Silent Voices in History: The Searchers of the Dead

The Chirurgeon's Apprentice

One could hardly imagine a more vile job than examining the putrid, bloated remains of diseased corpses during the early modern period. Yet that is exactly the task that befell the ‘searchers’ of the dead beginning in the 16th century. Who were they? And why do we know so little about them today?   

The searchers are the silent voices behind one of the most important documents on mortality rates in early modern London: the Bills of Mortality (below). Begun in 1592 as a way of monitoring outbreaks of plague, the Bills of Mortality quickly became a weekly publication which detailed both the number of dead in each parish as well as the cause of death.

The office of the searcher was typically filled by elderly female pensioners in each parish. During this period, church bells tolled alerting the searchers that a death had occurred.  Once the body had been…

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