New York City has seen its share of public health crises. During Ireland's Great Hunger of 1845 – 1852, the city had already experienced a Yellow Fever epidemic in 1798 and a resurgence of it in 1803, which killed over six hundred people. The first Quarantine Station to deal with this crisis was located at Governer's Island and opened in 1794.
In 1799, the quarantine station on Governor's Island was moved to Tompkinsville (present-day St. George) Staten Island. The pastoral 30-acre lot was deemed far enough away while at the same time remaining a convenient distance to the city to prevent the spread of disease. The exact present-day location is the Staten Island Ferry Terminal.
Tompkinsville, back then, was a small village, a rural oysterman community according to Henry Steinmeyer's 1950 Staten Island 1524-1898, and was contained by the larger town of Castleton. Mass immigration and population growth would change that in the next 60 years.
The location was not ideal for those living on Staten Island then. Despite local protests, the land was seized via eminent domain, and the Staten Island Marine Hospital and Quarantine Station was opened in 1799.
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Kathryn Stephenson describes the buildings on the 30-acre site: "St. Nicholas Hospital was the Quarantine's most prominent and impressive building. 300 feet long and 50 feet wide, St. Nicholas was capped by an observatory adorned with a statue of a sailor. The hospital looked out over a large garden that sloped down toward the water, and on each story, there were piazzas.
"The Smallpox Hospital, one of the oldest structures on the grounds, had six patient wards. The Female Hospital…was a two-story building fronting the bay.
"To the north of the grounds were several buildings owned by the federal government and used by U.S. harbor inspectors, while to the south were several wooden houses where the doctors lived. Some smaller wooden buildings held offices.
"The boatmen who carried passengers from their ships to the hospitals lived in six brick houses, while eight wooden one-story shanties housed patients and many stevedores who unloaded cargo from boats. Other buildings included stables, barns, coal houses, washhouses, and storerooms."
There were prominent brick hospitals, John M. Fahey, M.D. continues with his description: "A long, three-story 'fever hospital' was situated near the hospital and had porches and verandas from which patients could enjoy the fresh air.
"Another, larger three-story 'Yellow Fever Hospital' had a prominent cupola capped with a statue of a sailor looking out to sea, a reminder that this had been the original Marine Hospital. Further up the hill sat a smaller 'Smallpox Hospital.'"
A six-foot wall surrounded the grounds, and across the street was a hotel and pub, Nautilus Hall, named after a ferry, the Nautilus, which connected Staten Island to Manhattan over the 5.2-mile stretch of water. Thomas Burns, the owner of Nautilus Hall, would become instrumental in making the 50-plus-year battle between locals opposed to and authorities in favor of the location come to a head on that fateful Wednesday night in September 1858.
No one could have forecasted that the Marine Hospital and Quarantine Station's 850 beds would be pressed to cater to 7,000 patients during the worst year of the Great Hunger, 1847. In hindsight, medical professionals and the authorities acted as fast as possible to contain the spread of diseases. However, locals in Staten Island, specifically Tompkinsville, and Castleton, remained at risk. There are accounts of a Quarantine staff member taking clothing from a deceased immigrant home and causing the death of a wife, child, and neighbor.
Eyewitness accounts of death carts in Tompkinsville added to those genuine fears: "The Dead cart regularly came out with Yellow Fever on the subjects in the twilight and in one instance broke down and the body laid out in the street 3/4 of an hour until an open cart was brought."
The medical opinions of the time fanned the flames of fear. One medical theory proposed that the winds blew diseases onshore from infected ships; another espoused that the "miasma," or infected air in the cargo holds, clung on to clothing and luggage, and stevedores and other hospital staff carried it with them beyond the six footwalls out into the community— which would indeed prove to be true. Locals believed the Quarantine Station helped spread diseases like Yellow Fever and Cholera.
One patient, William Smith from Manchester, departed from Liverpool in the latter part of 1847. Smith's journey in steerage placed him in close contact with primarily Irish immigrants. Many, including Smith, fell sick on the transatlantic voyage, which he describes in detail. His ship, India, was quarantined on Staten Island during the winter of 1848.
Smith was treated in the Quarantine Hospital. The long room filled with beds had a stove at one end, too far away to provide any heat for him:"The bed I was in being a long distance from the stove and too far from the pipe to feel any heat from either, the feelings of coldness increased, till, in the course of half an hour, I was trembling violently, and notwithstanding every effort, I could not keep my teeth from striking each other."
Smith's bed had a mattress made of straw: "The bedposts were made of iron, with iron bars for the bottom (similar to wooden laths). Upon these bars was put a coarse fabric containing a little straw; this they called a bed. While lying upon it, I felt the bars almost as distinctly as though there was no bed under me. I was so thin that I was a mere living skeleton."
