Melancholy Streets - Chaos - The Clockwork Universe: Isaac Newton, the Royal Society, and the Birth of the Modern World - Edward Dolnick 

The Clockwork Universe: Isaac Newton, the Royal Society, and the Birth of the Modern World - Edward Dolnick (2011)

Part I. Chaos

Chapter 5. Melancholy Streets

The authorities flailed about in search of a solution. Plays, bull-baitings, and other entertainments were banned, because plague was known to be a disease of crowds. Was it the poor who carried this disease? The lord mayor tried to restrict the movements of the “Multitude of Rogues and wandering Beggars that swarm in every place about the City, being a great cause of the spreading of the Infection.” Were animals the culprits? In the summer of 1665, the authorities called for the immediate killing of all cats and dogs. Orders went out to Londoners to kill “all their dogs of what sort or kind before Thursday next at ye furthest.”6Thousands upon thousands of cats and dogs were killed. The result was to send the rat population soaring.

Nothing helped. Throughout the summer panicky crowds bent on escaping the contaminated city clogged the roads out of London. The poor stayed put. They had no money for travel and no place to go, but the rich and the merely well-to-do—doctors, lawyers, clergymen, and merchants—shoved their way into the scrum. Coaches and carriages knocked against one another, their horses pawing the mud, while heavy-laden wagons fought for position. The frenzied pack fighting through the narrow streets reminded one eyewitness of a terrified crowd in a burning theater. Some fled toward the Thames and tried to commandeer fishing boats, anything that could float and take them to safety. Those who managed to escape the city had to brave the residents of the countryside, who greeted the refugees with clubs and muskets.

The king and his brother, the Duke of York, fled London in early July. Most of the Royal Society had scattered by then, too, looking forward to a time “when we have purged our foul sins and this horrible evil will cease.” Pepys sent his family away, but he himself retreated only as far as Greenwich. At the end of August he ventured on a long walk in the city. “Thus the month ends,” he wrote, “with the plague everywhere through the Kingdom almost. Every day sadder and sadder news of its increase.” In the last week of August, Pepys wrote, plague had claimed 6,102 lives in London alone.

Worse was to come.

September 1665 unnerved even Pepys. “Little noise heard day or night but tolling of bells,” he lamented in a letter to a friend. (It was plague that had inspired John Donne to write, “Never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.”)

By now, with so many dead and so many gone, frenzy had given way to desolation. Grass grew in the streets of London. In place of the usual clamor of voices—street vendors had been banned, so newsboys and rat catchers and fish sellers no longer hawked their wares—silence reigned. “I have stayed in the city till above 7,400 died in one week, and of them above 6,000 of the plague,” Pepys wrote, “and little noise heard day or night but tolling of bells; till I could walk Lombard Street and not meet twenty persons from one end to the other . . . ; till whole families, ten and twelve together, have been swept away.”

Now there were too many dead for individual burials. At night death carts rattled along empty streets in search of bodies, the darkness penetrated only by flickering, yellow torchlights. Cries of “Bring out your dead!” echoed mournfully. But with death striking willy-nilly, there were too few men left to drive the carts, too few priests to pray over the victims, too few laborers to dig their graves. The carts made their way to mass burial pits and spilled in their cargo. Many Englishmen recalled the somber words of King Edward III, eyewitness to the horrific epidemic of an earlier day. “A just God now visits the sons of men and lashes the world.”

And then, mysteriously and blessedly, it ended. In mid-October, Pepys reported six hundred fewer deaths than the week before. The survivors began the gloomy process of taking stock. “But Lord, how empty the streets are, and melancholy,” wrote Pepys, “so many poor sick people in the streets, full of sores, and so many sad stories overheard as I walk, everybody talking of this man dead and that man sick, and so many in this place, and so many in that.”

By the end of November 1665, people began to flock back to London. Within another month the epidemic had all but ended. The plague had claimed one-fifth of the city’s population, a total of one hundred thousand lives.

Plague hit London harder than anywhere else, but all England had suffered. In some cases, as in the famous calamity in the village of Eyam, the cause could be pinpointed. In September 1665 a village resident named George Vicars opened a box. Someone in London had sent a gift. Vicars found a packet of used clothing, felt it was damp, and hung it before the fire to dry. The clothing was flea-infested. In two days Vicars was delirious, in four dead. The disease spread, but the local rector persuaded the villagers it would be futile to leave and dangerous to others besides. Outsiders left provisions at the village outskirts. The plague took a year to burn its way through Eyam. In the end, 267 of the village’s 350 residents lay dead. (The rector who refused to flee, Reverend Mompesson, survived, but his wife did not.)

Nearly always, though, plague seemed to rise out of nowhere, like some ghostly poison. The university town of Cambridge, which had weathered several epidemics through the centuries, had a long-established policy in place. (Builders would one day unearth mass graves beneath the idyllic grounds.) When plague settled onto the town, the university shut down and sent its students and faculty away, to wait for a time when it would be safe to gather in groups again. In June 1665 plague struck Cambridge, and the university closed.

A young student named Isaac Newton gathered up his books and retreated to his mother’s farm to think in solitude.