We are all interested in sudden violent death … whether we like to admit it or not. The daily news is full of it in every form; print, broadcast or internet. The hard truth is we want to know about human disaster and tragedy if only to reaffirm our own humanity. It is in some ways reassuring to note that it has been so from the very beginnings of printed news media – during the late 17th and early 18th centuries. Alongside the diplomatic and commercial information the early news-sheets recounted murders, executions and accidents (usually fatal) on a regular basis. One of the earliest (if not the earliest) printed serial publication to make use of such material was the London weekly Bills of Mortality; although not exactly a newspaper in the traditional sense it was certainly purchased, shared and read as if it were.
The Bills were formulated initially to track disease (principally plague) and enumerate burials and christenings but from the mid 17th century they also listed causes of death including murders, suicides and accidental or unexplained violent deaths. It is these reports that provide an insight into the form and frequency of sudden violent death throughout the period of the early modern metropolis.
My research has focused on the content of the weekly Bills from 1654 to 1735 (the period of their greatest accuracy); as a result I have collated information for 868 murders, 2,267 suicides and an astounding 12,394 accidental violent deaths. I hope over the coming weeks and months to take a closer look at some of these events – in the main the accidents and disasters. While I also aim, at various times, to consider wider aspects of early modern sudden violent death, risk, blame and response etc I intend to keep the pace going by taking an ‘on this day’ approach. Although I hope to post regularly please don’t expect me to post daily – weekly is much more likely!