Silent Voices in History: The Searchers of the Dead

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.

54 comments on “Silent Voices in History: The Searchers of the Dead

  1. Curious says:

    When did these Searchers stop looking for dead bodies? When did this practice fade away?

  2. […] dead bodies for the cause of death and record their findings in the Bills of Mortality (1592) (Click here to read it!). A pretty horrendous job in plague-stricken England, if you ask […]

  3. […] dead bodies for the cause of death and record their findings in the Bills of Mortality (1592) (Click here to read it!). A pretty horrendous job in plague-stricken England, if you ask […]

  4. […] illustrates one of women’s roles in caretaking for the dead in her blog post about elderly women as searchers, or those who would examine dead bodies for the cause of death and […]

  5. [...] anti-masturbation devices to nose-less sufferers of syphilis (a love story) to the vagaries of searching dead bodies. Along the way, she illuminates the strange and sometimes terrifying world of the [...]

  6. Kristy Speer says:

    Too often great story’s and deeds go untold because of the who, I have to wonder just how much we don’t know about our past our history as humans hasn’t reflected on this until your blog, thanks for the thought provoking it can be a very inspiring thing when one reads things like this, gets the wheels really spinning!!

  7. Excellent and informative. Thanks for writing and publishing this.

  8. RubySoHo says:

    My name is Ruby. I am here and I am listening.

    https://rubyisalive.wordpress.com/

  9. Very interesting! I think this may be something I will look into more.

  10. ajeenaalex says:

    thoroughly enthralling!!! a totally unheard information…glad that you posted it…

  11. [...] Silent Voices in History: The Searchers of the Dead (thechirurgeonsapprentice.com) [...]

  12. silimarin says:

    Reblogged this on The Splendid Siren and commented:
    Interesting post! Really!

  13. Al Kline says:

    Excellent read!

  14. Absolutely wonderful!! Love history and, especially medical history. I am part ghoul.

  15. Chas Spain says:

    Glad to come across this in Freshly Pressed – is that a bit ironic or just a bit close to the bone? Fascinating – also loved reading Peter Ackroyd’s Biography of London with his similar rich description of this wonderfully grisly period.

  16. elliotclaire says:

    Great post, thank you for sharing. Congratulations on being FP! :=)

  17. debbymanynations says:

    Reblogged this on cedarridge2007.

  18. Mike says:

    A fascinating and well-written commentary and analysis. Very well done.

  19. lmgranados says:

    Thank you for your research and post. I have never heard of the searchers , strange they never surfaced during any history class I attended. Shame, would have been a great topic to discuss. Thanks again.

  20. One half of the world doesn’t know how the other half lives.

  21. Phoenix says:

    Great post, really felt like I learned something. I also couldn’t help but think of Monty Python a bit, too.

  22. Flo me la says:

    Reblogged this on T and commented:
    “Beyond that, their silenced voices speak volumes about historical
    perceptions of women in roles of authority.” Now this is the kind of blogs about history I like!

  23. Flo me la says:

    Very interesting! And “Beyond that, their silenced voices speak volumes about historical perceptions of women in roles of authority.” YES! More of these perspectives in descriptions of history, please.

  24. jlasalle21 says:

    had no idea about these “searchers”… intense. good read. well written

  25. nikyvanloo says:

    That’s really interesting to read! I love history

  26. [...] Silent Voices in History: The Searchers of the Dead. [...]

  27. What a completely fascinating read.

  28. The Savvy Senorita says:

    I follow you on FB!! I love the originality of this blog, it is fabulous!
    Bex :)

  29. That was something I’d never heard about before. Thank you for sharing.

  30. Great post! I’m fascinated by the history of medicine!

  31. I really like your blog and would love you to feature on mine, http://www.5thingstodotoday.com. All you have to do is write five suggestions along with a link back to your site. Please check out the blog and see the sort of things people have written about.

  32. [...] Lindsey Fitzharris, “Silent Voices in History: The Searchers of the Dead,” the chirurgeon’s apprentice, February 11, 2013, http://thechirurgeonsapprentice.com/2013/02/11/silent-voices-in-history-the-searchers-of-the-dead/. [...]

  33. flo says:

    Twisting of the guts :)). Interesting article.

  34. This is a fantastic post – thanks so much for sharing!

  35. This is so well-written! This could have been a very dry bit of history. But you have made it very interesting. The way you tied in societal views towards women, venereal disease, and medicine really paints a vibrant picture. Like this!

  36. [...] Silent Voices in History: The Searchers of the Dead (thechirurgeonsapprentice.com) [...]

  37. glennrharcourt says:

    interesting read — trying to remember if the “searchers” are mentioned in Defoe’s Journal of the Plague Year . . .

  38. Interesting read — trying to remember if the searchers are mentioned in Defoe’s Journal of the Plague Year . . .

  39. quorlia says:

    Do we know what any of these strange causes of death actually were?

  40. dianabuja says:

    Most interesting. There are grim descriptions of plague results in late 18th. Century area of Morocco/Tunesia, and earlier of famines in medieval famines in Egypt and also famines in ancient Egypt. Both plagues and famines seem to conflate and to bring out similar social dynamics

  41. Amardeep Singh Sadhra says:

    One of the largest mass burial sites is Mortlake Richmond.

  42. I wonder too the use of elderly female pensioners. In keeping with the mentality of the times, they were the most useless members of society. Female, old and no longer of any use to society, what great loss if they contracted the diseases they walked through? Better them than a strapping young lad who could work or fight, yes? How little those men understood the importance of the women’s role? *shakes head*

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