Archive for the ‘Disasters and crimes’ Category

A portrait of tuberculosis in 1940s East Harlem

April 20, 2020

Dubbed the “white plague” and “consumption,” tuberculosis was one of the most feared diseases of 19th and early 20th century New York City.

Spread by bacteria that thrived in dark, crowded tenements, the disease was so rampant in poor sections of the city that entire blocks were labelled “lung blocks” because so many residents were infected.

Though antibiotics helped drastically reduce the prevalence of tuberculosis in New York City in the 20th century, it was still a fearsome killer in the 1940s, as painter Alice Neel documents in “TB Harlem,” from 1940.

“In this painting, Neel portrayed Carlos Negrón, the brother of the artist’s then-lover, José Santiago,” states the National Museum of Women in the Arts (NMWA), which has the painting in its collection.

Negrón is 24 years old and a resident of East Harlem, as was Neel at the time. The bandage on his chest covers the wound from a treatment called thoracoplasty, meant to help his diseased lung by removing a rib.

“Although it encourages empathy, Neel’s painting is not sentimental,” continues the NMWA. “While retaining Negrón’s likeness, Neel distorted and elongate his neck and arms. She used heavy, dark lines to emphasize and flatten his silhouette. The lines around his wound draw attention to the sunken misshapenness of his left side. Negrón’s face expresses dignity in suffering while his pose and the gesture of his right hand recall traditional images of the martyred Christ.”

A mob torches New York’s Quarantine Hospital

April 20, 2020

New York in the 18th and 19th centuries was a place of constant ship traffic. Ships helped make the city rich—but the passengers and crew aboard them also brought bacteria and viruses.

To prevent ships from sparking more disease outbreaks in a city that was regularly besieged by them, the state built the New York Marine Hospital in 1799, a complex of buildings behind a six-foot wall in Tompkinsville, a village on the north shore of sparsely populated Staten Island.

The Quarantine, as it was known, functioned as a first line of defense.

Ships headed for the city were required to dock there, and health inspectors would board the vessel and make sure no one showed signs of disease, especially yellow fever, smallpox, cholera, or typhus (so common it was dubbed “ship fever”). If all was well, the ship could continue on to Manhattan or Brooklyn.

But if inspectors suspected or saw evidence of disease, they would flag the vessel and “divert everyone on board to the Quarantine until they were cleared as disease-free,” wrote the New York Daily News in 2013.

Those who were not sick still had to go to the Quarantine. “If the healthy passengers and crewmen did not develop any symptoms of illness over a specified period of time—the period depending on the disease—they were released,” explains a 2004 article in Public Health Reports.

As for the sick passengers, their clothes were washed immediately. They were then loaded into wagons and brought to one of the hospital buildings. (Interestingly, there was a separate quarantine hospital building for first class passengers, which was described as more of a hotel.)

If they died, they were buried in a cemetery two miles away.

As immigration boomed in the 19th century, the hospital became busier. Throughout the 1850s, two million immigrants came to the city, and the Quarantine sometimes housed a thousand newcomers at a time, according to Public Health Reports.

While the Quarantine was necessary to help prevent outbreaks, the people who lived on Staten Island in the mid-19th century weren’t too happy about having it as a neighbor. A yellow fever outbreak that killed 11 Staten Islanders in 1856 was blamed on the hospital.

Residents of Tompkinsville and other nearby villages felt that the facility hurt the value of their property. They also called out the hospital for carelessly wheeling dead bodies through their town on the way to the cemetery.

In the late 1840s, Staten Island residents convinced the city to move the Quarantine to Sandy Hook in New Jersey, but the plan stalled. For the next decade, residents fought to close and relocate the hospital, but the battle was tied up in legislation.

Finally, in August 1858, tensions hit the breaking point, and “citizens began stockpiling straw, wood, and flammable camphene near the Quarantine,” wrote the Daily News.

On September 1, the local board of health approved a resolution that ended with “Resolved: That this board recommend the citizens of this county to protect themselves by abating this abominable nuisance without delay.”

