Found Dead? Unknown Causes of Death in the Bills of Mortality

The greatest purpose of the Bills of Mortality is to enumerate death, first due to plague then expanding over the years to include other causes. However, there are some gray areas where Searchers lacked the necessary information to provide a label. In these instances, the records reflect the phrase “found dead.” This label carried a wide range of ages and deaths and was listed with a basic description of the deceased person and how they were found.

First, how were these people found and reported for the Bills? The Searchers of the Dead were poor older women, sometimes widows, serving the parishes for work. During times of plague they were known to mark the doors of houses with dead from the plague for the corpses to be picked up. Richelle Munkhoff writes more about this process in “Searchers of the Dead: Authority, Marginality, and the Interpretation of Plague in England, 1574–1665″. But today we are going to focus on the use of “found dead” in the bills and how that affected the records.

The most interesting part of this category to us is the vagueness of the report. Clearly this is due to the nature of the finding from the Searchers, but it is juxtaposed with other specific (and sometimes lengthy) details of deaths on the same bill. Take the Great Storm of 1703 for instance. Our team was able to piece together that these deaths were from the storm because of their similarities and the specifics in the death report. Another example is a death in 1702 listed as “And one [killed] accidentally by a Tobacco Pipe being struck into her Brain at St Margret in Westminster.”

In addition, our team comes across recurring locations in found dead reports. The ones we see the most while transcribing the bills are of persons found dead in the river Thames. Any number of causes of death are valid hypotheses, but it is impossible to know exactly how the person ended up in the river, and whether they died there or someplace else. Some had their deaths recorded as “Found dead in the Thames” in the closest parish; such as these examples below which are “at St John at Wapping,” and at St Magnus at London Bridge. While others are even more vague, simply stating that they were found in the river, without a specific parish to locate the site where the person was found.

Found dead in the Thames at St John at Wapping.

Found dead in the Thames at St Magn by Lond. Bridge, buried at St Mary Woolnoth.

Nevertheless, the vagueness of “found dead” serves as a reminder that the Searchers were not police or detectives. They were not looking for the whole story, but used the knowledge they already had to determine the cause of death and report that to the parishes. These examples below show that the Searchers only reported how the person was found. Sometimes there were details that would give an idea as to the cause of death, as per the second image. “Found dead in the Gutter” gives some indication of the death. However, “Found dead an Infant” is the extent of the information and gives no indication as to what happened.

Found dead an Infant at St BridesFound dead in the Gutter of an House at St Dunstan at Stepney.

When Janet Hammond began to research this issue, she noticed a pattern in the vague references to “found dead” in a small sampling of 76 records spread over two years. Between the first bill of 1668 and the twenty fourth bill of 1670, the phrase “found dead” occurred thirteen times. At Dr. Otis’ suggestion, Jannet observed that almost half of these deaths, six of the thirteen, occurred in the winter months of December through March. Three deaths occurred in April, which was a lean harvesting period. The Agricultural History Review also has an article about this with a graph in Harvest Fluctuations and English Economic History, 1620–1759. While only one description specifically uses the word “Starved,” the general distribution of deaths suggests a relationship to freezing weather or food insecurity.

This finding seems to concur with what Craig Spence nods to in Accidents and Violent Death in Early Modern London. He recognized how this phrase leads to reports being difficult to understand and on page 38 he says, “Aside from references to a number of abandoned infants, the reports occasionally supply additional details that suggest such deaths sometimes had accidental origins.” In addition to the emphasis on accidents, the author continues to observe that these individuals were likely poorer—perhaps even “homeless whose remains were discovered after a death caused by starvation or disease.” Spence mentions on that same page that there is a noticeable reference to children’s deaths which we have seen follows through most of the bills. Of the sampled thirteen above, three were concerning “a Child” or “an Infant” in early 1668 and 1669. Looking at the 1701-1705 bills, the four year span shows a much larger occurrence of an infant death mentioned as it hovers around roughly twenty mentioned. More research is needed on this as we gain more data, but we see that these reports are still as simple as the original 1600’s “found dead.”

However, one interesting report we found from 1706 stated that a male child was, “found dead in a Vault,”  in the parish of St Mary Hill. Again, because of a lack of specific information, our team debated on what kind of vault this could have been. Our most likely speculations were a receiving vault or a burial vault inside a church. A receiving vault was a tomb where the dead were temporarily stored in the winter months when the frozen ground couldn’t be dug up for a permanent burial. However, this bill was from the middle of September, which is too early in the year for the ground to freeze, and likely wouldn’t have been opened for someone to abandon a body inside. Our second guess, then, was a vault located inside a church. It is possible that a church vault was opened to prepare for a burial, thus creating an opportunity to leave the deceased in that space.

As previously discussed, some found dead reports that recorded people found outside were likely in a lower income level, leading to homelessness and death by starvation or disease. And some instances where bodies were found in or near churches were those who were poorer and whose families could not pay for a church burial. In the case of this child who was found dead in a vault, one speculation is that the family of this boy were of a lower socio-economic status and could not afford the service. This could have been in hopes that by leaving the child in the vault, the parish church would bury him without knowing who his family was, and therefore not charging them for that religious service.

The Bills of Mortality provide a window into the world of Early Modern London, and the found dead reports are just one piece of that puzzle. These found dead descriptions usually only provide us with minimal information, such as a location or an age. Though sometimes, a found dead report is detailed and lengthy, giving us insight to a specific (though still anonymous) person, or a major event, like the Great Storm of 1703. The vagueness of the found dead reports, and the occasionally detailed outliers, provide both frustration and interest to the researchers on this project. They show the mundane and the extraordinary deaths, the straightforward and the complex ones, and some that we just can’t explain. Though the found dead reports are not always clear, one thing is for certain – they will always be interesting!