Category Archives: History

A World of Pandemics: Part III

The Bubonic Plague Ravaged San Francisco In The 1900s—And The Government Tried A Massive Cover Up 

The San Francisco bubonic plague outbreak was one of the biggest health crises — and controversies — of the 20th-century United States. The plague was a disease most thought had disappeared with the medieval period, but when it resurfaced, it became one of the worst epidemics in US history. The state of California was forced to contend with an illness not yet entirely understood, as government officials and the press actively covered it up. Not only did they have to pioneer treatments for the bubonic plague, but the entire problem was also wrapped up in anti-immigrant and specifically anti-Chinese racism. Some people even referred to it as the San Francisco Chinatown plague, implying a problem specific to the Chinese residents of the city. 

But that wasn’t the case. Blaming a select group of people meant that the cause itself — flea-infested rats carrying the same strain of plague causing deaths in China — went unaddressed. The San Francisco plague death toll rose, taking the lives of many of the city’s underprivileged residents. It wasn’t until a second plague swept the city, this time primarily affecting San Francisco’s white population and spreading to further areas of the US, that the root cause was identified and put to rest. While modern-day humanity still deals with tragedy incurred by the flu, the plague of the early 1900s incited racist tension and social horror simply because of the ignorance of its causes and the inexplicable death it left in its wake.

The San Francisco Plague Was The First Major Plague Outbreak In The Continental US

Photo: Arnold Böcklin/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

Though the San Francisco plague was hardly the first major illness that residents of the continental US had to address, it was the first major outbreak of the plague. The illness — named the Black Plague or the Black Death when it ravaged Europe in the 1300s and caused some 50 million deaths — made a comeback in the 1800s, seriously affecting China and much of east Asia.

Because of global trade and increasing numbers of people emigrating and immigrating worldwide, it was only a matter of time before epidemics began to spread. However, people did not yet understand exactly how the disease was transmitted — many believed it spread through open wounds, food, or the “miasma” theory, which claimed that diseases like the plague spread through “bad air.” Because of these conflicting, erroneous theories, the world wasn’t prepared to respond to a wide-scale epidemic. 

The First San Francisco Plague Victim Was A Chinese Immigrant

Photo: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

The first person to die in the San Francisco plague was Wong Chut King, a lumber salesman and Chinese immigrant who was found unconscious in the flophouse where he lived after suffering an intense fever. In a morbidly preemptive move, he was brought to a nearby coffin shop where he died.

Examination of his body revealed swollen lymph nodes — called buboes, hence the disease’s name — consistent with a plague infection, as well as an insect bite. Flea transmission was not yet a popular theory to explain plague infection, so while it was noted, the report did nothing to quell the subsequently rampant xenophobic explanations for the disease. When microscopic investigation revealed plague bacteria in Wong Chut King’s blood, Chinatown was quarantined to stop the spread, though the fleas and rats that carried the disease were not hindered by arbitrary barriers.

The Outbreak Centered On San Francisco’s Chinatown District

Photo: Unknown/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

San Francisco’s plague outbreak was concentrated in the Chinatown district, just a few blocks from what is now the Port of San Francisco. Because Chinatown was particularly overpopulated, had poor sanitation, and had many people living in poor conditions, those features were blamed for the outbreak rather than the actual cause: flea-ridden rats brought from plague-stricken China on the ships that came to the harbor. Instead of treating the cause, the city quarantined its Chinese residents.

But quarantines don’t stop rats, and the disease continued to spread outside of the quarantined zones. Because conditions were poor, and racism was rampant, the quarantined residents didn’t get proper medical treatment. Thus, the concentration of infected people, fleas, and rats could grow, leading to even more infections. 

Rats From China Probably Carried The Plague To America On Ships

Photo: Arnold Genthe/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

In the late 1800s and early 1900s, scientists and medical professionals weren’t yet sure what caused the plague. The miasma theory, which suggested the disease was spread through “bad air,” was popular, as were suggestions that the plague might travel through contaminated food or open wounds. The bubonic plague is actually transmitted via flea bite, with the carrier fleas often living on rats.

China was dealing with a plague outbreak of its own in the mid-late 1850s, which soon made its way to Hong Kong. Since Chinese immigrants and imports commonly made the journey to San Francisco, it was only a matter of time before the plague reached American soil.

Racism Was Undoubtedly A Factor In The Plague’s Outbreak

Photo: Unknown/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

The plague itself was a problem, but anti-immigrant sentiment and racism against Chinese people exacerbated the issue. Around this same time, the Chinese Exclusion Act, which prevented Chinese people who were not merchants from immigrating to the US, was extended. Rampant, unfounded anti-Chinese sentiment promoted racist policy, which in turn validated racist viewpoints because of state-sanctioned rules.

In the initial quarantine, white people in Chinatown were told to leave while Chinese residents were forced to stay. Miasma theory, which posited the disease was spread via contact with contaminated air, was blamed for the plague in Chinatown. 

Rather than the poor sanitation being a symptom of the area’s poverty, it was instead said to be evidence that the Chinese people themselves were the problem. Some went so far as to claim that a rice-based diet made them susceptible to the plague.

San Francisco’s Governor Denied The Outbreak Out Of Fear It Would Hurt The City’s Reputation

Photo: Bain News Service, publisher/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

One of the biggest stumbling blocks to stopping the plague’s initial four-year hold on San Francisco was the city government. The governor, Henry Gage, actively denied the city had a problem, fearing it would hurt tourism and trade. Worse, he didn’t just deny the problem — he actively thwarted efforts to stop it. Gage claimed funds were being diverted to stop a plague that didn’t exist. He also suggested Dr. Joseph J. Kinyoun, who led the quarantine effort, had fabricated or caused the plague himself by injecting Chinese residents with the disease.

Though there was little help available for victims, Gage’s denial — as well as his active attempts to stoke tension between Kinyoun’s efforts and the Chinese people whose civil rights were being violated — ensured the plague continued to ravage the city’s ostracized citizens.

The City Ran A Defamation Campaign Against The Officer Who Discovered The Outbreak

Photo: NIAID/Dr. Joseph J. Kinyoun/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY 2.0

Dr. Joseph James Kinyoun was the leader of the plague eradication movement, but, due to both concentrated misinformation efforts and lack of scientific information, his plans to stop the plague were thwarted. Kinyoun was unsure how to curtail the plague’s spread, and he ineffectively quarantined Chinatown in the hopes that it would keep the infection isolated. When animals were infected with the disease and didn’t immediately die, the quarantine was lifted, and the city government, particularly Governor Henry Gage, seized on it as proof that Kinyoun had no idea what he was doing. He warned that shipments of goods could spread the illness out of San Francisco and around the country, leading to other states refusing to accept goods from California. 

Gage responded to the lost profits by claiming Kinyoun himself had created the plague by injecting Chinese corpses. Furthermore, he stoked the flames of the poor treatment Chinese people were receiving by encouraging them to fight back. Combined with Kinyoun’s reportedly uptight demeanor, which did not mesh well with the Chinese population he was meant to be helping, his efforts were undercut, and he was eventually transferred. The plague raged on until Dr. Rupert Blue replaced Kinyoun and shifted the treatment from quarantine to pest eradication.

Governor Gage’s Denial Helped Seal His Loss In The Elections

Photo: Unknown/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

Governor Gage’s actions were not without consequences. Anti-Chinese sentiment, along with the tensions that arose from the quarantine and Gage’s efforts to create a divide between health officials and Chinese residents most threatened by the outbreak, meant that people hid the deceased bodies of plague victims, furthering the infectious spread. People continued to get sick and die, and not just in Chinatown.

Though the disease was concentrated in the slums, it wasn’t thwarted by barbed-wire quarantines. As it became increasingly clear that the illness was real, the citizens of San Francisco realized Gage’s denial and shifting of the blame to Dr. Joseph Kinyoun were actively hurting people. The state’s conservative party refused his nomination, and Gage left office in 1903. He continued to blame Kinyoun for the barring of California goods in other states and the subsequent economic hardship.

The next governor, George Pardee, shared Gage’s concerns regarding public address of the situation but immediately took ownership of the situation. He removed health officials from the case and worked privately to provide medical attention, research, and eradication of the plague.

Some Of The City’s Treatments Actually Spread The Disease Further

Because the plague was not well understood, many of the treatments San Francisco health officials initially used to combat the illness actually made things worse. The quarantine, the first line of defense when the plague’s initial victim was found, concentrated the Chinese-American population in an area with poor sanitation and did nothing for the actual cause of the plague — the rats that were drawn there precisely because of the poor sanitation. The city also used carbolic acid in an attempt to rid the air of the alleged miasma, which drove rats out of sewers and into the streets carrying their plague-riddle fleas with them.

In addition, because relations between the Chinese people of San Francisco and the health officials were so poor, people in Chinatown started hiding the bodies of the deceased. Without proper disposal, the health crisis worsened. Nobody knew that the disease was mostly transmitted through flea bites, thus, nobody was doing anything to stop the spread. All of these factors combined to make the plague even worse.

Another Outbreak Occurred After The 1906 Earthquake

Photo: NPS/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

The first plague outbreak occurred from 1900 to 1904, but it wasn’t the last to affect San Francisco in the early 1900s. A second outbreak occurred in 1906 following the enormous San Francisco earthquake, which killed some 3,000 people and displaced 250,000 more. But people weren’t the only ones displaced.

As humans fled their damaged homes, so did infected rats. As they spread, the chaos of the post-earthquake city and the concentration of people in refugee camps meant that the illness was allowed to spread once again. This outbreak was even stronger than the first, but it was more quickly contained thanks to scientific advancements between 1904 and 1906. 

The Second Outbreak Was Dealt With Far More Efficiently

Photo: Unknown/National Library Of Medicine, History Of Medicine Images Collection/Public Domain

While the second outbreak of plague hit San Francisco just two short years after the first one, it was handled much more quickly. Scientific advancements meant people better understood the plague’s transmission, and instead of quarantining infected people, Dr. Joseph Kinyoun’s replacement, Dr. Rupert Blue, targeted the rats. They were rounded up in great rat-catching efforts thanks to financial bounties, which ultimately prevented some of the spread and allowed scientists to test and kill infected rats. 

Not only was the threat identified before the plague’s second time around, but the city government also could no longer scapegoat the Chinese residents of the city: all the victims of the second plague were white. Though anti-Chinese sentiment was still prominent, the blame couldn’t be shifted — it wasn’t miasma, diet, or any xenophobic cause, which meant it had to be dealt with scientifically and medically.

119 People Died In The First Outbreak

Photo: ralph repo/Flickr/CC BY 2.0

119 people died during the San Francisco plague outbreak, many of them in the concentrated, quarantined region of Chinatown. Without access to health professionals and pest control, infected victims spread the plague inadvertently but rapidly. Although it’s certainly a deadly disease, the city’s failure to isolate the actual cause and treat infected people ensured its spread and ability to affect more people.

Though it’s not the absolute deadliest outbreak in US history — the introduction of smallpox by European settlers killed almost all indigenous people in what is now North America, for example — the San Francisco plague is one that could have been prevented or had its harm minimized if those in authority had taken action.

Instead, it was allowed to fester in the city’s most impoverished communities, sowing further anti-Chinese sentiment. 

Honolulu’s Chinatown Burned To The Ground When Authorities Attempted To Eradicate The Plague

Photo: Historic American Buildings Survey /Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

The plague resurfaced in China on the backs of rats in the 1850s and wound up in Hong Kong. Chinese immigrants and imports often passed this way en route to San Franciso via port stopovers in Hawaii. Following one ship’s stop in Hawaii in 1899, a case of the plague broke out in the Honolulu Chinatown, spreading quickly to four more people. In an attempt to contain the plague and eradicate the conditions fostering its rapid spread, The Hawaii Board of Health isolated the victims and quarantined 14 blocks of the area complete with military guards. According to historical record, “To clear contaminated areas, the Board set 41 controlled fires, cleaned and disinfected buildings, burned garbage, filled old cesspools and dug new ones.”

However, when this failed to quell the problem and new cases of the plague arose, the Board set another fire which quickly spun out of control and resulted in all of Honolulu’s Chinatown burning to the ground. The problematic ships nonetheless continued to San Francisco where, because people on the ships did not show plague symptoms, they were allowed to dock. Along with humans also disembarked infected rats, carrying the disease straight into the port city.

Reference

A World of Pandemics: Part II

The Mysterious ‘Sleeping Sickness’ That Plagued New York In The 1920s

Medical science has come a long way in the last hundred years, but that doesn’t mean every medical mystery has been solved. The cause of the mysterious sleeping sickness that struck New York in the 1920s, Encephalitis lethargica, remains unsolved to this day.

Originally called “the sleeping sickness” because the first few cases involved active people spontaneously falling asleep, it had a wide variety of symptoms and presentations. Some neurologists and pathologists believed it was an unusual manifestation of a concurrent flu epidemic, while others believed it was completely unrelated. It was also theorized that the mysterious illness was related to the polio virus, but nothing conclusive has been proven. This is despite the fact that the disease still pops up in isolated cases around the world.

From its first reported cases in 1915 to its abatement in the 1930s, Encephalitis lethargica is estimated to have infected half a million people in Europe alone. Those who survived often had crippling side effects, with some remaining borderline catatonic for the rest of their lives.

The sleeping sickness of the 1920s was never solved, but it has drawn the attention of scientists for years, including Oliver Sacks, whose work on the disease was adapted into the film Awakenings starring Robert De Niro and Robin Williams. 

During The 1920s And ’30s, The ‘Sleeping Sickness’ Perplexed Doctors Around The World

Photo:  Otis Historical Archives/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY 2.

In 1917, as WWI brought mass destruction like the world had never seen, two epidemics began tearing through the shell-shocked world. The first, which would become known as the Spanish Flu of 1918, remains one of the worst pandemics in human history, wiping out an estimated 50 million people and affecting up to half a billion. While this crisis understandably took precedence, it was accompanied by a lesser-known but far more perplexing virus: the sleeping sickness.

The sleeping sickness is believed to have originated in Romania in 1915, but WWI disguised its true impact in Europe. It became more noticeable in New York, and doctors across Europe scrambled to identify the disease. There was plenty of confusion, but no clear answers.

It Was First Described By The Prolific Austrian Neurologist Constantin von Economo

Photo: Unknown/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domai

Due to the varied presentations of the disease, the overwhelming demands of WWI, and the appearance of other epidemics around the same time, many doctors treated individual cases of Encephalitis lethargica without realizing they were dealing with a wholly new illness. It took the work of Austrian neurologist Constantin von Economo to fully isolate and categorize the disease. 

Economo was a wealthy aristocrat and a Renaissance man. He was the first Austrian man to hold the equivalent of a pilot’s license, and he was trained as an engineer before he moved on to psychiatry. 

Economo gave the disease its name, based on what he determined to be its principal manifestation: lethargy and catatonia. In a series of monographs that are studied to this day, he argued his case on the nature of the disease from its categorization as encephalitis (an illness resulting from inflammation of the brain) to its varied pathologies.

Some Of The Afflicted Reported Feeling No Discomfort In Their Sleep

Photo: Harris & Ewing/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

The sleeping sickness prompted, among other things, an examination of the nature of sleep and the difference between sleep and catatonia. However, there was a wide array of experiences reported, some of which were quite pleasant. Take this account, written by Eleanore Carey, who suffered from the illness in 1923:

After two months of illness I was in little pain, in fact… It was so heavenly just to be allowed to sleep, but these people around me seemed determined to prevent my being comfortable! When the idea finally crept through my sleeping brain that I must waken, it seemed to be a physical impossibility. I wanted to be obliging, but I just could not. 

Other victims reported dreams and vivid hallucinations. Often, it was possible to wake the patient, but only for a few moments before they succumbed to sleep again.

Some Victims Perished Within Days, While Others Slowly Recovered

During the course of the epidemic, most doctors kept and compared rigorous notes. This allows us to examine a wide variety of case histories, although it is difficult to derive clarity from them because of the wide range of symptoms. However, one thing that does emerge is the unpredictable nature of the sleeping sickness.

One case study details a woman who suffered the sleeping sickness in 1917. She came to the clinic exhausted, and then slid further into somnolence. These symptoms were accompanied by a fever and the paralysis of her right arm. This woman seemed lucky, as her condition slowly improved, and two months later, she was discharged from the hospital with no signs of fever or paralysis. Unfortunately, she passed a month afterward due to pneumonia.

However, not everyone was lucky enough to stage a partial recovery. One young boy was brought to a clinic on April 20 already in a comatose state. He passed on April 28. Both of these cases were common, and there was no known indicator of who might survive and who might not.

Many Who ‘Recovered’ Developed Disabilities Later In Life

During its acute phase, the disease caused somnolence, lethargy, paralysis, fever, and sometimes ended the patient altogether. Some patients, however, made a full recovery, often without any treatment. While this must have come as a relief, the disease was not quite finished with them.

After recovery, many of these patients developed some form of Parkinson’s disease, a progressive nervous disorder that often causes the loss of various forms of muscular control. Parkinson’s can include wide variety of symptoms, and one of the most extreme forms was often seen in survivors of the sleeping sickness: akinesia.

Essentially, this means total body paralysis. Some of these patients remained in a paralytic coma for many years. Robert De Niro’s character in Awakenings, Leonard Lowe, is exactly this sort of patient.

Some Survivors Remained In A Sleep-Like State For Years

At various points during a case of Encephalitis lethargica, it is possible for the patient to fall into a deep, akinetic coma. Chiefly, this was experienced by people who thought they had completely survived the disease, only to develop a worsening case of Parkinson’s years later that culminated in the coma.

Because the cause of the disease was unknown, these comas were thought to be irreversible, and those who suffered them were largely forgotten, as long-term coma patients often are. However, when Oliver Sacks began treating them with L-DOPA, some of them were able to interact with the world for the first time in 40 or more years.

Awakenings’ Showed What Happened To Those Who Temporarily Recovered

Photo: Awakenings/Columbia Pictures

Overshadowed as it was by the Spanish Flu and WWI, the sleeping sickness didn’t really come to the public eye until the renowned British neurologist Oliver Sacks wrote his groundbreaking Awakenings, a book that movingly detailed his interactions with patients who suffered from the disease. Sacks was responsible for the proliferation of L-Dopa, the medication that awakened many of these patients. In the book, he describes the challenges of bringing people from the 1920s into the 1960s.

