The Real Story: Plague, Part 1

OK, let’s talk plague!  Did I tell you the truth about plague in Magruder’s?  Did I lie?   

Let’s put it like this; did you ever hear the one about the “Maneating Chicken,” who is eventually revealed to in fact be, “a man, eating chicken”?  It wasn’t a lie!  It just wasn’t exactly true, either.  My book is a lot like that.  On the one hand, there's a lot of truth in there... on the other my nose is about as long as this guy's...

 Reproduction of the uniform of a 17th-century plague doctor. The "beak" contained things like lemon balm, cloves, myrrh, rose petals and even laudanum, to protect the doctor from the "miasma" (bad air) that supposedly caused plague.

Reproduction of the uniform of a 17th-century plague doctor. The "beak" contained things like lemon balm, cloves, myrrh, rose petals and even laudanum, to protect the doctor from the "miasma" (bad air) that supposedly caused plague.

One way in which I stretched the truth relates to the course of the illness.  What was the real timespan between when people were exposed and when they were carted off to the next world?

In the Middle Ages, overall public health was so poor that it was agonizingly common for people to contract plague and die extremely quickly.  And some of the "cures" they attempted, such as drinking acid, only served to help them along. In 1350, Giovanni Boccaccio wrote The Decameron, which is a collection of stories about life during the Black Death.  He says,

Such was the cruelty of Heaven, and perhaps of men, that between March and July following, according to authentic reckonings, upwards of a hundred thousand souls perished in the city only…What numbers of both sexes, in the prime and vigor of youth, whom in the morning neither Galen, Hippocrates, nor Esculapius himself, would have denied to be in perfect health, breakfasted in the morning with their living friends, and supped at night with their departed friends in the other world! [emphasis mine]

By the turn of the 20th century, it would have been extremely unlikely to die of plague that fast.  According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, these days it takes between 2 and 6 days from the point of infection (usually a flea bite) for someone to become ill.  In the (today, rare) cases where a person contracts airborne plague from another person, that shrinks to 1 to 3 days.  That's actually fairly close to the infection-to-illness timeline I used in Magruder's. What I sped up was the illness-to-death aspect of the timeline... because come on, who wants to sit around and wait for that nonsense? Not this writer.

In what the CDC describes as the "pre-antibiotic era," the mortality rate for plague was about 66 percent.  One part of Magruder's that I do stand behind, factually speaking, is the idea that certain characters manage to not get sick.  This was true even in the hygiene-challenged Dark Ages.  Boccaccio writes of entire families being wiped out except for one member, with no clear explanation as to why.  (Imagine being that person!!)

In any case, I freely admit that my portrait of people dropping pretty literally "like files," is more poetry than prose, and more Boccaccio than CDC.  But when's the last time you took a CDC report to the beach with you?  Yeah, I thought so!  

(Please come back for more "real story" posts about plague, such as how Hawaiian plague-fighters nearly burned down the city of Honolulu in 1900.)