Eighteenth century courtrooms were a dangerous place. For the convict there was a good chance you’d dangle from a rope. But even for the judge – the risk was high. The prisoners were so filthy and disease ridden that you might catch jail fever. Or what we call typhus these days.
Judges catch jail fever from typhus ridden accused
The year was 1750 in London at England’s top criminal court – the Old Bailey. Three judges were trying a group of prisoners and the death sentence was anticipated.
Capital punishment applied to a whole range of crimes at this time – not just murder but also theft and violent attack.
Unfortunately for the judges, the grubby criminals were seated right in front of the dock. And not only did they stink to high heaven but there had been an outbreak of jail fever within Newgate prison. The place was rife with typhus.
DISCOVER: A warning to anti-vaxxers from history
Typhus, by the way, was also referred to as hospital fever, camp fever and ship fever. It was and is caused by poor hygiene, normally when lots of people are grouped together in insanitary conditions. For example, military camps, ships and….prisons.
The agent of transmission is the humble louse, which gets infected by a sick person and then shares the disease with anybody nearby. So, the judges were infected because of their proximity to the accused. And it’s not a disease that spares the rich and privileged.
FIND OUT MORE: How to talk like a Victorian Londoner
One of the judges was Sir Samuel Pennant (pictured with a louse) – who was also the Lord Mayor of London. The other two judges were Sir Thomas Abney and Baron Clarke. And they all died – infected by the very prisoners they had been sentencing to hang.
Another little fact about Sir Samuel – apart from being Lord Mayor and dying of typhus – was that he was a prolific slave owner. The 18th century was the height of British activity in the trade and he was actually born in Jamaica on his father’s plantation. I’m shedding less tears about his fate now.
Today, the Old Bailey – or Central Criminal Court – is still standing, though a more recent building. There’s no prison nearby. It was demolished at the turn of the 20th century when Londoners decided they’d rather not have large prisons in the middle of town.
But in 1750, Newgate prison was located right next door to the courthouse.
Jail fever brings typhus straight from prison to courtroom
Prisoners were therefore brought a relatively short distance from the squalid and overcrowded conditions at Newgate, straight into the courtroom of the Old Bailey. And along came the lice and fleas with them.
Therefore, if typhus was raging through Newgate, it was brought direct into the courtroom. Not that anybody fully understood the risk. And certainly not the esteemed judges who were carried off to meet their maker.