The book was a massive success, and is still considered one of the best pieces of medical nonfiction ever written. It should come as little surprise, then, that it was adapted into a major Hollywood motion picture, starring Robin Williams as a fictionalized version of Sacks, and Robert De Niro as the man who wakes up in a new decade. After it was released, Roger Ebert wrote:

What both the movie and the book convey is the immense courage of the patients and the profound experience of their doctors, as in a small way they reexperienced what it means to be born, to open your eyes and discover to your astonishment that “you” are alive.

Nobody Knows What Caused It

Despite Oliver Sacks’s groundbreaking work with the treatment L-DOPA, there remains no complete cure for Encephalitis lethargica, as the medication often only provides temporary relief. It is perhaps unsurprising that there is no cure, because scientists don’t really understand what causes the sleeping sickness in the first place.

During the outbreak, there were many different theories as to the cause. When the disease first appeared in England, doctors believed that it was a form of botulism. However, botulism is the result of detectable bacteria, and the bacteria simply was not present. Many other theories were proposed regarding the mystifying disease.

At the end of the day, the truth is simply unknown. Papers are still written advancing various theories, but none have been proven or widely accepted.

Cases Continue To Pop Up Today

Because of the mysteries surrounding the illness, it is difficult to truly define when it began and ended. It is also difficult to identify whether there have been any new cases, although conventional wisdom says that at least a few more cases have popped up.

In 2015, a paper was published about a young boy who had contracted HIV. However, when he came to the hospital, he quickly developed symptoms similar to Encephalitis lethargica: lethargy, mutism, and muscular weakness of the optical nerves. There are numerous examples of similar cases, but cautious doctors are reluctant to label them as sleeping sickness.

Some Believe Adolf Hitler’s Parkinson’s Disease Was An Aftereffect Of The Sleeping Sickness

Photo: Heinrich Hoffman/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY-SA 3.0 DE

Adolf Hitler may be one of the most over-diagnosed individuals in human history. Due to his morphine addiction, his illness-plagued youth, and his high profile, modern doctors love to retroactively diagnose him with everything from borderline personality disorder to irritable bowel syndrome. While many of these assumptions are sensationalist and based on wild assumptions, there has emerged something of a consensus that the German dictator could well have suffered from Parkinson’s disease.

If that’s true, it is likely that he also suffered from the sleeping sickness in his youth. Due to the relatively late onset of his Parkinson’s disease and his age at the time of the epidemic, the sleeping sickness makes a great deal of sense as the source of his Parkinson’s. A medical paper also makes the case based on his symptoms:

Hitler had oculogyric crises [deviation of the eyes], phenomena only associated with post-encephalitic parkinsonism. In addition, he had dystonic facial spasms, palilalia and a sleep disorder, phenomena more likely to be associated with post-encephalitic than idiopathic parkinsonism.

President Wilson May Have Contracted It In 1919

Photo: Harris & Ewing/Wikimedia Commons/Public D

It is always dicey to retroactively diagnose historical figures, due to both the lack of contemporaneous material and our own modern biases. This is made doubly difficult in the case of someone like Woodrow Wilson, who had a battalion of health issues independent of whatever we may diagnose him with today.

However, that hasn’t stopped a number of modern doctors and pathologists from using historical sources and medical records to diagnose Wilson as a sufferer of Encephalitis lethargica. Edwin Weinstein, one of Wilson’s most prominent biographers, believes that a complicated series of medical disasters accounted for Wilson’s famously altered behavior during the peace negotiations at the end of WWI.

Weinstein believes that after a number of strokes throughout his life, Wilson contracted the flu, which left him vulnerable to the sleeping sickness. Regardless, Wilson didn’t have long to live after the 1919 Peace Conference; he passed five years later in 1924.

Reference

A World of Pandemics: Part I

Inside The Brutal Realities of the Spanish Flu That Killed 100 Million People

Of all the horrors of World War I, it wasn’t the bombs, bullets, or even the mustard gas that ended up as the greatest killer. In reality, the act of moving that many people around the world turned out to be the most deadly fruit of war. The last year of the war, 1918, saw the most deadly pandemic the world has ever known. With all those millions of soldiers being shipped around the globe, it spread like wildfire.

This was the Spanish influenza pandemic. In terms of sheer numbers killed, the Spanish influenza beats out the Black Death as the king of historical epidemics. The statistics of the Spanish flu are just brutal, and the disease touched every corner of the globe. Survivors tell of heartbreaking scenes of misery and quarantine, and today the flu ranks as one of the worst diseases in history, a reminder of how deadly influenza can really be.

The Pandemic Killed 5% Of The World’s Population

Photo: Stevan Aleksić/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

The Spanish influenza pandemic killed people on the scale of the fourth rider of the Apocalypse. It is estimated to have killed between 50 and 100 million people worldwide between 1918 and 1919 alone. To put that into perspective, the four years of WWI only killed 17 million people total. Just in the US, over half a million people were killed by the flu, five times as many Americans as were killed in the war.

The flu infected (but didn’t necessarily kill) even more: about 1/3 of the world’s population was believed to have been infected by some form of the Spanish flu. That’s 500 million people at a time when there were only about 1.5 billion people on the entire planet.

The Disease Targeted Young Adults

Photo: CDC/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

The normal victims of the flu are typically babies and really, really old people – like, spare hip, dinner at 4:00 pm kind of old. When a 50 year old dies of the flu, it’s a pretty big deal. And a 25-year-old gym rat might think of the flu as a crummy week or two in bed, but the term “life threatening” wouldn’t even come to mind. The Spanish flu turned all that on its head. Young, healthy guys would get home from work one day feeling a little sluggish, and then get carried off in a body bag the next morning. Suffice it to say, that freaked a lot of people out.

Unlike normal flu viruses, Spanish influenza seemed to target those between 20 and 35. The reason for this is that people born after 1889 had no exposure to anything similar to the 1918 virus strain. Those born before that date had some exposure to a similar flu strain; therefore, they had some immunity. That discovery didn’t come until 2014, though, so people at the time were left guessing why Johnny-six-pack next door just dropped dead while Aunt Gertrude was still going strong.

The First Recorded Outbreak Occured In Kansas

Photo: U.S. Army photographer/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

Like college basketball champions and the world’s supply of corn, the Spanish flu seems to have come from unassuming Kansas. While the state boasts many fine and comfortable establishments, Fort Riley was not one of them. In 1918, the army camp housed 26,000 men and was described as bone-chilling in the winter and sweltering in the summer. Oh yeah, and they burned tons of manure from the many horses and donkeys on the base, so it probably always smelled like a paper mill.

On March 9, conditions at the base got a lot worse. The cook, Albert Gitchell, reported to the infirmary with a bad cold. By noon, there were over 100 soldiers in the infirmary, apparently suffering from the same malady. In total, 1,127 soldiers came down with the flu, 46 of whom died.

The condition spread to other camps but, given that war was declared, the brass kept a tight grip on the information. Besides, an outbreak of illness among a bunch of men closely quartered in less than ideal living conditions was hardly that unusual.

The Flu Traveled To Europe With American Soldiers

Photo: U.S. Army/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

In March of 1918, 84,000 American soldiers were shipped off to Europe. In April, another 118,000 crossed the pond. Along with them, the soldiers brought a chance at victory for the Allied Powers. That, and also the deadly influenza virus.

Imagine that you’ve been living in a muddy trench for the past three years, dodging bullets, ducking artillery, and chasing off rats. Somehow, you are still alive. Finally, some serious reinforcements are coming in, and things are looking up. Then, out of the blue, you catch the worst flu you could possibly imagine. Before you know it, you are lying on an army cot jammed next to a bunch of fellow flu victims, dying in a state of complete delirium because of your high-grade fever.

In the month of June, 31,000 influenza cases were reported in Great Britain. The virus rapidly spread across enemy lines and beyond into Russia, India, and North Africa. By July, the disease had spread across the Pacific to China, Japan, the Philippines, and New Zealand.

Spain Was The First Country To Announce The Epidemic

Photo: Gerardo Chowell, Anton Erkoreka, Cécile Viboud and Beatriz Echeverri-Dávila/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY 4.0

Though Spain was not the first place to be stricken with the illness, it was the first country to openly report it. That is because it was the first country that was not actively involved in WWI to experience the flu’s incredibly high mortality rate. Where other countries (including the US) censored the news for fear of damaging “public morale,” Spain reported on the outbreak freely, which is how the infamous influenza gained the name Spanish flu.

Even Remote Villages Were Not Immune To The Disease

Photo: Internet Archive Book Images/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

It wasn’t only the large population centers that suffered from outbreaks of the Spanish flu. Even Inuit villages in Alaska suffered from outbreaks of the disease. In some cases, entire villages were completely wiped out from the disease. In other cases, all the adults were killed, leaving only orphans behind to fend for themselves.

One such infected village was the small, Inuit town of Brevig Mission, Alaska. The disease claimed the lives of 90% of the town’s Inuit population. It was so bad that the Alaskan Territorial government had to pay gold miners from Nome to go up and bury the bodies. When the miners arrived, they tossed the bodies into a pit two meters deep and covered it with permafrost.

The Second Wave Of The Flu Was Much Deadlier Than The First

Photo: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

By the end of the summer, the first wave of the flu was starting to die down. People who hadn’t been tagged by the disease undoubtedly felt pretty good about themselves, having dodged that bullet. Then the second wave of the pandemic hit.

It began at a naval facility in Boston in September of 1918, and it pretty much wrecked everyone. Around this same time, the flu hit the port towns of Brest, France, and Freetown, Sierra Leone. It was at this point that the situation escalated from standard pandemic to full-blown crisis of biblical proportions.

In the month of October, 195,000 Americans died from the flu. The death rate during the second wave was a full five-times higher than that of the first. The “lucky” ones who escaped the first wave were much more likely to catch the second wave and subsequently die from it. With such high communicability and mortality rates, things quickly got out of hand.

Symptoms Included Turning Blue And Bleeding Internally

Photo: National Photo Company/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

Catching Spanish influenza was not fun. Initial symptoms were similar to normal influenza (fatigue, fever, and headache) but more severe. When the coughing and sneezing set in, things started to get really nasty. People would cough with such force that their abdominal muscles tore.

The flu was so virulent that it would cause internal bleeding around the lungs. People would bleed from their mouths, noses, and sometimes ears. People’s skin would actually turn blue, to the point where it was hard to identify their initial skin color. With all that damage to the lungs, pneumonia set in pretty quickly. People would usually die within a day or two of developing their first symptoms, sometimes mere hours after figuring out they were sick.

They Couldn’t Bury The Bodies Fast Enough

Photo: Unknown/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

The world’s worst day is the undertaker’s best day, but the booming coffin industry simply could not keep up with the staggering rate of death caused by the Spanish influenza. We’re talking tens of thousands of people dying in a matter of a month or two…  in just about every big city around the world. To prevent the infectious bodies that were slowly rotting in the morgue corridors from causing secondary infections, many places restored to digging mass graves.

In 2015, a mass grave was rediscovered in Pennsylvania. Located around 100 miles northwest of Philadelphia, the bodies were uncovered after a heavy rain washed away the topsoil near a highway embankment. There were no coffins, just human bones jutting up from the soil.

The War Had Created A Shortage Of Medical Staff

Photo: St. Louis Post Dispatch/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

Many of the trained medical personnel at the time the Spanish influenza struck had already joined up with the military to help the war effort. Even before America entered the war, many doctors and nurses volunteered to serve in field hospitals through the Red Cross. So when the flu hit, a great deal of those medical resources were tied up in the trenches of Europe.

As a result, many of those tending for the sick at home were volunteers. They had varying degrees of experience in medicine, from retired doctors pulled back into service to medical students who were still in training.

In some cases, women whose only medical experience was tending to their families found themselves nursing for entire communities. These volunteers risked and sometimes gave their lives caring for the infectious sick. In many cases, their care was the difference between life and death for flu victims.

In The US, Philadelphia Had The Highest Rate Of Sickness And Death

Photo: National Museum of Health and Medicine/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

Philadelphia really dropped the ball on this one. City officials knew about the second-wave outbreak of the flu in Boston; they had even issued a bulletin about the dangers of Spanish influenza as early as July, but they still figured that it was no big deal in late September of 1918. They didn’t even have it listed as a reportable disease. Sh*t was about to get real.

In late September, the public was getting mixed signals about the influenza problem. Assurances were made that the disease was contained to military personnel. Dr. Paul Lewis, director of the Philips Institute of Philadelphia announced that they had identified the cause of influenza (incorrectly of course). Then on September 28, the city threw a massive parade, of all things, where 200,000 people gathered to support the war effort. Within days, hundreds of new influenza cases were being reported. The city was forced to admit that they had a problem. Churches, schools, and theaters were all closed.

Unfortunately, about 75% of the city’s medical personnel were unavailable due to the war. Hospitals quickly became overcrowded, necessitating churches and state armories to double as shelters for the sick. The corpses started piling up, posing a real public health problem. The city appealed to the federal government to send embalmers, and individuals were being conscripted to dig graves for $15 a pop. By the time the epidemic abated in early November, almost 13,000 people were dead.

Public Spitting And Coughing Were Banned

Photo: Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

In some cities, schools, churches, and other public places were closed, and additional quarantine measures were also put into place. The medical community knew enough to realize that public gatherings and bodily fluids contributed to the spread of the disease. Aggressive public information campaigns were disseminated akin to the hand-washing and “cover your cough” campaigns in circulation today.

Perhaps the most hilarious of the public health measures, though, was an ordinance adopted in several locations that banned spitting. In New Castle, Pennsylvania, spitting in public was met with a $1 fine and possible jail time. In all fairness, though, spitting isn’t just bad manners. Apparently, it actually does kill people.

Like The Bubonic Plague, Children Created A Nursery Rhyme About It

Photo: Hans Thoma/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

As the Black Death had “Ring Around the Rosey” to commemorate it’s destruction, so too did the Spanish Flu develop a cute diddy.

   I had a little bird
   And its name was Enza.
   I opened the door
   And in-flew-Enza.

The Medical Community Didn’t Understand What Caused The Flu

Photo: Board of Public Health, Victoria/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

The Spanish flu came around before penicillin and viruses were even discovered. No viral vaccines even existed, let alone one for the flu. The vaccinations that did exist were bacteria-based, and, at the time, people actually thought that influenza was caused by a bacterium called Bacillus Influenzae. Though they may have helped prevent secondary infections in some cases, they had no hope in stopping the viral influenza.

It wasn’t until 1933 that scientists discovered that influenza was caused by a virus. The first vaccine was developed in 1938, but due to the countless strains and mutations of the ever adapting influenza viruses, the vaccine remains a hit-or-miss proposition to this day. Influenza simply mutates too quickly for a vaccine with broad universality to effectively eradicate it.

It Is Literally The Mother Of All Modern Pandemics

Photo: CDC/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

Almost all modern strains of the Influenza A virus descend in some way from the Spanish flu. The 1918 strain was of the H1N1 variety, with its genetic descendants still alive and infectious to this day. Pretty much any flu you get is a mutated version of the 1918 H1N1 virus. The 1918 outbreak, though, was much more infectious and virulent than any other H1N1 strain to date. Part of this has been attributed to a lack of immunity to the strain in the human population of the time.

The Spanish flu taught people at the time a very important lesson that is still applicable today. That is, at any given point, influenza is pretty much just a mutation or two away from a massive blight of death that humans are powerless to stop. That’s something to chew on the next time your employer asks you to come in because, “it’s just a cough.”

Like All Influenza Viruses, It Ultimately Came From Birds

Photo: Shpernik088/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY-SA 4.0

Ultimately, all human borne influenza originated as avian influenza. Yes, those cute, chirping, balls of feathers are really disease-ridden harbingers of the apocalypse. Sometimes the virus hangs out in some pigs before jumping to humans, giving us the swine flu. There are two key factors that make an influenza strain hit with the pandemic force of the 1918 variety: infectivity and virulence.

In order for a disease to pose the danger of a pandemic, it really needs to be readily transmissible from human to human. While bird flu can sometimes be transferred from birds to humans (or swine flu from pigs to humans), that danger is generally limited to those who work in the food industry. It is only after the influenza strain develops the ability to be transmitted easily between humans that a real pandemic breaks out.

The second factor, virulence, is basically how bad the virus is (how likely is it to kill you). A global pandemic of the sniffles might be inconvenient, but it is hardly something to stay up at night about. A flu that kills over 50% of the people infected by it… well, that’s another story.

These two aspects combined in the Spanish flu in a way that has not been seen since. Certainly, there have been more virulent and more infectious pandemics, but no other pandemic had both these qualities in such a high degree. For example, the H5N1 virus has had periodic outbreaks where the fatality rate is over 50%. That virus, however virulent, is not very infectious as it has not become easily transmittable from human to human. All it takes, though, is a few small mutations.

Reference

11 Facts You Didn’t Know About Corsets

Corsets became popular in the 16th century allegedly because Catherine de’ Medici, wife of French King Henry II, banned women with thick waists from attending court. She was a tyrannical monarch, but the Italian-born woman created beauty standards that held up exceptionally well. Corsets remained incredibly common during the Renaissance, up until the 20th century. Certain historians, however, suggested the restrictive undergarments contributed to the patriarchal system of female oppression.

The inherent tightness of the shapewear appealed to the male-dictated understanding of femininity and attractiveness. So unsurprisingly, women wore corsets to their own detriment. They suffered to achieve a smaller, more socially acceptable waist. Many 21st century beauty trends are as focused on the hourglass shape as well, but there are so many things people don’t know about corsets.

Napoleon Claimed Corsets Contributed To The Decline Of Humanity

Photo: Adélaïde Labille-Guiard/Wikimedia Commons/Public Dom

Napoleon Bonaparte not only quested to rule Europe, he also campaigned to do away with corsets. The dictator called the shaping undergarment “the implement of detestable coquetry which not only betrays a frivolous bent but forecasts the decline of humanity.” And while Bonaparte’s female lovers still wore corsets, less hypocritical medical professionals believed the clothing could cause infertility. In fact, C.J. Dickinson, professor emeritus at Wolfson Institute of Preventive Medicine, says that extremely tight clothing may result in endometriosis, causing lesions on the uterus lining. When constricted, these lesions can’t shed during menstruation; internal bleeding may occur, and scar tissue might form.

