Many would agree that 2020 has been a difficult year, owing largely to the dramatic effects of the worldwide pandemic of COVID-19. In terms of its impact on vast populations and its associated adverse socioeconomic damage, this pandemic is arguably likely to rank in severity with some of the major pandemics in past history, including the Great Plague of London in 1665 and the so-called “Spanish Flu” of 1918. Previous episodes of coronavirus epidemics, such as SARS in 2002 and MERS in 2012, were considerably less contagious and more successfully contained than has been the current pathogen, which, as of March 2021, has been responsible for more than 120 million cases and more than 2.6 million deaths worldwide1 and more than 29 million cases and in excess of 500,000 deaths in the United States alone.2
Aside from the magnitude of the pandemic, there have been profound socioeconomic effects,3 as well as public protests and demonstrations against coronavirus restrictions imposed by government agencies.4
As COVID-19 spread throughout the world, and as we have seen first-hand here in the United States, hospital facilities have been strained to accommodate the ill, and it has been necessary, in some cases, to establish temporary facilities to house and care for the overflow. By and large, the response of the healthcare profession has been admirable, if not heroic, and for the most part, the support and the cooperation of the public—in terms of adhering to quarantine requirements and protecting vulnerable persons—has been essential.
However, this was clearly not the case in the year 1858, when the nation’s largest quarantine facility, known as the New York Marine Hospital—also called the Marine Quarantine Hospital, or simply, the Quarantine—was burned to the ground and destroyed by a mob of local villagers who stormed the grounds, battered down the high brick wall surrounding the campus and set fire to nearly every one of the 11 buildings within the complex (see Figure 1). This occurred over a period of two days, September 1–2, 1858.5
Although the death toll was slight, this episode has been regarded as an egregious example of the use of a public health issue as an excuse for violence.
Background and Development of the Quarantine
In the early to mid-19th century, large numbers of immigrants were arriving in the New York City area. They were housed, for the most part, in crowded tenements, mostly along the East River. Many of these new immigrants arrived with illnesses typical of sea travelers in the 19th century, including smallpox, yellow fever, cholera and typhus. To contain these contagious diseases, passengers on these ships, or the ships themselves, were commonly quarantined for as long as six months, or even longer, after arrival in the New York ports.
Quarantined individuals were typically housed at the New York Marine Hospital located on a 30-acre tract on the northeastern shore of Staten Island, only a short distance from where the Staten Island Ferry docks are today (see Figure 2). Built in 1799, the Quarantine was located in what has been described as a bucolic setting, one thought to have been more conducive to recovery than the overpopulated and sometimes unsanitary conditions that existed in Manhattan.
Over the years, the Quarantine expanded, ultimately numbering 11 hospital buildings, including a six-ward smallpox hospital. In addition, the complex contained residences for doctors and other staff members, offices, outhouses, stables, barns and residences for patients, as well as for stevedores who unloaded cargo from the ships. The facility was isolated and surrounded by a high brick wall, intended to seal it off from the surrounding residential community.
At its peak, in the 1840s, the facility could accommodate as many as 1,500 patients at a time, caring for more than 8,000 people in a year. Healthy passengers and crew members who remained free of disease were released after the period of quarantine elapsed. Those who died at the hospital were buried in a designated cemetery not far from the property.
There was a large staff that lived permanently at the Quarantine. It was headed by a state-appointed health officer and there were two or three resident physicians, appointed by the city. Nurses and orderlies assisted in treating patients, preparing meals and doing laundry. Approximately six to eight boatmen were responsible for transporting patients from infected ships. More than 100 dockworkers, or stevedores, were employed to unload cargo; many were typically housed here, as well.
While an appointment at the Quarantine was considered a mark of prestige, working there was also regarded as hazardous. Whereas the health officer and physician-in-chief in the late 1840s later went on to organize and run the New York Metropolitan Board of Health, four other physicians died of typhus or yellow fever during this time. Staff members were also at risk. In one year (1856), 33 workers were diagnosed with yellow fever.
A prevailing theory at the time was that these diseases resulted from a miasma that originated in the humid cargo holds of these ships and was carried in the clothing worn by the passengers and crew. Thus, it was common practice to remove and burn the clothing when they disembarked from these vessels. The stevedores, who worked in the ship’s holds, were regarded as having the highest risk; consequently, they were well paid and housed in more comfortable accommodations.
From a public health standpoint, the Quarantine was regarded as a necessary facility that provided a measure of protection to the native population from imported epidemic diseases and was located at a site that was convenient to New York City and sufficiently isolated.
Opposition to the Quarantine
Despite the worthy qualities that characterized the existence and the efforts of the Quarantine hospital and its staff, the native residents of Staten Island held an opposing view. They considered the Quarantine a danger to their community and a negative influence on their property values. According to historical records, the land upon which the hospital was located had been previously conveyed to New York State via the right of eminent domain, which then led to a long period of ill will.
