You couldn’t make it up. The year was 1750 in London at England’s top criminal court – the Old Bailey. Three judges were trying a group of prisoners they were fully anticipating to sentence to death. Capital punishment applied to a whole range of crimes at this time – not just murder but also theft and violent attack.
Unfortunately for the judges, they were seated right in front of the dock – so that they could get a good look at the prisoners. What they didn’t realise was that within Newgate prison, there had been an outbreak of jail fever.
That’s basically typhus. Also called hospital fever, camp fever and ship fever. It’s caused by poor hygiene, normally when lots of people are grouped together in insanitary conditions. For example, military camps, ships and….prisons.
The agent of transmission is the humble louse, which gets infected by a sick person and then shares the disease with anybody nearby. So, the judges were infected because of their proximity to the accused. And it’s not a disease that spares the rich and privileged.
For example, one of the judges was Sir Samuel Pennant – who was the Lord Mayor of London. The other two judges were Sir Thomas Abney and Baron Clarke. And they all died – infected by the very prisoners they had been sentencing to hang.
Today, the Old Bailey – or Central Criminal Court – is still standing, though a more recent building. There’s no prison nearby. But in 1750, Newgate prison was located right next door. Prisoners were brought a relatively short distance from the squalid and overcrowded conditions at Newgate, straight into the courtroom of the Old Bailey.
Therefore, if typhus was raging through Newgate, it was brought direct into the courtroom. Not that anybody fully understood the risk. And certainly not the esteemed judges who were carried off to meet their maker.