Londoners Battle the Bubonic Plague in The Hemlock Cure by Joanne Burn


People today face a better chance of not succumbing to the recent coronavirus (COVID-19) disease by becoming vaccinated. People who struggled during pandemics of the past, such as the Great Plague of London in 1665, were not as fortunate. A new novel, The Hemlock Cure by Joanne Burn (Pegasus Crime, June 2022), offers readers the chance to learn how people survived during the last major outbreak of the bubonic plague in England.

“The COVID-19 virus has been devastating, and terrifying, but it is not as deadly as the plague,” said Burn. “The plague is estimated to have killed 30 to 60 percent of the population in the areas affected. Although I had written The Hemlock Cure before the pandemic, I was editing throughout and I’ve been fascinated at the parallels between our experiences of coronavirus and the 17th-century response to a plague outbreak. Despite not knowing exactly how the disease passed from person to person, people in the past understood the importance of social distancing. Families were basically self-isolating when they were struck down with the plague. They had a sense that they needed to ‘cleanse’ the air to get rid of the contagion and that gathering outdoors would be safer than indoors. They did what they could to focus on ‘preventatives’ rather than just treating the sick once they became ill. In London in 1665, individuals needed to obtain ‘certificates of health’ in order to travel, and they set up ‘peste hospitals’ to specifically treat plague victims.”

People often relied on apothecaries to provide them with medicines to prevent diseases.

“An apothecary offered general medical advice and dispensed medicines and ingredients to the public, as well as selling wholesale to other medical practitioners,” Burn noted. “Seventeenth century apothecaries were similar to the pharmacists of today, although they had a larger role in the manufacturing of medicines. An apothecary shop usually had a laboratory located at the back of the premises with all manner of equipment – furnaces, stills (copper, pewter or glass), pans, skillets, funnels, sieves, gallipots, graters, and vials. Apothecaries made pills, waters, alcoholic cordials, syrups, lozenges, floral confects, and ‘condited’ (pickled) roots. They created infusions, tinctures and decoctions, and controlled the sale of tobacco which was imported as a treatment for lung conditions and other ailments. Apothecaries were members of The Company of Worshipful Apothecaries, the roots of which go back to the Guild of Pepperers, established in 1180. They could offer medical advice, but they were not allowed to diagnose ailments in the manner of a medically qualified physician. So although there are clearly some differences between an apothecary of old and a modern-day pharmacist, it is easy to see the similarities.”

author photo by Sandi Hodkinson

While colorful characters of the past provide the motivation an author needs to write a book, sometimes the location of where these people lived is just as inspiring.“It’s fascinating how the tiniest snippet of a place or character can spark the fire of a whole novel,” Burn stated. “For The Hemlock Cure, the setting came first – and not just Eyam, but specifically the home of Humphrey Merrill, the village herbalist in 1665 (the year the plague struck). His cottage had come up for sale, and I viewed it in 2008. Once inside, I could so easily imagine his 17th-century kitchen hung with herbs and dried flowers, the shelves lined with so many jars of fascinating and bizarre ingredients. As I wandered through that atmospheric cottage, I knew it would be the perfect setting for a suspenseful novel.”

While there is a span of over 350 years between 1665 and today, readers can identify with the parent-child relationships presented in The Hemlock Cure.

“I would say that there is a misconception that parents in the past didn’t love or care for their children as deeply as parents care for their children today,” Burn said. “This idea comes from the fact so many children died before reaching adulthood and parents therefore needed to stay detached, keeping their offspring at arm’s length. But diaries and journals from the early modern period show that this simply isn’t true. In the 17th century, mothers and fathers loved their children just as much as we love our children today.

“Parent-child relationships are at the heart of the novel, and although the story of these relationships is at times heartbreaking and terrifying, I would like to think there are also inspiring and comforting threads that run throughout the narrative. We are at our best when parenting from a place of love and understanding, a place of compassion and patience.

“Parents who come to parenting from a place of fear and anxiety, and who cannot bear to look inward and address their own issues, will find it harder to establish mutual trust, respect, and love within the parent-child relationship. Violence is damaging to all aspects of a relationship. Parent-child relationships will eventually become adult-adult relationships that adult children do not forget. To nurture shared interests and to find common ground is one of the greatest gifts a parent can give to their child as is the ability to apologize.”


About the contributor: Denise Moran worked as a freelance reporter and photographer for The Chicago Tribune for 19 years and wrote two books for Arcadia Publishing’s Images of America series. She is currently completing a historical novel on the life of Dr. Letitia Westgate, the first American female physician, surgeon, and architect to design, build, and manage a hospital in the United States.



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