That night, about 30 men went to the Quarantine, lit a pile of straw mattresses pushed against a building, and watched the facility burn. The next night, the mob had swelled into the hundreds. Arsonists continued to burn down buildings until nothing remained.

“Three fire companies lolled their way to the scene, then stood and watched, claiming their hoses had been cut,” stated the Daily News. “A contingent of harbor policemen who arrived by boat were driven off by boys throwing rocks. City police from across the harbor didn’t even answer the alarms.”

No one in the hospital was killed in the blaze; at the time, only 60 patients were inside. Newspaper headlines talked of the “Quarantine Wars.” Two ringleaders went on trial in front of a Staten Island judge but were acquitted.

Ultimately the mob got its way. A year later, a floating quarantine hospital was anchored off Staten Island as a temporary replacement. By the 1860s, quarantine facilities were moved to Swinburne and Hoffman Islands, both created by landfill in the lower end of New York Harbor.

[Top image: JStor; second image: NYPL; third image: Barry Lawrence Ruderman Antique Maps; fourth image: NYPL; fifth image: New York Herald; sixth image: Brooklyn Daily Eagle; seventh image: NYPL]

A 1929 luxury residence displays 2020’s best sign

April 13, 2020

When the luxury apartment building at 325 East 57th was completed in 1929, I wonder if any of the original tenants ever thought a handmade sign and two American flags would be hanging off the elegant canopy entrance.

But in the era of COVID-19, the people living in this building decided they had something to say. Think of it as the silent version of the nightly 7 p.m. cheer for all the New Yorkers working through the pandemic.

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]

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]

What New York did in 1947 to evade an epidemic

March 16, 2020

In February 1947, an American importer named Eugene Le Bar boarded a bus in Mexico with his wife; the two were bound for New York City. That evening, he developed a headache and neck pain. Two days later, a rash developed.

After arriving in Manhattan on March 1, the Le Bars registered at a Midtown hotel.

“Although he was not feeling well, he did a little sightseeing and also walked through one of the large department stores,” explained a New York Times article published later that year and written by Commissioner of Health Israel Weinstein.

Four days later, Le Bar was in Bellevue Hospital, unsure of what he had. He raged with fever and was covered in dark red bumps, similar to chicken pox.

He was transferred to another hospital, Willard Parker Hospital at East 16th Street and the East River (below, in 1935), which treated communicable diseases. He died there on March 10, and it was only during an autopsy did doctors discover he had smallpox—the fearsome scourge that killed up to a third of victims until a vaccine was developed in the 19th century.

Le Bar’s case was the first appearance of smallpox in New York City since 1939. “The occasional case of smallpox had been seen in the area for decades since the last big outbreak in 1875, which had killed 2,000 New Yorkers,” stated a 2004 edition of Emerging Infectious Diseases.

This new case wasn’t an isolated one. It quickly spread to two other people, one at Bellevue and the other at Willard Parker.

From there, about a dozen more people who’d been in contact with the first three smallpox victims developed the disease.

Realizing that the outbreak had to be stopped, city officials sprang into action. First, all hospital staffers and anyone who may have had contact with the infected individuals were vaccinated or revaccinated, explained this post from Virology Blog.

And on April 4, “facing the possibility of a genuine epidemic, Mayor William O’Dwyer ordered that virtually the entire city, or 6.3 million people, be vaccinated or revaccinated, a process that for three weeks caused enormous lines to snake around every hospital, police precinct, and 60 special health stations,” recalled the New York Daily News in 2001.

New York didn’t have enough doses of the vaccine on hand, so O’Dwyer met with the heads of pharmaceutical companies and asked for their help manufacturing millions of vaccines, which they accomplished.

“When a second person died from the disease on April 13, the Mayor asked all 7.8 million New Yorkers to be vaccinated,” stated Virology Blog.

“At this announcement, the city shifted into crisis mode, with contributions by police, fire, health departments, and hospitals. The campaign slogan was ‘Be sure, be safe, get vaccinated!’”

