Things Have Always Been Terrible

A series in which I make you feel less lonely, realizing how many other awful things humans have lived through.

Russian Cholera Epidemic of 1829-31

What looks to be a very nice man of the Kirghiz people, with his awesome falcon. Today these people live in Afghanistan, China, and Turkey.

Who can we blame for this epidemic? This one’s fresh and new: the Kirghiz tribes. It started in India, but it was the Kirghiz people who probably brought it to Russia. I’m sure they’re very nice people, but as we know shit happens.

Aside: in 1978, when shit hit the fan in Afghanistan (yes, there it is again), the Kirghiz people asked to come to Alaska, because they thought that was a climate they would find rather familiar and hospitable, but the U.S. was like, no, there’s definitely not enough room in Alaska for any more people, or something, I don’t know, anyway, they didn’t get to go to Alaska.

Orenburg, which is closer to Khazakstan than Moscow, first reported cases in August 1829. Orenburg is a sort of gateway from central Asia to European Russia. In October, Orenburg took action. Those with cholera were quarantined, they couldn’t do their laundry with everyone else, and their homes were “fumigated,” God only knows what that means.

Orenburg: a colonial place. It did not exist until the Russians created it in 1741. It was a site of the biggest peasant revolt in Russian history (and you know how they like their peasant revolts). Pushkin visited post-cholera, in 1833, and met the man who would later write the first good Russian dictionary.

Because Tzar Nicholas I was busy with Poland and other European crises, it wasn’t until August 1830 that the national government stepped in to get involved. They did decide to go ahead and have the Nizhny Fair, perhaps because a recent response to bubonic plague was met with great unhappiness by the people, great unhappiness displayed by riots.

Tsar Nicholas I trying to distract rioters: “But what on earth is that?”

To be fair, the Niznhy Fair sounds completely awesome and I wouldn’t want to cancel it, either. The rich of Moscow would put together this fair, and they had people from India and other parts of Asia come in with all their fancies. I wish I’d been to the 1964 World’s Fair, and I wish I had been to the Niznhy Fair.

Anyway, when cholera got to Tambov and Kursk, there were riots there.

In St Petersburg, angry people attacked police stations. and hospitals, killing doctors. This was, I have to say, even for the most zealous anti-Tsarist activists, counterproductive. But perhaps puts our own anti-mask crazies in perspective.

An English doctor who was in St. Petersburg during this epidemic wrote in the London Gazette,

Giddiness, sick stomach, nervous agitation, intermittent, slow, or small pulse, cramps beginning at the tops of the fingers and toes, and rapidly approaching the trunk, give the first warning. Vomiting or purging, or both these evacuations of a liquid like rice-water or whey, or barley-water, come on; the features become sharp and contracted, the eye sinks, the look is expressive of terror and wildness; the lips, face, neck, hands, and feet, and soon after the thighs, arms, and whole surface assume a leaden, blue, purple, black, or deep brown tint according to the complexion of the individual….

Believe it or not, I’ve cut off the even uglier parts of his description.

In what sounds like a nice development, when the disease arrived, citizens created the Moscow Cholera Council, which would also be a good name for your band, and enabled them to work together against the spread of the disease.

Russian troops took cholera into Poland, where two of my great-grandfathers were beginning their childhoods, probably not expecting to end up as farmers in Nebraska. (It’s not a great idea to be born in eastern Europe, if your’e considering where and when to be born.)

About 100,000 people died, including the tsar’s brother.

One good thing came out of all of this!

Maybe two good things.

Maybe my great- great- ancestors were exposed to cholera and did not die, leading me to have the really excellent immune system I have thus far enjoyed. (As of today, September 5, 2022, I have never tested positive for covid.)

Frantisek Sebek, Sr. of Bohemia, an optimist it seems, perhaps 1880.

Another good thing was that people in Russia who were interested in medicine had a fire lit under their asses and studied and published a lot, aiding in our common struggle with cholera to this day.

Things Have Always Been Terrible

A series in which I make you feel less lonely, realizing how many other pandemics humans have lived through.

Roman Plague of AD 590

If you’ve ever seen dragons being flushed out to sea by a flood, you’re going to relate to the people of Rome in 590 AD.  This particular plague, I’m going to suggest, had a bit of a positive effect.  Just a bit.

It’s 589 AD.  Your pope is Pelagius II.  When the Tiber floods, your grand old town is out a whole lot of grain.  Gosh darn it if you didn’t see serpents and dragons in those waters, hitching a ride to the sea. 

Flood waters are good at destroying food stores, and they’re also pretty good at spreading diseases, including today’s disease (by now an old favorite): bubonic plague.  Gregory of Tours dubbed this bout of plague “the plague of the groin” (lues inguinaria, which also sounds awful).  People died quickly, and all kinds of people got sick and died.

Your pope is brought down by the plague of the groin.  No shade, it’s just what happened. 

Pope Gregory I. He kept busy.

