Fear, Uncertainty, and Doubt about Gaol Fever

face of a prisoner

Sheriffs and magistrates in eighteenth-century England had authority to gather information about prison conditions, but little interest in doing so. Sheriffs and commissioners of the peace were typically gentlemen from the local elite appointed as a matter of patronage. Visiting jails as a duty of office did not offer an occasion for status-displaying public ceremony. “Gaol fever,” now called typhus, linked jails to contagion and death. Sheriffs’ interests generally did not favor their visiting prisons:

some sheriffs excuse themselves from attention to this part of their duty, on account of short duration, expense, and trouble of their office: and these gentlemen, as well as gentlemen in the commission of the peace, have no doubt been fearful of the consequences of looking into prisons. … {Some jailers} have said, “Those gentlemen think that if they came into my gaol, they should soon be in their graves.”^

Jailers who wanted to avoid supervision and interference in their administration of jails had an incentive to exaggerate the risks of visiting jails. Fear of jail fever did not stop wives and children from living with their husbands and fathers in jail. But in public officials’ weighing of interests, such fears had greater effect.

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