A 1665 Advertisement Promises a “Famous and Effectual” Cure for the Great Plague

There is a level of avarice and depravity in defrauding victims of an epidemic that should shock even the most jaded. But a look into the archives of history confirms that venal mountebanks and con artists have always followed disaster when it strikes. In 1665, the Black Death reappeared in London, a disease that had ravaged medieval Europe for centuries and left an indelible impression on cultural memory. After the rats began to spread disease, terror spread with it. Then came the advertisements for sure cures.

“Everyone dreaded catching the disease,” notes the British Library. “Victims were often nailed into their houses in an attempt to stop the spread… They usually died within days, in agony and madness from fevers and infected swellings.” This grotesque scene of panic and pain seemed like a growth market to “quack doctors selling fake remedies. There were many different pills and potions,” and they “were often very expensive to buy and claimed, falsely, to have been successfully used in previous epidemics.”

Surely, there were many in the medical profession, such as it was, who genuinely wanted to help, but no honest doctor could claim, as the broadside above does, to have discovered a “Famous and Effectual MEDICINE TO CURE THE PLAGUE.” So confident is this ad that it lists the names and locations of several people supposedly cured (and promises to have cured “above fifty more”). You can go look up “Andrew Baget, in St. Gile’s,” or “Mrs. Adkings. In Coven Garden,” or “Mary-Waight, in Bedford-Bury.” Ask them yourself! Only, that might be a little difficult as you’ve currently got the plague…. (See a transcription of the advertisement here.)

This particular example appears to have been a guild effort. At the bottom of the pamphlet we find a list of merchants offering the needed ingredients for the medicine, which sufferers would presumably mix themselves, having first visited the shops of Mr. Leonard Sowersby, Mr. Heywoods, Mr. Owens, Mr. Goodlaks, a second Mr. Heywoods, and Mrs. Elizabeth Calverts (potentially infecting others all the time.) Customers were clearly desperate. They aren’t even given the stamp of a physician’s approval, only the merchants' promise that others have returned from the brink by means of an “infallible Powder” that also cures “Small-Pox, Fevers, Agues, and Surfeits.” Children should take half a dose.

17th century physicians fared little better against the plague than doctors had over 300 years earlier when the disease first made its appearance in Europe in 1347, traveling from Asia to Italy. They did what they could, as the BBC points out, recommending “mustard, mint sauce, apple sauce and horseradish” as dietary aids. Other attempted 14th century cures included “rubbing onions, herbs or a chopped up snake (if available) on the boils or cutting up a pigeon and rubbing it over an infected body.”

This sounded specious to many people at the time. One 1380 source, Jean Froissart’s Chronicles, stated sarcastically, “doctors need three qualifications: to be able to lie and not get caught; to pretend to be honest; and to cause death without guilt.” Such qualifications have always suited those intent on careers in government or finance, where times of trouble can be highly profitable. We are fortunate, however, for the advances of modern medicine, and for medical professionals who risk their lives daily for victims of COVID-19, even if some other human qualities haven’t changed since people tried to end pandemics by marching through the streets whipping themselves.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Classic Songs Re-Imagined as Vintage Book Covers During Our Troubled Times: “Under Pressure,” “It’s the End of the World as We Know It,” “Shelter from the Storm” & More

Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, how many of us sought solace from the turbulent 21st century in cultural artifacts of bygone eras? Our favorite records by the likes of the Beatles, Queen, David Bowie; our favorite novels by the likes of Raymond Chandler, Ian Fleming, Philip K. Dick: all of them now possess a solidity that seems lacking in much current popular culture. The work of all these creators has its own kind of artistic daring, and all of it, too, also came out of times troubled in their own way.

Hence the cultural resonance that has long outlasted their first burst of popularity — and that fuels the visual mash-ups of Todd Alcott. A professional screenwriter and graphic designer, Alcott takes mid-20th-century works of graphic design, most often paperback book covers, and reimagines them with the lyrics, themes, and even imagery of popular songs from a slightly later period. This project is easier shown than explained, but take a glance at his Etsy shop and you'll understand it at once.

You'll also take notice of a few mash-ups especially relevant to the present moment, one in which we all feel a bit "Under Pressure." The whole of "Planet Earth," after all, has found itself subject to the kind of deadly pandemic that only happens "Once in a Lifetime," if that often.

