Judges killed by prisoners – while sentencing them to death!

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.

Newgate prison – centre of a typhus outbreak

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.

Samuel Pepys and the horror of the London plague

Samuel Pepys kept his famous diary of London life during the year 1665 when plague ravaged the city – killing thousands. He first noticed the onset of the pestilence when red crosses appeared on a door in Drury Lane. In a matter of a few days, King Death had galloped through the City of London and then on to Westminster and the suburbs. Poor Samuel came face to face with the horror when he got off a boat and had to step over a dead body as he headed down an alleyway.

Pepys wearing a fine wig
Pepys wearing a fine wig

It had been a hot summer when the sickness had emerged. Doctors and physicians died so there was nobody to tend the sick. Pepys own medic – Dr Burnett – popped his clogs round about the 25th August of the plague. In the last week of that month, an estimated 10,000 people succumbed. Given the population of London at that time, this was a terrible catastrophe. As Pepys noted, the horror just kept going without any end in sight.

Still, some of the decisions one has to make at the height of a spreading plague are quite mundane. For example, should one wear one’s usual wig? On Sunday 3rd September, Pepys got up and dressed in his fine coloured silk suit. He was about to don his “periwigg” when he remembered that he’d bought it in Westminster just as the plague reached the area.

His worry wasn’t that the shopkeeper had been infected but that the wig might be made of hair from men who had died of plague. Somehow, Pepys reasoned, the disease could transfer from his fashionable head covering to himself. Pepys even wondered if the plague could spell the end for wigs!

It is a wonder what will be the fashion after the plague is done as to periwiggs for nobody will dare to buy any hair for fear of the infection, that it had been cut off the heads of people dead of the plague.

Needless to say Pepys survived and carried on wearing fine wigs, as did every other man in society, till his death.