Epidemics in New York: Diseases From which NYC Suffered In its Early Days

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New York City, situated at the gateways of the sea, has drawn not only its resources, but also its dangers, from the whole orb of the world. Its fleets have returned laden with the spices of the East and the fruits of the South, but often within their pent holds here has been confined the malignant breath of foreign and fatal diseases.

Its water fronts, so unsurpassed for the accommodation of shipping, so felicitous for municipal cleanliness, have again and again, through the overcrowding of rookeries, foul, ancient, and devoid of all sanitary appliances, with the pariahs of the universe, proved plague spots as virulent as those which beset the path of pilgrims to the Holy city. It is only since the axiom "Eternal vigilance is the price of hygiene" has been appreciated that the city has regained and held its natural estate of healthfulness.

It is said that America is the home of but one endemic disease, yellow fever. This pestilence was probably engendered by the indescribable filth and suffering of slaves while undergoing the "Middle Passage." There is justice in the thought, as terrific as it is poetic, that slavery's course started and continued in mortality and ended in a maelstrom of blood.


In 1702 Edward Hyde, Lord Cornbury, was Governor of New York. He was the grandson of that Clarendon who faithfully served Charles II, to his cost, and whose daughter James II. when Duke of York secretly married. Thus Cornbury was a first cousin of Queen Anne. On his arrival the Corporation, of course, welcomed him with a banquet, that being as inevitable in those days as a cocked hat and the sword of state. In June, a malignant epidemic broke out in the town which, as it was then described, "Strongly resembled yellow fever." The citizens were panic-stricken through their inability to cope with it, and as many as could fled to the surrounding country, an expedient often resorted to in the future.

Cornbury took his Council with him to Jamaica, L.I., and there established the seat of government. During this visitation more than 500 perished a startling proportion in a population of less than 10,000. And yet it was commonly said that the Governor himself was a far worse plague. This may well have been true, according tot he following pen picture of him: "Cornbury was a very tyrannical, base, and profligate man, and received his appointment from King William as a reward for his desertion of King James. he was a savage bigot and imprisoned several clergymen who were dissenters. He was wont to dress himself in women's clothes, and thus patrol the fort. His avarice was insatiable and his disposition that of a savage." The yellow fever disappeared with the coming of the frost: but unfortunately this "Royal Governor" pest was destined to continue without a break for more than seventy years.


In 1737 there was great alarm felt in town over the news of the prevalence of both smallpox and spotted fever in South Carolina, with which colony a brisk traffic by sea existed. As a result, a pilot boat was stationed at Sandy Hook to board all vessels from Barbados, Antigua, and South Carolina, and force them to anchor off Bedlow's Island until examined and furnished with bills of health by physicians appointed for that purpose. This inception of Quarantine occasioned much indignation of the Flanders sort among the honest mariners.


In 1741 the town had scarcely recovered form the terrors of incendiary fires and the rage which followed the discovery of the "Negro Plot," and which exhausted itself in burning the criminals at the stake, when the yellow fever again became threatening. In 1742 there were 250 victims to this scourge. it is a matter of record that Dr. Colden, a physician celebrated for what was known as "the cool management of smallpox." recommended remedies that proved so efficacious that he received the thanks of the Corporation.

In those days there was an almshouse, that title of municipality, but no public hospital. The cornerstone of the New York Hospital was laid by Gov. Tryon in September, 1773. The buildings were situated on Broadway, between Anthony and Duane streets, and surrounded by ornate grounds. Land was plentiful there then, as the authorities were commonly criticized for placing a city institution so far out in the country. During the occupation of the British this hospital was converted into barracks.


In 1795 an English frigate entered New York Harbor with several cases of yellow fever on board, and the pestilence soon gained such headway in the city that there were 732 deaths therefrom. But little attempt seems to have been made to stay its ravages. All who were able fled; for those who remained a generous public subscription was made. It is worthy of note that the City of Philadelphia, true to its name, forwarded $7,000. About this time a new almshouse was built on Chambers Street.

