HJ-ED-DHJHerald Journal Columns
March 5, 2007, Herald Journal

Bubonic plague carried by rats


“Ring around a rosy,

Pocketful of posies

Ashes, ashes,

We all fall down.”

Remember this nursery rhyme? It wasn’t always a part of a child’s game. The rhyme is hundreds of years old, and according to urban legend, refers to the bubonic plague in Great Britain.

“Ring a round a rosy” is a bubo, an inflamed swelling of a lymphatic gland in the armpit or groin. Buboes are characteristic of the disease, and give the epidemic its name. Some plague victims had red spots that turned black on their skin. That is why the plague was also called “Black Death.”

“Pocketful of posies” refers to the flowers Londoners carried around in their pockets during the epidemic. In those days, people didn’t know about germs. They believed the plague was spread by bad air.

They thought if they breathed through flowers they held over their mouth and nose, the fragrant flowers would clean the air, and protect them from the plague.

“Ashes, ashes,” is a corruption of the word “achoo,” the sneezing or coughing sound a person makes when he had the respiratory version. It also could represent the sound the infected person makes when he or she vomits, another disease symptom.

“We all fall down” is a warning of how contagious the plague is, and that it is nearly always fatal. From 1348 to 1351, the bubonic plague killed a third of the population of Europe.

We now know that the bubonic plague is caused by a bacteria transmitted by fleas from infected rats.

One of the reasons the rat population got out of control in Great Britain was because Londoners killed the cats that hunted down and ate the rats. They believed cats were witches, or used by witches to do the devil’s work.

In the London plague of 1665, people killed both cats and dogs, thinking they spread the plague. It actually made the plague worse.

The plague didn’t end until a great fire in 1666 destroyed the warehouses next to the ports and docks in London. Rats were running freely and multiplying there. When the rats burned in the fire, the fleas on them burned too.

A couple of weeks ago, there was some concern in the Twin Cities about what to do with the feral cats running wild, killing song birds, and whether they should be eradicated.

Let’s be careful about getting rid of feral cats and dogs, coyotes, raptors or anything that keeps the rat population in check. Rats and mice carry many diseases.

It wasn’t that long ago, in 1993, that the Hantavirus was spread by mice in the northwest corner of New Mexico. Several people died from it.

CNN recently showed video of a restaurant in New York that was overrun by rats during the night. The sight of those rats scurrying around on the floor made me shudder.

If I had a choice whether to meet a feral cat in a dark alley, or a disease-infested rat, I’d take the cat any day.