On May 5, 1720, a trade ship, named the Grand Saint Antoine and skippered by a Captain Jean-Baptiste Chataud, sailed into Marseille having just arrived from an area in the eastern Mediterranean known as Levant. When it docked, the Grand Saint Antoine had a black cloud hanging over it. Its previous attempt to dock at Livorno had been refused because of plague-like symptoms and because of the death of a Turkish passenger who had been thrown overboard. When the ship finally docked at Marseille, several crew members were ill, including the ship's surgeon. So, a perfunctory quarantine was instituted by port authorities and the ship placed in the lazaret (a section designated for quarantine). But the quarantine did not hold because some crew members bribed their way off and gained their liberty.
Marseille (sometimes spelled Marseilles by the English) was situated at the end of a gulf containing one of the largest and best harbors in the Mediterranean. At the time it had a monopoly on French trade, partly due to its commerce with the Lavant area. Marseille was attempting to expand its monopoly into the Middle East and with emerging markets in the New World, so the idea of the plague made some in Marseille nervous that fear would hamper trade expansion. Further, as physicians disagreed amongst themselves as to whether or not the plague was present on the ship and because the ship carried vitally needed silk and cotton for a great fair planned in July at Beaucaire, influential Marseille merchants pressured port authorities to lift the quarantine.
The decision to lift the quarantine, compounded by the presence of infected crew members already loose in the city, proved disastrous and resulted in the last large epidemic of Yersinia pestis, which is the bacterium responsible for pneumonic, septicemic, and bubonic plagues. Within a couple of days, infirmaries and hospitals were overrun with plague victims. As the "undoubted marks of bubos [appeared]," the public began to panic. Symptoms were publicized and claims were made that the "distemper begins with a violent Head-ache, afterwards the Patients are seiz'd with a Fit of Trembling and die in 6 Hours Time." Even with the knowledge of what could be expected, no one could escape the city because troops surrounded it. Later, hoping to halt the plague, Marseille city officials built a mur de la Peste (a plague wall). But no matter what actions city officials took, the death toll continued to climb and the deep-ditch mass graves to hold the dead could not be dug fast enough.
As the plague raged on, deaths became constant, and, reportedly, nearly 1,000 people died in a single day. This meant care by Marseille physicians was more than impractical, it was impossible. Some victims became so delirious from the disease, they wandered the streets, before falling down exhausted. Then, "unable to lift themselves from the ground, they expired on the spot, remaining fixed in strange and distorted attitude in which their agonies had left them." To prevent such a horrible death, some people who showed signs of the plague became intent on killing themselves, and, in order to avoid suffering, they jumped out of windows or drowned themselves in the sea.
Several other things happened as victims of the plague began to increase. Homes, churches, and warehouses began to be filled with the dead. Corpses were placed everywhere, in attics, basements, and storerooms, and it was there they decayed and rotted until someone could remove them. As physicians could do little to help sufferers and the living were often petrified of catching the disease, the unafflicted began to carry their afflicted relatives outdoors to die. They usually placed them under shady trees to expire and that is where the person's corpse remained until it was removed. But soon there were not enough graves to bury the dead, and alternative measure had to be taken.
With houses, businesses, and churches filled with dead bodies and with no indoor areas left to put corpses, Marseille residents began putting their dead relatives outside on sidewalks or streets. This resulted in hundreds of corpse piles and thousands of rotting and pestilence-ridden corpses scattered throughout the city. Worse still were groups of prowling dogs that began to mutilate the corpses. To control this unpleasant menace and because it was thought dogs could "imbibe the contagion [and transmit it to humans]...a pitiless warfare was commenced against them." This resulted in thousands of dead dogs being thrown into the port and fishermen being ordered to drag them out to the open sea because of the stench.
To get rid of the corpses, Marseille authorities tried several things. They hired country people "at high wages" to remove the corpses, but many of these corpse removers became ill themselves and perished. A detachment of hardened convicts was then hired and promised their freedom if they removed the corpses. These criminals willingly applied themselves, but they also plundered families and were so unfeeling and so insolent in their duties, Marseille residents complained loudly to authorities. Next, soldiers were drafted and forced to haul away putrefied bodies, often by hoisting them over their shoulders.
It was a horrible situation and many people were petrified to go outdoors. The stench from rotting corpses and dead dogs was carried on the wind and for adventurers daring enough to brave the outdoors, or for country visitors curious about what was happening in the city, not only did they have to smell the flesh of the rotting dead but they also had to traverse over dead bodies and past piles of rotting corpses. At the height of the plague, some of these outdoor adventurers, known as batons de St. Roch, were so fearful of being touched they used batons (poles) eight to ten feet long to maintain a safe distance from everyone, including any dogs lucky enough to have survived.
For a time nothing stopped the plague: no amount of city intervention—walls, troops, or burials—nor regal or priestly intervention slowed it, and it terrified Europe. As the Marseille plague raged on, it touched everyone living in Marseille and beyond. One eighteenth century newspaper reported in October 1720 (the height of the plague) that "Marseilles is entirely ruin'd, above 80000 Persons have died there, and abundance die daily still, so mortal and so stubborn a Plague was never seen." However, the newspaper appears to have exaggerated the death toll. Although the plague devastated the city, today's estimates are that about 50,000 Marseille inhabitants died, which was more than 50% of it 90,000 inhabitants. Moreover, another 50,000 people died as the plague moved northward through France.
When at last Marseille was declared free of contagion (which took about two years), one person wrote, "We owe our deliverance, the cessation of this terrible scourge, to the mercy of the Lord, who was pleased to relent in his anger at the prayers of our bishop...to the zeal of the magistrates and citizens who assisted his efforts...and, above all, to the liberality of the illustrious prince who governs us...Happy will it be the remembrance of our past misfortunes serve us as a warning for the future, and inspire us with wisdom to use all human means to guard against the renewal of a catastrophe so deplorable...and to entertain a just fear of exciting once more the anger of the Lord against us, and drawing down on our heads a judgment yet more dreadful."
Bertrand, Jean-Baptiste, An Historical Account of the Plague at Marseilles, 1805
Devaux, Christian A., Small Oversights that Led to the Great Plague of Marseille (1720–1723), on Science Direct
From Miller's Letter, September 6, in Stamford Mercury, 8 Sept 1720
Ireland, John, The Plague of Marseilles in the Year 1720, 1834
Kiple, Kenneth F., ed., Plague, Pox & Pestilence, 1997
Paris, October 26, in Stamford Mercury, 27 Oct 1720
The Encyclopaedia Britannica, Vol. 19, 1890
About the Author
Geri Walton has long been fascinated by history and the people that create it. Their stories and the reasons why they did what they did encouraged her to receive a degree in History and to create a blog focusing on her favorite time period, the 1700 and 1800s. Her first book, scheduled for publication in 2016, focuses on Princess de Lamballe, friend and confidante to Marie Antoinette.
Written content of this post copyright © Geri Walton, 2015.