Prisoners infect judges with typhus – jail fever!

Eighteenth century courtrooms were a dangerous place. For the convict there was a good chance you’d dangle from a rope. But even for the judge – the risk was high. The prisoners were so filthy and disease ridden that you might catch jail fever. Or what we call typhus these days.

Judges catch jail fever from typhus ridden accused

The year was 1750 in London at England’s top criminal court – the Old Bailey. Three judges were trying a group of prisoners and the death sentence was anticipated.

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, the grubby criminals were seated right in front of the dock. And not only did they stink to high heaven but there had been an outbreak of jail fever within Newgate prison. The place was rife with typhus.

Typhus, by the way, was also referred to as hospital fever, camp fever and ship fever. It was and is caused by poor hygiene, normally when lots of people are grouped together in insanitary conditions. For example, military camps, ships and….prisons.

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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.

One of the judges was Sir Samuel Pennant (pictured with a louse) – who was also 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.

Another little fact about Sir Samuel – apart from being Lord Mayor and dying of typhus – was that he was a prolific slave owner. The 18th century was the height of British activity in the trade and he was actually born in Jamaica on his father’s plantation. I’m shedding less tears about his fate now.

Today, the Old Bailey – or Central Criminal Court – is still standing, though a more recent building. There’s no prison nearby. It was demolished at the turn of the 20th century when Londoners decided they’d rather not have large prisons in the middle of town.

But in 1750, Newgate prison was located right next door to the courthouse.

Jail fever brings typhus straight from prison to courtroom

Prisoners were therefore brought a relatively short distance from the squalid and overcrowded conditions at Newgate, straight into the courtroom of the Old Bailey. And along came the lice and fleas with them.

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.