"as if it carried the plague among its gorgeous folds"
The Plague (1898)
Public DomainThe Plague (1898) - Credit: Arnold Böcklin

The bubonic plague is an extremely virulent and highly contagious disease which can bring on death in as few as four days. Sufferers are afflicted with a fever, painfully swollen lymph glands, and, most notoriously, red lesions which quickly darken to black all over the skin. Gruesomely, the victim's body begins to decompose while he or she is still alive.

During the middle ages, the plague — in the guise of the Black Death — wiped out some 25 million European lives, 30-60 per cent of the population. Over the following four centuries, recurring epidemics were a constant source of panic across the continent. Although America remained mercifully free of the disease until 1900 (by which time effective treatment had been developed), its threat would have been heart-stoppingly real for recent migrants. At the time, the plague — like most disasters — was understood as a moral judgment from on high. 

Watch the first part of a dramatic recounting of the Black Death below. The full playlist can be accessed here.