Most people know Daniel Defoe’s name as the author of Robinson Crusoe and Moll Flanders. But his novels were only a small part of Defoe’s hectic life, which ended in a fatal lethargy. Defoe, whose real name was Foe, added the “De” to sound more aristocratic. He was born in the parish of St. Giles Cripplegate in London sometime between 1659 and 1662 to a family of Presbyterian Dissenters, and his father was a candle-maker and butcher. In his early chidhood Daniel lived through both the Great Plague and the Great Fire. He attended schools run by Dissenters, who were constantly hassled by the government, which wanted everyone to worship in the official Church of England.
Defoe became a merchant, dealing in hosiery, woolen goods, and wine, among other things, and he acquired enough wealth to settle in a country estate. He also raised civets, valuable for making perfume. He married Mary Tuffley, a London merchant’s daughter, who brought with her a dowry valued at what would be $500,000 today. His marriage survived for fifty years and produced six surviving children.
Despite his initial success, and his wife’s fortune, Defoe was not a prudent businessman—some said his dealings were often shady—and he soon was wallowing in debt. He also involved himself in political causes, usually on the anti-government side, was in constant hot water with authorities, and landed in prison five times. When William and Mary took the throne in 1688, Defoe became a trusted adviser and propagandist for them, and he worked as a spy on the Continent and in Scotland.
All the while he was writing novels, political and religious tracts, satires, and works on the occult—some 400 titles in all, under 200 pseudonyms, including such fanciful names as Sir Malcontent Chagrin, Jeremiah Dry-Boots, Count Kidney Face, Lionel Lye-Alone, and Sir Fopling Tittle-Tattle. Notable among his novels is his epic Journal of the Plague Year, in which he recreates with grisly details the horrors of the disease that killed 70,000 people in London.
The Journal provides insight into Defoe’s almost masochistic fascination with death. “In the plague pits,” he wrote, “there were 16 or 17 bodies, some were wrapt up in Linen Sheets, some in Rugs, some little other than naked…but the Matter was not much to them, or the Indecency much to anyone else, seeing they were all dead, and were to be huddled together in the Common Grave of Mankind, as we may call it, for here was no Difference made, but Poor and Rich went together.”
In April of 1731 Defoe was hiding from creditors, living in a seedy boarding house in Ropemakers Alley, a rundown section of Cripplegate near where he was born. He came down with a flu-like illness and died sometime on the night of April 24-25 at the age of seventy.
The doctor who attended him ascribed his death to lethargy.
Lethargy, though commonly thought of as mere lack of energy, is in fact a pathological condition of deep unresponsiveness that can be accompanied by anemia, iron deficiency, insomnia, apnea, narcolepsy, allergies, dry skin, constipation, dizziness, chest pain, blurred vision, shortness of breath, rapid heartbeat, and disorders of the heart, lungs, or thyroid. Defoe blamed lethargy for the death of a character in Moll Flanders. Some people thought it more likely that Defoe had died either of a stroke in his sleep or of typhus acquired during a prison stay.
He was buried at Tindall’s Burying-Ground, now Bunhill Fields, in north London, under the name “Mr. Dubow,” erroneously inscribed by the cemetery clerk.