Trying to make himself more comfortable, Smith used his own clothes to pad the mattress. A male nurse reprimanded him harshly and threw the clothes on the floor. "Thus, from the doctor down to the lowest menials, the poor immigrant is treated with contempt and cruelty, which seemed to be the order of the day. This treatment is the more uncalled for, when the fact is borne in mind that this hospital is supported by immigrants, each one having to pay one dollar, which is charged to them in their fare," Smith says.
Smith was eventually released from the Quarantine Hospital, but it took him six months to regain enough strength to write a letter home to inform his family of his arrival in New York. Historian John Duffy points out that many patients dismissed from the Quarantine fell sick later in the community. According to Duffy, the result of the increasing numbers of infections and deaths was hastily built "haphazard shanties and mass graves" at the Quarantine.
Threats and protests from the local community went unheeded. As early as August 15th, a cart with straw, camphene, and matches was dumped on the street outside the Quarantine wall. Again, on August 31, makeshift battering rams were placed against the western wall. Resolutions reached from an outdoor Castleton Board of Health meeting were posted throughout the town and on the Quarantine walls.
"Resolved. That the whole Quarantine Establishment located as it is in the midst of this dense population has become a pest and a nuisance of the most odious character bringing death and desolation to the very doors of the people of Castleton and Southfield.
"Resolved. That this is a nuisance too intolerable to be borne of these towns any longer.
"Resolved. That this Board recommend the citizens of this county to protect themselves by abating this abominable nuisance without delay."
Despite numerous petitions to move the Quarantine and the passing of an Act in 1849 by the New York Board of Health to relocate it to Sandy Hook, New Jersey, when 1856 arrived, nothing had been done. By this time, Yellow Fever had descended upon the local community again.
Another petition requested the relocation to Sequine's Point on the other side of Staten Island. The residents of Westfield, near that new location, took matters into their own hands and burned the almost completed structures to the ground. 1857 when the rebuilding was halfway done, they drove the point home by burning it to the ground a second time.
The newly formed Castleton Board of Health wanted the six-foot wall to be made higher, and the Harbor Police Force was created to keep a watchful eye on stevedores who meandered out from the Quarantine grounds carrying the "miasma' on them. When the New York Commissioners of Health sought an injunction to restrain the locals from protesting, the first threats to burn the Quarantine to the ground were made - a promise that was kept and aided by none other than the Foreman of the Neptune Fire Engine Company Number 6, Thomas Burns, owner of Nautilus Hall.
Burns and other volunteer firefighters settled old grudges on the night of September 1, 1858. Using coded language, "Save Dr. Thompson's house," meant "Burn it," and using the excuses that their hoses had been cut and claiming the assault on the Harbor Police Force with rocks prevented them from helping, nothing could be done to save the structures from burning to the ground. All it took was some strategically placed straw, camphene, and matches.
Patients were dragged from their beds and laid on the grass beneath the stars to watch as the Staten Island Marine Hospital and Quarantine Station burned. What destruction wasn't fully achieved on the night of September 1, the locals returned to finish the job on September 2. The Police showed up on September 3. Nothing but embers remained of the Staten Island Marine Hospital and Quarantine Station.
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On March 30, 2020, the United States Naval Ship Comfort anchored in New York City Harbor. Despite social distancing rules, crowds gathered to watch. The red cross, prominent against an entirety of white, displayed the ship's purpose—a floating hospital.
Its arrival should have signaled hope, for Comfort aimed to relieve hospital stress caused by increased numbers of infected patients by treating patients who did not have covid onboard. Only 182 patients were treated on board a ship outfitted for 1,000.
Outfitted to treat 1,000 non-covid patients, criticism and an increase in infections drove it to change that policy. On April 26, 2020, Comfort ended its New York City Covid mission, treating only 182 patients.
Comfort, unfortunately, did not provide what its name promised. This was history repeating itself for many with a penchant for Irish history, specifically the Great Hunger. Connections were made with words like quarantine and dying alone.
I was reminded of this connection recently in reading Cian T. McMahon's The Coffin Ship Life and Death at Sea During the Great Irish Famine. In quoting directly from the Sailor's Magazine and Naval Journal (December 1851), "the vessel is both their hearse and coffin," McMahon highlights why Comfort failed to live up to its name and mission — No one wants to die alone, away from family, and on a ship. Lessons from reading the history of the Irish Great Hunger have taught us that.
The third Sunday in May is designated to commemorate Ireland's Great Hunger.
International Famine Day 2024 will be on May 19, 2024.
Annual commemorations are held in Staten Island on the mass Irish Famine victims' grave located at 26 Central Ave, St. George.
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