A yellow fever outbreak made Greenwich Village

April 6, 2020

Epidemics can shape the way a city develops. And it was an outbreak of a lethal disease that helped create the Greenwich Village that’s been part of the larger city since the 1820s.

In the 17th century, the village of Greenwich was a mostly rural suburb of farms and estates (below, Aaron Burr’s home, Richmond Hill) along the Hudson River a few miles from the city center. (Seen here in a 1766 map, use link to zoom in.)

Periodic outbreaks of yellow fever (among other deadly illnesses) in the lower city—in many spots a filthy place of sewage, stagnant water, and garbage-eating hogs—would cause residents with means to leave, at least for the summer.

“Successive waves of yellow fever drove many New Yorkers to summertime residences in the countryside,” wrote John Strausbaugh in The Village: A History of Greenwich Village. (Another fine home, above, and the oldest house in the Village, at left, from 1799.) Many decamped to Greenwich, “a refuge from pestilence with its former swampland drained and its air fresh.”

But it was the especially pernicious yellow fever epidemic of 1822 that forced thousands to flee the city center for good and recreate their lives in Greenwich permanently, which only five years earlier had installed water mains and sewers.

“Many New Yorkers who had not evacuated during the previous epidemics did so during this final rampant pandemic, states a writer at creatingdigitalhistory.

“As residents moved to Greenwich Village, they built homes and businesses in attempt to replicate their downtown lifestyles. In essence, they created a makeshift city center that has since evolved into the Greenwich Village of today.”

The hurry to leave the main city was noted by Greenwich residents. “Our city presented the appearance of a town besieged,” wrote the former secretary of the city’s Board of Health in 1822, according to Anna Alice Chapin in Greenwich Village. “From daybreak till night one line of carts, containing boxes, merchandise, and effects were seen moving towards ‘Greenwich Village’ and the upper parts of the city.”

Another resident recalled the mass exodus and influx like this: “The town fairly exploded…and went flying beyond its bond as though the pestilence had been a burning mine.” (Above right, a house on Bedford Street, circa 1820s.)

Buildings went up in Greenwich fast. “Temporary stores and offices were erecting, and on the (ensuing day) Sunday, carts were in motion, and the saw and hammer busily at work,” according to Chapin.

A post office, customs house, and newspaper offices sprang up in the formerly sleepy village. “Bank Street got its name in this way, the city banks transferring their business tither literally overnight, ready to do business in the morning,” wrote Chapin.

“Stores of rough boards were constructed in a day,” recalled Charles Haynes Haswell in Reminisces of an Octogenarian of the City of New York. With the lower city all but deserted, ferries from Brooklyn, Jersey City, and Hoboken began docking up the Hudson at Greenwich, wrote Haswell.

A growing neighborhood needs a church, and St. Luke’s, still on Hudson Street, also went up at about this time. St. Luke’s was not by accident named for Saint Luke—the patron saint of physicians and surgeons. (Above left, in 1828)

In total, 388 people died in the yellow fever outbreak, according to Haswell. Many of those victims from the lower city were buried beneath Washington Square, which was the far-away potter’s field of New York in the early 1820s.

By the end of 1825, Greenwich Village now was filled with handsome wood and brick houses. (Above right, on Van Dam Street.) “Between 1825 and 1835, the population of the Village doubled,” wrote Strausburgh. By 1850, it had doubled again.

“Shrewd speculators subdivided farms, leveled hills, rerouted and buried Minetta Brook, and undertook landfill projects,” according to the Greenwich Village Society of Historical Preservation. “Blocks of neat row houses built in the prevailing Federal style soon accommodated middle-class merchants and tradesmen.

This sleepy hamlet (which thankfully kept some of its own original street grid) was no longer separate from the city—it became a part of the city. (Above in an 1831 map). Would it have been subsumed by the city if the yellow fever epidemic never happened? Almost certainly. But the outbreak rushed it into joining Gotham, going from countryside to urbanized in a hurry.

[First through third images: NYPL Digital Collection; fifth and sixth images: NYPL Digital Collection; Eighth image: NYPL Digital Collection]

The pioneering clinic of NYC’s first ‘lady doctor’

April 6, 2020

Elizabeth Blackwell wasn’t just New York City’s first female medical doctor—she was the first woman to practice medicine in the entire country.

But mid-19th century Gotham is where she decided to open a pioneering dispensary and then an infirmary, and the growing city benefited enormously.

Born in England in 1821 and raised in Cincinnati, Blackwell first became a teacher. She felt a strong calling toward medicine, however, especially after she watched a female friend die of a cancer of the reproductive organs.

