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Plague doctors march through the mist of history in St. John’s

Originally designed in the early 1600s, these plague doctor outfits were an early form of personal protective equipment. It was then exaggerated when it was adopted by people attending the Venetian Carnival, cultural historian and author Ainsley Hawthorn said. — Andrew Waterman/The Telegram
Originally designed in the early 1600s, these plague doctor outfits were an early form of personal protective equipment. — Andrew Waterman/The Telegram

Their costumes were replicas of the personal protective equipment worn during a much earlier pandemic

ST. JOHN'S, N.L. —

A slight drizzle hung in the air just before 4 p.m. on Saturday and the dampness and fog combined to make those approaching seem to appear from a mist.

The steps outside the Anglican Cathedral were empty until, one by one, individuals wearing masks with long noses, carrying canes and lanterns and wearing long black coats and top hats, approached, walking from the top and bottom of Church Street.

It was an unpublicized ‘happening’ called “March of the Plague Doctors,” organized by cultural historian and author Ainsley Hawthorn.



Ainsley Hawthorn organized the "March of the Plague Doctors" in downtown St. John's. — Andrew Waterman/The Telegram
Ainsley Hawthorn organized the "March of the Plague Doctors" in downtown St. John's. — Andrew Waterman/The Telegram

“In August, I was researching the origins of the plague doctor costume which was invented in the 1600s as an early form of personal protective equipment,” Hawthorn said. “But it also became a popular costume for the Venetian Carnival.”

The march was a fun and magical way to mark a year that’s been very stressful for many people, she said.

“I’m hoping that people will be surprised, delighted, a little spooked — it is the spooky season — so that would be fine as well,” she said. “But I hope we give people a memorable experience if they see us walking down the street.”



A slight drizzle mixed with the fog on Saturday, as people dressed as plague doctors emerged from the mist in all directions and walked toward the Anglican Cathedral on Church Street in downtown St. John's. Pictured here is Zaren Healey White. — Andrew Waterman/The Telegram
A slight drizzle mixed with the fog on Saturday, as people dressed as plague doctors emerged from the mist in all directions and walked toward the Anglican Cathedral on Church Street in downtown St. John's. Pictured here is Zaren Healey White. — Andrew Waterman/The Telegram

Approximately 15 people answered Hawthorn’s call, when she put it out on social media that she was looking to organize the event.

David Brake was there in full costume and said there is a weird irony in what they were doing.

“Our plague doctors have kept it all at bay, right?” he said. “So, it’s kind of a weird celebration, if you look at it that way.”

If you can’t beat it, laugh at it, Brake says.

“I hope people will take it in the spirit it is intended,” he said. “I heard about it just randomly out of the blue and thought, why not? … If it helps people to think about the history and the present of how we dealt with plagues. Thank god we’re not dealing with plagues in the same way now as we were then.”



David Brake in his plague doctor costume. Brake joined the march simply because it sounded like fun, but said it was also like a weird celebration of how modern plague doctors in Newfoundland and Labrador have managed to keep the current pandemic at bay. — Andrew Waterman/The Telegram
David Brake in his plague doctor costume. Brake joined the march simply because it sounded like fun, but said it was also like a weird celebration of how modern plague doctors in Newfoundland and Labrador have managed to keep the current pandemic at bay. — Andrew Waterman/The Telegram

Monica Squires was participating as well and said it simply sounded like fun.

“A friend was organizing a little parade of plague doctors and I thought it would be an interesting thing to do,” Squires said.

And while Squires expected strange looks and possibly laughs, when she stepped out of her house, the crows got excited, she said.

“The crows in my neighbourhood, they started talking to me,” Squires said. “I didn’t know what to say.”



Hawthorn said the original outfits were made entirely of leather with a wax coating and were meant to repel bodily fluids.

“The original mask would have been leather hoods, they look similar to British gas hoods in (the First World War), they had lenses over the eyes and a cone-shaped piece over the mouth that acted like a respirator,” Hawthorn said. “But over time, once it started being used as a costume, they exaggerated the beak-like look of the mask. So, what you’ll see us wearing today is kind of a fanciful reinterpretation of what they would look like.”



While germ theory did not yet exist in the early 1600s, people knew intuitively that getting closer to a contagious person made it more likely a person would get sick, Hawthorn said.

Even 500 years ago, despite how practical they were in helping stop the spread of contagious disease, the outfit must have been eerie, Hawthorn said.

“If someone has to cover their whole body when they interact with you, no matter how good their intention is, it is still going to scare and intimidate you, there’s no doubt,” she said.

Once the march was over, Hawthorn said the response was exactly what she hoped for.

“We all had a blast and the reaction from people on the street was really entertaining,” she said. “We had cars honking at us, we had people taking photos (and) we heard someone as we were walking by say, ‘I don’t know what the hell this is, but I love it.’”

It was a great review, she said.

“We surprised and delighted people and had a great time while doing it.”

Twitter: @AndrewLWaterman


This group of people in plague doctor costumes marched through downtown St. John's on Saturday to the surprise and delight of passersby. — Andrew Waterman/The Telegram
This group of people in plague doctor costumes marched through downtown St. John's on Saturday to the surprise and delight of passersby. — Andrew Waterman/The Telegram


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