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  • Writer's pictureMacabre Emporium Pod

Episode 42 - Plague Doctors and the Dead Men


The history and origins of Plague Doctors

plague doctor art
Art depicting a plague doctor

Plague itself is caused by Yersinia pestis, which is a bacteria that is transmitted a few ways:

  1. From animal to human via flea bites

  2. Contact with contaminated fluid and/or tissue

  3. Inhalation of infectious droplets via sneezing and/or coughing

…You know, much like how COVID spreads.

Plagues were the most feared thing back in the 17th century. The world clearly didn’t have the technology, nor access to treatments that we do now. So when a plague came in, they were known to wipe out a massive number of people before disappearing. Hundreds of millions of people were affected, and thanks to one man in particular, there was a way to get help into the homes of the sick, and that was via plague doctors.

The plague doctors came about while specializing in care for those infected with a plague. They were hired by villages and took care of each sick citizen, no matter what social class they belonged to. If by chance there were not enough actual doctors to do the caring, other people would be hired. By other people, I mean those not in the medical field whatsoever, but those clever enough to make it seem as though they knew what they were doing and talking about. They would pass off simple medications/potions that could be made at home that really had no effect. One of the ways they would treat their patients was by bloodletting. They also used leeches to drink the blood and would rub slimy toads on swollen lymph nodes - but none of it was effective. The doctors sometimes had the patient drink their own urine to combat the plague.

When the patient was very near the end of their life, the doctors went to extreme measures and coated the patient in mercury and then basically baked them in an oven in hopes the heat would burn the sickness out of them. This also never worked…who would’ve thought?

The risk of taking this job, for the doctors and non-doctors alike, was huge, and it made it extremely difficult to find willing participants for this line of work. Many of those that took this job died, or fled before they started the job. These people had a lot on their shoulders. They played doctor, healer, they helped remove the dead bodies, they performed the autopsies, they also kept all of the paperwork up to date so that the public register of deaths caused by the plague could stay up to date.

The first ever mention of a plague doctor was in a book penned by Charles de Lorme in 1619, who was a physician for royals, most notably for King Louis XIII of France. Though it was not actually plague doctors that were mentioned, it was the costume itself. Charles would become responsible for creating the plague doctor suit that is immediately recognisable.

In Charles de Lorme’s description of the outfit, it included a coat that was covered in scented wax, pants that were connected to boots, a tucked in shirt, a hat and gloves made from goat leather. Now what they wore to protect their faces was a bit more odd. They wore a tight-fitting mask with a half foot long nose shaped like a beak. The beak itself was filled with perfume and had two holes on the end underneath so that the doctor had the ability to breathe normally. That same end was filled with theriac, which is a compound of 55 herbs and other things like cinnamon, myrrh, and honey. They also wore glasses on top of the beak. They were also known to carry a wooden cane, which actually did have a purpose. It allowed the doctors to undress, examine, and direct the patients without ever having to actually touch them themselves.

Charles de Lorme believed that all of this gear would help protect the doctor wearing it from the plague that was affecting the people of Europe. He thought the shape of the beak would give the mask wearer ample time to take a breath in, and have that intake of air kind of steep in the herbs before it got to the doctor's nose.

Even with all the care and thought put into the costume, it did little more than bring about a representation of the plague, and death itself. The costume often terrified people. And in the end, it did nothing to actually protect those that wore them, as I said earlier - most of them died if they did not flee.

Now, the plague doctor costume is a really popular one. Especially since the first case of COVID came to light. The thought is the same, but the gear looks a little different.

The beak mask is now an N95 mask.

The goat leather gloves are rubber gloves.

The goat leather hat is now a surgical cap.

The jacket and pants coated in wax are now surgical scrubs.

So maybe Charles de Lorme wasn’t far off with the PPE, he was just ahead of his time and lived in the wrong era to see it do as effective as he had hoped it would be.

But even with that, the original look of the plague doctor remains a popular costume like I said, and so much so that when COVID became stronger, and more and more cases popped up worldwide, people would be seen walking around in the costume, trying to scare people on purpose. At one point it was called “Spring Fashion 2020.”

The plague doctor started popping up more in video games like Bloodborne, Apex Legends, Overwatch and My Hero Academia. It is also featured in Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood, but that doesn’t count, as those games are historically driven, and I can assume that one was created to depict the time when plague doctors were actually still around.

Do you know who the most famous plague doctor was?




The Dead Men

Dead men fight back
Attack of the dead men

World War I, also known as the Great War, started in 1914 after the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria. His murder catapulted into a war across Europe that lasted until 1918. During the four-year conflict, Germany, Austria-Hungary, Bulgaria, and the Ottoman Empire (the Central Powers) fought against Great Britain, France, Russia, Italy, Romania, Canada, Japan, and the United States (the Allied Powers). Thanks to new military technologies and the horrors of trench warfare, World War I saw unprecedented levels of carnage and destruction. By the time the war was over and the Allied Powers had won, more than 16 million people—soldiers and civilians alike—were dead.

Osowiec (os-o-vich) Fortress was originally constructed in the late 19th century on a strategic spot near the Biebrza (beebz ra) River in the Russian Empire which is now modern-day Poland. This fortress was also conveniently located on a rail line that went through all the bogs and marshes in the region and its location so close to the German border would make this a choke point for moving supplies and troops for both forces.

