Did you know that there were a handful of people who held the secret to rendering themselves immune to the Bubonic Plague? Not by fleeing the city. Not by avoiding any confined space occupied by the diseased. These guys walked right into the thick of it and actually touched scores of its victims – but never caught the disease. They were thieves and getting richer every day by looting the jewels and valuables off the bodies and out of the homes of the scores of stricken people in Marseilles. Naturally, the king wasn’t very pleased over this situation, it went against his 17th century ideals.

Makes you wonder just who these treasures would go to if everyone that could claim them was dead. My suspicion is that they would become property of the state a.k.a. fatten the royal coffers. So it’s unsurprising that the enterprising quartet was eventually apprehended. The powers that be had to know how the four thieves had exposed themselves to the horrific virus, yet remained the picture of health. Some tellers of this tale say their lives were spared in exchange for the recipe. Not so. They were supposed to burn at the stake for their crimes, and giving up the secret got their sentences mitigated to a far worse fate – death by hanging.

Vinegar, Thieves, Oil & Pestilence
Their secret? Herbs and spices… and here’s where the essential distortion of this story circulating today comes to light.

Thieves oil that you can buy is a modern concoction whose recipe is very different than the original. There was no distillation used in making the stuff these enterprising perfumers and spice merchants turned looters used to protect themselves from the Black Death. The truth is that it was a vinegar infusion that was allowed to ferment. The only ingredients that are in the thieves oil available from essential oil and supplement companies is cinnamon and clove essence. But they market it with this great little tale from the annals of the distant past.

Here’s the real recipe for Vinaigre des Quatre Voleurs – Vinegar of Four Thieves. This comes from an original paper that was posted in the streets of Marseilles during an outbreak of the plague that was on display in the Museum of Paris as late as 1937.

  • Take three pints of strong white wine vinegar
  • Add a handful of each of wormwood, meadowsweet, wild marjoram and sage
  • Fifty cloves
  • Two ounces of campanula roots, two ounces of angelic, rosemary and horehound
  • Three large measures of champhor.
  • Place the mixture in a container for fifteen days
  • Strain and express then bottle.
  • Use by rubbing it on the hands, ears and temples from time to time when approaching a plague victim.

Once thought a bunch of bunk by the medical community, science is now finding that this vinegar and herb concoction works. It’s powerful healing and prevention stuff.

As for the more romantic product known as Huile de Voleurs – yeah that robber’s oil preparation… the essential oils it is comprised of are chock full of benefits to preserve health and heal what ails you. No doubt it’s great stuff, but it’s not what they present it to be. There are a bunch of different modern formulations of  looter’s oil on the market, and a host of bloggers who give you their version of a DIY recipe. Take your pick – commercially distilled or cold brewed using the ancient recipe above – it’s a preparation you might just want to keep on hand.

Tammy Clayton

Content crafter and Senior Editor at Garden Culture Magazine
Tammy has been immersed in the world of plants and growing since her first job as an assistant weeder at the tender age of 8. Heavily influenced by a former life as a landscape designer and nursery owner, she swears good looking plants follow her home. (Some feel she's got a perennial obsession, others say the problem is tomato plants.)

If you don't find her at the desk - check the gardens. When not writing and weeding, she enjoys a good book, painting junk furniture, and blending the harvest of heirloom tomatoes and chiles into salsas.