THE DANCE OF DEATH.
The condition of the prisons at this season was really frightful. In Newgate, in particular, where the distemper broke out at the beginning of June, it raged with such violence that in less than a week, more than half the prisoners were swept off, and it appeared probable, that, unless its fury abated, not a soul would be left alive within it. At all times, this crowded and ill-kept prison was infested by the gaol-fever and other pestilential disorders, but these were mild in comparison with the present terrible visitation. The atmosphere was noisome and malignant; the wards were never cleansed; and many poor wretches, who died in their cells, were left there till the attendants on the dead-cart chose to drag them forth. No restraint being placed upon the sick, and the rules of the prison allowing them the free use of any strong liquors they could purchase, the scenes that occurred were too dreadful and revolting for description, and could only be paralleled by the orgies of a pandemonium. Many reckless beings, conscious that they were attacked by a fatal disorder, drank as long as they could raise the’ cup to their lips, and after committing the wildest and most shocking extravagances, died in a state of frenzy.
Newgate became thus, as it were, the very focus of infection, where the plague assumed its worst aspect, and where its victims perished far more expeditiously than elsewhere. Two of the turnkeys had already died of the distemper, and such was the alarm entertained, that no persons could be found to supply their places. To penetrate the recesses of the prison, was almost to insure destruction, and none but the attendants of the dead-cart and the nurses attempted it. Among the latter was Judith. Employed as a nurse on the first outburst of the plague, she willingly and fearlessly undertook the office. The worse the disease became the better pleased she appeared; and she was so utterly without apprehension, that when no one would approach the cell where some wretched sufferer lay expiring, she unhesitatingly entered it. But it was not to render aid, but to plunder, that she thus exercised her functions. She administered no medicine, dressed no tumours, and did not contribute in the slightest degree to the comfort of the miserable wretches committed to her charge. All she desired was to obtain whatever valuables they possessed, or to wring from them any secret that might afterwards be turned to account. Foreseeing that Newgate must ere long be depopulated, and having no fears for herself, she knew that she must then be liberated, and be able once more to renew her mischievous practices upon mankind. Her marvellous preservation throughout all the dangers to which she was exposed seemed almost to warrant the supposition that she had entered into a compact with the pestilence, to extend its ravages by every means in her power, on the condition of being spared herself.