KOKOMO  — A person’s memory can be a strange thing. Long ago experiences may be repressed for many years before some event triggers their remembrance. Just the other night I woke in the early morning hours and the following thought crossed my mind, “Journal of the Plague Year.” I know I read something like this. Who was the author? Who was the evil teacher who forced me to read it? What in the world was it about? All that I could remember was that some old English author wrote a boring book about a plague in London. Who was tormenting me like this?

The next morning I took my cup of coffee and headed for my computer. I was curious whether there had been anything in that book that even vaguely resembled the experience that we are all having at this time in history.  Much to my shock and amazement, life in 1665 London, England, held much in common with our modern day version of the plague. As I began to reread Daniel Defoe’s Journal of the “Plague Year,” it dawned on me that perhaps it wasn’t that bad an idea to make the book required reading in an English Literature course. I wish I could tell my late teacher, Mrs. Heaton, that she was a pretty good teacher.

Daniel Defoe’s book was published in 1722. He had been only five years old at the time of the great 1665 London Plague. The journal is reported to have been originally written by Defoe’s uncle Henry Foe. Whether the book is non-fiction or historical fiction is not important. The parallels of the London plague of 1665 and the Covid-19 plague of today are surprisingly similar and perhaps instructive.

In early 1665, a rumor began that the Bubonic Plague had started up again in France, born by traveling merchant sailors from Turkey. The plague had first moved from a very small village and then infected merchants doing business with the Dutch in Holland. At first, the English felt safe from the disease because of separation of Holland from England by the English Channel. That comfort soon dissipated in February when the first reported cases of the plague showed up on the east side of London.  

Despite learning of the presence of the plague in their city, most people did not give it a second thought and went about their lives like there was no danger. London was divided into over 60 parishes at the time and until the plague showed up in your parish, there was no call for any alarm. In March and early April, the plague spread westward through London from the poorer neighborhoods into the wealthier parishes. Those who had the financial resources loaded up their belongings and their most valuable servants and moved out of congested London, bound for the safer rural areas. The poor and laborers were left behind to weather the storm. Defoe’s uncle was a saddle maker and was in a prime occupation to witness the scourge which was to come.

Most people were in denial when the plague entered their parish. They had not altered their personal habits in any way and were shocked when they first heard the wails and crying coming from homes where the plague had taken its toll. Soon, the king issued an edict delegating power to mayors and public officials to take whatever actions they felt were important to stop the spread of the disease. The king also banned dramatic plays, festivals, organized fights and any other public gatherings.

There was a desperate scramble for vinegar which was used to wipe down everything and everyone in homes seeking to avoid the unseen pathogen. Homes with any resident having the plague were ordered locked up, with the windows closed, for 40 days or until either everyone was healthy or everyone was dead. The homes were guarded in 12-hour shifts by two watchmen, who made sure that no one escaped. Minimal food was delivered and left in a basket by the door, but mainly it was those homes who were prepared and had adequate provisions who survived the 40 days. This led to a scramble by those with resources to stockpile needed or perceived necessities. The poor or those who failed to prepare were left to suffer.

The dirtiest work of caring for the sick, removing refuse, making food and serving as watchmen was done by those who were poor and didn’t have the luxury of remaining indoors or escaping to the countryside.

Of course, people suffered separation and isolation no better in 1665 than they do today and, inevitably, the search for food and provisions drove many a quarantined person to crawl out of a window and try and escape. This reasonable action achieved little but the further spread of the disease.

As the bodies began to literally pile up in the streets, people flocked into churches seeking divine protection from the plague. Eventually, most of the churches in London came to the conclusion that they had become a breeding ground for the transmission of the plague. Ministers joined the migration to the countryside and left their parishes empty. The few churches that remained open quickly succumbed to the disease and the plague sliced through clergy and parishioner with equal deadliness.

It wasn’t long before those towns surrounding London grew suspicious and then intolerant of anyone on the road from London. Small militias denied passage to the London immigrants as thousands desperately tried to escape.

The disease ran its course throughout the summer and autumn of 1665 as over 25% of London’s population died from the plague. One hundred thousand souls were piled into horse-drawn carts and taken to mass graves where they were buried by king’s decree six feet deep.  

As the disease began its gradual decline from the peak deaths of 2,000 or 3,000 Londoners per day, the citizens of the city began to feel liberated and almost overnight the streets went from nearly empty to completely full. Life returned to a state of normalcy. Many of those who thronged the streets with raised arms praising God for his deliverance soon slipped into their former sinful selves.

The wonder of life went on, the misery of the plague was forgotten and I was forced to read a journal in my freshman literature class about events in a land far away. Defoe finished this journal with a short verse which summed up his feelings:

“A dreadful plague in London was

In the year sixty-five,

Which swept an hundred thousand souls

Away; yet I alive!” 

Dunn is the former chairman of the Howard County Republican Party.