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As the world wrestles with Covid, it’s worth remembering that things could always be worse. We could be dealing with an outbreak of smallpox or bubonic plague.

One particularly bad outbreak of the bubonic plague, dubbed the Black Death, ravaged Europe during the Middle Ages and may have killed as many as one third of its inhabitants. Since then medical science has made great strides and although the bubonic plague is still around, it is largely treatable with antibiotics. Bubonic plague still flares up sporadically but it has not been a real problem in over a century, especially in the developed world.

Unfortunately, this has not always been the case. Bombay had a big epidemic of bubonic plague in 1900, a relatively recent date for what ought to be a half forgotten nightmare belonging to the Middle Ages.

In 1900, the great Indian city of Bombay (now known as Mumbai) was one of the chief cities of the British Raj, which ruled the Indian subcontinent in the name of the British Crown. When the bubonic plague suddenly erupted in this city, the effect was immediate and catastrophic.

Thousands were infected and died. Hundreds of thousands more fled the city in an attempt to escape the epidemic. Unsanitary conditions among the poorer neighborhoods helped fuel the outbreak.

The British authorities reacted to this emergency and instituted quarantines and checkpoints. One measure they took was to mark the houses containing patients or deaths with chalk circles to count the number of dead inside. These measures are reminiscent of modern FEMA signage, such as was used after the New Orleans flood, to mark houses with the number of dead found inside.

Here are photos from Bombay’s 1900 bubonic plague. They show houses marked with chalk circles. Each circle represents a death.

Photograph of a house in Bombay India with plague circles marking the number of deaths
A Plague House – Circles mark the Number of Deaths
A count of the number of plague rings.
Here is an enhanced view of the chalk circles – 52 in total. The empty circles mark death from bubonic plague. The ones with an X are deaths from other causes. But what are the odds that all those people died from other causes at the same time. They likely died from bubonic plague except that the lack of property medical testing meant that they could not be confirmed as plague deaths. Thus the official count likely underestimates the total number of people who died of bubonic plague in Bombay. In fact, a small plaque attached to the original photo notes that “It is probable that many of the latter were plague cases falsely [un]reported”
People in the streets trying to get away from the city and escape the plague.
Although it is hard to make out due to the poor quality of the original photo you can make out people on the street in front of the plague house. Enlarging that section of the photo we can see that a group of people is walking alongside a cart laden with items, likely refugees fleeing the city with their belongings.
Officer and attendants marking the walls with circles to count the number of dead.
Another plague house: the so-called plague rings count the number of dead. An British official accompanied by a retinue holds some sort of notepad. No one is wearing protective equipment.
expanded view of the same picture as above
Expanding and focusing on the people in the photo reveals some interesting details. The man on the far left is holding a child, perhaps left orphan from the plague. There are about 45 plague deaths in just that house, counting the plague rings. On the right we can get a better look at the officer and his attendants.

In the end this outbreak of the bubonic plague ran its course, as all epidemics eventually do, and the city returned to normal. The chalk circles were eventually erased by the rains and the names of the dead have been forgotten by history, these photos being one of the few remaining traces of this sad chapter in the history of India.

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I am the main archivist and collector of vintage photographs that you see on this site. It is my pleasure to explore the old days with you and bring the past back to life through the photos and images of the 1800s and 1900s.