An estimated 5-6 million people were vaccinated in the city until early May, after which the campaign was halted because the outbreak appeared to be contained.

Is there anything here to learn from to tackle the coronavirus pandemic? I’m not sure; it was a different time, and a vaccine already existed. Let’s hope coronavirus is contained by May, just like smallpox was in 1947.

 

[Top image: Vaccine line in Morrisania, Bronx, by Life magazine; second image: New York Daily News; third image: NYPL; fourth image: New York Daily News; fifth image: New York Times; sixth image: Broadway showgirls getting jabbed, Life magazine; seventh image: New York Times]

Inside a New York Depression-era “relief station”

December 2, 2019

Saul Kovner was a Russia-born artist best known for his poetic glimpses of 1930s New York, from East Side tenement backyards to kids playing in a snow-blanketed Tompkins Square Park.

But one painter Kovner completed in 1939 tells a story about what it was like to be poor in Depression-era New York.

“Relief Station” depicts a group of mostly strangers sitting on wood benches in a drab facility, facing forward as if they’re waiting for their names to be called.

Where is this group? In a place New York new longer has, a relief station—where jobless people with no money to buy food or pay rent sought what was known as “home relief.”

Relief stations weren’t new. But with nearly one third of the city out of work at the height of the Depression and a government more willing to distribute relief to people in need, dozens of home relief bureau stations popped up across the city.

Kovner’s painting was part of a series on relief stations; another two are below. The second image comes from painter Louis Ribak, who captured an emotional scene a woman pleading her case to an official behind a desk, and a crowd waiting their turn.

Newspapers also published glimpses of what it was like in a relief station, with readers reporting distressing scenes of people pleading their cases or being treated rudely by an administrator.

Relief stations also became targets for activists—who petitioned (or rioted, depending on the report) for more help for New Yorkers to pay their bills. On at least one occasion, a South Williamsburg relief station was stormed by a hundred people who demanded that relief be given out a lot more quickly.

While we still have home relief—just under a different name—these portraits remind us of what the term used to mean, and how relief stations were part of the fabric of the 1930s city.

Thanksgiving at the new Colored Orphan Asylum

November 25, 2019

Every year on the Friday after Thanksgiving, the daily newspapers in late 19th century New York ran articles summing up how the holiday was celebrated by the “inmates” in the city’s many institutions.

From the Tombs to the missions to the almshouses of Blackwell’s Island, the papers reported what dishes were served and how the meals were received by inmates and any special guests (like benefactors or religious leaders) alike.

In 1875, The New York Times covered Thanksgiving dinner at the Colored Orphan Asylum.

“At the Colored Orphan Asylum, 143rd Street and 10th Avenue, there are 200 inmates, under the superintendence of Mr. O.K. Hutchinson they yesterday had a pleasant festival.”

“At 12:30 o’clock, the children, who range from two to 12 years of age, were regaled with the following bill of fare, each article being supplied at their pleasure: roast turkey, homemade bread, mashed potatoes, turnips, rice pudding, and apple pie. The afternoon and evening were spent in playing and singing.”

It’s not an especially descriptive writeup—but the colorful illustration at top (from 1874) provides a richer sense of what the dining room of the asylum looked probably looked like a year later on Thanksgiving.

Still, neither the image or the article hint at the terrible backstory of the Colored Orphan Asylum (unlike the captions on the second and third illustrations, both from the 1880s).

In a vile act of racism, the asylum’s longtime home, on Fifth Avenue and 44th Street, was burned down during the terrible Draft Riots that rocked New York for days in July 1863.

An 1864 report via nyhistory.org stated that “a ruthless mob of several hundred men, women and children broke down the front door with an axe, and proceeded to ransack the building and set it on fire…. Thankfully, while the mob was focused on gaining entrance, the superintendent of the Asylum, William E. Davis, and the head matron, Jane McClellan, quietly snuck the children out the back.”

The Gilded Age in New York, 1870-1910, has more on this shameful part of city history, plus the rise of benevolence that helped fund asylums and institutions.

[Top illustration: Alamy; second and third illustrations: NYPL]