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The Newgate Calendar - APPENDIX VIII


The Jail Fever

THIS malignant distemper was fatal and frequent in old Newgate and other county jails in different parts of England.

The assize held at Oxford in the year 1577, called the "Black Assize," was a dreadful instance of the deadly effects of the jail fever. The judges, jury, witnesses, nay, in fact every person, except the prisoners, women and chiLdren, in court were killed by a foul air, which at first was thought to have arisen out of the bowels of the earth; but that great philosopher, Lord Bacon, proved it to have come from the prisoners taken out of a noisome jail and brought into court to take their trials; and they alone, inhaling foul air, were not injured by it.

Baker's Chronicle, a work of the highest authenticity, thus speaks of the Black Assize:

"The Court were surprised with a pestilent savour, whether arising from the noisome smell of the prisoners, or from the damp of the ground, is uncertain; but all that were present, within forty hours died, except the prisoners, and the women and children; and the contagion went no farther. There died Robert Bell, Lord Chief Baron, Robert De Olie, Sir William Babington, the High Sheriff of Oxfordshire, some of the most eminent Lawyers, the Jurors, and three hundred others, more or less."

In the year 1730 the Lord Chief Baron Pengelly, with several of his officers and servants; Sir James Sheppard, Serjeant-at-Law; John Pigot, Esq., High Sheriff for Somersetshire, died at Blandford, on the Western Circuit of the Lent Assize, from the infected stench brought with the prisoners from Ilchester Jail to their trials at Taunton, in which town the infection afterwards spread and carried off some hundred persons.

In 1754 and 1755 this distemper prevailed in Newgate to a degree which carried off more than one-fifth of the prisoners.

Others attributed the cause of this sudden mortality at Oxford to witchcraft, the people in those times being very superstitious. In Webster's Display of Witchcraft we find the following account of the Black Assize:--

"The 4th and 5th days of July, 1559, were holden the assizes at Oxford, where was arraigned and condemned, one Rowland Jenkes, for his seditious tongue, at which time there arose such a damp, that almost all were smothered. Very few escaped that were not thken at that instant. The jurors died presently -- shortly after died Sir Robert Bell, Lord Chief Baron, Sir Robert De Olie, Sir Wm. Babington, Mr Weneman, Mr De Olie, High Sheriff, Mr Davers, Mr Harcourt, Mr Kirle, Mr Pheteplace, Mr Greenwood, Mr Foster, Serjeant Baram, Mr Stevens, etc. There died in Oxford 300 persons, and sickened there, but died in other places, 200 and odd, from the 6th of July to the 12th of August, after which day died not one of that sickness, for one of them infected not another, nor any one woman or child died thereof. This is the punctual relation, according to our English annals which relate nothing of what should be the cause of the arising of such a damp. Just at the conjuncture of time when Jenkes was condemned, there being none before, and so it could not be a prison infection; for that would have manifested itself by smell, or operating sooner. But to take away all scruple, and to assign the true cause, it was thus: It fortuned that a manuscript fell into my hands, collected by an ancient gentleman of York, who was a great observer and gatherer of strange things and facts, who lived about the time of this accident happening at Oxford, wherein it is related thus: 'That Rowland Jenkes, being imprisoned for treasonable words, spoken against the queen, and being a popish recusant, had, notwithstanding, during the time of his restraint, liberty some time to walk abroad with a keeper; and that one day he came to an apothecary, and showed him a receipt which he desired him to make up; but the apothecary, upon view of it, told him, that it was a strong and dangerous receipt, and required some time to prepare it; but also asked him to what use he would apply it. He answered, to kill the rats, that, since his imprisonment, spoiled his books; so being satisfied, he promised to make it ready. After a certain time he cometh to know if it were ready; but the apothecary said, the ingredients were so hard to procure, that he had not done it, and so gave him the receipt again, of which he had taken a copy, which mine author had there precisely written down, but did seem so horribly poisonous, that I cut it forth, lest it might fall into the hands of wicked persons. But after, it seems, he had it prepared, and, against the day of his trial, had made a wick of it (for so is the word, that is, so fitted, that like a candle it might be fired) which, as soon as ever he was condemned, he lighted, having provided himself a tinder-box, and steel to strike fire. And whosoever should know the ingredients of that wick, or candle, and the manner of the composition, will easily be persuaded of the virulency and venomous effect of it.'"

Sir Stephen Theodore Jansen, one of the most philanthropic magistrates of the City of London, took great interest on behalf of the regulation of prisons, and the amelioration of the miseries of unfortunate prisoners.

When Chamberlain of London, in the year 1767, he published a pamphlet addressed to the Lord Mayor, in the cause of jail fevers. He was Sheriff of London in the year 1750, when the putrid fever, the consequence of filth and foul air, made such dreadful havoc in the Old Bailey Sessions.

Sir Theodore strongly recommended a plan similar to that of York Castle, which, he said, covered no less than two acres and a rood of ground, with great plenty of water and other conveniences.

He warmly remonstrated against the spot then proposed for the reboilding of Newgate. He said it did not occupy more than three-quarters of an acre, and that the number of convicts in that prison was more than treble those of York Castle.

In the year 1772 the assizes for the Summer Circuit were adjourned for Hampshire from the 17th of July to the 2nd of September, on account of an infectious distemper in Winchester Jail.

An expositor on this subject, who wrote under the signature of "A Philanthropist," during that rage of the jail fever, says:

"The public may be rather concerned than surprised, at the deplorable consequences of gaol distempers, and at the fatal instances of their contagion. Several judges, sheriffs, magistrates, juries, and whole courts of judicature, have been infected by those contagious diseases, which caused the loss of many valuable lives, particularly at the Old Bailey, and formerly at the assizes at Oxford, all owing to the horrid neglect of gaolers, and even of the sheriffs and magistrates, whose office it is to compel the gaolers, to the most rigorous repeated orders and attention to their duty, without the least indulgence or remission; as the gaolers are (some excepted) frequently low bred, mercenary and oppressive barbarous fellows, who think of nothing but enriching themselves by the most cruel extortion; and who have less regard for the life of a poor prisoner than for the life of a brute.

"The felons of this kingdom lie worse than dogs or swine, and are kept much more uncleanly than those animals are in kennels and sties, according to all accounts from clergymen, who are obliged to go to the gaols. From them I have been assured, that the stench and nastiness are so nauseous, that the very atmosphere is pestiferous, and that no persons enter therein, without the risque of their health or lives, which prevents even many clergymen and physicians from going there, and assisting their sick and dying fellow-creatures; so that they live and die like brutes, even worse than many beasts, to the disgrace of human nature.

"Every person endowed with the least principle of real humanity, and of true policy, must be affected with such barbarities, neglects, uncleanliness, and dangers. A contagion of that kind may spread over a whole country and kingdom; the greatest precaution ought therefore to be taken in time.

"The gaolers ought to be forced to have all the rooms sprinkled and fumigated with vinegar every day: as should all the felons, before their appearance in a court of judicature; for some hundred prisoners, particularly criminals, are early killed by a sort of pestilence and vermin among them, occasioned by filth and nastiness, and a corrupted air.

"All hospitals, prisons, and workhouses, should have bathing-places, for the sake of cleanliness and health, as in Asia."


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