The arrival of this prince in Bucharest was the harbinger of multiple great calamities in the country. On the very night of his inauguration, Palatul Domnesc (the residence of the Princes of Wallachia) … from Spirea’s Hill burned to the ground and the Princely Court became [known as] the Burned Court.
Ioan Gheorghe Caragea came from a long line of Phanariote Greeks who, throughout history, held prominent positions within the Ottoman Empire. In 1812, Caragea was appointed Prince of Wallachia by the Sublime Porte after buying the throne for 8,000 bags of gold (4 million lei). Caragea was one of the last Phanariote rulers in Romanian history and he is generally remembered for three things: his Plague, his “Bladder” (a hot air balloon, the first to be launched in Romanian history) and his Law (the first modern code of law of the Romanian Principalities), all of them aptly carrying his name.
This article will focus on Caragea’s Plague.
A man afflicted by the plague was a dead man.
Caragea had a difficult reign and a negative reputation among his Romanian subjects. Many saw him as a harbinger of death and destruction because a series of natural disasters coincided with his rule. On the night of his very arrival in Bucharest (December 12, 1812), Palatul Domnesc burned to the ground. For the superstitious Romanians this was a terrible omen which marked the first of a series of great calamities which would hit the country under Caragea’s reign.
Indeed, the very next day after Palatul Domnesc burned down, one of Caragea’s men who came with him from Constantinople fell ill with the plague and died. This was the beginning of the most violent and devastating bubonic plague epidemic the Romanian Principalities have ever seen. Fearing a massive outbreak, Caragea and his circle fled Bucharest, taking refuge in the monasteries outlying the city.
Their fears came to pass and the contagion spread in the following months: by June, 1813, a terrible outbreak seized Bucharest. The city only had only two hospitals at the time so it was overwhelmed in a matter of weeks. As a result, the death toll was enormous: up to 300 deaths a day in Bucharest alone and a total of nearly 100,000 deaths countrywide. Caragea’s Plague haunted Wallachia for two years, until the spring of 1814.
Caragea did not abandon his people to the plague and worked very hard to contain the pestilence. Bucharest was quarantined, its gates barred and the roads leading to the city strictly guarded. No one was allowed in or out of Bucharest without special permission. All foreigners and non-residents were forced out of the city, while the beggars and the Gypsy slaves were rounded up and sent to various nearby monasteries.
Trials and most legal matters were suspended and most of the prisoners were freed, including everyone who was locked up in the debtors’ dungeon. Public gatherings were strictly prohibited; markets and schools were shut down, as were pubs and coffee houses. Alcohol was still sold, but only for home use.
“Cures” and Remedies
Lacking in medical knowledge, the superstitious Romanians of the 19th century believed that drinking copious amounts of alcohol (especially spirits) would render them immune to the pestilence. Another popular “cure” for Caragea’s Plague consisted of rubbing tortoises on one’s pustules. These pseudo-medical treatments were encouraged by the witchdoctors who made a massive resurgence in the country.
Special quarantine camps called lazareturi were established across Wallachia. Anyone who came from or went to an affected locality was required to spend 12-14 days in a lazaret under the watchful eye of a physician. If no signs of the plague occurred in this period, a special document was issued for the traveler and he (or she) was free to go. Extra measures were taken for merchants, having their trade goods and merchandise “purified” through fumigation with dung.
Money was also “purified” by being washed with vinegar, which was believed to have strong cleansing properties. People, especially the wealthy boyars who could afford it, were bathing in vinegar as often as possible. Huge piles of dung burned day and night on their estates, engulfing Bucharest and many other towns in a chocking, yellow, dung haze.
Caragea printed flyers which explained all these rules and safety measures, and had them distributed among the population. Unsurprisingly, few cared about Caragea’s flyers or his rules. Fear was omnipresent and society collapsed into chaos. Everyone was concerned about one thing – personal survival.
Ravages of the Plague
Priests and clerks checked every day for plague victims door to door. Anyone who was caught hiding infected people was expelled from the city and had all his possessions burned. The plagued were taken to the Colțea and Pantelimon hospitals, the only hospitals in Bucharest at the time. Since Wallachia suffered from a crippling lack of qualified medical care and there was no real cure for the plague, the diseased were simply locked away in quarantine rooms and left at God’s mercy. Very few survived.
Caragea was fully aware of the situation and employed physicians from Germany and Russia to combat the outbreak. He opened a new hospital as well, but it had no effect. With the number of infections skyrocketing, the Bucharest hospitals were overwhelmed. Within weeks (from the start of the outbreak), the hospitals became houses of death, overflowing with corpses.
These nightmarish scenes had caused people to give in to their primal instincts and forget any notion of morality. Rape, murder and robbery became part and parcel of Caragea’s Plague. Envious people threw corpses or infected rags in the houses of wealthy families. Some were trying to infect their old enemies, while others simply killed at will.
Mothers abandoned their children fearing contagion and husbands abandoned their wives. Many defenseless women were brutally raped by crazed ruffians, even those who were dying of the plague. Gangs of bandits roamed the streets, breaking into every house and taking whatever they pleased without resistance. Dissolute and debauched men and women engaged in all manners of depraved activities.