“If I could have been treated by a lady doctor, my worst sufferings would have been spared me,” the friend told her, an anecdote Blackwell included in her 1895 autobiography.

In 1847, she applied to 20 medical colleges, all of which denied her admission.

Of course, the idea of a “lady doctor” was ridiculous at the time. A woman couldn’t be a doctor because studying anatomy—specifically of the reproductive system—could upset her morals, wrote Leo Trachtenburg in an article about Blackwell in City Journal in 2000.

Finally, one school did agree to take her: Geneva Medical College in upstate New York. (At left, an illustration of Blackwell in anatomy class.)

After postgraduate studies in Paris, she settled in New York City—which was then a city of elites, a merchant class, and an ever-growing population of poor people, including many who came to the city during the first wave of Irish and German immigration.

Blackwell opened an office at 44 University Place and put an ad in the New-York Tribune (above), but she had few patients, as people were not interested in receiving medical care from a woman, with some being hostile. “My pecuniary situation was a constant source of anxiety,” she recalled in her autobiography. She also admitted to being deeply lonely.

The 1850s proved to be a turning point for Blackwell.

“Her career instead took the direction it was to have for the rest of her life: the promotion of hygiene and preventive medicine among both lay persons and professionals and the promotion of medical education and opportunities for women physicians,” states a National Institutes of Medicine page.

Reaching out to wealthy and notable New Yorkers for financial backing, she opened a dispensary on East Seventh Street near Tompkins Square Park in 1853.

Unlike other dispensaries in the city that served all poor residents in a given ward, this one exclusively treated the women and children of the 11th Ward.

Back then, the ward was populated by German immigrants, many hungry and desperately ill. “The design of this institution is to give to poor women an opportunity of consulting physicians of their own sex,” she wrote.

In 1856, Blackwell—along with her newly minted physician sister, Emily Blackwell, and another female doctor opened The New York Infirmary for Women and Children at 64 Bleecker Street. (A plaque, below left, marks the site today.)

It would be the first female-run hospital in the city. A house once occupied by members of the Roosevelt family was renovated and outfitted with a maternity center and surgical ward.

“In addition to the usual departments of hospital and dispensary practice, which included the visiting of poor patients at their own homes, we established a sanitary visitor,” wrote Blackwell. This would be “one of our assistant physicians, whose special duty it was to give simple, practical instruction to poor mothers on the management of infants and the preservation of the health of their families.”

Considering the conditions many families lived in—shut off in dark, unventilated tenements where disease easily spread and infants didn’t often make it to their first birthday—this information was vital.

“Blackwell aimed to use the Infirmary not only to treat needy patients but also to train women doctors and nurses, so that other women could follow in her path more easily,” wrote Trachtenberg. “The Women’s Medical College of the New York Infirmary officially opened at 126 Second Avenue in November 1868.”

While Blackwell’s infirmary continued to operate and fulfill its mission of treating women and children and training women for medical professions, Blackwell herself left New York in the 1860s. She spent the rest of her life in England, famous for her medical lectures and books.

She died in 1910. The infirmary she launched before the Civil War moved to Stuyvesant Square (above right), where it remained for 90 years, according to Town & Village, before moving into a new building in the 1950s. After a series of mergers it became part of today’s New York Presbyterian Lower Manhattan Hospital.

[First image: Biography.com; second image: New-York Presbyterian; third image: New-York Tribune; fourth image: NYPL digital collection; fifth image: New-York Presbyterian; sixth image: King’s Handbook of New York City 1892 via Wikipedia; seventh image: readtheplaque.com; eighth image, Wikipedia]

What life was like in a Manhattan “fever nest”

April 6, 2020

New Yorkers in the 19th century came up with some very descriptive slang names for poor, crowded neighborhoods where disease outbreaks tended to happen.

One is a “lung block,” or an entire street with a high number of residents living with the “white plague”—aka tuberculosis.

Another is a “fever nest,” seen in the image above. It’s unclear if the illustration depicts East 32nd Street, possibly near the shantytown called Dutch Hill, or West 32nd Street, which could have been the upper end of the Tenderloin, Gilded Age New York’s vice district.

When was this illustration of a fever nest done? Based on the wide skirts the women are wearing, the unpaved road, and the scavenging pig in the foreground, I’d guess it depicts the 1860s—a decade racked by outbreaks of cholera and other illnesses spread via unsanitary conditions.

[Image: CUNY Graduate Center]

Cholera’s grim warning for tenement landlords

March 30, 2020

When New York’s first cholera epidemic hit in 1832 and killed 3,515 people (out of a population of 250,000), the poor took the blame.

“Many city officials implicated the residents of the poorest neighborhoods for contracting cholera, blaming their weak character, instead of viewing the epidemic as a public health problem,” stated Anne Garner, in an online article from the New York Academy of Medicine in 2015.

