see the sight but he cried out aloud, unable to contain himself.

I could not hear what he said, but he went backward and forward two or three times and fell down in a swoon. The buriers ran to him and took him up, and in a little while he came to himself, and they led him away to the Pye tavern, over against the end of Houndsditch, where it seems the man was known and where they took care of him. He looked into the pit again as he went away, but the buriers had covered the bodies so immediately with throwing in the earth that, though there was light enough, for there were lanterns and candles placed all night round the sides of the pit, yet nothing could be seen.

This was a mournful scene, indeed, and affected me almost as much as the rest, but the other was awful and full of terror. The cart had in it sixteen or seventeen bodies; some were wrapped up in linen sheets, some in rugs, some all but naked or so loose that what covering they had fell from them in being shot out of the cart, for coffins were not to be had for the prodigious numbers that fell in such a calamity as his.

It was reported, by way of scandal upon the buriers, that if any corpse was delivered to them decently wrapped in awinding-sheet, the buriers were so wicked as to strip them in the cart and carry them quite naked to the ground; but as I cannot easily credit anything so vile among Christians, and at a time so filled with terrors as that was, I can only relate it and leave it undetermined.

I was indeed shocked at the whole sight; it almost overwhelmed me, and I went away with my heart full of the most afflicting thoughts, such as I cannot describe. Just at my going out at the church-yard and turning up the street toward my own house I saw another cart with links and a bellman going before, coming out of Harrow Alley, in the Butcher Row, on the other side of the way, and being, as I perceived, very full of dead bodies, it went directly toward the church; I stood awhile, but I had no desire to go back again to see the same dismal scene over again, so I went directly home, where I could not but consider, with thankfulness, the risk I had run.

Here the poor unhappy gentleman’s grief came into my head again, and, indeed, I could not but shed tears in reflecting upon it, perhaps more than he did himself; but his case lay so heavy upon my mind that I could not constrain myself from going again to the Pye tavern, resolving to inquire what became of him. It was by this time one o’clock in the morning and the poor gentleman was still there; the truth was the people of the house, knowing him, had kept him there all the night, notwithstanding the danger of being infected by him, though it appeared the man was perfectly sound himself.

It is with regret that I take notice of this tavern: the people were civil, mannerly, and obliging enough, and had till this time kept their house open and their trade going on, though not so very publicly as formerly; but a dreadful set of fellows frequented their house, who, in the midst of all this horror, met there every night, behaved with all the revelling and roaring extravagances as are usual for such people to do at other times, and, indeed, to such an offensive degree that the very master and mistress of the house grew first ashamed and then terrified at them.

They sat generally in a room next the street, and, as they always kept late hours, so when the dead-cart came across the street end to go into Houndsditch, which was in view of the tavern windows, they would frequently open the windows as soonas they heard the bell, and look out at them; and as they might often hear sad lamentations of people in the streets or at their windows as the carts went along, they would make their impudent mocks and jeers at them, especially if they heard the poor people call upon God to have mercy upon them, as many would do at those times in passing along the streets.

These gentlemen, being something disturbed with the clatter of bringing the poor gentleman into the house, as above, were first angry and very high with the master of the house for suffering such a fellow, as they called him, to be brought out of the grave into their house; but being answered that the man was a neighbor, and that he was sound, but overwhelmed with the calamity of his family, and the like, they turned their anger into ridiculing the man and his sorrow for his wife and children; taunting him with want of courage to leap into the great pit and go to heaven, as they jeeringly expressed it, along with them; adding some profane and blasphemous expressions.

They were at this vile work when I came back to the house, and as far as I could see, though the man sat still, mute and disconsolate, and their affronts could not divert his sorrow, yet he was both grieved and offended at their words: upon this, I gently reproved them, being well enough acquainted with their characters, and not unknown in person to two of them. They immediately fell upon me with ill language and oaths: asked me what I did out of my grave at such a time when so many honester men were carried into the church-yard? and why I was not at home saying my prayers till the dead-cart came for me?

I was indeed astonished at the impudence of the men, though not at all discomposed at their treatment of me. However, I kept my temper. I told them that though I defied them or any man in the world to tax me with any dishonesty, yet I acknowledged that in this terrible judgment of God many a better than I was swept away and carried to his grave. But to answer their question directly, it was true that I was mercifully preserved by that great God whose name they had blasphemed and taken in vain by cursing and swearing in a dreadful manner; and that I believed I was preserved in particular, among other ends of his goodness, that I might reprove them for their audacious boldness in behaving in such a manner and in such an awful timeas this was; especially for their jeering and mocking at an honest gentleman and a neighbor who they saw was overwhelmed with sorrow for the sufferings with which it had pleased God to afflict his family.

They received all reproof with the utmost contempt and made the greatest mockery that was possible for them to do at me, giving me all the opprobrious, insolent scoffs that they could think of for preaching to them, as they called it, which, indeed, grieved me rather than angered me. I went away, however, blessing God in my mind that I had not spared them though they had insulted me so much.

They continued this wretched course three or four days after this, continually mocking and jeering at all that showed themselves religious or serious, or that were any way touched with a sense of the terrible judgment of God upon us; and I was informed they flouted in the same manner at the good people who, notwithstanding the contagion, met at the church, fasted, and prayed God to remove his hand from them.

I say, they continued this dreadful course three or four days —I think it was no more—when one of them, particularly he who asked the poor gentleman what he did out of his grave, was struck with the plague and died in a most deplorable manner; and in a word, they were every one of them carried into the great pit which I have mentioned above, before it was quite filled up, which was not above a fortnight or thereabout.


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Daniel Defoe

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Chicago: Daniel Defoe, "Great Plague in London," The Great Events by Famous Historians, Vol 12 in The Great Events by Famous Historians. Lincoln Memorial University Edition, ed. Rossiter Johnson (Harrogate, TN: The National Alunmi, 1926), 30–45. Original Sources, accessed September 24, 2021,

MLA: Defoe, Daniel. "Great Plague in London." The Great Events by Famous Historians, Vol 12, in The Great Events by Famous Historians. Lincoln Memorial University Edition, edited by Rossiter Johnson, Harrogate, TN, The National Alunmi, 1926, pp. 30–45. Original Sources. 24 Sep. 2021.

Harvard: Defoe, D, 'Great Plague in London' in The Great Events by Famous Historians, Vol 12. cited in 1926, The Great Events by Famous Historians. Lincoln Memorial University Edition, ed. , The National Alunmi, Harrogate, TN, pp.30–45. Original Sources, retrieved 24 September 2021, from