One could hardly imagine a more vile job than examining the putrid, bloated remains of diseased corpses during the early modern period. Yet that is exactly the task that befell the ‘searchers’ of the dead beginning in the 16th century. Who were they? And why do we know so little about them today?   

The searchers are the silent voices behind one of the most important documents on mortality rates in early modern London: the Bills of Mortality (below). Begun in 1592 as a way of monitoring outbreaks of plague, the Bills of Mortality quickly became a weekly publication which detailed both the number of dead in each parish as well as the cause of death.

The office of the searcher was typically filled by elderly female pensioners in each parish. During this period, church bells tolled alerting the searchers that a death had occurred.  Once the body had been examined, and the cause of death determined, the searchers then reported their findings to the parish clerk where it was then recorded in the Bills of Mortality.

Bills of Mortality form February 21 -28, 1664. A plague free week.

The searcher’s job was certainly unpleasant, but it could also be dangerous. In 1665, Widows Briggs and Manton were appointed searchers and paid 2 shillings a week for inspecting plague-ridden corpses in St Dunstan in the West. [1] During outbreaks when high volumes of people were dying, searchers would walk through the dank, dirty streets shouting: ‘Bring out your dead!’ Those who had succumbed to the disease were piled in carts and carried off to mass burial pits outside the city’s boundaries.

Little is known about the individual lives of these women, but it is not difficult to imagine that some of them contracted diseases as a result of their roles as parish searchers.

In 1768, the Quaker physician John Fothergill wrote: ‘These searchers are, for the most part, ignorant poor women’ with no medical training whatsoever. [2] Perhaps because of this, peculiar causes of death were recorded in the Bills of Mortality: horseshoehead, stoppage in the stomach, twisting of the guts, eaten by lice, and rising of the lights are but some of the strange descriptions that appear periodically in the publication.

That said, it is worth remembering that medical diagnoses could often be  varied and inconsistent during this period; and it is not to say that contemporary physicians would have been any better at certifying causes of death than the searchers. [3]

The searchers’ role in compiling the Bills of Mortality has remained somewhat hidden in history. In 1662, their reputation came under attack by Britain’s first demographer, John Graunt. Because they were elderly pensioners, he questioned their susceptibility towards bribes, especially with regards to recording deaths caused by venereal diseases.

Foreasmuch as by the ordinary discourse of the world it seems a great part of men have, at one time, or other, had some species of this disease [syphilis], I wondering why so few died of it… [4]

Moreover, Graunt was suspicious of their qualifications. Although women were ‘traditional caretakers of the body’ and granted ‘certain expertise in funeral matters’, they were distrusted as public agents. [5]

 Plague pit

Because of Graunt’s baseless accusations, the searchers have melted  into the background of history while their legacy—the Bills of Mortality—remains a highly visible reminder of the past in which they lived.

Despite the questions around the validity of their recordings, the searchers are undeniably an important part of what we know about death and disease in the early modern period.

Beyond that, their silenced voices speak volumes about historical perceptions of women in roles of authority.

 

1. Epidemic Disease in London, ed. J.A.I. Champion (Centre for Metropolitan History Working Papers Series, No.1, 1993): pp. 35-52.
2. Richard Hingston Fox, Dr John Fothergill and His Friends: Chapters in 18th Century Life (1919), p. 228.
3. Gill Newton, ‘Parochial Registration and the Bills of Mortality: case studies in the age structure of causes of death in urban areas between 1583 and 1812’, Paper for BSPS Mortality Past and Present Symposium (29 November 2012).
4. John Graunt, Natural and Political Observations made upon the Bills of Mortality, in Charles Henry Hull (ed.), The Economic Writings of Sir William Petty, vol. 2 (1899), pp. 321.
5. Richelle Munkoff, ‘Reckoning Death: Women Searchers and the Bills of Mortality’, in Rhetoric of Bodily Disease and Healthy in Medieval and Early Modern England (2010), p. 131.