Cholera struck again in 1849, but by the time the next outbreak happened in 1866, cholera was better understood to be a contagious disease transmitted via contaminated water and other unsanitary conditions.

This 1866 illustration from Harper’s Weekly pins the blame on a different target: the landlords of New York’s tenements—substandard buildings that in the absence of strong housing laws often lacked ventilation and running water and were perfect breeding grounds for cholera.

A smallpox victim’s mummified body resurfaces

March 30, 2020

Construction workers operating a backhoe found her first. The workers were in Elmhurst, Queens, in an excavation pit building a new apartment complex.

They “assumed they had hit a pipe,” explained the New York Post. “But when the claws of the backhoe emerged from the ground, it was dragging a body clothed in a white gown and knee-high socks.”

Because the body, determined to be that of an African-American woman, was so well preserved, a forensic medical examiner assumed she was a recent homicide victim.

But as Scott Warnasch, a forensic archeologist from the city medical examiner’s office, investigated what was deemed a crime scene, he noticed dozens of metal fragments in the ground.

The fragments were identified as part of an iron coffin (above ad, from the Brooklyn Eagle) that had housed the woman’s remains and kept them eerily preserved in airtight conditions…until the backhoe smashed it open, according to Live Science.

Who was this woman, and how did she die? Her burial clothes held clues, appearing to be from the 19th century. The iron coffin also helped narrow things down; these were only produced in the mid-19th century, wrote LiveScience in 2018.

And there was something else: investigators found what looked like smallpox marks on her forehead and chest. Nineteenth century New York was no stranger to smallpox outbreaks. Though a vaccine had been developed, the virus killed a quarter of its victims and left survivors pockmarked or blind, wrote The New York Times in 2003.

The disease was so feared, a Smallpox Hospital was opened on Blackwell’s Island in 1856 (above).

How the woman died became clear…but still, who was she? Tests determined she was between 25 and 35 years old. She was buried in a section of Queens that had a free black community at the time, so Warnasch turned to the 1850 census.

The name Martha Peterson seemed to fit. “She would have been 26 in 1850, probably died around 1851 and lived in the household of William Raymond, a partner in the iron-coffin maker Fisk & Raymond,” Warnasch told the New York Post in 2018.

The discovery of Martha Peterson and the effort that went into identifying her was captured in a PBS show: “Secrets of the Dead: The Woman in the Iron Coffin.

She was given a new burial at Mount Olivet Cemetery by congregants of the Saint Mark African Methodist Episcopal Church in Jackson Heights in 2011—a fitting end to the story of a resurfaced body that served as a reminder of New York’s deadly disease outbreaks of the past.

[Top image: From the preview for Secrets of the Dead: The Woman in the Iron Coffin”; second image: Brooklyn Eagle; third image: NYPL; fourth image: Brooklyn Star, 1858]

New York in 2020 feels like Edward Hopper’s city

March 23, 2020

The exterior city is what unsettles you first. Streets and sidewalks are quiet, lifeless. You see other people going in and out of shops or walking the dog, yet whenever you decide to get some air, six feet away from the occasional passerby, you feel like you’re the only person in all of New York.

(“Morning Sun,” 1952)

Then there’s the interior isolation. So much time spent in your own home (or newly transformed home office) kicks up a sense of alienation from the city that always energized you.

(“Office in a Small City,” 1953)

Who understood more about the disconnection and dehumanization bred by modern life in New York City than Edward Hopper?

(“Approaching a City,” 1946)

It’s the theme of so many of his urbanscapes: the lone man in his office, walled in behind glass and concrete; a train tunnel looking like a abyss. Depictions of roads and trains feel frozen and dehumanized.

(“From Williamsburg Bridge,” 1928)

Okay, maybe it’s not quite that eerie and still in New York City right now, at least not every moment. We have the other members of our households to break the isolation, and time with screens can make us feel connected again.

But in these days of social distancing and self-isolation, it’s pretty normal feel in your bones what Edward Hopper captured—especially in these four paintings.

A Brooklyn anti-spitting ad to bring back today

March 23, 2020

Public health messaging doesn’t get more straightforward than this ad, which in plain language told the people of Brooklyn to stop “careless” spitting. (Is there any other kind?)

The Brooklyn Tuberculosis Committee put out the ad, probably in the 1910s. Is it time to bring back this message and add “coronavirus” to the list of diseases that can be spread by spit?

The ad was part of a 2011 Ephemeral New York post on the anti-spitting law passed in New York in 1896, which called for a $500 fine for anyone caught hocking a loogie in public. The aim of the law was to reduce rates of illnesses transmitted by respiratory fluids, many of which were at epidemic levels in poor neighborhoods and often fatal…not unlike the disease New York is trying to get under control in 2020.