The following description of the state of the city is taken from the New York Journal of Oct. 17: "This city has been in a truly melancholy situation, although the accounts have been greatly exaggerated. Consternation has added greatly to the distress of the city, the poor have suffered much, but their wants have been liberally supplied form the hands of benevolent donors. Very little business has been done, a solemn calm has reigned through every street. We are now blessed with salubrious Western gales, which are conceived to be sent in mercy and presage to our hopes that the city will be free from the epidemic in a little time." The saying that "Providence helps those who help themselves" had evidently no application then.


The Summer of 1798 was known for many years afterward as "the dreadful yellow fever year." The plague was so virulent that nearly one-half of its cases died. The well-to-do not only made their exodus, but the neighboring farmers, the principal source of food supply, refused to come to town, and so famine threatened. There was, however, an energetic and brave relief committee, and it made the following appeal through the newspapers, which proved of much avail: "We entreat our fellow-citizens of the surrounding country not to withhold from the markets the usual supplies of poultry and small meats, as well as other articles so essentially necessary to both sick and well in this distressed season." Two thousand and eighty-six lives were taken by this visitation, and at this time the population of the city was not more than 40,000. Business was almost entirely suspended: the schools and churches were closed. Washington Square, which had been purchased by the Corporation in 1796 as a pauper burial place, became also the hasty grave for many of the rich and the distinguished. After the epidemic had lessened, a great public meeting was held to inquire into the causes of the pestilence, it was generally agreed that the water supply of the town was insufficient, and for the most part impure. It consisted mainly of brackish wells, the one source of which every one boasted being the famous "tea pump" drawing on a deep and seemingly inexhaustible spring at the corner of Chatham and Roosevelt Streets. In Accordance with the sense of this meeting, the Bronx River was surveyed, but the Corporation finally refused to vote the $1,000,000 required to utilize its stream. The home of the disease this year was along the East River front, it having started at Coenties Slip.


The yellow fever returned in 1819, arousing universal alarm, but the real strength of its fury was not perceived until 1822. Then, in June, it broke out along Rector Street, a part of the town hitherto exempt. The old story of panic, flight, suspension of business, and desertion was repeated. "You cannot conceive the distressing condition of the whole town." wrote William L. Stone to his wife. "The fever is worse every hour. I saw the hearse pass the office an hour ago with seven sick in it. Thus the dead are carried to the grave and the sick out of town to die on the same melancholy carriage."


The pestilence continued with increasing virulence into 1823. The mortality reached the rate of 140 deaths a day. All that part of the town below City Hall was deemed "an infected district" and shut off by high board fences. The residents within it who were unwilling to leave their homes were forcibly removed. Robert M. Hartley, a celebrated philanthropist, who founded many of the charitable institutions of New York, and whose thirty-four volumes of reports are still authoritative on many economic and social subjects, wrote as follows of the plague: "It has utterly desolated the lower part of the city; thousands have left and other thousands are daily leaving. Stores, dwellings, and warehouses are closed and deserted. The Custom House, Post Office, all the banks, insurance offices, and other public places of business have been removed to the upper part of Broadway and to Greenwich Village, the region about being mostly occupied by merchants in buildings temporarily erected for their convenience. Such a motley scene as is exhibited defies description. There are carts, cartmen, carpenters, carriages, dust and dry goods to the end of the alphabet."

This occupation of Greenwich Village as a city of refuge in the end tended greatly to the permanent growth of the town. Temporary buildings were replaced by durable ones, and those who came to camp remained to live. Thus an eye witness said "he saw corn growing on the present corner of Hammond and Fourth Streets on a Saturday morning, and on the following Monday "Sykes and Niblo" had a hotel erected capable of accommodating 300 boarders."

