Samuel Pepys is primarily remembered for his decade-long diary, which recorded major events in 17th century English history including the Great Plague Outbreak (1665).1 Just before the height of the plague, on September 7, 1665, Pepys wrote in his diary, “[I] sent for the Weekely Bill, and find 8,252 dead in all, and of them 6,878 of the plague; which is a most dreadfull number, and shows reason to fear the plague hath got that hold that it will yet continue among us.
Figure 1. A photograph of the bill of mortality for the week of November 14-21, 1665. On the Bill of Mortality for the week of November 14-21st, 1665, plague deaths were finally decreasing from a horrific summer. The total number of plague deaths was still a staggering six hundred and fifty-two, but that did not stop parish officials from recording all the other ways that Londoners were dying. One death stood out as an intriguing mystery: starved in White Lyon prison at St George in Southwark.
As Death by Numbers has evolved and developed, there have been some slight changes to our workflow, which caused us to reconsider how to work through and present our data. One of those shifts came about because we set up our workflows using early 18th century bills as a model, before shifting to work with the bills from the mid and late 17th century. As a team, we quickly realized that the older bills were falling apart and had more missing information than the bills produced later.
At about 3am on Sunday, September 2, 1666, the diarist Samuel Pepys’ maid Jane awakened him to let him know about a fire that had started within the ancient city walls of London. He looked out the window, thought it was too far away to worry about, and went back to sleep. When he got up the next morning, Jane relayed the news that over 300 houses had already burned, so he went to the Tower of London and climbed to a high spot where he could see the extent of the threat: “an infinite great fire”1 which would rage for four days before being reduced to embers that ominously smoldered in cellars for several more weeks.