- Accidents and Violent Death in Early Modern London, 1650–1750 by Craig Spence
Woodbridge: Boydell Press, 2016, xii + 273 p., $115.00
In October 1702, in the parish of Westminster, a woman died after a “tobacco pipe struck accidentally into her brain” (144). This is one of many gruesome accidents recounted in Craig Spence’s study of violent death in early modern London; not surprisingly, this one is listed in the chapter entitled “Rare and Unfortunate Events.” Not too rare, however, because similar accidents were recounted in the decades before and after the start of the eighteenth century. Clearly, smoking has always killed, but not quite in the way we have come to expect in recent decades. By scanning London’s Bills of Mortality, as well as numerous contemporaneous newspapers and pamphlets, Spence has uncovered and reflects upon the approximately 15,000 cases of accidental death – from the bizarre to the commonplace –reported in England’s capital between 1650 and 1750. Besides making his readers repeatedly cringe, Spence calculates the frequency and geography of falls, drowning, and burns. Equally, he examines the narrative forms in which these unfortunate accidents were discussed by the inhabitants of Europe’s largest city, who sought to make sense of misadventure over a century of change.
This book tells a particularly violent tale in three acts. The first act sets the scene and describes the parishes included in London’s famous Bills of Mortality. More specifically, it considers the way in which these tragic events were transformed from “lived experience to mediated knowledge” (17). The book’s structure mirrors that of the bills, which list murders, suicides, and accidental deaths: 1,835,562 in fact between 1654 and 1735. Just over 15,500 of these (0.85%) can be described as sudden and violent. Over 65% of these, in turn, were accidents: 15% were suicides, 9.2% were people simply found dead, and 5% were people either “killed” or “murdered.” Spence also considers the periodicity of death, highlighting that murders peaked in the 1690s, before declining to approximately seven a year in the first decades of the eighteenth century (among other notable patterns). Suicides were likely underestimated, given the associated financial repercussions and stigma. They also peaked in the summer, not in the short, dark days of winter (as readers might expect). Numerous other tables list the most common causes of death, with the majority of self-murderers either hanging themselves, cutting their throats, or jumping from buildings (in that order). Nevertheless, accidents always outnumbered murders and [End Page 531] suicides by a ratio of at least four to one. They usually resulted from immersion in water, falling, or being struck by an object or vehicle, although more than a tenth of those dying were simply “found dead” (39). If political arithmetic was becoming a common tool of governance at this time, death was still investigated by parish officials, including coroners, beadles, and searchers, who were the old women who earned approximately 4 pence for each body they viewed. Employing their accumulated evidence, authorities developed localized responses to urban trauma and, in this way, attempted to re-impose a sense of order within the chaotic English capital.
The book’s second part considers accident data in terms of type, frequency, and location, among other characteristics. Given their prevalence, accidents involving water and fire, as well as those occurring in the streets of the metropolis, have their own dedicated chapters. Perhaps understandably, fire remained the greatest fear in the minds of those who inhabited a city that burned in 1666. However, only 383 persons listed in the Bills of Mortality between 1654 and 1735 were actually burnt, and only seven Londoners died of burns in the Great Fire. Drowning, by way of contrast, featured less centrally in the collective conscience, even as it accounted for just under half of all sudden violent deaths reported. Unlike burns, drowning appeared inevitable; fires stimulated the earliest legislative and legal interventions to curb accidental death. While numbers of the scalded and drowned fluctuated in these years, the greatest number of deaths related to the...