On Vaccinations and the Small Pox epidemic of 1894

small pox illustration

Brooklyn Life, March 1894.

This is the latest in a series of posts on the records of Brooklyn’s Corporation Counsel, which are currently being processed with funding provided by a Council on Library and Information Resources (CLIR) “Hidden Collections” grant.

The U. S. Supreme Court recently upheld New York City’s policy of preventing unvaccinated students from attending public schools while another student has a vaccine-preventable disease. This is just the latest in long line of judicial decisions which addresses the limits of government control over the health of the individual. Over one hundred years ago, during a smallpox epidemic which ravaged the city, the very same situation was addressed in the courts of Brooklyn. The city’s Department of Health was determined to actively control the spread of the disease, often coming into conflict with those citizens whom they were trying to protect.

Prior to the development of a vaccine, smallpox was one of the most feared diseases on the planet – it was extremely contagious, and had killed and disfigured millions since ancient times. The first traditional vaccine was developed in England in the late 18th century, and by 1800 it was introduced to the United States. While the vaccine was highly effective at reducing the spread of the disease, from the beginning there was resistance to state imposed vaccination programs. Laws varied from region to region.  In Europe, Germany and England had made vaccination compulsory. Massachusetts introduced the first mandatory vaccination policy in the U.S. In New York, there were no compulsory vaccination laws, excepting children who attended public schools.[i]

Small Pox NYT

New York Times, 24 March 1894.

In 1892, about 20 years since the last epidemic, small pox returned to Brooklyn. At first the cases remained isolated. Then, from December 1893 to February 1894, there were about 70 newly diagnosed cases a month. By March of 1894 the number of infections had increased to 150. Brooklyn’s Department of Health, led by Dr. Z. Taylor Emery, decided it was time to take action. The department operated under the premise that the masses (i.e. the poor, but also business owners and landlords), “needed the guidance of enlightened and scientifically trained professionals to ensure the public good.”[ii] To that end, they began a policy of vaccination and quarantine that sometimes overstepped the bounds of New York law.

The department’s strategy of vaccination and quarantine was something akin to the military tactic of “shock and awe.” The 1894 annual report of the Department of Health describes the typical response to a reported case of smallpox: “As occupants of infected houses were sometimes known to escape therefrom to other parts of the city, before the removal of the patient, it was found necessary to put a police quarantine on the house pending arrival of the ambulance, the disinfection of the premises, and vaccination of the inmates. As soon as precautions were complied with, quarantine was raised, so as to inconvenience the occupant as little as possible.” As you can imagine, many residents found the process to be somewhat more severe than a mere inconvenience, as they were essentially placed under house arrest while their clothes, beddings, and other household goods which might be harboring the disease were destroyed.[iii]

Kingston Ave. Hospital disinfecting station.

Kingston Ave. Hospital disinfecting station. Annual Report of the Department of Health of the City of Brooklyn, 1894.

Sometimes the afflicted were allowed to convalesce at home, but more often than not they were sent to the Kingston Avenue Hospital, also known as the Contagious Disease Hospital, in Flatbush (the hospital was located at Kingston Ave. and Fenimore St., today the site of the High School for Public Service). The hospital was soon filled to capacity, and tents were erected to house even more patients. Naturally, local residents were alarmed by the influx of disease carriers. The hospital was threatened with arson, and soon guards were stationed on the premises to protect both the patients and staff.[iv]

The city was pro-active in its vaccination efforts. Over two dozen free vaccination clinics were set up across the city. A team of vaccinators was sent to the 27th Ward (Bushwick), where a large German population (which was largely resistant to vaccinations) resided. The city focused on areas where large groups of people congregated, specifically schools, factories, and lodging houses. In one day, 2,000 workers were vaccinated at the Havenmeyer & Elder sugar refinery alone. [v]

Brooklyn Daily Eagle, 26 March 1894.

Brooklyn Daily Eagle, 26 March 1894.

When a new case of smallpox was reported, not only was the entire household vaccinated on the spot, but teams would canvass all surrounding residences to prevent the spread of the disease.  While the health department was not empowered to coerce the vaccination of citizens, they used quarantines (which were allowed by New York state law to prevent the spread of disease) to strong arm anyone who resisted. Quarantined homes were marked with a yellow flag, and policemen were stationed outside to prevent anyone was entering or leaving the home. Sometimes even food deliveries were prevented from entering the quarantined homes.[vi]

The policies of Brooklyn’s Department of Health led to a number of legal problems for the city, and there are several cases related to the epidemic in the records of Brooklyn’s Corporation Counsel.

