On this day in 1849, the New York City Board of Health is finally able to establish a hospital to deal with a cholera epidemic that, before it ends, kills more than 5,000 people. The rapidly growing city was ripe for an epidemic of this kind because of poor health conditions and its status as a destination for immigrants from around the world.
On December 1, 1848, the ship New York arrived in New York from France. On board were the bodies of seven passengers who had died from cholera on the journey. Upon arrival, the surviving passengers were quarantined at a Staten Island customs warehouse to contain the outbreak. Within a month, 60 of these passengers had experienced cholera symptoms and 30 had died. Afraid of catching the disease and dying, healthy passengers decided to escape from quarantine. Soon, isolated outbreaks of cholera were turning up around New York, often in the city’s dirtiest and poorest areas. At that time, pigs and dogs roamed some streets eating garbage that was dumped in streets and alleys. Among the wealthier citizens of the city, there was a perception that the poor deserved the disease because of the unhygienic conditions in which they lived.
Spring brought a substantial rise in the number of cholera victims. There was no hospital to care for the afflicted and many city residents, fearful of catching the disease, did not want a new hospital for cholera victims built near them. Finally, on May 16, the city’s Board of Health started a hospital on the second floor of a building on Orange Street above a tavern. Still, the death toll kept climbing, rising from 35 in May to nearly 800 in June. Soon, public school buildings were drafted into use as hospitals. It is estimated that 40 percent of the epidemic’s victims were Irish immigrants, although precise totals are impossible to know because wealthier people were often able to have death certificates altered to avoid the stigma of their loved ones having died of cholera.
Vast numbers of people fled the city that summer as the death toll climbed above 2,500 by the end of July. The disposal of bodies became a serious problem. A mass grave was established on Randall’s Island, in the East River east of Manhattan; any person with a horse was expected to assist with the carrying of dead bodies.
New York City’s first street-cleaning plan was implemented in the face of the epidemic. Public health initiatives like this and the discovery of antibiotics have since decreased the reach and severity of diseases like cholera in much of the world.