Some Men Wore Corsets

Photo: Reast/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

Women were not the only aristocrats wearing corsets to create more socially acceptable figures. Specifically, in the latter part of the 18th century men wore form-fitting trousers and jackets. Corsets helped gentlemen achieve a smoother silhouette. However, French and Englishmen grew tired of the trend by the middle of the 19th century. Those who continued to wear the undergarments were teased.

Austrian men continued to wear corsets despite changing fashion standards in the rest of Europe, though. One English gentleman who attended an elite Austrian boarding school noted in the 1867 issue of The Englishwoman’s Domestic Magazine:

From personal experience, I beg to express a decided and unqualified approval of corsets. I was early sent to school in Austria where lacing was not considered ridiculous in a gentleman as in England, and I objected in the thoroughly English way. A sturdy [school attendant] was deaf to my remonstrance, and speedily laced me up tightly in a fashionable Viennese corset… It is from no feeling of vanity that I have ever since continued to wear them fro, not caring to incur ridicule, I take good care that my dress shall not betray me… 

Some Corsets Contained Pieces Of Metal Or Bone

Photo: Uknown/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

Corsets date back at least as early as the 16th century. Aristocratic women started to wear bodices reinforced with whale bones and tusks, instead of the original ones made from cloth and silk. Eventually, pieces of wood and metal were added to the front of most corsets to create even more structure. Duchess of Montpeniser Anne Marie Louise d’Orléans actually had a predominantly metal corset decorated with a crown and fleur-de-lis. 

Some 19th-Century Medical Professionals Discouraged Tightly Laced Corsets

Photo: Georges Hébert/Wikimedia Commons

Not all citizens condoned corsets or the tight lacing that became popular once metal eyelets were added to the undergarments. In fact, Lancet, one of the oldest medical journals, produced a few articles about the dangers of corsets in the 1880s and ’90s. Additionally, The Sacred Heart Review mentioned in 1890:

Tight lacing] cannot be but hurtful… the veriest novice in anatomy understands how by this process almost every important organ is subjected to cramping pressure, its functions interfered with, and its relations to other structures so altered as to render it, even if it were itself competent, a positive source of danger to them.

Moreover, surgeon William Henry Flowers wrote in his 1881 book, Fashion in Deformity, that tightly-laced corsets were just as harmful as skull-shaping and foot-binding.

They Caused Breathing Problems

Photo: Reutlinger/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

Women wore corsets for centuries, but when metal eyelets were added to the undergarments in the 1820s and 1830s, tight-lacing became incredibly popular. This trend involved threading the strings of the corset through the eyelets and pulling considerably. Women were able to be tied in without concern of reverting back to their natural forms. This tight-lacing allegedly caused young women to faint, though; their breathing was constricted. When ladies passed out from lack of oxygen, acquaintances loosened their corset laces or stays. Air then flowed more freely into the lungs. Certain analysts believe excessively tight clothing results in heartburn, distension, and varicose veins because of restricted blood flow.

Not All Corsets Were Used To Make The Waist Appear Slimmer

Photo: Unknown/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

European corsets in the beginning of the 16th century created an exceedingly recognizable form. An aristocratic woman’s bosom was pushed upward when she wore the shaping garment; her upper half appeared fuller. The torso was shaped like a cylinder because of an unyielding material that ran down the front of the corset. The shaping devices looked more like cones in the 17th century, though. Two pieces of fabric with thick boning were combined to make the waist seem even more narrow.

From about 1800 to 1830, corsets were more forgiving. Women’s stomachs were left unbridled. The undergarments were smaller and more like 21st century bras.

Corsets Changed Shape As Different Monarchs Took The Crown

Photo: Ladies Home Journ

The Victorian era began when Queen Victoria took the crown in 1837. Corsets during her reign, once again, restricted the belly. Hourglass figures were incredibly popular, so even longer restrictive undergarments were necessary, extending past the natural waist. Steel boning helped create the shape. To make ladies appear appear more shapely, Victorian fashion called for tops with large shoulders and hoop skirts covering multiple layers of crinoline. Clothing designers also began to mass-produce corsets during the Industrial Revolution; people were able to access them more easily.

When Queen Victoria died in 1901, the style changed again. King Edward’s courtiers wore corsets with an “S-bend.” These undergarments typically forced women to tilt forward; their hips and bosom pushed forward, while their backs had an unnatural dip. 

Women Who Wore Them Were More Susceptible To Tuberculosis & Pneumonia

Photo: E. Chickering/Wikimedia Commons/Public Doman

Corsets didn’t only cause fainting spells. They also tightly restricted female wearers’ lungs. The vital organs weren’t able to fully expand, making breathing painful. Deep breathing was almost impossible. Additionally, lung conditions, like tuberculosis and pneumonia, could be exacerbated by the corset. Women were especially susceptible to these illnesses before vaccines were invented in the 20th century because their lower lungs were almost constantly bound.

They Caused Back Problems & Women Increasingly Relied On Them

Photo: Public Domai

Women who wore corsets for an extended period of time often experienced painful back problems. The boning in the undergarments was mostly immobile; posture remained straight as long as the corsets were laced. This rigidity sometimes led to back and pectoral muscle atrophy, though. The tissue just wasted away. As a result, some corset wearers were forced to rely on their corsets to stay upright.

Women May Have Started Wearing Them As Early As 2000 BCE

Photo: Earnest Elmo Calkins/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

In the late 19th century, British archaeologist Sir Arthur Evans discovered a Cretan figure dating back to about 2000 BCE. The sculpture depicted a topless woman with an extremely small waist that looked to be cinched by a belt. Ancient Greeks also wrote about women’s undergarments which made waists tiny and perhaps flattened the bosom.

Corsets Fell Out Of Fashion In The 1920s

Photo: Bain News Service/Wikimedia Commons/Public Doman

Fashion trends change frequently. And by the 1920s, nobody wanted to wear corsets anymore. Flapper dresses came into style. The more forgiving clothing gave wearers a more androgynous look. An hourglass figure was no longer the epitome of feminine beauty. The women who wore these flowing garments were usually young and single. Many of them held jobs during the day and partied at night. In addition to removing their corsets, flappers also chopped off the long locks that were characteristic of Victorian women.

Reference

H “Hell” Division, Pentridge Prison, Victoria, Australia

Hell Division: Pentridge Prison’s section for the baddest and maddest

It is pretty trendy now – the development that was once Pentridge Prison.

You wonder if the customers at the coffee shop just outside the imposing bluestone walls know or care about the brutality that went on for decades in what was Victoria’s biggest jail.

The former Pentridge prison. CREDIT: MICHAEL CLAYTON-JONES

Down the bottom end was H Division, reserved for the baddest, the maddest and sometimes the meekest (it was used for protection as well as punishment).

As part of the redevelopment of the prime real estate the old labour yards were recently demolished – pens open to the weather where inmates broke rocks until 1976.

Support for hunger strikers in 1994. CREDIT: MICHAEL CLAYTON-JONES

The place was rebuilt so often it did not resemble the original design and the developers have promised to rebuild a section to the original 19th-century specs.

The days of breaking rocks are long gone and anyone who still advocates “old-style” brutal punishment for inmates has rocks in their head.

If animals at the Melbourne Zoo were kept in such conditions there would have been mass protests but few ever saw what went on down in Hell Division.

New inmates learnt the first lesson on the way in. It was known as the “Liquorice Mile”, where prison officers formed a guard of honour reception to beat prisoners (often naked) to the point of submission.

When Building Society bandit Greg “Doc” Smith arrived he was advised by standover man Mark “Chopper” Read to walk slowly and keep his head up to show hecould take the beating.

Strangely, both inmates became best-selling authors. Smith, also known as Gregory David Roberts, escaped and was recaptured 10 years later. His autobiographical novel Shantaram became a runaway success, much like “Doc” himself.

The labour yard of H Division in 1975.

Another who used the suffering to create was Ray Mooney, now an acclaimed playwright.

But many who ended up there were beyond redemption or the barbaric conditions made them so. It was the chicken and egg argument – leaving most of them either stuffed or scrambled.

It was here in 1958 that police killer William O’Meally became the last man flogged with the cat-o’-nine-tails as a punishment.

Back in 1990 I went to H Division to interview long-term inmate “Chopper” Read after he complained about a critical profile I had written about him.

It was certainly nothing like the movies with a glass screen and a telephone link. We sat in a small room at the end of the division separated by a cheap table.

Read chatted and I took notes. The subsequent story amused many but not the Parole Board, which delayed his release for another six months.

A violent world

The first impression inside the bluestone and concrete complex was the sense of cold. When it rained in winter the damp would get into your bones and stay there for months.

It was bleak. A place of rape, drugs, despair and overwhelming hopelessness. To make it less grim they white washed the walls, built a swimming pool and introduced contact visits.

During one such visit an man jailed for armed robbery took the opportunity to punch his mother in the face, breaking her nose. So much for humanitarianism.

During the famed Overcoat Gang War inmates were bashed and stabbed with home-made shivs. A razor blade buried in a soap bar would slice open an inmate in the showers. Cells doors were left open to facilitate beatings of non-favoured inmates.

With no video the attacks followed a pattern. The offender would stab his victim and then cut his own hands to make it look as if he had been attacked – then plead self defence.

In most cases it worked.

One prison officer who worked there said, “It was very heavy but there were rules. They could fight among themselves but if they touched a prison officer they got hell for 48 hours.”

There are few left in the system who served time at H and they remain among the most notorious in Australia. One was an old murderer who came out of retirement to become a contract killer in the Melbourne underworld war. He was caught, proving that hitmen, boxers and country and western singers should never make comebacks.

There is Paul Steven Haigh, who had killed six people, including a nine-year-old boy, before he turned 22.

“It takes no hero to murder. The most puny man in the world can pull a trigger. The obstacle is a psychological one,” he told me inside Pentridge.

In 1991, he helped kill fellow prisoner Donald George Hatherley. Haigh assisted Hatherley to hang himself inside his cell by hanging on to his dangling legs.

But this was no mercy killing. Prison officers say he was miffed that, after Julian Knight killed seven people in Hoddle Street in 1987, he was no longer Victoria’s most prolific killer. And so he needed another victim to break even.

Pentridge staff say Haigh had a Grim Reaper costume delivered to the jail, which he intended to wear to his trial. He was told he could wear a bad brown suit like every other crook.

He is now serving six life sentences, plus 15 years for the Hatherley murder and a further 15 for armed robberies. So much for fancy dress.

Knight was another to spend time in H and was a polarising figure. Russell Street bomber Craig Minogue was a mate whereas other equally violent men hated his guts.

Minogue was a strong ally and a bad enemy. He disliked businessman-turned-killer Alex Tsakmakis and in 1988 caved his head in with a pillow case filled with weights, proving that not all exercise is good for you.

The former H officer said Tsakmakis and Peter David McEvoy, one of the men accused and acquitted of the 1988 killing of constables Steven Tynan and Damian Eyre in Walsh Street, were the worst. “They were both pure evil.”

In 1993 prison authorities discovered an escape plot involving up to 30 H Division inmates.

They found one prisoner’s diary that detailed a plan to free the 30 inmates from their cells and then attack Knight.

The four alleged ringleaders were the best escape artists in the system but the plan was foiled when the division was locked down after a prison officer was stabbed 17 times with a pair of tailor’s scissors.

The investigation found locks cut with a hacksaw blade and a fake prison officer’s uniform hidden in a cell.

It was the beginning of the end for H Division. The hard heads were slowly transferred to the new Barwon maximum-security jail and Pentridge was closed three years later.

One of the hard heads was Badness – Christopher Dean Binse. As one of Australia’s most prolific escape artists he was sent to H Division and still remains in maximum security.

Binse has spent most of his adult life in jail. He was declared a ward of the state at 13, transferred to Pentridge at 17 and moved to H Division at 18. He has tried to escape eight times and has succeeded in both Melbourne and Sydney.

Never one to believe that crooks should keep a low profile he took out a classified ad in the Herald Sun to declare “Badness is back”. He paid with stick-up money.

He bought a Queensland country property with the proceeds of bank jobs and called it “Badlands” and had personalised number plates – “Badness”.

His last arrest was after a 2012 East Keilor siege that ended after 44 hours when he was shot repeatedly by Special Operations Group police using a beanbag shot. He survived and was sentenced to another long prison stint.

Possibly the hardest of his generation was Gregory John “Bluey” Brazel now a convicted triple killer who in 1991 held a prison officer hostage during a siege by holding a knife to his throat for three hours.

Convicted 78 times he has proved to be as bad inside as outside of prison.

His jail record shows there is no chance of him changing. He has stabbed three prisoners, broken the noses of two prison officers, assaulted police, set fire to his cell, cut the tip off his left ear, threatened to kill staff, smashed a governor’s head through a plate-glass window and threatened witnesses using a jail telephone.

One prison officer said Brazel was beaten after he punched a prison officer. “He sooked all afternoon but didn’t complain. He was good as gold the next day.”

He also went on a protracted hunger strike that he cancelled only when it was discovered he was surviving on a stash of Mars Bars hidden in his cell.

But in prison there is the law of the jungle. The toughest get old and are replaced by the new bad boys.

Bluey Brazel was eventually severely beaten by Matthew “The General” Johnson, who went on to murder Carl Williams in Barwon Prison much the way Minogue killed Tsakmakis years earlier.

And so the cycle of death continues.

We have more than 6000 prisoners in the system. Nearly all will one day get out. Although it is human nature to want revenge we have to make sure jails don’t just nurture violence. Not for them but for us.

‘Nightmare like and unreal’: the letter from Pentridge

The following letter was smuggled out of Pentridge Prison in July 1972 by Barry York, when he was imprisoned in the ‘A’ Division.

A preamble – Barry York

The letter was written secretly in my cell in ‘A’ Division when I was a prisoner in Pentridge Gaol with two comrades, Brian Pola and Fergus Robinson. There was no shortage of time to write it, as we were in solitary confinement, in our separate cells, for sixteen hours each day.

In writing the letter, I was careful not to be detected by the screws. They would have been very angry about it. So, I hid it under my mattress, folding the letter narrowly so that I could hide it under the side of the mattress nearest to the wall. One day, the warders came in to do a cell inspection. They did the usual finger across the top of the door checking for dust, and then checked that the blankets were folded into perfect squares and then – to my horror – they decided to check under the mattress. They pushed it up from the bed frame but not far enough, so my letter was still hidden at the side of the bed nearest to the wall. I was very worried, I can tell you.

I forget how the letter was smuggled out – possibly by Ted Hill, chairman of the CPA(ML), on one of his visits as our ‘legal adviser’. I recall that Ted used to smuggle the newspaper Vanguard into the gaol by rolling it up and putting it under his trouser leg. He would then give it to me, during a ‘legal visit’, and I’d do the same and carry it in my sock and trouser leg to ‘A’ Division.

Vanguard, the newspaper of the Communist Party of Australia (Marxist-Leninist), published the letter on 17 August 1972, after we were released (on 4 August). They knew not to publish it while we were still inside. Thank heavens.

We were gaoled for contempt of the Supreme Court of Victoria in 1972.

We had been leaders of the militant student movement at La Trobe University and prohibited from entering the campus under an injunction taken out by the University authorities. We defied the injunction, seeing it as an encroachment on free speech and an attempt to quell campus militancy. For ‘stepping foot upon the premises known as La Trobe University’, we were gaoled without trial, without sentence (i.e., indefinitely), without rights of bail or appeal.

Fergus was captured first and did four months. Brian Pola next, did three months. I was caught last, and served six weeks. Rodney Taylor, the fourth named in the injunction, avoided capture. We were released when the University authorities surrendered to the mass campaign against the gaolings and approached the Supreme Court for the abandonment of the injunctions.

*

When I read my letter today – forty-five years on – I stand by its description of prison life. However, I would moderate some of my language. For instance, I wouldn’t refer to the gaol as a concentration camp; though technically it was similar. But, ‘concentration camp’ brings to mind the Nazi rule of terror in Germany in the 1930s and Pentridge was nothing like that. (Did I even have to say that?)

Also, the analysis that concluded that ‘all prisoners are political prisoners’ because they were victims of the class war was manifestly wrong. There was, and is, a big difference between people who are imprisoned for their political activities or beliefs and those who rob banks and steal cars. I’m not sure now why I would have gone along with that anarchist slogan. I identified as a communist, after all.

*In 1973, Fergus and Brian and I, and others, revived the Victorian Prisoners’ Action Committee (PAC). I became its spokesman for three or four years. The PAC fought for prison reform but tried to connect the issue to the bigger question of capitalism and its overthrow. We supported the rebellion that was taking place inside Pentridge and other gaols, led by inmates with whom we had become friendly, and perhaps influenced, on the inside. (We used to hide works by Marx, Lenin and Mao on the very top of the bookcase in the prison library, laying them flat and out of view of the prison officers. We were able to receive such books from the outside, after a La Trobe academic comrade assured the prison authorities they were ‘for educational purposes’! Sympathetic prisoners knew of this secret stash of subversive material that was allowed in only for the ‘La Trobe Three’).

In campaigning for prison reform, we were able to assist individuals on their release. This experience was double-edged, and some negative experiences led me to better understand that there is such a thing as personal responsibility and agency, not just victimhood. Even the most oppressed individuals can make choices for the better within the confines of socio-economic limitation. Too many didn’t. Bad culture perpetuates oppression.

*This year, I came across the letter as published in Vanguard while sorting and culling folders of old paperwork. It reminded me of how genuine we were in our commitment to revolutionary change back then, and how lucky I was to have been active in those years of global solidarity from 1967 to 1972. We really believed we were approaching a revolutionary situation. Perhaps the State had similar feelings, and that may explain why they came down so heavily on those who went beyond reformism and challenged the system itself.

Of course, the revolution didn’t materialise but the broader social movement, of which we were part, won changes that cannot be reversed.

And, perhaps best of all: we certainly gave some bad reactionaries a very hard time!

The letter from Pentridge, July 1972

As I write this letter from my cell in ‘A’ Division, two very significant occurrences are taking place.

Firstly a radio announcement from the Prison Committee’s prisoners’ representative has called for prisoners in remand to submit affidavits to Mr. Kelly, a solicitor on the Government Prison Inquiry, regarding a vicious attack by about 30 screws (N.B. prison slang for warders) on 4 Bendigo escapees and about 6 other prisoners. Pentridge is buzzing with the news. The escapees, according to eye witness reports, were beaten with 3 ft. long night sticks. Apparently, one had his head forced through a railing on a staircase. The scalp split wide open and he lost much blood.