Mary A. Ferrer sued the city for false imprisonment.  She claimed to be misdiagnosed with small pox (while actually suffering from malaria), and was held at the Kingston Avenue Hospital for a week, all the while being exposed to the deadly disease.[vii]

small pox testimony

Testimony of John Salmon. Salmon, John – Vaccination injury, 1894. Brooklyn, N.Y., Department of Law, Corporation Counsel records, 2013.015; Brooklyn Historical Society

John Salmon sued for injuries received as a result of his vaccination. According to the plaintiff, a health department official came to his home and asked if he was vaccinated. When Salmon indicated that he was not, the health official falsely declared that the vaccination was mandatory, and Salmon reluctantly submitted. Three days later his skin began to blister all over his body and he was confined to a hospital for three months.[viii]

Robert W. Goggin filed suit against city for the deaths of both his wife and daughter.  He claimed that city failed to remove a small pox carrier from his apartment building, and as a result his wife and two children contracted the disease and were quarantined at the hospital. His wife soon died, and his daughter, who was later sent to the Home for Destitute Children, died of measles and pneumonia.[ix]

N.Y. state law regarding vaccination and public schools.

N.Y. state law regarding vaccination and public schools. Scrimshaw, Frederick and Charles A. Walters – Public school admittance and vaccination disputes, 1894-1895. Brooklyn, N.Y., Department of Law, Corporation Counsel records, 2013.015; Brooklyn Historical Society

The most significant legal case found in the collection involves the vaccination of school children. In 1893, the New York state legislature passed an act to provide for the compulsory education of children, which also allowed school boards to appoint physicians to vaccinate students. Children were inspected for vaccination scars by the physicians, and any student who was suspected of being unvaccinated was prevented from attending public school.

This practice was challenged by the Kings County Anti-Compulsory Vaccination League, which was led by Dr. Charles A. Walters. He argued that the city had no right to exclude unvaccinated children from public schools. The case was heard by Judge Bartlett, who ultimately sided with the city. In his decision, he indicated that public school education was a privilege, not a right. Since the public school system was a creation of the state it was subject to reasonable regulation, especially regarding the health and welfare of the community. He still did not go so far as to endorse compulsory vaccination for all citizens, noting, “To vaccinate a person against his will, without legal authority to do so, would be an assault.”[x]

While this case ended in the city’s favor, their aggressive quarantine policy would not hold up in the courts. That same year a judge ruled that the health department had no right to quarantine the homes of citizens who had not contracted small pox. Legal challenges to compulsory vaccination continued into the 20th century, culminating in 1905 when the U.S. Supreme Court, “affirmed the right of the majority to override individual liberties when the health of the community required it.”[xi] Of course, as the recent Supreme Court ruling regarding school vaccinations indicates, the debate over the government’s role in public health remains unsettled to this day.


[i] “Between persuasion and compulsion: Smallpox control in Brooklyn and New York.” Colgrove, J. Bull. Hist. Med. 2004 Summer;78(2):349-78.

[ii] Ibid.

[iii] Annual Report of the Department of Health of the City of Brooklyn, 1894.

[iv] “Brooklyn’s Smallpox Outbreak,” N.Y. Sun, 29 March 1894.

[v] “Between persuasion and compulsion: Smallpox control in Brooklyn and New York. Colgrove, J. Bull. Hist. Med. 2004 Summer;78(2):349-78.

[vi] Ibid.

[vii] Brooklyn, N.Y., Department of Law, Corporation Counsel records, 2013.015; Brooklyn Historical Society.

[viii] Ibid.

[ix] Ibid.

[x] Ibid.

[xi] “Between persuasion and compulsion: Smallpox control in Brooklyn and New York.” Colgrove, J. Bull. Hist. Med. 2004 Summer;78(2):349-78.

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Photo of the Week: A Day at Coney Island

POTW

Dreamland, 1904, v1972.1.771; Early Brooklyn and Long Island photograph collection, ARC.201; Brooklyn Historical Society.

Whether you are going for the beach, or the hot dogs, or the rides, spending at least one summer day at Coney Island has a long tradition. I visited Coney Island about a month ago to enjoy the amusements, much like the people in the image above, photographed at the Dreamland amusement park in Coney Island in 1904. Dreamland isn’t around anymore, and what people are wearing has clearly changed, but all the reasons that people go to Coney Island are still there. If you haven’t been yet this summer, you should go.

I love the rich tones and the soft focus in the image above because they give a romantic, “dreamy” quality to this photograph of Dreamland, but for more images of Dreamland and Coney Island, you might be interested in the Guide to the History of Coney Island: Lists and Photographs of Main Attractions viewbook (V1986.022), Guide to the Views of Coney Island viewbooks (ARC.231), Guide to the Staley’s Views of Coney Island (Mardi Gras Edition, 1908) viewbook (V1986.027), Guide to the Glimpses of the New Coney Island viewbook (V1986.026)

Interested in seeing more photos from BHS’s collection? Visit our online image gallery, which includes a selection of our images. Interested in seeing even more historic Brooklyn images? Visit our new website here.  To search BHS’s entire collection of images, archives, maps, and special collections visit BHS’s Othmer Library Wed-Sat, 1:00-5:00 p.m. To leave a comment, email: hchoiniere@brooklynhistory.org

Author: Halley Choiniere

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Photo of the Week: Shaved Ice and Summer in the City

v1989.2.7.9

[Shaved Ice Street Cart, Williamsburg, Brooklyn], 1975, v1989.2.7.9; Fernan Luna photographs of Williamsburg Hispanic Community, ARC.032; Brooklyn Historical Society.