“The principal objection was the belief that the Quarantine imported diseases into their communities.”
The principal objection was the belief that the Quarantine imported diseases into their communities. Indeed, there occurred an epidemic of 29 cases of yellow fever in 1821, additional cases in 1848 and another 30 cases in 1856. Over the years, outbreaks of smallpox, cholera and typhus were also seen. Although these contagions possibly originated at the Quarantine, they might also have been spread by local residents who violated Quarantine rules by conducting commercial trade directly with anchored ships in the harbor. Another route of spread was thought to be from nurses or orderlies who resided in local villages and who came into contact with residents, while on their way to and from work at the Quarantine. In addition, another source of contagion was believed to be from dead bodies that were transported by wagon from the hospital to the off-site cemetery a couple of miles away.
A particularly frustrating problem was caused by the stevedores, who were most heavily exposed to disease, some of whom were suspected of stealing cargo from the ships to be sold secretly in town. Worse, stevedores were numerous enough and asserted themselves sufficiently to influence local elections and thus, promote their own interests at the expense of the native citizenry.
Active Resistance to the Quarantine
Following an outbreak of yellow fever in 1848, Staten Islanders tried to get rid of the Quarantine through legislation. A proposal to the New York State Legislature urged that the Quarantine be relocated to New Jersey—specifically, the beautiful but isolated shore area of Sandy Hook. This proposal was soundly rejected by New Jersey interests. Another attempt sought to move the Quarantine to a location on the opposite side of Staten Island, but this, too, was thwarted by local residents who twice burned down the partially constructed new buildings there.
Further efforts to thwart the Quarantine included the creation of a police force, specifically to suppress the activities of the stevedores, and construction of a high retaining wall around the campus, although both efforts were suboptimally effective.
Finally, in 1858, tensions peaked between the Quarantine and community interests in Staten Island. The local Board of Health passed a series of ordinances encouraging local residents to block Quarantine activities. New York City health commissioners responded by attempting to obtain an injunction to prevent Staten Islanders from doing so. When local residents raised further objections, the City shut down the Staten Island Ferry. Local residents then made plans to take further drastic action, preparing to actually vandalize and incinerate the facility. The local Board of Health adopted a series of resolutions justifying their proposed actions:
Resolved. That the whole Quarantine establishment located as it is in the midst of a 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 the towns of Castleton and Southfield.
Resolved. That it is a nuisance too intolerable to be borne by the citizens 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.
Torching of the Quarantine
The attack on the Quarantine began on the evening of September 1, 1858. It started when a group of men gained entry to the grounds by battering down a portion of the surrounding brick wall. Another group of men was observed placing straw mattresses within the doorways and igniting them. Separate fires were started in adjacent buildings, including a boardinghouse in which healthy but quarantined individuals were staying (see Figure 3).
Panic erupted. Hospital personnel sounded a fire alarm and tried to extinguish the flames with buckets of water. The local fire engine company was summoned but was prevented from entering the grounds by sympathetic rioters. When some of the fire engines managed to get in, they found that their hoses had been cut. Healthy lodgers fled. Hospital employees and some of the stevedores rescued patients from the burning buildings. Horses were freed from the stables. Harbor police attempted to come in and restore order, but were repelled by rioters throwing rocks at them.
“The federal government sent in a contingent of Marines, but their orders were only to protect United States property.”
Sick patients were moved by loyal Quarantine staff members to another hospital building specifically designated and recognized as a safe haven. Some were placed in outdoor makeshift tents. Three patients were reported to have died, although the causes were unclear: One had apparently just died of yellow fever, while another was apparently removed from the burning building in extremis.6
New York City authorities, including the Superintendent of City Police and the Commissioners of Emigration, were reluctant to offer any kind of aid, appearing to be sympathetic to the rioters. The federal government sent in a contingent of Marines, but their orders were only to protect United States property.
On the following day, September 2, rioters completed the incendiary escapade by igniting the remaining structures on the grounds and even setting the piers on fire where some of the ships were docked.
A reporter from The New York Times wrote movingly of this event7:
… gaunt features and sunken eyes of these poor wretches were perfectly visible in the light of the burning dwelling behind them. Burning cinders fell in showers among them. In full view … was the noble edifice in which they had been sheltered and nursed, now wrapped in flame. …. The roar of the flames, the clouds of dense smoke, … the furious outcries of the mob, crazy with their infernal work, all formed a scene most horrible and impressive.
Except for the one protected building, the destruction of the Quarantine campus was otherwise total and complete by the morning of September 3. As The New York Times dramatically reported8:
The appearance of the Quarantine Grounds … was desolate in the extreme … the blackened pillars and walls of the … Hospital and the adjoining buildings rising out of the ruins that surrounded them, the blue smoke rising over them … the smouldering heaps of ashes…the whole scene was in marked contrast to that which was presented there a few days ago.