Increasingly many of us feel the need to "Call the Doctor," but increasingly often, the doctor has proven unavailable. Most of us can do no better than seeking "Shelter from the Storm" — and some of us have been forced by law to do so.

In some countries, all this has begun to feel like "Life During Wartime." Extended periods confined to our homes have rendered some of us "Comfortably Numb," and no few Americans have begun to say, "I'm So Bored with the U.S.A." Perhaps you've even heard from friends who describes themselves as in the process of "Losing My Religion." Some see humanity as plunging into "The Downward Spiral" that ultimately means "It's the End of the World as We Know It."

Others say "Don't Worry About the Government," expecting as they do a "Revolution" for which they've already begun to arm themselves with "Lawyers, Guns and Money." But how many of us can really say with confidence what a post-coronavirus world will look like, and how or whether it will be different from the one we've grown used to? Best to draw all we can from the wisdom of the past — whatever form it comes in — and bear in mind that, as a 20th-century sage once put it, "Tomorrow Never Knows." You can purchase copies of Todd Alcott's covers (which extends well beyond what appears here) at his Etsy shop.

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall, on Facebook, or on Instagram.

“It’s the End of the World as We Know It,” Michael Stipe Proclaims Again, and He Still Feels Fine

It has taken a viral pandemic, and a mountain of tragic folly and more to come, but the internet has finally delivered the quality content we deserve, at least when it comes to celebrities stuck at home. Nightly bedtime stories read by Dolly Parton? Intimate streamed performances from Neil Young, Ben Gibbard, and many, many others, including stars of Broadway and opera house stages? It can feel a little overwhelming, especially for people working, educating, and doing a hundred other things in quarantine. But if there’s someone I really want to hear from, it’s the guy who told us, thirty-some years ago, “It’s the End of the World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine).”

If you remember the Reagan years, you remember living under the threat of mass extinction by nuclear winter and radiation poisoning. The end of the world seemed imminent at the end of the Cold War. And Michael Stipe, in a manically danceable tune (depending on your level of stamina), proclaimed a need for solitude after issuing his many grievances.

It is still the end of the world, he says in a recent video address about coronavirus on his website (and a shorter version released on social media), and “I do feel fine. I feel okay. The important part of that lyric, that song title, is ‘As We Know It.’ We’re about to go through—we are going through something that none of us have ever encountered before….”

The moment is unique, of worldwide historical significance as was the belligerent arms race of the late eighties, the terrible A.I.D.S. epidemic, and other catastrophic events occurring when R.E.M.  released Document, the 1987 album that introduced millions of young fans to art-punk geniuses Wire—whose “Strange” Stipe and company cover; to bluesman Lightnin’ Hopkins and red-baiting senator Joseph McCarthy, who lent their names to two songs; and to Lenny Bruce, pioneering 60s comic, who, like Stipe in the album’s Side One closer, is “not afraid” of earthquakes, birds and snakes, aeroplanes, and other signs of the apocalypse. Things will change irrevocably, and life will probably go on. In the meantime, he says, “don’t mis-serve your own needs.”

You may not be surprised to learn the song re-entered the charts on March 13, 2020, as Polyphonic informs us in their video at the top. “It’s easy to see why.” These days nuclear holocaust seems low on the list of probable causes for the world’s end, what with potential economic collapse and more massive climate events following on COVID-19’s heels. Grim times indeed, as we know them, but they’re hardly the first we’ve faced in living memory. Behind Stipe’s “glib irony” in “It’s the End of the World as We Know It” lies a fierce critique of U.S. greed and violence and, as always, an alternative ethos, one whose call we might especially heed in our days of isolation.

We’re eager to reconnect in myriad ways, but time alone might not be such a bad idea. “Return, listen to yourself churn,” Stipe sings, “listen to your heart beat.” We can hear the final call for solitude as a dig at rugged individualism, or a call to healthy introspection. As the original video suggests, wading through the clutter might help us reclaim the stuff that makes us our best selves. Along with issuing his PSA, Stipe has also released a video, above, of a new demo track, “No Time for Love Like Now.” Here, he ditches the archness and anger of his fiery younger self for a plaintive statement about what the world needs. You guessed it…

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Join Choir! Choir! Choir! for a Community Singalong in Isolation

I love ya, and I think maybe if we sing together, well, we’d just feel a little bit better. Give it a try, okay? —Neil Diamond

Thus quoth singer-songwriter Neil Diamond on March 23, before launching into his surprisingly sturdy monster hit, "Sweet Caroline," having reworked its lyrics to promote hand-washing and social distancing to help control the spread of COVID-19.