The people chose (drum roll): another Gregory.  (There are only four people in this story, and two of them are named Gregory.)  This Gregory is not the Tours one.  Here’s how you know it was a great idea to make him pope: he did not want to become pope.  He liked being a monk. He was a monk at the monastery he founded himself. In fact, he was the first pope to have been a monk.

Pope Gregory is now (yep) Saint Gregory I.  What are his bona fides for sainthood? (Other than the fact that sainthood was a family business, with his mother and two of his aunts getting their halos and his great great great grandfather having been pope.)

Pope Gregory I chatting with a breakdancing puppet Jesus (?)

Well.  You shouldn’t laugh about this, because it’s not funny, but it’s kind of funny: Pope Gregory led people in a procession of prayer to repent of their sins, in hopes that the plague would abate, but while they were marching, 80 people dropped dead. 

Procession of St. Gregory, or, Walkingi it Off.

People still liked him! They were encouraged! Maybe because only 80 people dropped dead? I mean, I find myself feeling good about the fact that Central Park no longer contains overflow morgues, so I understand that shitty times call for strange gratitude.

As they marched on, losing people along the way in a manner I find funny the same way I find it funny when one of the rowers in the Roman galley in “Ben Hur” falls over, they approached Hadrian’s Mausoleum.  Pope (later Saint) Gregory saw Michael the Archangel putting his sword away, which Gregory figured meant that the plague was over.

Michael the Archangel telling everyone to chill til the next episode..

I mean, an archangel sent the plague to Rome and decided it was over?  Well, anyway.

Pope Gregory was a good one: he fixed up the Catholic liturgy (perhaps actually writing the liturgy eastern Christians use even today), he defended Italy from the Lombards, and he cleaned up the bureaucracy in the pope’s territories so things were going much more smoothly.  Here’s an English teacher’s favorite thing: he started a genre!  A genre!  The genre of saints’ lives.  Which is not just a genre, but a pretty fun genre, edifying, maybe, entertaining, absolutely.

Things Have Always Been Terrible

A series in which I make you feel less lonely, realizing how many other pandemics humans have lived through.

Vietnamese Plagues of the 1960s

I have a special place in my heart for the people of Vietnam. I grew up knowing a refugee family who had been sponsored by our church, and I’ve ended up having friends who were also Vietnamese refugees over the years. When Trump was elected, it was a friend who had escaped Vietnam who was able to tell me, shit happens.

The people of Vietnam had experienced plague before, particularly in the early 20th century. But the 1960s were hellish because of war, and on top of that, plague was sickening people.

It was just a terrible time. Extra terrible.

In the late 1950s, South Vietnam went from having 15 cases of plague a year to having 4,000. As the war heated up, and Vietnam was bombed, both people and rodents who carried plague ran for shelter. Bandicoots especially carried plague. The Encyclopedia refers to them as “large rats.”

This is a bandicoot. Now try to forget you ever saw it.

Our Encyclopedia also states that “In Long Khanh province, pneumonic plague infected six people in one family within a very short time.”

Wait, we have vaccines! you say. Well, it depends on who you mean by “we.” There were huge pushes to vaccinate, when people could get vaccines. American soldiers received vaccines for bubonic plague (though not its cousin, pneumatic).

And DDT was used to kill animals who might spread plague.

Let’s talk about DDT. Let’s talk about you and me. Let’s talk about all the good things and the bad things that may be. DDT kills so, so well. It was DDT’s effects that caused Rachel Carson to write her famous book Silent Spring, and by 1972, the use of DDT was limited in the United States. In the 1970s, plague was in the United States, and DDT was used here to control plague-bearing fleas in California, Colorado, New Mexico, and Nevada.

Between 1964 and 1974, at least 100,000 people in Vietnam got plague. Maybe as many as 250,000.

A rat who may or may not have plague has gone to that big maze in the sky , and has his body disposed of by these men in Vietnam in 2014.

The Encyclopedia notes that “the war spurred the development of a longer-lasting freeze-dried vaccine,” which led me to research freeze-dried vaccines. Vaccines were first freeze-dried in the 1940s. And as with so many parts of vaccination history, smallpox went first.

As recently as 2005, American and British scientists were working on new vaccines for plague. Although it has been well controlled in the U.S. and Britain, people are still suffering from it. And there is some concern that terrorists might use plague as a weapon at some point.

You might want some glutinous rice cakes for yourself, or your ancestors, for Tet Doan Ngo. I’d give it a try.

All this talk of plague led me to some fun facts: Vietnam, along with some other Asian countries, has a holiday for pest killing. It falls at the end of spring and the beginning of summer. It could be translated as “Killing the Persons’ Inner Insects.”

I’m going to ponder this idea of “inner insects,” because I feel sure I have some. Like the one that eats away at my heart when I hear about January 6th.