This was the last great yellow-fever epidemic. Little by little, through the harshest sort of experience, the knowledge had come that segregation and fumigation were efficacious against this pest of the South. Quarantine was maintained with more and more strictness, it being related that in 1819, when a gentleman from Boston made good his escape after seventeen days' confinement, a reward was issued for his apprehension as if he were a common felon. In the thirty-four years prior to 1809 there were seventeen visitations of the yellow fever to the city, and in the thirty-four years subsequent thereto only two. But while there were guards without, there was still carelessness within. The water supply remained in its primitive, haphazard condition. There were open drains along the street. Although emigration had not yet put forth its steady stream, along the water fronts there was a heterogeneous seafaring population as ignorant and contemptuous of sanitary appliances as the Tartars of the plains. Within the rookeries wherein the yellow fever had raged they still hived indiscriminately the place of one dead being taken by two living. It may be stated here that in 1823 Potter's Field was removed from Washington Square to the ground now occupied by the old reservoir, corner of Fifth Avenue and Forty-second Street, and still later to a lot between Fourth and Lexington Avenues, on Fiftieth Street. In 1857 100,000 bodies were removed to Ward's island. Bellevue Hospital was built in 1826. Adjacent to it were the penitentiary and almshouse, and the entire property, comprising twenty-six acres of land, was enclosed by a stone wall and known as "The Bellevue Establishment."

The Cholera of 1832

For a number of years prior to 1832 the intelligent attention of the medical fraternity and the superstitious fears of the populace had been directed to the slow but steady progress of the cholera from its home in Southern Asia. But little was known of this pestilence, except its awful fatality, but the tales of travelers had endowed it with powers as supernatural as they were malignant. It was said to be clothed with the intelligence of direction; to travel as unswervingly as a bird's flight, and at the daily rate of a man's walk. No one at this time can well apprehend the vague anxiety with which the westward stalkings of this pale monster were watched. And yet, though it ravaged Great Britain in 1831, no municipal precautions worthy of the name were taken against it. In 1832 there was an immense emigration to New York. Famine in Ireland and revolutions in various Continental countries had started a tide which would continue for more than a half century. In common with all maritime cities, New York had the obligation of the dregs. The thrifty and the industrious passed on tot he fertile fields of the West, while the paupers and the improvident remained. Thus there was an unusual crowding in all those localities where filth for so many years had reigned undisturbed.

In the Spring of 1832 Cholera was brought to Quebec by Irish emigrant ships. It raged along the St. Lawrence and the lakes, and devastated the regions of the Northwest. New Yorkers gained a false comfort from its progress, arguing that the spectre never retraced its steps. But when cases were reported along the Hudson, then the deplorable conditions of the city for any resistance of the unknown scourge was generally appreciated. "The Corporation has not done its duty." complained one of the papers." The streets have at length been cleaned: but how long they will continue to be kept so we know not. This laudable event was accomplished not as it should have been, when the dreaded scourge was evidently rolling westward to New-Castle, London, Paris, Liverpool, not even when it blazed forth in Canada, but when it startled us by rising up actually in the midst of us, then efficient numbers of men began to appear with brooms and the streets looked less filthy. We would like to see a man with such decision as Napoleon in this crisis. He would not sit in his armchair and recommend people to do this and to do that. He would never rest until he saw it done." Unfortunately the head of affairs was more like unto Mrs. Partington in her great act "of keeping back the ocean with a broom.

June 24 the cholera broke out in the city in several detached quarters. Between them and the 1st of October about 3,500 perished from this scourge. The city's population then was about 250,000. It is said that over 100,000 fled from town. Hence the mortality was confined principally to the poor, for whom, it may be added, the authorities did little, but the medical fraternity much. Then, as now, New York was conspicuous for its learned, benevolent, and courageous physicians. While the whole gamut of evil passions was struck in the scenes of panic, cowardice, rapine, and debauchery, they sounded the accord and note of devotion to duty.

When the plague abated with the cold weather, there was little change for the better in the local organization against infectious disease. There was a Health Commission, appointed by the Governor, which had charge of Quarantine and the Marine Hospital. The internal economy of the city was entrusted to the care of a board composed of the Mayor, the Recorder, and certain of the Aldermen. In designating its constituents, entirely political, and devoid of professional qualifications, enough has been said to determine its lack of efficiency.

