By Lily Díaz
with Hanna Holm.
August 12, 1998
<Vuorensola> Hello, I am Hannu Vuorensola at Helsinki City Archives and I work here as a researcher.
<Hanna> Hi, I am Hanna Holm and I work as a research assistant at the Media Lab of the University of Art and Design in Helsinki. I am part of this Illness and Representation project.
<Lily> Hi, I am Lily Díaz, researcher at the Media Lab of the University of Art and Design Helsinki.
<Hanna> So, could you tell a bit about these papers?
<Vuorensola> Here are some lists of the dead, kept by the church in Helsinki. Seventeen ten, the great year of pest in Helsinki. Actually, one thousand, one hundred and eighty five, people died of pest in that year in Helsinki. And half of them were refugees and soldiers that had fled from the Baltic countries.
The lists do not include all of the people that died of pest during that time. But it contains information about where the people were buried. Actually, there died in Helsinki that year one thousand one hundred and eighty five people of pest, so it was quite a lot when you consider that the entire population was one thousand eight hundred at the time. Half of the dead were actually not people who lived permanently in Helsinki. Most of them had fled from the Baltic countries, to Helsinki.
<Lily> Could you tell us a little bit about that?
<Vuorensola> Actually, the situation was that Sweden had been at war for ten years, the Great Northern War, and the entire Swedish army was almost totally destroyed in 1709 in Pultava, the king Karl the Twelve had fled to Turkey, so he was in Turkey, and the Russians were advancing all the time. So they captured Riga, Tallin, and Viipuri in 1710. Many people fled from there to Helsinki, and with them came the pest.
<Hanna> So, where was the pest first noticed?
<Vuorensola> Well, the first document that I have found is the minutes of the magistrate of Helsinki, from the 9th of August, 1710, where they tell that there has been a woman that was sick for only four days and she died and had black stains all over, and that was pest. And then, the magistrate decided that all those houses that were thought to have pest must be watched so that nobody can come out. But that was of no avail because the pest spread so fast and most of the people who came here, they were loose folks. So there was very little to be done because at that time though they had a firewarden to care for public order, that was not sufficient, and when you consider that these one thousand one hundred and eighty five people died in three to four month's time, there were almost too little people who could bury dead. So, of course all kinds of measures were tried but they were of little avail.
<Hanna> So there was practically no organization in Helsinki.
<Vuorensola> Yes, of course there were magistrates, and there were some military units, but when one considers how many people died, so fast, so nobody was able to control it. And actually the magistrate stopped working for a while, because the major died, two of the members of the magistrate died, the headmaster of the school died, and so did one of the best priests who commonly used to give the Christmas sermon. And also because the situation in the country as so severe. The Russians were at the doorstep, and actually captured the city in 1713. And it was completly destroyed.
<Hanna> So there were a lot of other pressures...
<Vuorensola> Yes, yes... There were orders to make the defenses of the city better but nobody could do it because of the pest. Because there so many people dying. And when it was over, there only thirty burghers left in the entire city.
<Hanna> How about in the whole of Finland?
<Vuorensola> And do not know,actually; I haven't got any figures about that. But I think that it was mostly concentrated in Helsinki. Of course, the people who could fled to the countryside. Very many fled. And of course, after three years, most of the people fled into Sweden.
<Hanna> What kind of role, if any, did religion play?
<Vuorensola> It is very difficult to find any kind of material relating to this pest and religion. But actually, Sweden and Finland used to be very religious up to the Great Northern War. But somehow this era changed the relation of people to religion. When Sweden was a great power, during the seventeenth century, people believed that when they believe in God, they really believed in God and somehow God gives them victory, but not anymore. So after this so-called Great War, the relation to religion was changed, profoundly. As to for example, funerals during the Great Pest, people commonly buried the bodies, as fast as possible.
<Hanna> Is it somehow in connection with the hygiene?
<Vuorensola> Yes! yes.
<Hanna> Why did they choose that particular spot in Helsinki?
<Vuorensola> Well, it was actually because it was outside the city, or town, because Helsinki was so small in those days... That area was used as a military training ground, and it was outside the city, and the churchyard was too small for that amount of dead. Because the churchyard was then in the same place where the Senate square is now. Those people who were more prominent were still buried in the churchyard, or if they were noble or of the higher status, they were buried under the floor of the church. But actually, most of the people were buried as fast as possible, without any kind of ceremonies because because there were very little people to do the job of beginning the graves. But actually, this place had been used as a graveyard already in 1697 the year fo the Great Famine, when there died in Helsinki about one hundred and thirty people out of famine. This was why.
<Hanna> So, is it a mass grave?
<Vuorensola> Yes, I believe so. I believe so. But of course, when there died, in one day, several persons, they were commonly buried, at once. So they did'nt wait for two or three days to bury the bodies. But would do away with it as soon as possible.
<Hanna> How come there are no separate gravestones for the people who are buried in Pest Park?
<Vuorensola> It is difficult to say. There is, of course, like you know, in that portal, the arch, and a plate telling about about the Great Pest, but I don't know. I have never seen anybody proposing a bigger monument. There are, of course, afterwards, many kinds of monuments there. Like there is a monument for the German soldiers who died in 1918. And Finnish soldiers who died in the same year when they occupied Helsinki...But not a gravestone for the dead from the pest.
<Hanna> So, what do we know about these people who died of pest?
<Vuorensola> Well, about some of them we know very little. Especially those who had fled. For example, in that list of the dead there is mention that "It was a boy." or "Two children." No names. But of course, there are other like the major and so on. Pest killed rich and poor alike. It didn't do any separation.
<Hanna> And then, just shortly, how has the Pest Park used afterwards?
<Vuorensola> Well,in 1790, it was made a common graveyard of Helsinki. But it was very difficult to convince people to bury their loved ones in the Pest Park because it has had quite a grim reputation. Burying there, stopped in 1829. And then it was turned into a park. And the so-called old church, is now in the Pest Park. It was built in 1820 because Helsinki had become the capital of Finland in 1812, and these was a new city center, which is now the center of Helsinki. It was made by Engel and that meant that the old church the church of Ulrika and Eleonor that was built in the 1740's was torn down. But before the new cathedral, could be built, one needed a provisional church and this so called old church was the provisional church.
<Hanna> How do you think people react to Pest Park nowadays?
<Vuorensola> I don't know. If you look at the prices of the flats, they are sky high there. Because nowadays it is the middle of the city. I don't know, whether there are so many people that actually know about it. But, perhaps there are some people who are a little bit afraid, still. Of course there have been other places, like the places where the executions took place, and they were for a very long time dreaded places.