Typhus is any of several similar diseases caused by Rickettsia bacteria. The name comes from the Greek typhus (τύφος) meaning smoky or hazy, describing the state of mind of those affected with typhus. The causative organism Rickettsia is an obligate intracellular parasitic bacterium that cannot survive for long outside living cells. It is transmitted to humans via external parasites such as lice, fleas, and ticks. While “typhoid” means “typhus-like”, typhus and typhoid fever are distinct diseases caused by different genera of bacteria.
The first reliable description of the disease appears during the Spanish siege of Moorish Granada in 1489. These accounts include descriptions of fever and red spots over arms, back, and chest, attention deficit, progressing to delirium, gangrenous sores, and the stink of rotting flesh. During the siege, the Spaniards lost 3,000 men to enemy action, but an additional 17,000 died of typhus.
In historical times “Gaol Fever”, or “Aryotitus fever” was common in English prisons, and is believed by modern authorities to have been Typhus. It often occurred when prisoners were crowded together into dark, filthy rooms where lice spread easily. Thus “Imprisonment until the next term of court” was often equivalent to a death sentence. Prisoners brought before the court sometimes infected members of the court itself. Following the assizes held at Oxford in 1577, later deemed the Black Assize, over 300 died from gaol fever, including Sir Robert Bell, Lord Chief Baron of the Exchequer. The Black Assize of Exeter 1586 was another notable outbreak. During the Lent assizes court held at Taunton in 1730, gaol fever caused the death of the Lord Chief Baron, as well as the High Sheriff, the sergeant, and hundreds of others. During a time when persons were executed for capital offenses, more prisoners died from ‘gaol fever’ than were put to death by all the public executioners in the British realm. In 1759, an English authority estimated that each year a quarter of the prisoners had died from gaol fever. In London, gaol fever frequently broke out among the ill-kept prisoners of Newgate Prison and then moved into the general city population. In May 1750, the Lord Mayor of London, Sir Samuel Pennant, and a large number of court personnel were fatally infected in the courtroom of the Old Bailey, which adjoined Newgate Prison.
Epidemics occurred routinely throughout Europe from the 16th to the 19th centuries, including during the English Civil War, the Thirty Years’ War, and the Napoleonic Wars. Pestilence of several kinds raged among combatants and civilians in Germany and surrounding lands from 1618 to 1648. According to Joseph Patrick Byrne, “By war’s end, typhus may have killed more than 10 percent of the total German population, and disease in general accounted for 90 percent of Europe’s casualties.”