One might celebrate with spiritual cleaning, or smoothies, or one might offer one’s ancestors some arecanuts or banhu u la tre. Foods for this holiday are supposed to help rid your body of parasites, bugs, or other nasties.

People reenacting the Doan Ngo ritual of fan giving, practiced from 1428 to 1789. The king gave fans to his managers. Yeah, it doesn’t sound super fun to me, either. It sounds like Secretary’s Day. But prettier.

I think we should have a pest-killing holiday, too. We can offer friends fly paper, ant traps, and air purifiers, wasp spray and citronella candles. And cats. Maybe in June.

Here’s a story of Doan Ngo to wrap things up, from the Vietnam Discovery website:

There were two very cool brothers who everyone loved. However, also in that village, they had two snakes, Thanh Xa and Bach Xa. After the snakes died, they turned themselves into beautiful women. Ha, ha, no misogyny here.

The brothers became agoraphobic and anxious. The local people worried about them.

A traveling holy man happened by, and heard what was going on. He got busy making the brothers a special potion. The brothers drank the special potion, and somehow this forced the wives/snakes back into their snake form. Apparently the snakes were so embarrassed by this turn of events, they proceeded to disappear.

And you guessed it! This happened on the Killing the Persons’ Inner Insects Day.

So if you feel agoraphobic and anxious, consider drinking a potion to fight the insects inside you, or maybe do this metaphorically with the help of your therapist.

This is Tam. She sells betel leaves and arecanuts at Ba Hoa Market in Saigon. I like her vibe.

Things Have Always Been Terrible

A series in which I make you feel less lonely, realizing how many other pandemics humans have lived through.

Crusader Epidemic at Antioch

Today’s epidemic is unique in that we don’t know what disease it actually was.

It could have been typhoid, a disease we haven’t covered yet. Fun facts about typhoid: some people aren’t affected (a la “Typhoid Mary), it is a bacterial infection called Salmonella serotype Typhi (a cousin of yer basic salmonella), and humans are the only animals who transmit it. We can’t blame typhoid on rats, bats, cats, or corpses. Typhoid is on us.

What we know about today’s plague is that it was part of the Crusades, one of the more bewilderingly stupid things people have gotten involved in (IMHO).

A whole lot of misguided, French-speaking people attacking the city of Antioch in 1097. Note the guys who get smaller as they go up a ladder, looking more like Little Cats A, B, and C in The Cat In The Hat Comes Back (below).
Little Cats A, B, and C, and if you haven’t read The Cat in the Hat Comes Back, please do! It’s superior to the original!

The First Crusade was from 1095 to 1099. At Antioch, Seljuk Turks ran the city, and Crusaders (French ones) appeared wanting to take it from them. Mind you, there were people who were Muslim and people who were Christian living in the city, but no one really gave a shit about that.

The Crusaders were disappointed because the Antioch was bigger and better defended than they had imagined. They spent the winter of 1097-98 hungry, cold, and wet, while waiting to attack. Some soldiers sneaked off, which to me seems wise.

Then surprise! The Crusaders finally attacked, in June. They won!

Getting in! Hooray! We have Antioch now! Let’s kill everyone! Oh, damn, some of them were Christians.

A couple of days later, this guy Kerbogha, a Turk, showed up and laid siege to Antioch. The Crusaders had been locked out and suffering. Now they were locked in and suffering.

In, and being attacked from without! Crusaders have swapped places with the Turks. Great. That solves everything.

It all looked pretty bad for the old Crusaders, until someone found… THE LANCE USED IN THE CRUCIFIXION.

I wish there were anything, anything, I could find and be inspired by the way people were inspired by THE LANCE USED IN THE CRUCIFIXION.

Accept no imitations: The Amazing Lance TM

I’m not even being snarky here. I have some dirt from the banks of the Mississippi, from Hannibal, dirt endorsed by Mark Twain, and some dirt from Kurt Vonnegut’s yard in Iowa City. I believe in that dirt. I might believe in a cocktail shaker used by FDR.

Anyway they were psyched. They busted out of Antioch and beat Kerbogha’s army.

This seemed like good news.

Just kidding, now they get sick. It was hot, they were hungry, and more and more people got sick.

Around 30 or 40 people died each day. Women were especially vulnerable, women including the wives and sex workers and servants of Crusaders.

As with many diseases back in the day, they didn’t know what to do, so they just had to wait. They sat and watched survival of the fittest do its horrifying work on people with names and faces and laughs and private jokes.

They spent the summer and fall and half of winter being picked off by (probably) typhoid.

Some of the troops were bored, and thus went to attack other nearby cities. They brought their disease with them. Ugh.

About six months after they had won Antioch, the Crusaders convinced Raymond of Toulouse to to head on to Jerusalem, where surely everything would improve and only glory and happiness awaited them. Right?

There are other sieges and diseases related to the Crusades, so maybe we’ll revisit this time in history later on. As stupid as the Crusades seem, they do leave us with a lot of illustrations and paintings that I aesthetically enjoy.