German forces attempted in 1914 to take Osowiec (os o vich) fortress but were unsuccessful and tried again in February 1915. This second attack did damage the fortress severely but its main defenses held until the Russian counterattacks forced the Germans to break off from the fight.

That Summer during the Gorlice-Tarnow (gorleek tartonov) offensive caused the Russian forces to become off balance making it easier for the Germans to advance forward and take Poland in a frontal attack and this would make Osowiec a prize to take from the Russians. The German high command ordered General Field Marshal Paul von Hindenburg on the offensive. Under his command, he would send 12 infantry battalions totaling (7-8,000 soldiers) and 30 heavy artillery pieces to set their sights on Osowiec.

The Russian defense was led by General Lieutenant Vladimir Kotlinsky with 500 soldiers and 400 local militiamen to keep the Germans from taking the fortress. So outmanned and outgunned they dug in with trenches and barbed wire in front of the fortress preparing for the Germans to attack also making them a smaller target.

With their failed attempts in the past to take the fort the Germans knew they would need more than artillery to take this fortress. As they learned from previous attempts artillery fire and bombing runs from planes weren’t effective and they couldn’t just send the infantry to storm Osovic as it would be difficult and costly to do so. The Germans would use a new brutal weapon that was birthed from the Great War, and this weapon would be gas.

Even though gas was fairly new to warfare it still had devastating effects. The more infamous mustard gas didn't appear until later in WWI and can cause blistering of the skin and second and third-degree burns It had a lower mortality rate of 2-3 percent but more than likely would cause cancer later on in those that survived mustard gas attacks.

This earlier gas the Germans used on Osovich was a mixture of chlorine and bromine. Separate they can have devastating effects on your body.

Bromine vapors can cause irritation to your eyes, nose, and throat, causing pulmonary edema or fluid collecting in your lungs.

Whereas chlorine can do all the same effects and the smell is described as a mix of pepper and pineapple but when chlorine attaches itself to moisture in the air it turns into hydrochloric acid.

With these two mixed together, the bromine would act as an irritant where the chlorine would attack the soft tissue burning the lungs and dissolving the soft tissues in your lungs.

On August 6 around 4 a.m. with the wind in their favor, German forces would begin to release this poison gas mixture onto the battlefield, killing everything it touched. Grass and leaves would turn black and yellow, killing insects and wildlife in the surrounding area.

Anything this gas touched would die as the dark green fog crept across no man's land and down into the trenches. Those unfortunate to be stuck in these trenches would end up dying from choking on their own blood with every breath they took as the chlorine turned to HCL inside of them destroying their lungs and burning their eyes and nose as well. They pretty much were being burned from the inside out to simplify what was going on to them and would die within minutes.

Russian forces would soon see this cartoonishly dark green fog creeping towards them and without gas masks would improvise with rags or clothing soaked in water or urine in attempts to protect themselves against the killer fog but it proved to have little or no effect on the gas.

As the gas dispersed, German infantry battalions would from up to take Osovich while others would now secure the railway they wanted to take months before. In the first trenches German soldiers would find them littered with the dead contorted in their last moments as they died.

Now on edge and moving over the shelled-out ground from artillery fire to the second trench still no resistance just more death, they suddenly find themselves under heavy machine gun and artillery fire from the fortress tearing through the German ranks.

Those who survived the gas attacks would crawl up and emerge from the trenches stumbling and limping around like zombies with bayonets attached to their rifles. With bloody rags over their faces their tears red with blood, their eyes burning red, and disfigured faces from chemical burns, and coughing up blood and pieces of their lungs, they sought their revenge for their fallen comrades. Kotlinsky would lead the charge taking the fight now to the Germans with no plan but to survive and avenge their fallen.

Seeing these dead men rise from their deaths and attack them soldiers would turn and run at the horrible sight of the gassed Russian soldiers, trampling each other and even falling into their own barbed wire trying to get away from the zombie soldiers in the midst of the machine gun fire and artillery barrages from the fortress.

In the midst of the fighting to the first taken trench, Kotlinsky is shot through his side and hands off command to sapper Władysław Strzemińsk as Kotlinsky is carried to safety by another soldier.

With Strzemińsk now in command, they quickly take the trenches back from the fleeing German soldiers where they find 100s of their fallen comrades from the gas and this only fuels them even more to push the Germans back.

Strzemińsk would later say: "I cannot describe the bitterness and fury with which our soldiers marched against the German poisoners. Strong rifle and machine-gun fire and densely bursting shrapnel could not stop the onslaught of enraged soldiers. Exhausted, poisoned they charged with the sole purpose of crushing the Germans. There were no laggards, no one had to rush. There were no individual heroes here, the companies marched as one person animated by only one goal, one thought: to die, but to take revenge on the vile prisoners."

By 11 a.m. the remaining Russian forces would have the defensive line back in their control and have the Germans pushed back to their starting positions. Unfortunately, Vladimir Kotlinsky would die from his injuries later that evening, and two weeks later the Russians would have to abandon the Osovic fortress under the threat of being surrounded by German forces two weeks later. The exact number of casualties from this day are unknown. Newspapers would go on to call this battle the attack of the deadmen.

Vladimir Kotlinsky would be awarded the Order of St. George for his actions that day and he was only 21 years old. Lt. Wladyslaw Strzeminski was awarded the Sword of St. George for his bravery during the attacks and survive WWI to go on to be an influential painter in Poland until his death on December 28, 1952.

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