He’s not wrong about the therapeutic benefits of group singing. Ditto the imperative to resist gathering publicly, or even in the homes of extended family and close friends, until this crisis is in the rear view.

Choir! Choir! Choir!, an ongoing community sing that’s attained global renown thanks to its frequent tours, charitable work, and the support of such starry personages as Patti Smith and David Byrne, has had to put the kibosh on live group events. (Check out their 2014 singalong of Diamond's "Sweet Caroline," above, for a taste of the proceedings.)

With everyone staying home, founders Nobu Adilman and Daveed Goldman quickly implemented a digital work around, inviting fans and first-timers alike to weekly online sing-ins.

Their next Social Distan-Sing-Along is coming up this Saturday, April 4th at 3pm EDT, featuring a campfire-themed playlist:

"The Weight"

"Blowin' In The Wind"

"Our House"

"Leaving On A Jet Plane"

"Redemption Song"

"Talkin Bout A Revolution"

"Dust In The Wind"

"Cats In The Cradle"

"Wild World"

(Sadly, no "Titanic," but perhaps that one’s more summer camp than campfire, and these days, it’s probably best to sidestep any number, no matter how silly, that springs from mass casualties…)

Participants are instructed to print a file of the song lyrics in advance and show up to the digital campfire (live streaming on YouTube or Facebook) with a couple of devicesenough to follow along with Adilman and Goldman, while simultaneously Zooming in any friends you've pre-arranged to sing with.

(With 1000s attending, one of Choir! Choir! Choir!’s usual joyslifting one’s voice with a vast chorus of mostly strangersis a logistical and technological impossibility.)

Participants are also encouraged to share footage of themselves singing along, using the hashtag #NeverStopSingingthough we remind our non-performance-oriented readers that this is merely a suggestion.

Choir! Choir! Choir in isolation may well attract shower Sinatras who’d never dream of opening their mouths at an in-person event.

It’s a golden opportunity for the vocally shy to become part of one of the biggest choirs in history, secure in the knowledge that the only people to hear them croaking away will be the cat, the dog, any human co-inhabitants… and, oh dear, what about neighbors in the immediate vicinity?

Don't worry about the neighbors. In fact, prick up your earsyou may hear them singing the exact same tunes.

Download the lyrics for April 4’s campfire here prior to joining in on YouTube or Facebook. If you miss this one, you’ll have another opportunity the following Saturday, when Choir! Choir! Choir! is hosting a virtual "sing-a-thon" in support of the Canadian Cancer Society Daffodil Campaign.

To get you in the mood, here are some of our favorites from Choir! Choir! Choir!’s classic playlist:

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine.  Like Choir! Choir! Choir!, she has been crowdsourcing art in isolation, most recently a hastily assembled tribute to the classic 60s social line dance, The Madison. Follow her @AyunHalliday.

Samuel L. Jackson Reads “Stay the F**k at Home”

The 2020 sequel to Go the F–k to Sleep Narrated by Samuel L. Jackson. The reading starts at the 6:10 mark...


Simulating an Epidemic: Using Data to Show How Diseases Like COVID-19 Spread

Disease modeling as a science has come into its own lately, for heartbreakingly obvious reasons. What may not be so obvious to those of us who aren't scientists is just how critical data can be in changing the course of events in an outbreak. Virus outbreaks may be “acts of God” or acts of unregulated black markets and agribusinesses, but in either case, statistical models can show, concretely, how collective human activity can save lives—and show what happens when people don’t act together.

For example, epidemiologists and biostatisticians have shown in detail how social distancing led to a “decline in the proportion of influenza deaths,” one study concludes, during the 1918 flu pandemic. The same researchers also saw evidence in their models that showed “public risk perception could be lowered” when these practices worked effectively, leading people think they could resume business as usual. But “less social distancing could eventually induce another epidemic wave.”

To say that it’s a challenge to stay inside and wait out COVID-19 indefinitely may be a gross understatement, but hunkering down may save our lives. No one can say what will happen, but as for how and why it happens, well, “that is math, not prophecy,” writes Harry Stevens at The Washington Post. “The virus can be slowed,” if people continue “avoiding public spaces and generally limiting their movement.” Let’s take a look at how with the model above. We must note that the video above does not model COVID-19 specifically, but a offers a detailed look at how a hypothetical epidemic spreads.

