Morbid Fact Du Jour For November 6, 2016

Though the Black Death ebbed away from Europe, war and the movements of migrants ensured that epidemic disease did not go away, and Spain, as one of the great crossroads, formed a flashpoint of disease. Late in 1489, in its assault on Granada, Islam’s last Iberian stronghold, Spain hired some mercenaries who had lately been in Cyprus fighting the Ottomans. Soon after their arrival, Spanish troops began to go down with a disease never before encountered and possessing the brute virulence typical of new infections: typhus. It had probably emerged in the Near East during the Crusades before entering Europe where Christian and Muslim armies clashed.

It began with headache, rash and high fever, swelling and darkening of the face; next came delirium and the stupor giving the disease its name – typhos is Greek for ‘smoke’. Inflammation led to gangrene that rotted fingers and toes, causing a hideous stench. Spain lost 3,000 soldiers in the siege but six times as many to typhus.

Typhus gangrene.  Shudder.

Having smuggled itself into Spain, typhus filtered into France and beyond. In 1528, with the Valois (French) and Habsburg (Spanish) dynasties vying for European mastery, it struck the French army encircling Naples; half the 28,000 troops died within a month, and the siege collapsed. As a result, Emperor Charles V of Spain was left master of Italy, controlling Pope Clement VII – with important implications for Henry VIII’s marital troubles and the Reformation in England.

With the Holy Roman Empire fighting the Turks in the Balkans, typhus gained a second bridgehead into Europe. In 1542, the disease killed 30,000 Christian soldiers on the eastern front; four years later, it struck the Ottomans, terminating their siege of Belgrade; while by 1566 the Emperor Maximilian II had so many typhus victims that he was driven to an armistice. His disbanded troops relayed the disease back to western Europe, and so to the New World, where it joined measles and smallpox in ravaging Mexico and Peru. Typhus subsequently smote Europe during the Thirty Years Way (1618-48), and remained widespread, devastating armies as ‘camp fever’, dogging beggars (road fever), depleting jails (jail fever) and ships (ship fever).

It was typhus which joined General Winter to turn Napoloen’s Russian invation into a rout. The French crossed into Russia in June 1812. Sickness set in after the fall of Smolensk. Napoleon reached Moscow in September to find the city abandoned. During the next five weeks, the grande armée suffered a major typhus epidemic. By the time Moscow was evacuated, tens of thousands had fallen sick, and those unfit to travel were abandoned. Thirty thousand cases were left to die in Vilna alone, and only a trickle finally reached Warsaw. Of the 600,000 men in Napoleon’s army, few returned, and typhus was a major reason.

Napoleon’s Troops, Depleted.

Culled from: The Greatest Benefit to Mankind


Wretched Recommendations!

I finished another book last night, this one not nearly as entertaining as the one before it. Here’s my review of…

Heat Wave: A Social Autopsy of Disaster in Chicago
by Eric Klinenberg

The first half of this book, detailing the 1995 Chicago Heat Wave that killed 739 people, is actually quite fascinating. The majority of the deaths were isolated elderly people who lived in poverty-ridden areas, and Klinenberg does an excellent job detailing the social causes for their deaths. The elderly poor victims often had no surviving family members in the area to check on them and were socially isolated, often due to high crime in their neighborhoods. Living on meager social security checks, they could not afford air conditioners or the cost of running them, and did not open their windows for fear their homes would be invaded. Living check to check means that they could not afford to lose any possessions because they would not be able to replace them, so they would not take the risk. Instead, they overheated and died in their prison-like apartments.

One contrast that I found especially interesting was between my own neighborhood of Little Village on the West Side of Chicago, and the neighborhood immediately adjacent- North Lawndale. Little Village, a Mexican neighborhood, had a very low rate of heat-related illness, whereas North Lawndale, an African-American neighborhood, had many deaths. The social explanation for this discrepancy related to the Mexican cultural emphasis on family and looking out for the elderly, which resulted in providing care that was not provided in North Lawndale.

However, after the first third or so of the book, I found it very dull – much like reading a thesis paper, with few real life examples and many generalizations about the political structure of Chicago and the media presentation of the disaster. Some people might find that stuff interesting, but I ended up skimming the last half of the book. Overall, though, it’s a worthwhile read – as well as a warning of tragedies that may await many cities in America in our warmer future.

More tragic tales can be found in The Library Eclectica‘s Terrifying Tragedy aisle.

One comment

  1. I tried to read this several years ago and like you, I found it dull and overly academic. It really could have been more gripping and personal, but instead was dry and difficult.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *