It was about September 10th that my curiosity led or rather drove me to go and see this pit again, when there had been about four hundred people buried in it.
Continuing The Great London Plague,
our selection from History of the Plague in London by Daniel Defoe. The selection is presented in six easy 5 minute installments. For works benefiting from the latest research see the “More information” section at the bottom of these pages.
Previously in The Great London Plague.
They had supposed this pit would have supplied them for a month or more when they dug it, and some blamed the churchwardens 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 rather drove 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, in the 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 the buriers 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 laid 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 a winding-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.
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