Other prisoners in remand who objected to the screws’ violent attack were also bashed. One of the prisoners who received a bashing has identified [name removed] not only as one of those most active in the baton attack, but also as one who laid in the boot after some of the prisoners were beaten unconscious!! The escapees, still without medical aid, have been placed in Pentridge’s ‘maximum security’ division, ‘H’ Division.

HELL DIVISION

‘H’ Division stands for ‘Hell’ Division. And this leads me to the second significant occurrence taking place as I write.

From his cell in ‘H’, Paul Hertzell [correct spelling is Hetzel] is screaming out the following statement:–

‘Hey all you toffs (N.B. prison slang for ‘good blokes’) out there! You’re doing a terrific job! We’ve got to get rid of this incompetent government!’, ‘Down with the imperial government!’, ‘This is Paul Hertzell in ‘H’. All ‘H’ prisoners are political prisoners – a result of the government’s incompetency!’, ‘Free all political prisoners!’, ‘Abolish ‘H’!’, ‘Hey you toffs out there! This is Paul Hertzell in ‘H’…’

I have an almost uncontrollable urge to climb up to my window and scream back my complete support, but unfortunately, I lack the courage of Paul Hertzell. Confronted in an isolated prison cell by overpowering violence, Hertzell’s protests prove conclusively what we already know to be true – namely, that where there is repression there is resistance.

SYMBOL OF IMPERIALISM

Pentridge was born out of the domination of Australia by British imperialism in the 19th Century. Today it serves as a monument to the fascist bestiality of the U.S., British and Japanese imperialists and the local quislings who dominate Australia economically, politically, and culturally. This statement may seem rhetorical and emotional but the situation in Pentridge, with its emphasis on psychological as well as physical punishment, is similar to a concentration camp. It is an institution of fascism in the sense that it is an institution based on overt reactionary violence. Its existence and present function and nature proves that the state is a machine for the oppression of one class by another, and, that under capitalism this means the oppression of the working class by the capitalist class.

Let me elaborate by relating my own personal experiences and some of the experiences of other prisoners, in the form of a brief description of the divisions which constitute Pentridge.

‘A’ DIVISION

We are currently located in ‘A’ Division. Relatively speaking, ‘A’ is the ‘best’ Division in Pentridge. The prisoners throughout Pentridge have waged heroic struggles which have improved conditions in ‘A’ Division and led to a reduction in the use of violence against the prisoners by the screws. Applying the old colonial principle of ‘divide and rule’, one very small section of ‘A’ Division is reserved for the elite of prisoners; the ‘aristocracy of prisoners’ if you like. This section (consisting of about ten out of 160 cells) is used as a public relations centre. Any visiting magistrates of government inquiry teams are promptly directed to this section. The prisoners there are the ‘good boys’ who earn $2.50 a week in positions as head librarian and the like. The real ‘A’ Division is the ‘A’ in which the vast majority of prisoners exist. No T.V. sets, record players or heaters for these prisoners on $1.30 a week – just mental and psychological anguish, pre-planned long term physical destruction, and cruel, sadistic humiliation. This is the real ‘A’ Division, the ‘A’ Division in which the vast majority exist.

‘B’ DIVISION

‘B’ Division lacks the relative freedom of life in ‘A’. Conditions are far worse and the intensity of manual labour and degradation by the authorities are far more extreme. ‘B’ is organised on the basis of strict regimented discipline. One prisoner who spent some years in ‘B’ has informed me that the discipline in ‘B’ reminded him of the discipline enforced upon him in ‘H’ Division. Unlike in ‘A’ where you are permitted to occasionally forget to address the screws as ‘sir’ in ‘B’ any such omission is sometimes met with physical assault, but more typically, verbal abuse. A report received from another prisoner who had just ‘graduated’ from ‘B’ to ‘A’ claims that ‘the tense atmosphere in ‘B’ can be sliced with a knife’. Again, I could not help but recall those words of Chairman Mao’s ‘Where there is repression there is resistance’.

‘C’ DIVISION

‘C’ Division looks like a scene from a ghost town in one of those old cowboy movies. The cells are literally iron bolted stables. Even the government declared ‘C’ Division a ‘condemned’ division some years ago but still nothing has been done about it. ‘C’ is renowned throughout Pentridge for its rat problem. Huge gaps exist in the cell doors which allow the rats to enter each cell. Naturally, there is a much higher rate of disease in ‘C’ than in ‘A’. ‘C’ remains unsewered. Prisoners must contend with only a small night pan. One old prisoner who spent several years in ‘C’, explained to me that during summer he used to sleep on the floor of his cell with his face near the gap below the door because the general stench of ‘C’ and the specific smell of his cell used to become unbearable.

‘D’ DIVISION

‘D’ Division or ‘Remand’ is second only to ‘H’ Division. I spent some time in remand. The cells in ‘D’ are basically toilets equipped with a bed. The entire cell smells of semi-sewered toilet. Even by the lowly standards of bourgeois morality the conditions are appalling. The ‘D’ prisoners spend all day long pacing up and down the remand yard. This yard consists of a small triangular concrete yard surrounded by three huge blue-stone walls which block out any sunlight. One shower, one open toilet, and one clothes hoist allegedly make the yard suitable for fifty men. One prisoner I met had spent 12 months in remand awaiting trial. In this sense, remand is a sort of ‘limbo’. It represents an in-between world between the courts and prison.

‘E’ DIVISION

Any prisoner may see the prison doctor at ‘E’ Division and receive medical or dental attention. ‘E’ is basically a dormitory for sick prisoners. It is apparently based on very strict discipline and I have been told some prisoners are sent to ‘E’ as a form of punishment. There is only one doctor to cater for Pentridge’s 1,200 prisoners.

‘F’ DIVISION

‘F’ is simply a dormitory for about 30 prisoners from the remand yard. The rest of the remand prisoners retire in ‘D’ Division cells which I have already described.

‘G’ DIVISION

‘G’ is the Prison Psychiatric Centre. Not all prisoners who need psychiatric care get it though. In ‘A’ at the moment, for one example, is a prisoner who just sits in the sun trembling all day. He studies his hands as though inspecting each intricate part of the mechanics of a clock, for hours on end. He showers each day but can never remember where the shower room is located. He clearly requires urgent psychiatric attention.

‘J’ DIVISION

Before describing the notorious ‘H’ Division, let me say something about ‘J’ Division. Presumably ‘J’ stands for ‘Junior’ as the prisoners here are aged between 18 and 21. Some of these lads are beaten and humiliated by the senior authorities and their lackeys, the screws. All sorts of sexually perverted acts are launched against some of these basically decent young Australians. Looking down into the ‘J’ Division Labour Yard and seeing these tired, ragged, illiterate, scruffy uniformed young prisoners, I could not help but recollect some of the apt descriptions of the Pentridges of yesteryear as reported by Charles Dickens in ‘Little Dorrit’.

‘THE SLOT’, ‘H’ DIVISION

The maximum security Division is ‘H’ Division or, to use the prison slang, the ‘Slot’. The ‘H’ stands for ‘Hell’. I have interviewed ex-’H’ prisoners who have informed me of the heinous sadistic crimes launched against them by the screws in ‘H’. I entered ‘H’ two days ago to collect some laundry. It would not be an exaggeration if I were to describe the effect ‘H’ had on me as ‘spine chilling’. The ‘Slot’ is a small building guarded at the front entrance by two huge brutal looking screws. The first thing I noticed on entering the front doors with my laundry trolley was a large mirror (used to observe anyone approaching) with a long horizontal crack in it. I later discovered that a prisoner had been thrown onto the mirror. The whole situation struck me as nightmare like and unreal. It was very macabre, like something out of Luna Park’s Chamber of Horrors, only extremely serious. The two screws reminded me of ‘heavies’ from a Boris Karloff movie. They abused me and attempted to humiliate me. Why? Simply because I dared enter the ‘Slot’ and leave with my trolley full of laundry. ‘H’ prisoners are put to work in the ‘Labour Yard’ where they spend hours each day breaking up rocks. They are marched around the yard with military discipline. Most of these men have been sent to ‘H’ for breaches of internal discipline. Many of those who have visited ‘H’ still have the signs to prove it: scars, broken noses, etc. Conditions are so bad that two ‘H’ prisoners have hung themselves during the past few years. Others cut their wrists or throat in order to be removed from ‘H’ and sent to hospital. One ‘H’ prisoner swallowed a 12 inch long metal towel rack. He was sent to hospital and the rack was removed by surgical operation. He was then returned to ‘H’ and promptly swallowed the metal towel rack once more.

‘H’ from what I can fathom, rightly deserves the title: ‘Hell’. You have probably heard about the infamous ‘Bash’, or at least seen the slogans painted on factory walls around North Melbourne, ‘Ban the Bash’. The ‘Bash’ has recently been abolished as a result of the prisoner’s rebellion and the government’s inquiry. I met one 26 year-old prisoner who had just been released from ‘H’ after 3 and a half years! Snowy white hair, badly injured eyes, and sickly yellow skin, this once dark haired, normal, healthy young Australian has been subjected to one of capitalism’s ‘rehabilitation’ programmes. He related to me his experiences in ‘H’ when the ‘Bash’ was a formal daily occurrence. The screws would order individual ‘H’ prisoners to jump into the air. When the prisoner landed after having jumped into the air, he would be told: ‘You were ordered to jump into the air, you were not told to land’ and promptly given a bashing. On other occasions prisoners in ‘H’ would be directed to march into cell walls and keep marching until badly bruised and bleeding. Others would be humiliated and forced to imitate animals.

All this in the name of ‘rehabilitation’!!

A few days ago a riot broke out in ‘H’. I saw the smoke, heard the screams, and saw the screws frantically running hither and thither. Again I recalled those wise and correct words, ‘Where there is repression there is resistance’.

THE PRISONERS AND THE SCREWS

Now I would like to give you my general impressions of my fellow prisoners and the screws.

My fellow prisoners are, generally speaking, courageous and kind-hearted men. Most have an instinctive hatred of the capitalist class. They are all political prisoners in the sense that their alleged crimes are socially induced. No murderer is born a murderer, no rapist born a rapist. The various types of social pressures exerted on decent working people by the corrupt and exploitative capitalist class force some people to resort to crime. But what do we mean by ‘crime’? Is the man who steals food (or money to buy food) for his family really a criminal? And what of the unemployed or unemployable, the so called ‘vagrant’? Ah, but, you will ask, what of the man who murdered and raped his sister? Surely, I reply, he needs help and pity, not sadist-based punishment. He should be, to coin the popular stereotyped expression, ‘rehabilitated’. But the notion of ‘rehabilitation’ is by no means a neutral concept. The fundamental question remains ‘rehabilitated’ to what sort of social system and to what sort of value system? The capitalist class can be so hypocritical! They maintain and profit from the social system based on exploitation in the form of private appropriation and the value system based on selfishness and yet they seek to ‘rehabilitate’ the convicted criminal to re-accept those very same social conditions and values which engender crime in the first place!!

This is the same capitalist class which gives out-and-out ‘Sanctity of Law’ to mass destruction of property and people in Indo-China and to the foreign plunder of Australia, yet send basically decent working people to the Pentridge concentration camp for alleged ‘crimes against private property’. Of course there are criminals and there are criminals. But getting to the root cause of the problem, the real criminals are the very same hypocrites who uphold the present penal system. I refer of course to the criminal capitalist class which, like a lowly parasitic thief, thrives off the labour of others.

‘PRISON POLICE’

Now let me comment on the screws, the prison police. Just as it is often claimed that there are ‘good’ as well as ‘bad’ police, so it is said there are the ‘good’ screws and the ‘bad’ screws. The role of the screws is really indefensible. They maintain ‘law-n-order’ within the concentration camp. Some do it with a smile, others don’t give a damn, others take great pride in their work. This latter type is the most prominent, active, and vocal within Pentridge. All the screws are armed with either batons, guns, or .303 rifles. The latter type of screw is sadistic and gains pleasure from humiliating the prisoners. They abuse and try to humiliate us. In ‘H’ Division for example, prisoners are forced to lie on their stomachs naked on their beds and hold the cheeks of their back-sides wide apart for the screws to examine. In ‘A’ Division, one cold frosty morning I was ordered by a clenched fisted screw to ‘Get you f…… hands out of your f…… pockets’. (They are very foul-mouthed creatures.) However, in trying so desperately to humiliate others, they really only humiliate themselves.

The screws and prison authorities fear the prisoners’ rebellion. Like all reactionaries they are superficially strong but essentially weak. Like the vast majority of prisoners I hate the screws and prison authorities with an intense class hatred.

The day is not far off when justice will be dealt to the screws, the prison authorities, and the entire ruling class!

 

Barry, Brian and Fergus outside Pentridge in 2012

Pentridge Prison’s history of horror

THE crumbling prison walls of Pentridge will soon take on a new role and it couldn’t be further from it’s bloody past.

CRIMINALS could probably hear the faint torturous screams of their inmates echoing through cold, crumbling prison walls as they were hung among the cells.

Pentridge Prison, which closed in 1997, housed some of Victoria’s most notorious criminals, including Melbourne underworld figure Carl Williams and members of the Kelly Gang.

But now the prison’s D Division, the execution wing and the place many sadistic criminals took their last breaths, will be turned into a new dining hotspot.

The dining precinct is part of developer, Future Estate’s $1 billion ‘Coburg Quarter’ project and some of the site’s key heritage features such as laundry machinery and solitary confinement cells will be restored and showcased as a feature within the venue.

The restaurant, bar, brewery and laneway precinct should be complete in October and will have an ambience that couldn’t be further from chained prisoners and bloody brutality.

Graeme Alford, a former Pentridge inmate, told the Herald Sun it wasn’t an area for the faint-hearted.

“The first couple of weeks I was in Pentridge were really unnerving,” he said.

“D Division wasn’t a great place because people were on remand, so they hadn’t been sentenced, and you had a lot of people who couldn’t handle it.”

“At night you would often hear guys yelling and screaming, maybe withdrawing from drugs or whatever,” the former embezzler and armed robber said.

When parts of Pentridge were turned into luxury apartments just over a decade ago, it was feared the history would be demolished along with some of the bluestone walls.

The D Division, in the heritage-listed jail, was a place where Ronald Ryan and Mark ‘Chopper’ Read served parts of their sentences.

Ryan was found guilty of murdering prison guard George Hodson and was the last person to be legally executed in Australia in 1967.

He became a notorious criminal after he planned a great escape from the prison when he discovered his wife was seeking a divorce.

In December 1965, Ryan and a fellow prisoner, Peter Walker, scaled a 5m wall with help from two wooden benches, a blanket and a hook.

They were then caught by prison warder Helmut Lange but the pair overpowered him, stuck a rifle into his back and demanded he open the prison gate.

While on the run the prisoners robbed a bank in Ormond.

They were recaptured 19 days after escaping, when police received a tip-off about their whereabouts.

In the hours before Ryan was executed, he scribed a noted on some toilet roll, one to authorities protesting his innocence and one to his daughter saying his conscience was clear.

Pentridge Prison walls also smothered Gregory John “Bluey” Brazel, described as one of the prison’s most vicious and manipulative inmates.

He is serving three life sentences for murdering prostitutes Sharon Taylor and Roslyn Hayward 26 years ago and gift store owner Mildred Hanmer in 1982.

He will be eligible for parole in just four years time.

The cruel crim also conned an old lady into depositing $30,000 into a TAB telephone betting account, stabbed three prisoners and assaulted police and prison officers.

Prisoners were kept in their cells 23 hours a day and the Herald Sun reported the shocking tales of former chaplain Peter Norden.

“One of the first experiences I had when I visited in 1976 was meeting a 17-year-old who had been raped the night before in one of the dormitories. Now that was a very significant experience, a shocking experience, for me,” he said.

“In many ways the chaplain was the only person in the place that could be trusted because the prisoners did not trust one another, they didn’t trust staff and they didn’t trust those employed by the prison service because everything would be used against them.”

Pentridge Prison is one of the most haunted in Australia, with the “ghost” of Chopper Read said to be lurking in the prison shadows.

During a 2014 ghost tour, a group of Pentridge Prison visitors claimed they heard the voice of Mark ‘Chopper’ Read tormenting them.

Read was depraved, beyond robbing drug dealers and tormenting underworld figures, he also convinced a fellow inmate to cut off both his ears to help Read escape the H Division, which protected high security prisoners and disciplined them.

It is also believed the brutal crim used bolt cutters and blowtorches to amputate the toes of his victims.

He died from liver cancer in a Melbourne hospital just three years ago.

Jeremy Kewley, who has led ghost tours throughout the prison, told the Today showthere was a loud bellow coming from Read’s cell in the D Division.

“We had a group of lawyers on the tour and suddenly from the dark end of the cell we heard an incredibly loud and aggressive voice yell ‘get out’,” Mr Kewley said.

“It echoed through the entire building and we just sort of froze, it was just such a shock to me.”

Some of the lawyers on the tour smirked and Mr Kewley had to assure them it had never happened before and they weren’t being conned.

They even called police and security to search the D Division, where 11 prisoners were hanged.

“It’s a sad and scary place,” he said.

H Division exercise yard
1997 Pentridge – Stone breaking exhibit, ‘H’ Division.

Pentridge: Infamous prison’s ‘extreme’ transformation into luxury village

The front gates of the old Pentridge Prison now dressed up for a community display.(Facebook: @PentridgeCoburg

Its towering bluestone walls have housed some of Australia’s most notorious criminals, but now the infamous Pentridge Prison is shedding its image of convicts and cutthroats in favour of cafes and cinemas.

After being decommissioned in 1997, and trading hands between private developers for more than a decade, the sprawling grounds, guard towers and cell blocks of Pentridge Prison are now being turned into a luxury development.

The site will include apartments, boutique shops, cafes and a 15-screen cinema in what developers say will be a “well-designed urban village that invigorates an important historical asset.”

So is this a necessary modernisation, or papering over our history in search of a dollar?

‘Where the bad people go’

Author and photographer Rupert Mann has spent years documenting the site and interviewing former prisoners and staff who called the prison home.

