Silent Killer

Serial Analysis Data

The Egyptian Gazette has been one of the most respected and successful newspapers in Egypt for decades. Originally located in Alexandria Egypt, it has reported on multiple major stories and events throughout the 19th and 20th centuries. Given this history of the newspaper, it perplexed me to see the reporting of a deadly widespread plague to be minimal. Granted I only had a tiny section of the newspaper in the year 1905 but still I expected more on such a catastrophic disease. This curiosity presented itself to be the perfect serial question for me to explore. I wanted to know if the plague was reported on more thoroughly in any other issues during that year and how widespread the disease was. Was it just affecting Alexandria or was it also spreading throughout Egypt. To do this I queried the newspaper and researched outside sources.

Exploring the reporting of the plague wasn’t easy. I started off by just querying the word plague across all of the pages of the newspaper in the year 1905. What I got back was a broad result of articles with the word plague I them. In searching this I even found that there was a cattle plague going on at the same time. The disease affecting people was coined ‘plague’ and the disease affecting cattle was coined ‘epidemic’. I came to the conclusion that the two did not intertwine and were separate affairs. Next I chose to query the headline “Bubonic Plague”. Most headlines are in all caps so I had to search that phrase in all caps since the query is case sensitive. That gave me a lot of useful results. It was then that I started to see a pattern about which the plague was reported on in the newspaper. The plague was usually reported on every other day or so. It was reported on in usually the local and general section and it was under bulletin records. The bulletin records showed how many cases had been reported to date and how many of those were fatal. The bulletin report also gave information as to where the plague was spreading. When I discovered the bulletin report section in the newspaper I proceeded to query the words “bulletin report” in the paragraph tags. This was probably the most useful query in that it gave me the best raw data of deaths due to the plague. Another query I used was epidemic. This one was probably the least useful. The epidemic query brought up results related to the cattle plague that was unrelated. Interesting enough though the cattle plague was very prominent in Alexandria in 1905 and in Egypt itself. 1905 seemed to be the year of the plague. The last query I used was “fatal cases”. This allowed me to find only fatal cases of the plague rather than all the cases reported. This was important for me because I made a graph showing the deaths due to the plague per month. The graph helped me get a better grip on when the plague was thriving in 1905 and when it had died down. At the beginning of 1905 the plague was at its peak. As the year progressed the plague deaths decreased significantly.

By using these methods of research I found a lot of evidence to help me reach a conclusion in my research. From the information in my newspaper the plague was already thriving at the start of 1905. In the prior year (1904) a total of 843 cases of the plague were reported, 501 of which were fatal. From the looks of these numbers it seems that the plague had been going on for quite some time. The plague was so catastrophic that American newspapers also reported about the plague in Egypt. In a New York newspaper they used the headline “Horrible affair in Egypt: bones and brains everywhere”. While that headline might have made a good horror movie title, the plague in Egypt was far from fiction. Monthly deaths were occurring at an alarming rate. At the beginning of 1905 the plague seemed to be at its peak taking around 13 lives in the first few weeks of January. This primarily shows how strong the plague was thriving in the past months of 1904. In the last week of December 1904, there was a spike in the number of cases of plague reported. This wave of increase in plague cases looks like it made its way into the New Year as well. This was occurring mostly in part because the plague was very contagious. I discovered in the newspaper that people started to get infected by the plague by the goods coming into the country mostly from India. Along with India, goods from Upper Egypt like beans were contaminated and being brought over into the area. The disease had infected the goods because dead rats had been around the food for weeks. An infected rat would try to eat some of the goods and then die from the illness. Nobody would really notice and the disease would then spread to the goods and then to the people by them consuming the goods. Also treatment for a disease of this magnitude wasn’t the best in 1905. So people were getting sick faster than they could be cured in some parts of Egypt. I also discovered that the plague was not exclusive to Alexandria. The disease had spread to multiple parts of Egypt like damanhour where a lot of deaths occurred right behind Alexandria.

The methods I used were all digital methods which, while being very efficient, presented itself with some challenges. For example, using the microfilm and then OCR to convert the newspaper to text was a very efficient way of doing it versus typing it all out. The only issue was that I had no prior knowledge of how to use OCR which caused some headaches and made the process a little longer to complete. At first my images would come out very blurry and of low quality. I had to adjust the brightness and saturation of the image to get its resolution to increase. Also I even tried taking the negative version of the image. This meant that the paper was black and the writing was white. For some pages this helped a ton but for others it made no difference. Looking back I am glad that it was difficult because I learned a lot from it and from the mistakes I made. Another issue was learning how to use the xml language and how to mark up a page. I came to find out that this is a very useful skill to have when trying to work and manipulate text and getting things on the internet. This opened up a new world of skills for me and insight. I realized that everything that I see on the internet has a particular coding pattern behind it that looks similar but a lot more complex. Like in previous processes I was very new to this process so it took a lot of trial and error before I was comfortable working with it. At first I struggled with getting the tags around the text correctly. I would always have either too many “div” tags or too few tags. Then I saw that by typing “</” it closed any open tags you might’ve had open. This was a life saver because I could not have kept up with all the tags I had opened and working with simultaneously.

In conclusion, my predictions of how the newspaper reported on the plague were wrong. It turns out that the newspaper had a formulaic way of reporting on the plague. Also the plague was not a new thing in1905. The plague had already been thriving in years past especially 1904, and 1905 was probably a downfall year for it. This explains why the plague was not breaking news in my week of the newspaper or in any week in the year 1905. Also the plague was affecting different regions outside of Alexandria. For example, in Suez there was a large influx of the plague coming in from imported good from India. Also in Port Said, Nag Hamaidi, Goreis, and Toukh there were new cases of the plague every week. The region of Damanhour was probably one of the highest in plagues reported along with Alexandria. From my research, the Egyptian Gazette did an exceptional job reporting on the plague as they did with any story. Looking at just my week of the newspaper didn’t tell me the whole story of the plague but definitely gave an interesting perspective. When looking at just one day of this newspaper you get a lot of news but an original perspective on it. You get the perspective of the day to day person living in that time and how they reacted to certain news at that very instant. It is much different than the perspective of someone who is looking back on history writing about it.

Thomas Corzo
Thomas Corzo

The author, a student at Florida State University, was enrolled in the digital microhistory lab in fall 2016.