One good result came from this visitation and from the great fire of 1835. The citizens voted by a vast majority to have a permanent and ample water supply. And in consequence, the solid aqueduct, forty miles in length, leading from the Croton River, near the old Van Cortlandt manor, was built. Thenceforth there was never any scarcity against thirst or flame or filth. It may be remarked in passing that the famous "Tea Pump" with a few years was still in use in a store at 126 Chatham Street.


In 1834 the cholera reappeared and claimed 1,000 victims, and then was not epidemic until 1849. The popular superstition was that it returned every twelve years. In December, 1848, the packet New York arrived at the Quarantine, Staten island from Havre with cholera aboard, several cases having broken out at sea. The sick were sent to the hospital and the well to large public stores, where they were kept until the danger of contagion seemed passed. But although the municipal authorities thus early had warning of the plague at their doorway, nothing was done to put the city in good sanitary condition until the following May, when a burst of new cases showed that it was too late. Again the medical fraternity sprang into the breach of municipal neglect. The first cases appeared in the Five Points, then a centre of crime, squalor, and disease. A large building, corner of Pearl and Centre streets, was turned into a hospital, and the poor victims removed thither. An auxiliary committee of physicians now acted in concert with the Health Board. It is worthy of note that they early made the announcement that the disease was not contagious, but produced through an abnormal condition of the atmosphere. It may well be doubted whether this was so. A second address, proclaiming that cleanliness was of the first importance, seems to have been far more judicious.

Among many other radical steps taken by the commission was the seizure of the public-school buildings and their conversion into hospitals. There was much opposition on the part of the Board of Education, but in the end the step was assented to under the plea that "public safety is the supreme law." In contradistinction to such a broadly humane measure was the spirit of professional intolerance, which displayed itself in the refusal to permit a cholera hospital to be organized for the treatment of patients according to the homeopathic school. The alleged reason therefore was that the "Sanitary Committee felt it to be their duty to have nothing to do with medicine, except as they found it embodied in what is understood and known both to the public as well as physicians as the regular profession." More than 5,000 persons were the victims of the cholera season of 1849.

The pestilence abated, but only as a monster may withdraw glutted to his lair. As a curious proof of the constant apprehension of its return, it may be stated that about this time leases contained a provision for the reduction of rent in the event of the depression of business consequent on a cholera visitation.


An unlooked for yet hardly welcome diversion from this common dread occurred in the Summer of 1853, when sunstroke became so prevalent in the city as to almost deserve the name of epidemic.

On the Fourth of July, 1853, the Crystal Palace, that resplendent "House of Glass," which had been erected with so much local pride on Murray Hill, to the west of the receiving reservoir, was thrown open to the world. Far better, however, would it have been for the city if its energies had been concentrated rather on demolition. At the Five Points, and along the water fronts the filth-infested rookeries still preserved and engendered the germs of disease.


the cholera again raged, and again squalor presented the greater part of its victims to it. The death rate rose to 44.36 per thousand, an awful increase of 12 over the normal point.


It was not until 1864 that sanitary reform was intelligently and persistently adopted in New York City. And, singularly enough, the urgent need for its reign was impressed through the draft riots of the previous year. For thus often in the history of cities does evil work permanent good. The haunts and habits of that noisome mob, which had disgraced and well nigh destroyed the town, became common knowledge, and so the resources of contagion were laid bare. A Committee on Hygiene and Public Health was appointed. From its intelligent labors a Metropolitan Sanitary District was organized by the Legislature and a new Board of Health created in the city. One of the first concurrent acts of these bodies was the adoption of a sanitary code, the provisions of which were enforced without fear or favor. And so, when in 1866, cholera was brought to the city by an emigrant ship from Liverpool, for the first time in its history an epidemic was wisely and providently resisted. It has been a long, dreary road from a panic-stricken exodus to an accurate knowledge of the comma-tipped bacillus, but the history of hygiene has ever been a record of the retrieval and repair of the consequences of neglect.


Website: The History Box.com
Article Name: Epidemics in New York: Diseases From which NYC Suffered In its Early Days
Researcher/Transcriber Miriam Medina


The New York Times Feb. 16, 1896 p.28 (1 page)
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