Mann has compiled his findings in a new book, Pentridge: Voices From The Other Side, and said like many Australians, his fascination with the place began at an early age.

The solid metal gates and thick walls stood in place for more than a decade after the prison was decommissioned.(Supplied: Rupert Mann)

“I remember Pentridge when I was much younger, maybe six years old, going past the walls with my father and asking him ‘What’s that place?’,” he told News Breakfast.

“He told me, ‘That’s where the bad people go.’ I kind of had this fascination from then with Pentridge.”

The name alone is part of Australia’s folklore and the infamy is well deserved.

Between 1850 and 1997 it bore witness to scenes of great violence and depravity, including the last legal execution in Australia, held in 1967. And it housed the likes of Ned Kelly and Chopper Read.

The sparse insides show row after row of small cells.(Supplied: Rupert Mann)

As Mann notes in his book, there were 75 deaths at the prison between 1973 and 1997 — of which only 13 were by natural causes.

And when the Jesuit social services opened it up for public tours only a few months after the last prisoners departed, they had to invest $100,000 to bring it in line with basic health and safety standards.

Back in 1978 former governor Bob Gill made headlines when he remarked to a journalist that the facilities were so bad “if I put my dogs in conditions like this, I’m sure I’d be reported to the RSPCA.”

Former Pentridge Prison governor Bob Gill returned to the abandoned site with Mr Mann.(Supplied: Rupert Mann)

Mr Gill is one of 15 people to offer their account of Pentridge in Mann’s book, saying some “bloody crazy crap” went on there.

“Morale in that bloody place was at rock bottom. It had an effect on the staff, working in there,” he said.

Indigenous actor Jack Charles also offers his story, detailing how he spent time in and out of jail in his younger days, including arriving at Pentridge about the age of 18

“I saw really nasty things. Pentridge was a violent place,” he said.

“I remember thinking sometimes that the screws (guards) could come in to your cell at any time and kill you … It was a young man’s paranoia, I suppose.”

Jack Charles takes a look around Pentridge decades after he first arrived as a prisoner.(Supplied: Rupert Mann)

‘Don’t sweep history under the carpet’

Mann doesn’t romanticise the stories of Pentridge Prison, but he does seek to preserve them.

He worries the redevelopment will disconnect Australians from the past and the lessons it can teach us.

“By physically demolishing the more recent layers of the prison, a chasm is placed between us and the events that happened there,” Mann wrote.

He hopes his book can bridge that chasm.

The solid stones that created the original entrance still stand.(Supplied: Rupert Mann)

The Shayher Group bought the land in 2013 and is in the process of developing it. 

Public events are already held at the site — both cultural and historical — and this week a guest criminologist will give a talk on the way crime has changed over the years.

Mann said more than half of the former prison inmates and staff he approached didn’t feel comfortable talking or revisiting the site, and many had mixed feelings about the development.

History of Pentridge Prison

  • Pentridge was built in 1850 in Coburg in Melbourne’s north
  • H-Division was for high security, discipline and protection of prisoners
  • Jika Jika or K-Division housed the maximum-security-risk inmates
  • Ned Kelly, Julian Knight, Chopper Read and Squizzy Taylor all served time there
  • Ronald Ryan, the last man executed in Australia, was hanged at Pentridge
  • It closed in 1997

“Many people said raze the place, demolish it, make it into a park, and forget it,” he said.

“But many people do feel that the development is too extreme and too much has been lost at Pentridge and it really can’t tell its story any more, not in the way it could when I did the book.

“I think that’s why a lot of people, a lot of these guys got into the book because they could see that their personal history, their personal story that they lived was being swept under the carpet in order to make the place palatable and sellable.”

Blending the old with the new

An artist impression of what the redeveloped Pentridge grounds will look like.(Supplied: Shayher Group)

“What we’ve realised over the years is that this site needs to be activated in terms of the public,” spokesman Anthony Goh said.

“We’re really trying to create an open space where you can come have lunch, dinner, breakfast as well.

“It’s a place where you come and meet people [and] go to the fancy Palace Cinemas.

“The majority is supporting us and unfortunately the majority, when they support something, don’t say that much.”

The exteriors of many heritage buildings will need to be preserved.(Supplied: Shayher Group)

It’s estimated the redevelopment will cost about $1 billion and take up to 10 years to complete.

Heritage Victoria guidelines mean Shayher Group must preserve the exterior of certain buildings of significance, but the developers have plans to repurpose the insides.

This could mean turning cell blocks into an art gallery, or turning four small cells into one large hotel room.

The final development will include boutique shops and restaurants.(Supplied: Shayher Group)

“There’s a line of thought which says that in preserving heritage, ok preserve what is old, but then we need to offset it with the new,” Mr Goh said.

“We’re trying to get the message across that we’re not destroying heritage here. Everything has gone through Heritage Victoria.

“And secondly, there is some balance here in making the site economic in order for it to go forward by itself in the future.”

Reference

How the Horrific Tragedy of the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire Led to Workplace Safety Laws

The 1911 factory blaze shocked the nation and spurred new regulations to protect factory workers.

Young women became trapped by tables, bulky equipment and doors that locked or opened the wrong way as flames enveloped the eighth, ninth and 10th floors of the Asch Building in New York City’s Greenwich Village on March 25, 1911. As people struggled to escape, several fell into the flames, their bodies piling by blocked exits. Others leapt—in twos and threes—out the burning building’s high windows.

The March 25, 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Fire was one of the deadliest workplace catastrophes in U.S. history, claiming the lives of 146 workers, most of them women immigrants in their teens and twenties. The fire was so horrific it shocked the conscience of New Yorkers and others across the nation and, ultimately, led to changes in safety regulations and more diligent efforts to enforce them. 

Fire hoses spray water on the upper floors of the Asch Building, housing the Triangle Shirtwaist Company, on Washington and Greene Streets in New York City, during the fire on March 25, 1911. Keystone/Getty Images

Deplorable Working Conditions

The fire, says Paul F. Cole, director of the American Labor Studies Center, “awakened a nation to the dangerous and deplorable conditions that many workers faced on a daily basis.”

The disaster’s causes were complex. In the early 1890s, immigrants from Italy and eastern Europe came to the United States in search of a better life, but instead often found themselves in places such as the Triangle Waist Company, where they worked 12-and-a-half-hour days for $6 a week, according to an AFL-CIO history of the fire. They had to supply their own needles, thread, irons and sometimes, even their own sewing machines.

Working conditions were so bad that the women didn’t even have access to a bathroom in the building, and doors were locked so that they couldn’t go outside and slow down production. And though the place was filled with highly flammable materials, there was little attention paid to fire prevention.

Discontent over wages and working conditions at Triangle and the city’s other garment factories led tens of thousands of workers to strike in 1909, seeking concessions such as a 20 percent pay hike and a 52-hour week, as well as safer working conditions. Most of the factory owners quickly settled, but Triangle’s owners resisted the demands. When the strike ended in February 1910, workers went back to their jobs without a union agreement, according to the AFL-CIO history.

“Triangle was the most hostile of the owners to the union,” explains Richard Greenwald, historian and dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at Fairfield University and author of a 2011 book, The Triangle Fire, Protocols Of Peace And Industrial Democracy In Progressive Era New York. “They moved production out of NYC in 1909 to avoid the strike, hired thugs to beat writers and most likely bribed the police to arrest strikers.”

Triangle Factory’s Fire Safety: Empty Water Buckets

On the afternoon of March 25, a Saturday, 500 people were working in Triangle’s factory, which occupied three floors in a building that had been built just 10 years before. Court testimony later placed the blame for the blaze on a fire that started in a fabric scrap bin on the eighth floor, which probably was ignited by a discarded cigarette, shortly before the factory’s 4 pm closing time.

Triangle had water buckets in place for extinguishing fires, a common practice in garment factories at the time. But as one worker, Mary Domsky-Abrams, later recalled in an early 1960s interview with author Leon Stein, the buckets were empty. “On that particular morning, the day of the tragedy, I remarked to my colleagues that the buckets were empty, and that if anything were to happen, they would be of no use,” she said.

Another worker, Cecilia Walker Friedman, who worked on the ninth floor, said that she was ready to leave work when she looked to the window and saw flames. Everyone around her started to scream and holler, but many were hindered in getting away. “The girls at the machines began to climb up on the machine tables, maybe because it was that they were frightened or maybe they thought they could run to the elevator doors on top of the machines,” Friedman said. “The aisles were narrow and blocked by the chairs and baskets. They began to fall in the fire.

The gutted remains of the tenth floor, with only the floors and walls intact. Bettmann Archive/Getty Images

Firefighters eventually found a six-foot-high pile of bodies jammed up against a door to the back stairway, according to the New York Tribune.

Friedman herself somehow made it to the elevator, only to watch as the elevator car went down the shaft, leaving the door open. Desperate, she wrapped a decorative muff around her hands, leaped into the shaft and grabbed the elevator cable, sliding all the way to the bottom. The impact broke her arm and finger, and she suffered a head injury and a burn that stretched the length of her body. But she survived.

Others weren’t so lucky. The fire escape bent under the weight of workers trying to flee. Some workers waited at the windows for help, only to watch in dismay as firefighters’ too-short ladders couldn’t reach them. Faced with being burned alive, some workers chose to leap—sometimes in twos and threes—to their deaths, according to a 2011 New York Times retrospective. The fire didn’t destroy the building itself, and by sunset, police and firemen were laying out bodies on the sidewalk.

New Yorkers Demand Reform

A week after the fire, New Yorkers packed an emergency meeting at the Metropolitan Opera House to call for action on fire safety. A few days later, an estimated 350,000 people joined in a massive funeral procession for the fire’s victims.

Demonstrators mourning the  victims of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in New York City, 1911. PhotoQuest/Getty Images

The factory’s owners, Isaac Harris and Max Blanck, were put on trial for manslaughter, but were found not guilty in a trial that December, after the judge gave jury instructions that made it difficult to convict them. As journalist David Von Drehle, author of a book on the fire, notes in a 2018 essay, the pair had to be escorted out a side door of the courthouse to avoid an angry crowd. To settle lawsuits against them, they eventually paid $75 in compensation to each victim’s family—a fraction of the $400 per death that they were paid by their insurer, according to the U.S. Department of Labor.

While the factory had hazardous conditions inside, some of the blame also fell on New York City government, which hadn’t done much to ensure safe workplaces and wasn’t prepared for such a fire. “There was no clear city agency responsibility to insure the safety of workers and factories,” Greenwald says. “No one was responsible for building safety. There were no clear regulations for fire safety and no modern fire equipment.”

With public outrage growing, New York state legislators enacted a law creating the Factory Investigating Commission, a watchdog agency with sweeping powers to probe labor conditions throughout the state. Over the next two years, it would investigate thousands of workplaces—not just garment factories, but to meat-packing and chemical plants as well.

“The FIC was led by the Tammany Hall machine leaders, so the reforms that were suggested found their way into laws,” Greenwald says. “There were over 20 laws passed which changed fire safety, building safety, charged the state with worker safety.”

Reform Agenda Empowers FDR’s New Deal

Additionally, the fire helped unite organized labor and various reform-minded politicians, including progressive New York Governor Alfred E. Smith and Senator Robert F. Wagner, one of the legislative architects of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal agenda. Frances Perkins, who served on a committee that helped to set up the FIC, would later become Roosevelt’s Secretary of Labor. “In a clear way, one can argue that the fire led to the New Deal,” Greenwald says. “Perkins said so herself in her oral history.”

On a larger scale, the Triangle fire convinced the nation that the government had a responsibility to ensure workers had a safe place to do their jobs. 

What is a Shirtwaist?

An advertisement for shirtwaists, Courtesy: Fashion Institute of New York/SUNY

A button-down blouse, the functional shirtwaist was valued for its ready-to-wear, workplace appeal and its simple design, originally modeled on menswear shirts. It could be worn jacketless and fashionably tucked into the waistband of a skirt, and it was sold as both an individual piece and as an ensemble. By the early 20th century, designers added lace and frills to embellish the iconic blouse, which was already available in every color. Articles in Vogue magazine and advertisements showed various enhancements, including elaborate details and stitching to the collars, wrist cuffs, and bodies that elevated the simple blouse to haute mode. An article written for the Pittsburgh Press on September 16, 1906, stated, “A very fashionable woman with a half a hundred waists boasts that there are no two alike.”

At the turn of the 20th century, production of the shirtwaist was a competitive industry. Although sold across the country, the majority of shirtwaist blouses were created in Philadelphia and New York City. In Manhattan alone, there were over 450 textile factories, employing approximately 40,000 garment workers, many of them immigrants. The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory, located in the top floors of the Asch building in Greenwich Village, was one of many shirtwaist factories operating in Manhattan at the time. This boom in industry helped solidify New York’s status as an industrial center and provided jobs to the thousands of immigrants that arrived daily at Ellis Island.

The shirtwaist, however, came to represent more than a momentary fashion trend; the blouse was a symbol of newfound female independence in a time of progressive ideas. With their own jobs and wages, women were no longer dependent on men and sought new privileges at home and at work. The figure of the working woman, wearing the shirtwaist blouse and freed from domestic duties, was an iconic image for the women’s rights movement.

Reference

Gay History: The Pink Triangle: From Nazi Label to Symbol of Gay Pride

Pink Triangle Affixed to Gay Men’s Clothes in a Nazi Concentration Camp

Before the pink triangle became a worldwide symbol of gay power and pride, it was intended as a badge of shame. In Nazi Germany, a downward-pointing pink triangle was sewn onto the shirts of gay men in concentration camps—to identify and further dehumanize them. It wasn’t until the 1970s that activists would reclaim the symbol as one of liberation.

Homosexuality was technically made illegal in Germany in 1871, but it was rarely enforced until the Nazi Party took power in 1933. As part of their mission to racially and culturally “purify” Germany, the Nazis arrested thousands of LGBT individuals, mostly gay men, whom they viewed as degenerate.

The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum estimates 100,000 gay men were arrested and between 5,000 and 15,000 were placed in concentration camps. Just as Jews were forced to identify themselves with yellow stars, gay men in concentration camps had to wear a large pink triangle. (Brown triangles were used for Romani people, red for political prisoners, green for criminals, blue for immigrants, purple for Jehovah’s Witnesses and black for “asocial” people, including prostitutes and lesbians.)

Homosexual prisoners at the concentration camp at Sachsenhausen, Germany, wearing pink triangles on their uniforms on December 19, 1938. Corbis/Getty Images

At the camps, gay men were treated especially harshly, by guards and fellow prisoners alike. “There was no solidarity for the homosexual prisoners; they belonged to the lowest caste,” Pierre Seel, a gay Holocaust survivor, wrote in his memoir I, Pierre Seel, Deported Homosexual: A Memoir of Nazi Terror.

An estimated 65 percent of gay men in concentration camps died between 1933 and 1945. Even after World War II, both East and West Germany upheld the country’s anti-gay law, and many gays remained incarcerated until the early 1970s. (The law was not officially repealed until 1994.)

The early 1970s was also when the gay rights movement began to emerge in Germany. In 1972, The Men with the Pink Triangle, the first autobiography of a gay concentration camp survivor, was published. The next year, post-war Germany’s first gay rights organization, Homosexuelle Aktion Westberlin (HAW), reclaimed the pink triangle as a symbol of liberation.

“At its core, the pink triangle represented a piece of our German history that still needed to be dealt with,” Peter Hedenström, one of HAW’s founding members said in 2014.

Memorial plaques for homosexuals, Jehovah’s Witnesses and Wehrmacht deserters are placed where once stood one of the demolished barracks in Buchenwald concentration camp near Weimar, Germany. Horacio Villalobos/Corbis/Getty Images

Afterwards, it began cropping up in other LGBT circles around the world. In 1986, six New York City activists created a poster with the words SILENCE = DEATH and a bright pink upward-facing triangle, meant to call attention to the AIDs crisis that was decimating populations of gay men across the country. The poster was soon adopted by the organization ACT UP and became a lasting symbol of the AIDS advocacy movement.

The triangle continues to figure prominently in imaging for various LGBT organizations and events. Since the 1990s, signs bearing a pink triangle enclosed in a green circle have been used as a symbol identifying “safe spaces” for queer people. There are pink triangle memorials in San Francisco and Sydney, which honor LGBT victims of the Holocaust. In 2018, for Pride Month, Nike released a collection of shoes featuring pink triangles.

Although the pink triangle has been reclaimed as an empowering symbol, it is ultimately a reminder to never forget the past—and to recognize the persecution LGBT people still face around the world.

Nazi Concentration Camp Triangle Classification Flyer

Reference

Samuel Pepys Diary 1666 – Great Fire

Oh the miserable and calamitous spectacle!

September 2, 1666

It was a small mistake, but with great consequences. On September 2, 1666, Thomas Farrinor, baker to King Charles II of England, failed, in effect, to turn off his oven. He thought the fire was out, but apparently the smouldering embers ignited some nearby firewood and by one o’clock in the morning, three hours after Farrinor went to bed, his house in Pudding Lane was in flames. Farrinor, along with his wife and daughter, and one servant, escaped from the burning building through an upstairs window, but the baker’s maid was not so fortunate, becoming the Great Fire’s first victim. Did these cakes set fire to London?

The fire then leapt across Fish Street Hill and engulfed the Star Inn. The London of 1666 was a city of half-timbered, pitch-covered medieval buildings and sheds that ignited at the touch of a spark–and a strong wind on that September morning ensured that sparks flew everywhere. From the Inn, the fire spread into Thames Street, where riverfront warehouses were bursting with oil, tallow, and other combustible goods. By now the fire had grown too fierce to combat with the crude firefighting methods of the day, which consisted of little more than bucket brigades armed with wooden pails of water. The usual solution during a fire of such size was to demolish every building in the path of the flames in order to deprive the fire of fuel, but the city’s mayor hesitated, fearing the high cost of rebuilding. Meanwhile, the fire spread out of control, doing far more damage than anyone could possibly have managed.