As a result, many people escaped Bucharest before the quarantine was lifted in August, including all the doctors.
The Wretched Ciocli
I picked up 15 dead today, but could only bury 14 because one of them ran away and I couldn’t catch him!
Those who were immune to the plague, getting sick and recovering to full health, were thought to be beyond the pestilence’s reach. They were recruited as ciocli (sing. – cioclu), some type of undertakers or gravediggers tasked with picking up the infected corpses from every house and bury them. Caragea had to employ these “wretches” in order to keep up with the number of deaths. In Bucharest there were 60 ciocli at the time of the city’s evacuation in August.
Everyone feared these undertakers, healthy and plagued alike, for they had distinguished themselves in evil deeds above all others. Writing about the ciocli, Ion Ghica said that “the flesh crawled on everyone’s bodies when they heard [about] the horrors and cruelties committed by these wretched bandits against the poor Christians who had the misfortune of falling into their claws”. The ciocli forced their way into all the houses of Bucharest on the pretext of looking for corpses to collect, spreading terror wherever they went.
Besides robbing everyone blind and brutalizing them, the ciocli were feared so much because they collected not only cadavers, but also the sick, whether they were dying or not. In some cases even healthy individuals were taken away by the ciocli. These unfortunate souls were dragged out of their beds and hurled onto the heap of corpses in the ciocli’s cart.
Since many of their victims could resist, the ciocli often bludgeoned them with clubsbefore taking them to the plague fields in Dudești. Those “fortunate” enough to die from skull shattering blows did not have to go through the horror of live burial. Those who survived the trip were either buried alive or thrown in piles with the corpses littering the plague fields. Ion Ghica noted that “you could hear the screams and howls of the unfortunate souls from Dudești from half an hour away.”
In some cases the dying fought back and even killed the wretched ciocli. A young man and his wife, both suffering from the plague, were taken to the plague fields to be buried alive. Having seen a cioclu trying to rape his dying wife, he found the strength to confront the aggressor. The man bit the cioclu to death, tearing chunks of flesh with his teeth and rupturing his jugular. After this event, the plague victims armed themselves with clubs and staves, killing at least ten ciocli in a revolt.
After Caragea learned of the abuses of the ciocli he immediately implemented “a sort of healthcare service” meant to protect the victims of the plague. He dispatched overseers to accompany the undertakers and make sure they stop killing people. To what degree the abuses of the ciocli were stopped remains uncertain. Either way, Caragea’s Plague continued to ravage Bucharest and the entire countryside; October saw the highest mortality rate. Entire villages were depopulated from Olt to Vrancea, while the streets of Bucharest were cluttered with rotting corpses.
After the Plague
The reunited held one another, shedding a tear for those lost on the Dudești [plague] fields and then went on with their lives, forgetting all about their sufferings and with a new taste for worldly pleasures.
In December, 1813, exactly one year after its outbreak, Caragea’s Plague, started to dissipate.By February of the next year, the people who fled Bucharest started to return to the city. Most of them found their homes ransacked, while Bucharest itself resembled a post-apocalyptic ghost town. Hundreds (if not thousands) of corpses littered the streets. Mounds of cadavers which could not be buried were stacked on the plague fields, while dogs and other animals overran the city, feasting on the dead.
Most buildings were damaged, some beyond repair. The hospitals, which became vaults of the dead during the outbreak, were eventually shut down. What few survivors remained in Bucharest had barricaded themselves inside their houses. However, with more and more residents returning to their city the situation began to normalize. The dead were all buried, the streets were cleared and cleaned and the buildings restored.
Those lucky enough to find their friends and relatives still alive celebrated the reunion, but everyone lost a dear one to Caragea’s Plague. After the dead were buried and mourned, everybody tried to move on with their lives. In time, many began to see a bright side to the calamity. Those who lost their parents to Caragea’s Plague inherited their fortunes. Those who lost their siblings became sole inheritors. In short, the more family one lost, the wealthier one became.
Always after an epidemic, just like after a war, mankind looks to regain its numbers; apparently, life becomes easier, the fortunes of young men and the dowries of girls increase through inheritance and through the deaths of their brothers and sisters with whom they otherwise had to split the parental inheritance, if they had not died…Under these circumstances marriages had to become numerous, directly proportionate to the numbers of beings reaped by the sickness. So, right after the pestilence ceased, everyone started to get married.
Caragea’s Plague was the last major bubonic plague outbreak in Europe.
Consulted Works and Sources:
- Mehedinţi, M., & Sava, C. A. (2012). Death as Statistics: Demographic Aspects of Plague in the Romanian Area (l8 th–19 th Centuries). Romanian Journal of Population Studies, 6(2).
- Ghica, I. (2014). Scrisori către V. Alecsandri. Humanitas SA.
- Ionescu, Ş. X. (1974). Bucureştii în vremea fanarioţilor. Ed. Dacia.
- Giurescu, C. (2007). Istoria românilor. ALL.
- Vintilă-Ghițulescu, C. (2015). Patimă și desfătare. Despre lucrurile mărunte ale vieții cotidiene în societatea românească (1750-1860). Humanitas.