[Ad courtesy of J. Warren]

A department store becomes a makeshift hospital

March 23, 2020

This week, plans are underway to turn the glass-encased Jacob Javits Center into a hospital for the expected surge in coronavirus patients. It sounds radical, but it wouldn’t be the first time New York quickly took a massive open space and transformed it into a medical center.

It happened in 1918 with the Siegel-Cooper store, above. When this enormous emporium opened in September 1896, New York shoppers had their minds blown.

Inside a new Beaux-Arts building that spanned Sixth Avenue between 18th and 19th Streets—choice real estate along Ladies Mile—”the Big Store” featured 15 acres of more than 100 departments, restaurants, and a soon-to-be-famous fountain.

In its early years, Siegel-Cooper was by all accounts a success. But by the early 1900s, New York’s biggest stores were following Macy’s lead and relocating to Herald Square.

Siegel-Cooper was in financial trouble. After a new owner and name change to “Greenhut’s,” it closed for good in 1918.

What to do with an enormous empty building in what was no longer a prime neighborhood?

Turn it into a makeshift hospital—just in time for the return of American soldiers wounded while fighting the Great War in Europe.

Within months, the store that once featured the latest fashions and even boasted a bicycle department was now known as Debarkation Hospital Number 3, a temporary home for hundreds of doughboys whose conditions ranged from mild to grave.

“In general, debarkation hospitals were intended to receive overseas patients who landed back on United States soil,” states a historical note to a collection of papers from a nurse at Debarkation Hospital No. 5, on Lexington Avenue and 46th Street in the former Grand Central Palace exhibition hall.

New York quickly turned other empty buildings into makeshift debarkation hospitals. One was at Ellis Island, another on Staten Island.

No. 3 was ready for wounded men by November 1918.

“About 250 additional wounded soldiers from overseas arrived here yesterday and were taken to Debarkation Hospital No. 3, the old Greenhut store at 18th Street and Sixth Avenue….The newcomers, all practically recovered, brought the total of soldiers in the hospital up to 700,” wrote the New York Times on November 25.

The six floors of the former store had room for 3,000 soldiers. While entertainers visited and politicians took photo ops, the goal was to help the men convalesce yet get them back to their hometowns, where a hospital closer to loved ones could treat them.

Debarkation Hospital appears to have only served as a medical center for a few years. And if the facade (or the interior columns) look familiar, it’s because the same building now houses Bed, Bath, and Beyond!

[Second photo: unknown; third photo: MCNY X2011.34.280; fourth photo: LOC; fifth photo: Alamy; sixth image: New York Times]

Let the Subway Inn’s neon sign inspire you

March 16, 2020

We’re in a challenging moment in New York history; how things will unfold in the coming weeks is uncertain.

So take a moment to behold the strange allure of the gorgeous neon sign outside the Subway Inn, at Second Avenue and 60th Street since 2014, and allow yourself a moment to feel inspired.

Yep, it’s the same sign the Subway Inn had when this old-school dive was located a few blocks west on 60th Street near Lexington, a site the bar had occupied since 1937. Here’s a flashback photo from 2012.

The gingerbread carriage house of 38th Street

March 16, 2020

Every once in a while, you see a building in New York City that’s so whimsical, it looks like it stepped out of a fable.

Take a look at this Dutch Revival–style carriage house, with its brick facade, spirals, stepped gables, and fan-like stonework surrounding the door and windows.

Ornate and unusual, the little stub of a building on East 38th Street in Murray Hill seems inspired by a fairy tale—you almost expect it to be made from gingerbread.

Adding to the carriage house’s beauty are the two stone horse heads looking out between the first and second stories. Then there’s the growly bulldog keeping an eye on things up top.

For such a fanciful structure, its backstory echoes that of other New York City carriage houses—built for wealthy New Yorkers who resided in nearby mansions and could afford to spend money on the place they housed their horses.

Named for a banker who worked with J.P. Morgan, the George S. Bowdoin Stable was completed in 1902 by architect Ralph Townsend. He designed it for Murray Hill landowner and real estate developer William Martin, according to Exploring Manhattan’s Murray Hill.

“The carriage house was acquired by Bowdoin in 1907, converted to a garage in 1918 by Mrs. Bowdoin, and later converted to a single-family residence, eventually yielding to commercial use.”

This homage to the whimsy of early 20th century architects was up for sale in 2016—check out the ultra modern interior, courtesy of 6sqft.com. (The price at the time: $8.35 million!)

[Third image: MCNY, 1976, 2013.3.2.252]