Soon the flames were visible from Seething Lane, near the Tower of London, where Samuel Pepys first noted them without concern:

Pepys Diary Entry, September 2 1666

Some of our maids sitting up late last night to get things ready against our feast today, Jane called up about three in the morning, to tell us of a great fire they saw in the City. So I rose, and slipped on my night-gown and went to her window, and thought it to be on the back side of Mark Lane at the farthest; but, being unused to such fires as followed, I thought it far enough off, and so went to bed again, and to sleep. . . . By and by Jane comes and tells me that she hears that above 300 houses have been burned down tonight by the fire we saw, and that it is now burning down all Fish Street, by London Bridge. So I made myself ready presently, and walked to the Tower; and there got up upon one of the high places, . . .and there I did see the houses at the end of the bridge all on fire, and an infinite great fire on this and the other side . . . of the bridge. . . .

So down [I went], with my heart full of trouble, to the Lieutenant of the Tower, who tells me that it began this morning in the King’s baker’s house in Pudding Lane, and that it hath burned St. Magnus’s Church and most part of Fish Street already. So I rode down to the waterside, . . . and there saw a lamentable fire. . . . Everybody endeavouring to remove their goods, and flinging into the river or bringing them into lighters that lay off; poor people staying in their houses as long as till the very fire touched them, and then running into boats, or clambering from one pair of stairs by the waterside to another. And among other things, the poor pigeons, I perceive, were loth to leave their houses, but hovered about the windows and balconies, till they some of them burned their wings and fell down.

Having stayed, and in an hour’s time seen the fire rage every way, and nobody to my sight endeavouring to quench it, . . . I [went next] to Whitehall (with a gentleman with me, who desired to go off from the Tower to see the fire in my boat); and there up to the King’s closet in the Chapel, where people came about me, and I did give them an account [that]dismayed them all, and the word was carried into the King. so I was called for, and did tell the King and Duke of York what I saw; and that unless His Majesty did command houses to be pulled down, nothing could stop the fire. They seemed much troubled, and the King commanded me to go to my Lord Mayor from him, and command him to spare no houses. . . .

I hurried] to [St.] Paul’s; and there walked along Watling Street, as well as I could, every creature coming away laden with goods to save and, here and there, sick people carried away in beds. Extraordinary goods carried in carts and on backs. At last [I] met my Lord Mayor in Cannon Street, like a man spent, with a [handkerchief] about his neck. To the King’s message he cried, like a fainting woman, ‘Lord, what can I do? I am spent: people will not obey me. I have been pulling down houses, but the fire overtakes us faster than we can do it.’ . . . So he left me, and I him, and walked home; seeing people all distracted, and no manner of means used to quench the fire.

The houses, too, so very thick thereabouts, and full of matter for burning, as pitch and tar, in Thames Street; and warehouses of oil and wines and brandy and other things.

On February 24th 1667 Pepys notes in his diary:

Asking Sir R Viner what he thought was the cause of the fire, he tells me that the Baker, son and his daughter did all swear again and again that their Oven was drawn by 10 a-clock at night. That having occasion to light a candle about 12, there was not so much fire in the bakehouse as to light a match for a candle, so as they were fain to go into another place to light it. That about 2 in the morning they felt themselves almost choked with smoke; and rising, did find the fire coming upstairs – so they rose to save themselfs; but that at that time the bavins were not on fire in the yard. So that they are, as they swear, in absolute ignorance how this fire should come – which is a strange thing, that so horrid an effect should have so mean and uncertain a beginning.

Even on February 28th 1667 Pepys notes:

I did within these six days see smoke still remaining of the late fire in the City; and it is strange to think how to this very day I cannot sleep a-night without great terrors of fire; and this very night I could not sleep till almost 2 in the morning through thoughts of fire.

and on March 16th 1667:

The weather is now grown warm again, after much cold weather; and it is observable that within these eight days I did see smoke remaining, coming out of some cellars, from the late great Fire, now above six months since.

and on May 5th:

Sir Jo Robinson … doth tell me of at least six or eight fires within these few days, and continually stories of fires; and real fires there have been in one place or other almost ever since the late great Fire, as if there was a fate over people for fire.

John Evelyn took even less note of the fire during its first hours than had Pepys. His journal entry for the 2nd, the day on which Pudding Lane first erupted, contains only the briefest of mentions. By the following day, however, Evelyn was drawn into the unfolding spectacle:

I had public prayers at home. The fire continuing, after dinner I took coach with my wife and son and went to the Bank side in Southwark, where we beheld that dismal spectacle, the whole city in flames near the water side; all the houses from the Bridge, all Thames street, and upwards towards Cheapside, down to the Three Cranes, were now consumed: and so [we] returned exceeding astonished what would become of the rest.

The fire having continued all this night (if I may call that night which was light as day for 10 miles round about, after a dreadful manner) when conspiring with a fierce eastern wind in a very dry season; I went on foot to the same place, and saw the whole south part of the city burning from Cheapside to the Thames, and all along Cornhill, (for it likewise kindled back against the wind as well as forward), Tower street, Fen-church street, Gracious street, and so along to Bainard’s Castle, and was now taking hold of St. Paul’s church, to which the scaffolds contributed exceedingly. The conflagration was so universal, and the people so astonished, that from the beginning, I know not by what despondency or fate, but crying out and lamentation, running about like distracted creatures without at all attempting to save even their goods; such a strange consternation there was among them, so as it burned both in breadth and length, the churches, public halls, Exchange, hospitals, monuments, and ornaments, leaping after a prodigious manner, from house to house and street to street, at great distances from one the other; for the heat with a long set of fair and warm weather had even ignited the air and prepared the materials to conceive the fire, which devoured after an incredible manner houses, furniture, and everything. Here we saw the Thames covered with goods floating, all the barges and boats laden with what some had time and courage to save, as, on the other, the carts, &c. carrying out to the fields, which for many miles were strewed with moveables of all sorts, and tents erecting to shelter both people and what goods they could get away.

Oh the miserable and calamitous spectacle! such as haply the world had not seen since the foundation of it, nor be outdone till the universal conflagration thereof. All the sky was of a fiery aspect, like the top of a burning oven, and the light seen above 40 miles round about for many nights. God grant mine eyes may never behold the like, who now saw above 10,000 houses all in one flame; the noise and cracking and thunder of people, the fall of towers, houses, and churches, was like an hideous storm, and the air all about so hot and inflamed that at last one was not able to approach it, so that they were forced to stand still and let the flames burn on, which they did for near two miles in length and one in breadth. The clouds also of smoke were dismal and reached upon computation near 50 miles in length. Thus I left it this afternoon burning, a resemblance of Sodom, or the last day. It forcibly called to my mind that passage–non enim hic habemus stabilem civitatum: the ruins resembling the picture of Troy. London was, but is no more! Thus, I returned.

September 4th
The burning still rages, and it was now gotten as far as the Inner Temple; all Fleet street, the Old Bailey, Ludgate hill, Warwick lane, Newgate, Paul’s chain, Watling street, now flaming, and most of it reduced to ashes; the stones of St. Paul’s flew like [grenades], the melting lead running down the streets in a stream, and the very pavements glowing with fiery redness, so as no horse nor man was able to tread on them, and the demolition had stopped all the passages, so that no help could be applied. The eastern wind still more impetuously driving the flames forward. Nothing but the Almighty power of God was able to stop them, for vain was the help of man.

September 5th
It crossed towards White-hall; but oh, the confusion there was then at that Court! It pleased his Majesty to command me among the rest to look after the quenching of Fetter lane end, to preserve if possible that part of Holborn, whilst the rest of the gentlemen took their several posts, some at one part, some at another (for they now began to bestir themselves, and not till now, who hitherto had stood as men intoxicated, with their hands across) and began to consider that nothing was likely to put a stop but the blowing up of so many houses as might make a wider gap than any had yet been made by the ordinary method of pulling them down with engines; this some stout seamen proposed early enough to have saved near the whole city, but this some tenacious and avaricious men, aldermen, &c. would not permit, because their houses must have been [among the first to be levelled]. It was therefore now commanded to be practised, and my concern being particularly for the Hospital of St. Bartholomew near Smithfield, where I had many wounded and sick men, made me the more diligent to promote it; nor was my care for the Savoy less.

It now pleased God by abating the wind, and by the industry of the people, when almost all was lost, infusing a new spirit into them, that the fury of [the fire] began sensibly to abate about noon, so as it came no farther than the Temple westward, nor than the entrance of Smithfield north: but continued all this day and night so impetuous toward Cripplegate and the Tower as made us all despair; it also broke out again in the Temple, but the courage of the multitude persisting, and many houses being blown up, such gaps and desolations were soon made, as with the former three days consumption, [that] the back fire did not so vehemently urge upon the rest as formerly. There was yet no standing near the burning and glowing ruins by near a furlong’s space.

The coal and wood wharfs and magazines of oil, rosin, &c. did infinite mischief, so as the invective which a little before I had dedicated to his Majesty and published, giving warning of what might probably be the issue of suffering those shops to be in the City, was looked on as a prophecy.

The poor inhabitants were dispersed about St. George’s Fields, and Moorfields, as far as Highgate, and several miles in circle, some under tents, some under miserable huts and hovels, many without a rag or any necessary utensils, bed or board, who from delicateness, riches, and easy accommodations in stately and well furnished houses, were now reduced to extremest misery and poverty.

In this calamitous condition I returned with a sad heart to my house, blessing and adoring the distinguishing mercy of God to me and mine, who in the midst of all this ruin was like Lot, in my little Zoar, safe and sound.

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Fires in the 17th Century

Pepys records 15 fires in his diary in addition to the Great Fire.
Most houses in London had timber frames. They were often high and were crammed together with little if any space between. Heating was by fires and lighting was by candles, whether rush, tallow or beeswax. Everywhere there were flammable materials – hay in stables, pitch and tar by the river for ships and boats, wood in yards everywhere, kindling in bakeries such as the one where the Great Fire began.
Fire fighters were not organised and had often little more than buckets and large syringes to spread the water. More effective was gunpowder to force a fire break and grappling irons to pull down thatch or weak timbers.
In January 1673 fire destroyed Pepys own house and in 1684 a later house was saved only by having his neighbour’s house blown up.
One of the results of these fires was that insurance companies began to take some responsibility for property loss and after about 1772 they established fire brigades. Houses rebuilt after the Great Fire were built to stricter regulations which included brick construction and improved water supplies.

_______________________________________________________________________________________________

The fire destroyed about four-fifths of the city, including roughly 13,200 houses, nearly 90 parish churches, and nearly 50 livery company halls–in all an area of more than 430 acres. In the aftermath, Sir Christopher Wren, the great architect, designed and oversaw the construction of 49 new churches, as well as the new St. Paul’s Cathedral. Amazingly, the fire claimed only 16 lives and may actually have saved countless more. After 5th September, the Black Plague, which had ravished London since 1664, abruptly declined, probably because so few of the rats that helped to transmit the disease escaped the flames.

Samuel Pepys is the best known diarist of his day. Although he was a minor public official, his diary contains more details of his private life than of London politics. Still, his accounts of both the Black Death and the Great Fire show that he was less than in awe of persons holding high office.

John Evelyn was an English writer best known for his diary, which, along with that of Samuel Pepys, provides us with our best glimpse into the social world of 17th century London. Evelyn was an ardent Royalist during the English Civil War, and held several minor offices after the Restoration.

Reference

The Truth About the Great Fire of London

The dome of St Paul’s Cathedral above the modern city skyline Credit: Art Kowalsky/Alamy

THE BLAZE IN SEPTEMBER 1666 RAGED FOR DAYS AND DESTROYED FOUR-FIFTHS OF THE CAPITAL, LEAVING BRITAIN’S TRADE, GOVERNMENT AND PROSPERITY IN RUINS

When, early on 2 September 1666, the famous diarist Samuel Pepys heard of a fire in the City of London that had already destroyed 300 houses, he hired a boat to view the scene from the Thames. To his horror he noted: “Everybody endeavouring to remove their goods, and flinging into the river or bringing them into lighters that lay off; poor people staying in their houses as long as till the very fire touched them, and then running into boats, or clambering from one pair of stairs … to another.”

The dramatic conflagration wasn’t the first – nor last – to strike the capital, but the Great Fire of London was one of the most devastating events in the city’s history. Raging from 1am on Sunday 2 September to dawn on Thursday 6 September, it resulted in four-fifths of the City being destroyed, including 13,200 houses and 87 churches. Miraculously, there were only six officially recorded deaths, but the very hub of Britain’s trade, government and prosperity stood in ruins.

Pudding Lane bakery

Seventeenth-century London was a turbulent place: the Great Plague had decimated a third of its population in 1665, while frictions between Protestants and Catholics, as well as England’s recent wars with France and the Netherlands, made its citizens nervous. In the event it was a spark in Thomas Farriner’s bakery in Pudding Lane that kindled the disaster. It’s thought his oven was not fully extinguished overnight and in the early hours wood beside it caught fire. While the baker and his family escaped, their unfortunate maid perished.

The fire could hardly have started in a more dangerous place, close to the river’s warehouses and shops packed with combustibles such as coal, timber, oil and alcohol. It had been a long, dry summer and, with a strong easterly wind fanning the flames, the City’s mainly timber-framed buildings were easily lit, their overhanging jetties and the crowded nature of the narrow streets inviting fire to spread. Yet the Lord Mayor Thomas Bludworth, called to the scene at 4am, dismissed the threat posed by the fire and returned to bed, saying: “A woman might piss it out.”

When Pepys conveyed the order to Bludworth in Cannon Street at noon, the Lord Mayor had changed his earlier tune. “To the King’s message he cried, like a fainting woman, ‘Lord, what can I do? I am spent: people will not obey me. I have been pulling down houses, but the fire overtakes us faster than we can do it.’”

A print of the Great Fire of London showing the ruins of a wall near Ludgate prison, with Old St Paul’s Church and Old Bow Church in the background Credit: Corbis

With no organised fire brigade in London in 1666, people were reliant on buckets and ladders, fire hooks to pull down buildings, and hand-pumped machines to squirt water. The fire rampaged down Fish Street Hill, onto London Bridge, along the Thames and north of Thames Street, destroying warehouses, St Magnus the Martyr Church and Fishmongers’ Hall, the first of dozens of livery company halls to be ruined. Terrified by such large-scale calamity, people began to fear a French or Dutch attack, and armed mobs hunted for foreign or Catholic arsonists. Militia were called in to control the crowds.

Over five days the conflagration spread across 436 acres, ripping through Lombard Street, Cornhill and the Royal Exchange, also Threadneedle Street, Baynard’s Castle, Cheapside, the Sessions House in the Old Bailey, Ludgate and Newgate Gaol (from which prisoners escaped), Temple and Fleet Street. When the fire reached within 300 yards of the Tower of London, all available resources rushed to the scene.

St Paul’s Cathedral, in wooden scaffolding awaiting restoration, was not so lucky; its roof collapsed and thousands of books stored in the crypt fuelled the inferno.

Local heroes

There are tales of heroism: a seaman and a soldier climbed onto the roof of Middle Temple Hall to beat out flames. And tragedy: an 80-year-old watchmaker refused to leave his home in Shoe Lane and it fell on him. But mainly people fled to the fields outside the City; the court packed its bags; even Pepys, hearing the fire was approaching Barking Church near his home, buried his wine and Parmesan cheese in the garden for safekeeping and temporarily absented himself.

During the fire, King Charles rode around the City distributing money to encourage fire-fighting efforts and he ordered supplies to be brought for the homeless thousands camped in the fields. His brother, James Duke of York, took command of operations from the second day and set up posts manned by civilians and soldiers to tackle the fires. From the third day, gunpowder was used to demolish houses more quickly than pulling them down and by that evening the wind had also dropped. The fire fighters gradually gained control.

Diarist John Evelyn records wandering through the eerie aftermath of the disaster, burning the soles of his shoes on smouldering ground and losing his way in the “dismal desert”. The next month an official day of fasting was held and £12,794 collected from across the country to provide aid to London’s newly destitute; many would move away.

The Monument

Much post-fire architecture has since vanished, but gems can still be found like the home (now museum) of the dictionary-compiler Dr Johnson in Gough Square. Visit, too, the Monument (junction of Monument Street and Fish Street Hill) constructed by Wren and Robert Hooke. Completed in 1677, the column is 61 metres tall – the exact distance between it and the site in Pudding Lane where the fire started – and 311 steps lead to a viewing platform offering superb vistas.

The most famous legacies of the rebuilding are Wren’s churches and his masterpiece, St Paul’s Cathedral. Twenty-nine of the 51 churches he designed still stand, remarkable for their striking array of steeples and spires: from the baroque of St Vedast to the Gothic of

St Dunstan-in-the-East, the slender spire of St Martin-within-Ludgate and the ‘wedding cake’ tiers of St Bride.

The ‘tabula rasa’ left by the Great Fire of London may not have been filled by a model renaissance city as proposed by visionaries like Wren, but it inspired some genuine treasures and made the capital an altogether safer city for generations to come.

The Untold Story of the Great Fire of London

The Great Fire of London started accidentally in a bakery, right? That wasn’t the view at the time – many believed it was a terrorist attack and violent reprisals against possible suspects soon followed.

The date 1666 is one burned on to the collective memory of a nation. 

Everyone learns at school that the fire raging for four days in that hot, dry summer began in a bakery in Pudding Lane. 

But a new Channel 4 documentary focuses on the lesser known story of the fire – it sparked a violent backlash against London’s immigrant population, prompted by the widely-held belief at the time that it was an act of arson committed by a foreign power. 

In the days and weeks following the fire, ordinary Londoners – many of whom were displaced and homeless – gave evidence to a parliamentary inquiry swiftly launched to find out what happened.

GREAT FIRE IN NUMBERS…

Destroyed 373 acres of the City

13,200 houses, 84 churches and 44 company halls burned down

Raged from Sunday 2 Sept to Thursday 6 Sept

Fewer than 10 people thought to have died, although some perished in refugee camps

Rebuilding killed more than fire

All those witness statements can be found in the inquiry’s report, a 50-page document held in the capital’s Guildhall. 

It suggests the city on the eve of the fire was one fraught with anxiety and paranoia, says Sue Horth, the documentary’s executive producer, and the finger of blame was pointed at two countries with which England was at war, Netherlands and France. 

“We teach people about Pudding Lane and the hot summer but we don’t say that weeks before the Great Fire, the British Navy sailed into the city of West Terschelling in the Netherlands and set fire to it in an act of diplomatic piracy.