The New York press appeared clearly divided in its response to the destruction of the Quarantine. The New York Times was highly critical of the arsonists, and although the paper, while it argued that corrective action was warranted, the newspaper strongly expressed its opinion that the methodology was “defiant of law, order, and humanity” and was “inexcusable.” The Times argued that the Quarantine should be rebuilt on the same site.8
The New York Herald sided with the Staten Island citizenry; although not defending mob violence, the paper claimed the locals were placed in an untenable position by an uncompromising government authority. The Herald recommended relocating the Quarantine outside New York City or Staten Island, favoring any place in New Jersey.9
The New York Tribune evidently took a middle position, arguing that the Staten Islanders were both right and wrong, claiming the Quarantine was a nuisance, but that the locals were forced to submit unwillingly to the associated hazards.10
“A number of the arsonists were prosecuted by New York City authorities for minor offenses, such as breaking Quarantine regulations, but only a handful were imprisoned.”
A number of the arsonists were prosecuted by New York City authorities for minor offenses, such as breaking Quarantine regulations, but only a handful were imprisoned. The ringleaders of the fire were prosecuted in the Staten Island courthouse; they pleaded they acted in self-defense, arguing that Quarantine employees, including the stevedores and the support staff—being constantly exposed to what they believed to be harmful disease miasma—conveyed these toxins to the surrounding villages, placing innocent citizens at serious risk.
The judge found for the defense, ruling that the attack was justified because the Quarantine was a public nuisance, and the citizenry was rebelling against what were claimed to have been “tyrannical forces.” But it was felt the judge was hardly impartial, as he owned a home not far from the Quarantine and had personally cared for his brother-in-law, who earlier had died of yellow fever. In addition, the judge had previously argued in the state legislature, in 1849, to have the Quarantine removed.
Disposition of the Quarantine
Several months after the destruction, the quarantine establishment was relocated from Staten Island to a location at sea on a large boat called the Florence Nightengale, anchored nine miles offshore in the Atlantic Ocean. In 1866, the quarantine facility was moved again to two artificial islands in the harbor, created specifically to house the Marine Hospital. Finally, in 1920, the function was re-established on Ellis Island.
Motivations for the Quarantine Fire
Several explanations have been offered to explain what motivated the dramatic action that resulted in the conflagration of the Quarantine.
The historian Adrian Cook, who wrote of draft riots that occurred in New York City during the time of the Civil War, suggested that rioting was a not uncommon form of civil disorder in the mid-19th century, resulting from such social ills as weakness of police enforcement, political instability and the corrupt nature of local politics.11
Another postulated concern, possibly held by prominent local property owners (who included Daniel Tompkins, Governor of the State of New York, who owned much of the land adjacent to the Quarantine) was the notion that the property upon which the Quarantine was built could be used eventually for alternative purposes, such as institutions for the mentally ill, criminals or the poor. Local residents may have feared that such unpopular use would have the potential to adversely impact their property values and their quality of life.
Contributory explanations included a general apprehension among the populace of the risk of contagion from untreatable infectious diseases, to which they were being unwittingly exposed. Another possible explanation was a prejudice against unwanted immigrants who were believed to be the sources of illness. And there was also the fear of the alleged criminal proclivity of some Quarantine employees, such as the stevedores, who were interacting with the community and were believed to be spreading yellow fever and other diseases.
The deliberate vandalism committed against a legitimate healthcare facility housing sick and vulnerable human beings certainly seems shocking and morally unconscionable. However, the local populace appeared to take this action only after more reasonable attempts failed to rectify what represented to them a threatening and intractable public health problem.
Today, we are experiencing the unsettling effects of a global COVID-19 pandemic. The United States has been particularly hard hit, struck by a disproportionate number of cases and of deaths, compared with similar industrialized nations throughout the world. At the same time, a vastly detrimental economic impact has resulted in tens of millions of workers becoming unemployed,12 and businesses being shut down or even bankrupted.
“Together with these phenomena, the pandemic appears to have sharpened widespread civil unrest, highlighting the ethnic and racial disparities that plague America’s social fabric.”
Together with these phenomena, the pandemic appears to have sharpened widespread civil unrest, highlighting the ethnic and racial disparities that plague America’s social fabric. This has been manifested in instances of apparent police brutality; public demonstrations—both peaceful and violent—in which customary preventive strategies, including masking and social distancing, are ignored; and what some consider disruptive and inappropriate distractions from the political discourse that typically accompanies the quadrennial presidential election campaign—such as the threat to cripple the U.S. Postal Service to confound mail balloting.
Although the burning of the Quarantine was a seemingly irrational action taken to eliminate a singular and particularly thorny public health threat, this methodology seems not so dissimilar to what we are witnessing today in the widespread social unrest perhaps generated, in part, by marked frustration in addressing the inequalities and inequities that characterize today’s American experience.
*Except where otherwise noted, the historical information in this article is derived from this reference source by K. Stephenson.