Diphtheria In Harlem 1878

Three Deaths From The Disease.
There has been some excitement occasioned in Harlem during the past week in consequence of an outbreak of diphtheria, and leading physicians there are undecided as to whether or not any considerable epidemic will follow this present outbreak. In the frame house between One Hundred and Twenty-sixth and One Hundred and Twenty-seventh streets, on Lexington avenue, were six cases. When the first case appeared Dr. Shrady, who was summoned to attend the patient, pronounced it diphtheria of unusual malignancy. At about the same time a case appeared in the adjoining house on the corner, but Dr. Campbell had some doubt about this being genuine diphtheria. Nevertheless, under the light of further observation, it was conceded that this also was a case of true diphtheria. Dr. Shrady had the other children sent away to the house of a relative, and they remained there three or four weeks. During the children's absence the sick child left at home died. The house afterward was kalsomined, and the carpets taken up and shaken. The most approved disinfectants were used, and when the children returned home it was believed that every precaution had been taken to prevent any further spread of the dread disease. Nevertheless, one child after another was stricken down, and the poor anxious mother, too, succumbed to the contagion after her system had been weakened by anxiety and nights of watching and nursing. The two youngest children died. The others who had been attacked recovered, their superior strength and constitution enabling them to withstand the power of the disease.

The Board of Health was notified of this alarming outbreak of diphtheria, and Sanitary Superintendent Day at once made a thorough investigation of the circumstances connected with the cases. A reporter of The Times was informed by Assistant Sanitary Inspector Wilder, of Lexington avenue and One Hundred and Twenty seventh street, that he had made a careful examination of the premises by order of Dr. Day, and had recommended to the Board of health that several gross sanitary defects in the plumbing and ventilation be remedied at once. Dr. Wilder explained that he found that none of the basins up stairs were suitably trapped, or otherwise protected against the escape of sewer gas into the sleeping rooms. The sewer-pipe was found to run into One Hundred and Twenty-sixth street, and empty into the sewer there. In its course it passed beneath the frame house in which occurred the other case of diphtheria, treated by Dr. Campbell. It also was found that a ventilating shaft that passed beneath the flooring of the kitchen for the purpose of carrying off any foul air that might be evolved in that space, emptied and had its outlet just beneath one of the kitchen windows. This outlet was in a narrow, stone-in-closed area-way. The foul gases that might escape by this outlet of the shaft, that was intended to be a protection from this very form of danger, entered by the open windows of the kitchen, and thence pervaded the entire house. The leader, intended to carry off the water on the roof during falls of rain, was in very bad order. This was directed to be repaired, a shaft was ordered to be added at the outlet of the ventilating tube under the kitchen windows, and having been tightly connected, to be continued to a height two feet above the roof. With these improvements and such others as may be suggested by further observation, it is believed that no more cases will by reported from this dwelling. Dr. Wilder also stated that Sanitary Inspector Comfort had been associated with him by order of Dr. Day, and that they had been instructed to keep the premises under careful supervision until any danger of a further spread of diphtheria in this neighborhood shall no longer be dreaded.

The Times reporter also learned by inquiries of the Police and others living in that neighborhood that there are other grave defects that have not been noticed by the health authorities. The Twelfth Precinct Police Station is within a few yards of the dwelling in which this malignant outbreak of diphtheria occurred. They therefore have especial reason to be watchful, and complain if their surroundings are in a bad sanitary condition. Lately, two grave defects have come under their observation.

The first was that at the corner of One Hundred and Twenty-sixth street and Lexington avenue, within half a block of the Police Station, were the crypts and vaults of an old burying-ground. The Police stated that when Lexington avenue was cut through to the Harlem River several years ago, an old Methodist church stood on the lot now occupied by the avenue between One Hundred and Twenty-fifth and One Hundred and Twenty-sixth streets. This church was a large frame building, and had originally been painted white. The ruthless hand of time, the elements, dust and rain had caused the paint to wear away and fade until the appearance of this structure was dilapidated. The burying ground belonging to this church was situated under and about the church structure. In addition to the intramural tombs and the crypts, there was also a double line of vaults extending nearly from One Hundred and Twenty-fifth to One Hundred and Twenty-sixth streets. Within these vaults the coffins were pushed into niches prepared for them, and then sealed up with bricks and mortar. Thus the surroundings of this church became an immense catacomb. As this church stood on the direct line of the proposed route for Lexington avenue, it was purchased by the City and moved off to the opposite side of One Hundred and Twenty-fifth street and east of the new avenue. After it had been moved, it was found to be too dilapidated to be of much use to anybody, either as a church, dwelling, or place of business; so it has been fitted up as a coal shed, and bids fair to continue its present usefulness as a storehouse for fuel for some time to come.

Most of the remains of human bodies were removed before the avenue was cut through. Both the bodies and the coffins were in an advanced state of decomposition; but as far as possible the remains were carefully kept separate and duly interred elsewhere, as desired by relatives and friends of the deceased persons. The entire tract was filled in and the avenue completed. A portion of the avenue proper, and a greater part of the sidewalk between One Hundred and Twenty-fifth and One Hundred and Twenty-sixth streets, was built upon the arches of the old burial vaults. During the past Summer an enterprising gentleman decided to erect a dwelling store, and stable on the corner of One Hundred and Twenty-sixth street and Lexington avenue. The earth was dug away from these old burial vaults again, and this time the vaults themselves were destroyed and broken up. The brick taken out of the walls and arches of these old vaults were used in part to build the dwelling-house and stable before alluded to. A lot of bones was found when these arches were broken up, therefore all of the human remains could not have been transferred from this burying ground before or at the time of the moving of the old Methodist church. The only sewer in this immediate neighborhood runs through One Hundred and Twenty-sixth street. There is none here in Lexington avenue. The sewer pipe, therefore, of this new dwelling must empty into, and the cellar is adjacent to the sewer in One Hundred and Twenty-sixth street. The sewer pipes from the houses where the outbreak of diphtheria has been so alarming empty into this same sewer; so, also, does the sewer-pipe of the Police Station. It is justly feared, therefore, that if the opening of the old grave-yard so near this sewer has any bad sanitary influence, those who use the same sewer may suffer from the deleterious effects of the poisonous products.

The second cause of disquietude has been the general disturbance of the streets and avenues for the laying of the gas mains of the Knickerbockers Gas Company. The first malignant case of diphtheria appeared three days after Lexington avenue in front of the house was disturbed for this purpose. The knowledge of all these facts has drawn a great deal of attention to this neighborhood lately, and the families living near by are anxious to see what effect, if any, will be produced upon the family about to move into the new dwelling. Any appearance of diphtheria, or any other disease indicating a bad sanitary condition, will be followed by prompt action by the health authorities. Citizens living in that neighborhood have expressed their hearty approval of the action of the Sanitary Inspectors thus far, and have confidence in both their vigilance and ability to prevent the spread of diphtheria in their midst.

Website: The History Box.com
Article Name: Diphtheria In Harlem 1878
Researcher/Transcriber Miriam Medina


The New York Times December 1, 1878
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