… AND IN QUOTES

‘Among other things, the poor pigeons, I perceive, were loth to leave their houses, but hovered about the windows and balconies, till they some of them burned their wings and fell down’

Samuel Pepys, 2 Sept 1666

‘God grant mine eyes may never behold the like, who now saw above 10,000 houses all in one flame; the noise and cracking and thunder of people, the fall of towers, houses, and churches, was like an hideous storm, and the air all about so hot and inflamed that at last one was not able to approach it’

John Evelyn, 2 Sept 1666

“London was expecting an act of reprisal against the city. It was expecting something bad to happen, not because it was superstitious or frightened, but because the government had done something bad. So when the fire happened, it was a natural and quite sensible suspicion for the people of London to have.” 

As the fire raged, and rumours spread that the French had invaded, angry mobs hunted anyone who appeared to be foreign, says Ms Horth. A Swedish diplomat was lynched. A French woman trying to escape to a refugee camp in Spitalfields had her breast cut off because people thought the baby chicks she carried in her apron were fireballs. 

“London was a city turned to constant night, with the ash cloud and smoke, and the sun couldn’t penetrate, so it was a frightening place to be. Thousands of buildings were razed. People either tried to escape or they fought the fire or they tried to find those responsible.” 

This violence is the untold story of the fire, says Adrian Tinniswood, author of By Permission of Heaven: The True Story of the Great Fire of London.

The fire burned for four days

Most people thought it was an attack by the Dutch, because of the recent atrocity by the Royal Navy under Admiral Robert Holmes. 

“There was cheering in the streets of London when that happened, so when the fire started, people thought it was the Dutch getting their own back. 

“In fact, the fire was caused by a gale blowing across London for four days. It hit London in the early hours of Sunday morning, just as [Thomas] Farriner’s bakery goes up in flames. The gale blew embers and bits of straw across the city and fires broke out all over the place, so people said: ‘This isn’t a fire spreading, it has to be arson’.” 

On the fourth day, when the fire was finally quelled, King Charles II, the newly restored monarch after years of civil war, tried to calm matters by going to a new camp of 100,000 homeless, and declaring the fire was an act of God. 

Shaky confession

The king took a very enlightened view and always believed it was an accident, says Mr Tinniswood. His brother, James, Duke of York, went even further. He rode into the city with his bodyguards and rescued people from the mob, some of whom were in the very act of being hanged on street corners. 

Hubert, in a detail of a wider picture of Catholic conspirators from 1667

The hunt for a foreign scapegoat continued, until one volunteered for the role. At the end of September, the parliamentary committee was appointed to investigate the fire, and a French Protestant watchmaker, Robert Hubert, confessed to having deliberately started the fire at the bakery with 23 conspirators. 

Although his confession seemed to change and flounder under scrutiny, he was tried and hanged. Afterwards, colleagues told the inquiry Hubert had been at sea with them at the time, and the inquiry concluded the fire had indeed been an accident. No-one knows why he confessed. 

Until the 19th Century, the plaque at London’s Monument stated that followers of the Pope were to blame, says Ms Horth, and named Hubert as the fire-starter. It was only after Catholic emancipation in the 19th Century that the government decided the plaque was inflammatory and had those inscriptions removed. 

“This story [about it being an accident] is not necessarily the most helpful for us all to believe,” Ms Horth says. “The truth is that we will never know how it began. We now believe it was an accident but 350 years ago certain people thought differently. There are many perspectives to events and it’s up to us to understand them all.” 

It’s natural the version of events told to youngsters should airbrush the gruesome details, says Meriel Jeater, curator at the Museum of London.

Christopher Wren built St Paul’s after the fire

“The traditional view taught in schools is that it all happened as a happily-ever-after sort of story. It was a terrible disaster, but not many people died, we rebuilt the city in brick so it was fireproof, and isn’t St Paul’s pretty? 

“But the more you investigate, you realise it wasn’t all like that. The dark side was that the fire burst on to the surface religious tension and paranoia about national security.” 

It’s a tale with echoes today, says Ms Jeater. “When I was curating the exhibition, it wasn’t long after the 7/7 bombings and when I was reading about the reactions against Catholics and the Dutch, it struck me that there were a lot of similarities with the backlash against Muslim people after the bombing. A lot of suspicion about people living in London. 

“It’s different people and different events, but I think human nature is very similar.”

3 Myths About The Great Fire Of London You Probably Believe

The Great Fire of London is a very well-known disaster, and has been researched and written about extensively ever since 1666. However, there are still some enduring myths and misconceptions that the Museum of London’s Fire! Fire! exhibition (May 2016 – April 2017) aimed to tackle.

Myth #1: The Great Fire stopped the Great Plague

This is the myth that I hear people talking about most often. They may have read it in a children’s book or heard it at school. The idea is that there was a silver lining to the tragedy of the fire, as it ended the great plague that swept the city from 1665-66. This was the last major outbreak of the bubonic plague in London, and killed 100,000 Londoners- about 20% of the city’s population. The fire is supposed to have wiped out London’s rats and fleas that spread the plague and burned down the insanitary houses which were a breeding ground for the disease. If anyone asks you about this, you can tell them that it’s not true. Here’s why:

▪ The Great Fire only burnt about a quarter of the urban metropolis so it could not have purged the plague from the whole city.

▪ Though the outside walls of houses rebuilt after the fire had to be built from brick, there were no major improvements to hygiene and sanitation afterwards.

▪ Many of the areas that were worst affected by the plague, such as Whitechapel, Clerkenwell and Southwark, were not destroyed by the fire.

▪ The numbers of people dying from plague were already in decline from the winter of 1665 onwards.

▪ People continued to die from plague in London after the Great Fire was over.

This myth seems to have grown up because the two catastrophes were so close together and because the Great Plague of 1665-66 was the last major outbreak of the disease in this country. We are still not sure why the plague did not return to our shores after it faded out in the 1670s but it wasn’t due to London’s 1666 fire.

Myth #2: The Great Fire spread due to the thatched roofs of London’s houses

In fact, thatch had been banned within the City of London by building regulations dating back to 1189. These rules were reinforced after a terrible fire in 1212 when an estimated 3000 people died. Shortly after this fire, the City authorities ruled that all new houses had to be roofed with tiles, shingles or boards. Any existing roofs with thatch had to be plastered. The medieval regulations appear to have been successful in preventing large-scale fires. John Stow, in his 1598 Survey of London said ‘since which time [referring to introduction of the rules], thanks be given to God, there hath not happened the like often consuming fires in this city as afore.’

By 1666, the vast majority of houses in the City would have been tiled. Even if there were a small number of thatched buildings lurking in the densely-packed streets, they were not in significant numbers to be noted as a cause of the Great Fire by 17th-century authors. The London Gazette and Rege Sincera’s Observations both Historical and Moral upon the Burning of London both mention timber buildings as a problem but not thatch. Sincera wrote about ‘ the weakness of the buildings, which were almost all of wood, which by age was grown as dry as a chip’. The London Gazette’s reporting of the disaster says it began ‘in a quarter of Town so close built with wooden pitched houses’.

How many people died during the Great Fire?

We don’t know for sure. Amazingly, fewer than ten deaths were recorded. One of the people killed was 80-year-old watchmaker Paul Lowell. He refused to leave his house on Shoe Lane even though his son & friends begged him to go. His bones & keys were found in the ruins.

Myth #3: London was rebuilt in brick & stone thanks to the Great Fire

While it is true that the February 1667 Rebuilding Act stated that ‘all the outsides of all Buildings in and about the said Citty be henceforth made of Bricke or Stone’ there were many brick buildings in London beforehand. In fact, records show that there were even brick houses on Pudding Lane, that notorious street where the fire began, before 1666.

Royal proclamations dating back over 60 years demanded that new buildings be built from brick. In March 1605 James I said that no one was to build a new house in London unless it was made from brick or stone because he wanted to reserve the country’s timber for the navy’s ships. Uptake was slow, however, and later proclamations repeated this demand several times, such as in October 1607, when King James stated that new brick or stone buildings would ‘both adorne and beautifie his said City, and be lesse subject to danger of fire’.

As these rules only applied to new houses, and appear to have only been sporadically obeyed, the Great Fire became the opportunity to enforce, re-state and refine existing rules. The disaster affected such a large area that thousands of brick houses had to be built to replace those that had been destroyed. This has left us with a false impression that the fire introduced brick to London.

The Great Fire of London Was Blamed on Religious Terrorism

Why scores of Londoners thought the fire of 1666 was all part of a nefarious Catholic conspiracy

Oil painting of the Great Fire, seen from Newgate. ((C) Museum of London)

The rumors spread faster than the blaze that engulfed London over five days in September 1666: that the fire raging through the city’s dense heart was no accident – it was deliberate arson, an act of terror, the start of a battle. England was at war with both the Dutch and the French, after all. The fire was a “softening” of the city ahead of an invasion, or they were already here, whoever “they” were. Or maybe it was the Catholics, who’d long plotted the downfall of the Protestant nation.

Londoners responded in kind.

Before the flames were out, a Dutch baker was dragged from his bakery while an angry mob tore it apart. A Swedish diplomat was nearly hung, saved only by the Duke of York who happened to see him and demand he be let down. A blacksmith “felled” a Frenchman in the street with a vicious blow with an iron bar; a witness recalled seeing his “innocent blood flowing in a plentiful stream down his ankles”. A French woman’s breasts were cut off by Londoners who thought the chicks she carried in her apron were incendiaries. Another Frenchman was nearly dismembered by a mob that thought that he was carrying a chest of bombs; the bombs were tennis balls.

“The need to blame somebody was very, very strong,” attests Adrian Tinniswood, author of By Permission of Heaven: The Story of the Great Fire. The Londoners felt that “It can’t have been an accident, it can’t be God visiting this upon us, especially after the plague, this has to be an act of war.”

As far as we know, it wasn’t. The fire started in the early hours of the morning of September 2 on Pudding Lane in the bakery of Thomas Farriner. Pudding Lane was (and still is) located in the centre of the City of London, the medieval city of around one square mile ringed by ancient Roman walls and gates and rivers now covered and forgotten. Greater London built up around these walls in the years after the Romans left in the 4th century, sprawling out in all directions, but the City of London remained (and still remains) its own entity, with its own elected Mayor and home to around 80,000 people in 1666. That number would have been higher, but the Black Plague had killed roughly 15 percent of the entire city’s population the previous year. 

Farriner was a maker of hard tack, the dry but durable biscuits that fed the King’s Navy; he’d closed for business on Saturday, September 1, at around 8 or 9 that night, extinguishing the fire in his oven. His daughter, Hanna, then 23, checked the kitchen at around midnight, making sure the oven was cold, then headed to bed. An hour later, the ground floor of the building was filled with smoke. The Farriners’ manservant, Teagh, raised the alarm, climbing to the upper floors where Thomas, Hanna, and their maid slept. Thomas, Hanna, and Teagh squeezed out of a window and scrambled along the gutter to a neighbor’s window. The maid, whose name remains unknown, did not and was the first to die in the fire.  

At first, few were overly concerned about the fire. London was a cramped, overcrowded city lighted by candles and fireplaces. Buildings were largely made of wood; fires were common. The last major fire was in 1633, destroying 42 buildings at the northern end of London Bridge and 80 on Thames Street, but there were smaller fires all the time. The City of London’s Lord Mayor at the time, Sir Thomas Bloodworth, will ever be remembered as the man who declared that the 1666 fire was so small, “a woman might piss it out”. But Bloodworth, described by diarist Samuel Pepys as a “silly man”, wasn’t the only one to underestimate the fire: Pepys himself was woken at 3 that morning by his maid, but when he saw that the fire still seemed to be on the next street over, went back to sleep until 7. The London Gazette, the city’s twice-weekly newspaper, ran a small item about the fire in its Monday edition, among gossip about the Prince of Saxe’s unconsummated marriage to the Princess of Denmark and news of a storm in the English Channel.

A second report on the fire that week, however, was not forthcoming. Within hours of printing Monday’s paper, the Gazette’s press burned to the ground. By the time the newspaper had hit the streets, Londoners were very much aware that the fire that the Gazette reported “continues still with great violence” had yet to abate.

Several factors contributed to the fire’s slow but unstoppable spread: Many of the residents of Pudding Lane were asleep when the fire began and slow to react, not that they could have done much beyond throw buckets of whatever liquid – beer, milk, urine, water – was on hand. A hot summer had left London parched, its timber and plaster buildings like well-dried kindling. These buildings were so close together that people on opposite sides of the narrow, filthy streets could reach out their windows and shake hands. And because London was the manufacturing and trade engine of England, these buildings were also packed with flammable goods – rope, pitch, flour, brandy and wool.

But by Monday evening, Londoners began to suspect that this fire was no accident. The fire itself was behaving suspiciously; it would be subdued, only to break out somewhere else, as far as 200 yards away. This led people to believe that the fire was being intentionally set, although the real cause was an unusually strong wind that was picking up embers and depositing them all over the city.

“This wind blowing from the east was forcing the fire across the city much quicker than people were expecting,” explains Meriel Jeater, curator of the Museum of London’s “Fire! Fire! Exhibition,” commemorating the 350th anniversary of the fire. Sparks would fly up and set fire to whatever they landed on. “It seemed that suddenly, another building was on fire and it was, ‘Why did that happen?’ They didn’t necessarily think there was spark involved, or another natural cause… England was at war, so it was perhaps natural to assume that there might have been some element of foreign attack to it.”

Embers and wind didn’t feel like a satisfying or likely answer, so Londoners started to feel around for someone to blame. And they found them.

This map shows the spread of the Great Fire. ((C) Museum of London)
Samuel Rolle’s book about the Great Fire revealed the extent of the emotional and financial toll on Londoners ((C) Museum of London)
17th-century glass found beneath burnt debris in the Great Fire ((C) Museum of London)

At the time, London was the third largest city in the Western world, behind Constantinople and Paris, and roughly 30 times larger than any other English town. And it was international, with trade links all over the world, including countries that it was at war with, Holland and France, and those it wasn’t entirely comfortable with, including Spain. London was also a refuge for foreign Protestants fleeing persecution in their majority Catholic homelands, including the Flemish and French Huguenots.

That people believed that the city was under attack, that the fire was the plot of either the Dutch or the French, was logical, not paranoia. The English had just burnt the Dutch port city of West-Terschelling to the ground just two weeks earlier. As soon as the fire broke out, Dutch and French immigrants were immediately under suspicion; as the fire burned, the English authorities stopped and interrogated foreigners at ports. More troubling, however, was that Londoners began to take vengeance into their own hands, says Tinniswood. “You’re not looking at a population that can distinguish between a Dutchman, a Frenchman, a Spaniard, a Swede. If you’re not English, good enough.”

 “The rumors reach a kind of crescendo on the Wednesday night when the fire is subsiding and then breaks out just around Fleet Street,” says Tinniswood. Homeless Londoners fleeing the fire were camped in the fields around the City. A rumor went up that the French were invading the city, then the cry: “Arms, arms, arms!”

“They’re traumatized, they’re bruised, and they all, hundreds and thousands of them, they take up sticks and come pouring into the city,” says Tinniswood. “It’s very real… A lot of what the authorities are doing is trying to damp down that sort of panic.”

But extinguishing the rumors proved almost as difficult as putting out the fire itself. Rumors traveled fast, for one thing: “The streets are full of people, moving their goods… They’re having to evacuate two, three, four times,” Tinniswood explains, and with each move, they’re out in the street, passing information. Compounding the problem was that there were few official ways able to contradict the rumors – not only had the newspaper’s printing press burned down, but so too did the post office. Charles II and his courtiers maintained that the fire was an accident, and though they were themselves involved in fighting the fire on the streets, there was only so much they could do to also stop the misinformation spreading. Says Tinniswood, “There’s no TV, no radio, no press, things are spread by word of mouth, and that means there must have been a thousand different rumors. But that’s the point of it: nobody knew.”

Several people judged to be foreigners were hurt during Wednesday’s riot; contemporaries were surprised that no one had been killed. The next day, Charles II issued an order, posted in places around the city not on fire, that people should “attend the business of quenching the fire” and nothing else, noting that there were enough soldiers to protect the city should the French actually attack, and explicitly stating that the fire was an act of God, not a “Papist plot”. Whether or not anyone believed him was another issue: Charles II had only been restored to his throne in 1660, 11 years after his father, Charles I, was beheaded by Oliver Cromwell’s Parliamentarian forces. The City of London had sided with the Parliamentarians; six years later, Londoners still didn’t entirely trust their monarch.

The fire finally stopped on the morning of September 6. Official records put the number of deaths as fewer than 10, although Tinniswood and Jeater both believe that number was higher, probably more like 50. It’s still a surprisingly small number, given the huge amount of property damage: 80 percent of the city within the walls had burned, some 87 churches and 13,200 homes were destroyed, leaving 70,000 to 80,000 people homeless. The total financial loss was in the region of £9.9 million, at a time when the annual income of the city was put at only £12,000.

On September 25, 1666, the government set up a committee to investigate the fire, hearing testimony from dozens of people about what they saw and heard. Many were compelled to come forward with “suspicious” stories. The report was given to Parliament on January 22, 1667, but excerpts from the proceedings transcripts were leaked to the public, published in a pamphlet. By this time, just a few months after the fire, the narrative had changed. Demonstrably, the Dutch and the French hadn’t invaded, so blaming a foreign power was no longer plausible. But the people still wanted someone to blame, so they settled on the Catholics.

“After the fire, there seems be a lot of paranoia that is was a Catholic plot, that Catholics in London would conspire with Catholics abroad and force the Protestant population to convert to Catholicism,” Jeater explains. The struggle between Catholicism and Protestantism in England had been long and bloody, and neither side was above what amounted to terrorism: The Gunpowder Plot of 1605 was, after all, an English Catholic plot to assassinate James I.

The official report issued to Parliament rejected much of the testimony as unbelievable – one committee member called the allegations “very frivolous”, and the conclusion declared there was no evidence “to prove it to be a general design of wicked agents, Papists or Frenchmen, to burn the city”. It didn’t matter: The leaked excerpts did much to solidify the story that the fire was the work of shadowy Catholic agents. For example:

William Tisdale informs, That he being about the beginning of July at the Greyhound in St. Martins, with one Fitz Harris an Irish Papist, heard him say, ‘There would be a sad Desolation in September, in November a worse, in December all would be united into one.’ Whereupon he asked him, ‘where this Desolation would be?’ He answered, ‘In London.’

