A Tour of the Plague Years in New York

Historians in the News
tags: New York, urban history, pandemics

In 1999 Oxford University Press published Gotham: A History of New York City to 1898, written by Edwin Burrows and myself. In it we addressed topics usually dealt with separately—poetry, sexuality, architecture, banking—and wove them together in an attempt to capture the interactivity that shaped the life of the city in its first centuries. I’ve often thought that by using the index and internet it would be possible for readers to reverse that process and disaggregate the individual threads—the history, say, of Irish New Yorkers, which is treated at many points in the 1,400-page text—and thereby produce a mini history of the selected topic. What I’ve done here is extract from Gotham some descriptions of epidemics unknown to anyone other than specialist historians and reproduce them in chronological sequence.—Mike Wallace


Amid frantic preparations for war with France, the fever slammed into New York with greater fury than ever. The first cases came to light at the end of July, again in the dock areas by the East River. Within weeks every resident able to do so had fled. Left behind were the poor and dependent, many made destitute by the death or incapacity of the household wage-earner.

The doctors of New York remained on the job—twenty of them falling victim to the fever—while the new state health commissioners, aided by zealous watchmen, carted the sick up to Bellevue and established three “cook houses” where the poor were given soup, boiled meat, and bread. At the peak of the epidemic in September and October, sixteen hundred to two thousand were fed each day, and another eight hundred at the almshouse, the cost covered by Common Council appropriations and donations from wealthy merchants and other towns.

A Warren Street carpenter, trying to keep up with the demand for coffins, hired two little boys to hawk the pine boxes around town on a hand wagon. Stopping at intersections, they sang out, “Coffins! Coffins of all sizes!”

When the crisis finally passed, the disease had claimed 2,086 lives—close to 5 percent of the population. While a number of prominent citizens lay dead, the great majority of victims, as in previous epidemics, were poor. Many were buried in the new potter’s field, just opened in 1797, to the north of town on the site of today’s Washington Square.

Shaken by this catastrophe, the Common Council established a committee to investigate its causes. Their report, made public in 1799, came down hard on unsanitary conditions, attributing the disease to “filthy sunken yards” filled with offal, putrefying matter in pools of stagnant water, damp cellars, foul slips, decayed docks, open sewers, and overflowing privies. The report called for sweeping reforms, which it admitted would inconvenience and abridge the property rights of citizens. But the public welfare came before individual rights, the committee concluded, and the Common Council should have “great and strong power, to clean up the city.”

Read entire article at Lapham's Quarterly

comments powered by Disqus