Created by YouTuber 3Blue1Brown, the modeling in the top video draws from a variety of sources, including Stevens’ interactive models of a hypothetical disease he calls “simulitis.” Another simulator whose work contributed to the video, Kevin Simler, has also explained the spread of disease with interactive models that enable us to visualize difficult-to-grasp epidemiological concepts, since "exponential growth is really, really hard for our human brains to understand” in the abstract, says YouTube physics explainer Minute Physics in the short, animated video above.

Deaths multiply faster than the media can report, and whatever totals we come across are hopelessly outdated by the time we read them, an emotional and intellectual barrage. So how can we know if we’re “winning or losing” (to use the not-particularly-helpful war metaphor) the COVID-19 fight? Here too, the current data on its previous progress in other countries can help plot the course of the disease in the U.S. and elsewhere, and allow scientists and policy-makers to make reasonable inferences about how to stop exponential growth.

But none of these models show the kind of granularity that doctors, nurses, and public health professionals must deal with in a real pandemic. “Simulitis is not covid-19, and these simulations vastly oversimplify the complexity of real life,” Stevens admits. Super-complicating risk factors like age, race, disability, and access to insurance and resources aren’t represented here. And there may be no way to model whatever the government is doing.

But the data models show us what has worked and what hasn't, both in the past and in the recent present, and they have become very accessible thanks to the internet (and open source journals on platforms like PLOS). For a longer, in-depth explanation of the current pandemic's exponential spread, see the lecture by epidemiologist Nicholas Jewell above from the Mathematical Sciences Research Institute (MSRI).

It may not sway people who actively ignore math, but disease modeling can guide the merely uninformed to a much better understanding of what’s happening, and better decisions about how to respond under the circumstances.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Good Medicine: The Band’s Classic Song, “The Weight,” Sung by Robbie Robertson, Ringo Starr & Special Guests from Around the World

Robbie Robertson’s “The Weight,” the Band’s most beloved song, has the quality of Dylan’s impressionistic narratives. Elliptical vignettes that seem to make very little sense at first listen, with a chorus that cuts right to the heart of the human predicament. “Robertson admits in his autobiography,” notes Patrick Doyle at Rolling Stone, “that he struggled to articulate to producer John Simon what the song was even about.” An artist needn’t understand a creation for it to resonate with listeners.

A read of the “The Weight”’s lyrics make its poignant themes evident—each stanza introduces characters who illustrate some sorrow or small kindness. The chorus offers what so many people seem to crave these days: a promise of rest from ceaseless toil, freedom from constant transactions, a community that shoulders everyone’s burdens…. “It’s almost like it’s good medicine,” Robertson told Doyle, “and it’s so suitable right now.” He refers specifically to the song’s revival in a dominant musical form of our isolation days—the online sing-along.

Though its lyrics aren’t nearly as easy to remember as, say, “Lean on Me,” Robertson’s classic, especially the big harmonies of its chorus (which everyone knows by heart), is ideal for big ensembles like the globe-spanning collection assembled by Playing for Change, “a group dedicated to ‘opening up how people see the world through the lens of music and art." The group’s producers, Doyle writes, “recently spent two years filming artists around the world, from Japan to Bahrain to Los Angeles, performing the song,” with Ringo Starr on drums and Robertson on rhythm guitar. They began on the 50th anniversary of the song's release.

The performances they captured are flawless, and mixed together seamlessly. If you want to know how this was achieved, watch the short behind the scenes video above with producer Sebastian Robertson, who happens to be Robbie's son. He starts by praising the stellar contributions of Larkin Poe, two sisters whose rootsy country rock updates the Allman Brothers for the 21st century. But there are no slouches in the bunch (don’t be intimated out of your own group sing-alongs by the talent on display here). The song resonates in a way that connects, as “The Weight”’s chorus connects its non-sequitur stanzas, many disparate stories and voices.

Robertson was thrilled with the final product. “There’s a guy on a sitar!” he enthuses. “There’s a guy playing an oud, one of my favorite instruments.” The song suggests there’s “something spiritual, magical, unsuspecting” that can come from times of darkness, and that we’d all feel a whole lot better if we learned to take care of each other. The Playing for Change version “screams of unity,” he says, “and I hope it spreads.”

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

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