Or

Mr. Light of Ratcliff, having some discourse with Mr. Longhorn of the Middle-Temple, Barrister, [reputed a zealous Papist] about February 15 last, after some discourse in disputation about Religion, he took him by the hand, and said to him, ‘You expect great things in Sixty Six, and think that Rome will be destroyed, but what if it be London?’

“You’ve got hundreds of tales like that: With hindsight, people are saying that guy said something like, ‘London better look out’,” said Tinniswood. “It’s that kind of level, it’s that vague.”

What’s even more confusing is that by the time the testimonies were leaked, someone had already confessed to and been hung for the crime of starting the fire. Robert Hubert. a 26-year-old watchmaker’s son from Rouen, France, had been stopped at Romford, in Essex, trying to make it to the east coast ports. He was brought in for questioning and bizarrely, told authorities that he’d set the fire, that he was part of a gang, that it was all a French plot. He was indicted on felony charges, transported back to London under heavy guard and installed at the White Lion Gaol in Southwark, the City’s gaols having burned down.

In October 1666, he was brought to trial at the Old Bailey. There, Hubert’s story twisted and turned – the number of people in his gang went from 24 to just four; he’d said he’d started it in Westminster, then later, after spending some time in jail, said the bakery at Pudding Lane; other evidence suggested that he hadn’t even been in London when the fire started; Hubert claimed to be a Catholic, but everyone who knew him said he was a Protestant and a Hugeunot. The presiding Lord Chief Justice declared Hubert’s confession so “disjointed” he couldn’t possibly believe him guilty. And yet, Hubert insisted that he’d set the fire. On that evidence, the strength of his own conviction that he had done it, Hubert was found guilty and sentenced to death. He was hung at Tyburn on October 29, 1666.

Why Hubert said he did it remains unclear, although there is a significant body of literature on why people confess to things they couldn’t possibly have done. Officials were in the strange position of trying to prove he hadn’t done what he said he did, but Hubert was adamant – and everyone else simply thought he was, to put it in contemporary terms, mad. The Earl of Clarendon, in his memoirs, described Hubert as a “poor distracted wretch, weary of his life, and chose to part with it this way” – in other words, suicide by confession.

Having someone to blame was certainly better than the alternative being preached from the city’s remaining pulpits: That the fire was God’s vengeance on a sinful city. They’d even named a particular sin – because the fire started at a bakery on Pudding Lane and ended at Pie Corner, opportunistic preachers took the line that Londoners were gluttonous reprobates who needed to repent now. Pie Corner is still marked with a statue of a plump golden boy, formerly known as the Fat Boy, which was intended as a reminder of London’s sinning ways.

The Catholic conspiracy story persisted for years: In 1681, the local ward erected a plaque on the site of the Pudding Lane bakery reading, “Here by the permission of Heaven, Hell broke loose upon this Protestant city from the malicious hearts of barbarous Papists, by the hand of their agent Hubert, who confessed…”. The plaque remained in place until the middle of the 18th century, when it was removed not because people had had a change of heart, but because visitors stopping to read the plaque were causing a traffic hazard. The plaque, which appears to have cracked in half, is on display at the Fire! Fire! exhibition. Also in 1681, a final line was added to the north-face inscription on the public monument to the fire: “But Popish frenzy, which wrought such horrors, is not yet quenched.” The words weren’t removed until 1830, with the Catholic Emancipation Act that lifted restrictions on practicing Catholics.

“Whenever there is a new bout of anti-Catholic sentiment, everybody harks back to the fire,” says Tinniswood. And 1681 was a big year for anti-Catholic rhetoric, prompted in part by the dragonnades in France that forced French Protestants to convert to Catholicism and, closer to home, by the so-called “Popish Plot,” a fictitious Catholic conspiracy to assassinate Charles II entirely invented by a former Church of England curate whose false claims resulted in the executions of as many as 35 innocent people.

In the immediate aftermath of the fire of 1666, London was a smoking ruin, smoldering with suspicion and religious hatred and xenophobia. And yet within three years, the city had rebuilt. Bigotry and xenophobia subsided – immigrants remained and rebuilt, more immigrants joined them later.

But that need to blame, often the person last through the door or the person whose faith is different, never really goes away. “The outsider is to blame, they are to blame, they are attacking us, we’ve got to stop them – that kind of rhetoric is sadly is very obvious… and everywhere at the moment, and it’s the same thing, just as ill-founded,” Tinniswood said, continuing, “There is still a sense that we need to blame. We need to blame them, whoever they are.”

Reference

The Great Rabbit Hoax

In 1726, Mary Toft gave birth to rabbits. The case became a test of the doctors’ scientific principles.

‘Rabbet’, etching, 18th century. Wellcome Images

On a Friday two weeks before Christmas 1726 news reached Exeter of a curious theatrical performance which had taken place in London the previous Saturday night, on 10 December. An Exeter newspaper reported that, at the end of the main play at the Lincoln’s Inn Fields theatre, the audience witnessed an unexpected short entertainment called ‘Harlequin the Sorcerer’:

Harlequin, assisted by a Man Midwife, was delivered of 4 Rabbits, which ran about the Stage, and raised such a Laughter as perhaps has not been heard upon any other Occasion.

Whether these four rabbits were played by actors in costumes, took the form of some kind of model or puppet, or were actual living animals skipping about the London stage was not entirely clear from the report. But the hilarity of the audience was palpable: this performance of a sorcerer giving birth to rabbits provoked perhaps the loudest laughter ever to be heard in a London theatre.

Everyone at that performance understood the joke. London had been captivated by rabbit births since October, when a newspaper reported that three women working in a field in Surrey had chased a rabbit:

One of the Women has since, by the help of a Man Midwife, been delivered of something in the Form of a dissected Rabit.

Newspaper reports quickly became ever more detailed: the ‘poor Woman’ lived in Godalming, near Guildford, and was married with two children; the midwife was the ‘eminent’ John Howard and he was in contact with the Royal Society to discuss this ‘strange but well attested piece of News’. Several rabbit parts continued to appear but, during keen investigation by several doctors and other learned men, doubts emerged. By early December, the British Journal scoffed, ‘A fine Story!’ The hoax was revealed on 5 December, followed fast by Harlequin’s rabbit births on the stage at Lincoln’s Inn Fields. As the Exeter report made clear, the theatrical performance was ‘a Representation ridiculing the aforesaid Imposture’. But it also ridiculed those who had believed in the rabbit births in the first place. The play was part of a wave of print, poems and engravings that relished the evident absurdity of a woman giving birth to rabbits, as well as the credulity of the group of learned men who believed that she had.

Women’s imaginations

The woman at the centre of this affair was Mary Toft. Born in 1703, Mary Denyer was 17 when she married the 18-year-old Joshua Toft. She had already given birth to two children: Ann had died the year she was born but James was aged two and Mary was pregnant with a third child when the rabbit births began in 1726. Like other poor women, Mary made shift with seasonal agricultural work and, according to her testimony, the rabbit birth affair was triggered as she was weeding in a field. In several accounts, Mary explained that she had been pregnant when she saw and chased a rabbit that got away. She continued to think about the rabbit until, a short while later, she started to bleed and pass unidentified and fleshy parts. Toft appears to have experienced a prolonged and painful miscarriage and her account of this is moving and unique. It was only some time after this miscarriage that the rabbit parts began to appear. Her account – that something she had seen, desired but failed to capture had disrupted the normal course of a pregnancy and transformed the form of the unborn child within her – made the entire story both believable and captivating. Toft knew that this account might convince her audience. Later questioned about the affair, she began her first statement: ‘I was delivered of a true monstrous birth.’

Mary Toft of Godelman the pretended rabbit breeder’, mezzotint by J. Faber, c.1726. Wellcome Images.

An ancient medical theory, found in the works of Aristotle, Galen and Pliny, supposed that what a woman saw or felt when pregnant might make a literal impression on her mind, and that this could be imprinted upon her foetus. In the case of Mary Toft, the process was still going on. Her repeated rabbit births looked like the first live evidence that the pregnant woman’s imagination was so powerful as to transform a human foetus into a monster. As Nathaniel St André, the Swiss émigré doctor and surgeon and anatomist to George I’s Royal Household, put it, he visited Toft in order to be, ‘convinced personally of a Fact of which there was no Instance in Nature’. He meticulously described his findings in his pamphlet account, in which he was sure to separate himself from those ‘flying Reports and Conjectures’ already circulating. Here in Surrey, the classical theory of the maternal imagination appeared to have moved from hypothesis to observable scientific fact.

Scrupulous examination

The chance of a live performance of a monstrous birth generated considerable urgency; a steady stream of highly regarded doctors flowed to see Toft in Guildford. There they each witnessed deliveries of real animal parts. St André was there for the birth of the skinned torso of a rabbit, with the heart and lungs still intact. Cyriacus Ahlers, a German surgeon attached to George I’s German household, delivered the hind part of a skinned rabbit which bore both flesh and bones. Hearing reports of this, the physician and midwife Richard Manningham, who had been knighted in 1722, stayed up until the early hours waiting for his companion to take him to Guildford so he could see for himself. Manningham delivered a piece that he subsequently described as ‘like a piece of Hog’s Bladder’. Instead of immediately declaring the affair a fraud, he placed the piece between the pages of his pocket book and took it to London, where he would later show his fellow doctors. One of these men was James Douglas, a Scottish anatomist, midwife and member of the Royal College of Physicians. Douglas was to receive a note about the case from St André, written at midnight on 29 November:

I have brought the Woman from Guildford to the Bagnio in Leicester fields. She now has a Live Rabbit in her and I Expect shortly a Delivery: you will infinitely oblige me to deliver her your Self.

Douglas responded immediately and would arrive at the bagnio shortly afterwards.

Empirical observation, a hallmark of early modern science, was a principal tool of these doctors. The signs of pregnancy in Mary’s body were carefully scrutinised. A white substance emitting from her breast was checked to see if she was lactating. The animal parts that were taken from her body were tested to assess whether they had gestated within her body or had been placed there by human hand. Her swollen belly was examined and she underwent several vaginal examinations. The efforts undertaken by these men suggest that they took seriously the possibility of a monstrous birth.

It is striking, then, that none of the doctors discussed the theory of the maternal imagination as the cause of what they witnessed. Most were highly cautious and sceptical throughout. In his book, written after the hoax was exposed, Ahlers was careful to proclaim that he was the first doctor whose suspicions were aroused in Guildford. Nonetheless, the book closed with his five-page ‘Anatomical Description of the several Parts of the Sixteenth Rabbet’, which he took to show the king. Manningham retrospectively claimed that he had always suspected fraud, though he, too, took that supposed hog’s bladder back to London for verification.

The considerable efforts of these doctors can be explained partly by professional ambition. If this was a case of a genuine monstrous birth, they each wanted to be involved. This clearly drove St André, who, in claiming to several correspondents – including Sir Hans Sloane, president of the Royal College of Physicians and secretary of the Royal Society – that he had brought Mary Toft to London, sought out professional esteem and better connections. In turn, each of the doctors entered the newly dynamic 18th-century public sphere through print, making their case, giving their judgement and establishing their public status.

Cunicularii or the Wise men of Godliman in consultation, engraving by William Hogarth, 1726. Wellcome Images.

More important than the opportunity for professional advancement was the occupation of scientific enquiry. The strenuous efforts at investigation by these doctors showed not that they believed Toft, but instead that they were so committed to scientific examination of the available evidence that they would only denounce the monstrous births with certain proof. As James Douglas commented of his own motivation in investigating the case, his aim was:

to come at a speedy Discovery of the Imposture, by plain, sensible, and undeniable Facts, of which all the World might be Judges, and not Physicians and Anatomists only, who were capable of determining the Matter upon other Principles.

In Guildford and then in London, a group of trained medical men and respectable gentleman scholars debated the evidence before them. The rooms of the bagnio were put to good use, with Mary kept in a lodging room while the men would gather in the nearby dining room to view some of the animal parts. Historians have often viewed Mary Toft’s monstrous births as an example of the credulity of early-18th-century doctors and their ill-informed theories about conception and reproduction. Yet most of their efforts were not intended to uncover the truth of the monstrous births. Instead, in the context of the Scientific Revolution and the burgeoning medical fields on reproduction and foetal development, they went to considerable lengths to discern the limits of falsehood. Their treatment of Toft was disdainful and often cruel, but their attempts at scrupulous investigation exemplify the development of medical practice.

Royal curiosity

News of the case had reached the Royal Court by the middle of November. St André was accompanied to Guildford on 15 November by Samuel Molyneux, secretary to the Prince of Wales. Ahlers arrived in Guildford on 20 November at the behest, he wrote, of the king himself. He would return to show him the rabbit parts. St André, who claimed to have written to Richard Manningham on the suggestion of the king, also suggested that he had displayed animal parts to His Majesty. George I examining those that had exited Mary Toft’s body is one of the most remarkable scenes of this whole affair. This royal curiosity was most likely what propelled Mary Toft from Guildford to London. When, late on 29 November, Mary Toft was brought to the Leicester Square bagnio, one newspaper reported that this was ‘by Order of his Majesty’. The king’s stake in the affair was thus publicly declared. As long as Mary Toft went on producing rabbits, this was a legitimate interest in something that was potentially medically groundbreaking. But, if the rabbit births were revealed to be nothing more than a trick, this royal interest risked appearing faintly ridiculous. Just days after the king had supposedly brought Mary Toft to London, the porter at the bagnio reported that her family had asked him to smuggle in dead rabbits through the back door. The case in which George I had made a very public investment promptly crumbled.

The hoax will out

Initial interest in the case was driven by curiosity, professional ambition and medical enquiry among the doctors. When it was revealed that the rabbits were not a genuine monstrous birth, though, different questions were raised. If Mary Toft had not gestated rabbits, then what had happened and why? Efforts to uncover the truth of the hoax redoubled. Press interest intensified and the tone of the reports changed. If Mary Toft had once been described as the ‘poor’ woman, she now became a ‘wicked’ woman. She was taken into custody, aggressively questioned and subject to a criminal prosecution against her and the Guildford doctor, John Howard. Over night the case transformed from a medical to a political affair. Though the evidence does not show who initiated the prosecution, it is clear that those in positions of power – representatives of the state and the monarchy – were the protagonists.

One of the outstanding puzzles of the affair is why Mary Toft was subject to a criminal prosecution. Toft was accused of an ‘Abominable Cheat & Imposture’. In other words, she was prosecuted for pretending to have given birth to rabbits.

Yet no one had been defrauded of any money and no one – save the rabbits – had been harmed. A prosecution in the Westminster Quarter Sessions seems to be the proverbial sledgehammer to crack a nut. The public embarrassment of the king was surely one important factor and there is evidence that the man who prosecuted the case – the MP Thomas Clarges – was directly instructed by the king. But Clarges did not work alone; he was flanked by several men with government posts, royal court positions and active involvement in the criminal justice system. In acting against Mary Toft, these men were shoring up their authority at precisely the moment that it appeared to be under attack.

The Doctors in Labour; or a New Whim Wham from Guildford, engraving, 1726. Wellcome Images.

Mary Toft’s rabbits linked her directly to perceived threats to authority in the early 18th century, among them longstanding protests on the property of wealthy landowners. During the 1720s, direct social conflict had emerged within royal forests, originating in the area around the county borders between Berkshire, Hampshire and Surrey. Known to contemporaries as the ‘Blacks’ because they acted in disguise, often by blackening their faces, these groups damaged or stole property, including buildings and animals. Deer were a common target for these poachers, though other animals such as fish were also taken. Rabbits had been a focus for several protests: escaping from their warrens to wreck the land and livelihood of nearby tenants and freeholders, rabbits became a symbol of the exploitative and unchecked power of the landed elite. Rabbits were also a focus for social tensions because, as the prices of wool and grain declined between 1660 and 1750, rabbit farming had replaced dairy and arable farming in the sandy areas suited to warrens. The decline of the clothing trade in some areas went hand in hand with the growth of commercial warrening.

Godalming, Mary Toft’s home town, stood at the heart of this area. It was a particularly poor area of Surrey and had been damaged by the depression in the clothing industry. Though it escaped the protests seen in other places, there is evidence that the wider political unrest reached Godalming. Mary Toft’s husband, Joshua, was an unskilled clothworker. In the summer of 1726, he appeared at the Surrey Quarter Sessions alongside 37 other men charged ‘for a trespass in entering the ground or pond of James Stringer … with an intent to steale fish’. As Joshua Toft was facing prosecution for trespass and an attempt to steal fish, his wife was preparing to give birth to rabbits. Within a few short months, husband and wife had each been brought before the courts for disruptive and provocative behaviour that centred on problematic animals.

Perhaps the most unsettling of the couple was the woman whose force of mind had allowed her to use her own body to mysteriously produce those animals. Suspicions about women’s unbounded desire and unruly bodies underpinned the theory of the maternal imagination. The harsh treatment meted out to Toft by the stream of male doctors and elite observers also sprang partly from an undercurrent of misogyny, as did the vitriolic press coverage. Mary Toft represented not just potential unrest on the part of the poor but a potential threat to the social order: the conscious actions of a thinking woman.

Performance

By the time that Harlequin the Sorcerer took to the boards to deliver his rabbits, Mary Toft had been denigrated for her own fraudulent performance. Whether or not she had any choice in playing this role is difficult to judge. We do know that the performance was watched by crowds of people. The evidence describes the original scene in her home town of Godalming as one busy with family and neighbours, particularly women. Moved to nearby Guildford, ‘most of the People’ came to see her installed in the building of the local doctor, John Howard. While in the Leicester Square bagnio in London, not only was she kept under constant surveillance by the doctors and visited by a stream of prominent men investigating the case, it was reported that ‘Every creature in town, both men and women’ came to look. Finally, once incarcerated in the Westminster house of correction and awaiting the outcome of the criminal prosecution against her, one newspaper reported on ‘the infinite Crowds of People that resort to see her’.

Vicious prurience characterised this public fascination. And there is no doubt that this alone could sell newspapers. Yet the evidence suggests something even more sinister. Public opinion was being manipulated by those behind the prosecution. In the end, the public and the prosecutors were thwarted; the criminal case against both Mary Toft and John Howard was dropped because no criminal act could be proven. Marginal and lacking in formal power due to both her social position and gender, Mary Toft was nevertheless a profoundly unsettling figure for those who wished to preserve the early 18th-century status quo.

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