For some people, the Fourth of July indicates the beginning of summer. For me, nothing announces the beginning of a long, sweaty summer in the city as clearly as the sudden appearance on every street corner of ice cream trucks and shaved ice carts. I have a long-standing, loving relationship with Mister Softee, and I love all the new, artisanal ice cream shops and trucks that are popping up in the city, but in this post I want to highlight shaved ice carts. The shaved ice cart shown in the image above from 1975 is exactly like the carts that you still see today with the big block of ice and the bottles of brightly colored syrups with flavors like tamarindo. For me, these carts are more representative of New York City than the soft ice cream trucks: you can find a Mister Softee, Mister Frostee, or something similar in every city in the country. But piraguas – shaved ice – are part of what makes New York City unique.

If not for the enormous Hispanic population in the city, we would not have the option of tamarindo flavored shaved ice. More than a quarter of the New York City population is Hispanic, and New York City has the largest urban Puerto Rican population in the world. [i] Puerto Ricans and Cubans were living along the Brooklyn waterfront as early as the 1830s, importing goods from the Caribbean to Brooklyn. While there was some migration of these populations into New York during the late 1800s, the relocation of the Puerto Rican population gained steam after Puerto Rico became a U.S. territory in 1917, and again after the second World War. Dominican and Mexican populations increased in Brooklyn beginning in the early-1970s, followed in the 1980s with Central and South American populations.[ii]

Clearly, the Hispanic populations in New York have contributed to the city’s culture and identity in many ways that are more substantial than shaved ice. But, while it may be just a small addition to the city’s cultural heritage, a shaved ice with syrup from a cart on a hot day in the city is perfection.

¡Muchas gracias por esto!

For more detail about the Hispanic presence in Brooklyn, you might be interested in Brooklyn Historical Society’s Guide to the Hispanic Communities Documentation Project records and oral histories (ARC.032) and Guide to the Antonia Denis collection (1992.021).  For more photos from the Brooklyn Historical Society collections, visit our online image gallery, which includes a selection of our images. Interested in seeing even more historic Brooklyn images? Visit our new website here.  To search BHS’s entire collection of images, archives, maps, and special collections visit BHS’s Othmer Library Wed-Sat, 1:00-5:00 p.m. To leave a comment, email: hchoiniere@brooklynhistory.org

Author: Halley Choiniere


[ii] Marks, Dr. Morton, “Brooklyn’s Hispanic Communities,” Brooklyn’s Hispanic Communities, The Brooklyn Historical Society: New York, 1989.

 

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Map of the Month–July 2014

1974 NYC subway map

New York City Subway Guide, 1974. Brooklyn Historical Society Map Collection.

For July’s Map of the Month, I have chosen a 1974 copy of the “New York City Subway Guide,” to commemorate the work of Massimo Vignelli, who died in New York on May 27. This map was issued by the Metropolitan Transportation Authority from 1972 to 1979, when it was superseded by the map created by Michael Hertz Associates, which is still in use after several updates and revisions.

Vignelli’s map is now a design landmark, but when it was issued, many complained of its distortions of New York geography—Central Park has become a squat, grey square—and general indifference to relative distances.  Indeed, the features that make this map so beautiful and elegant—the muted neutral colors of the rivers and parks used to offset the jewel tones of the subway lines and the ‘cubing’ of the geography in order to make it conform to the perfect square of the sheet—are exactly what bothered the riders who actually used the map for travel. The abstracted representation of geography on the map was too distant from experience for many people.

To appreciate Vignelli’s accomplishment, compare this map to the “New York City Subway Map and Guide” published in 1967, when the integration of the BMT and IND lines resulted in the opening of the Grand Street station and the creation of free transfers between lines at Delancy Street. This map used color for the different subway lines, but unfortunately used boxes to communicate different ideas. The result is a sheet with lots of boxes that must be carefully read.  This map was described by architectural critic Peter Blake in New York Magazine in April 1978 (as cited by Peter Shaw in an online article 2008) as “a battlefield filled with typographers and color-experts locked in mortal battle.”

To see what he means, compare the Delancy Street transfer of the 1967 version of the subway map to Vignelli’s version below:

Close of up Delancy Street transfer, from 1974NYC subway map

Detail of Delancy Street transfer. New York City Subway Guide, 1974. Brooklyn Historical Society Map Collection.

The current MTA map, known simply as “The Map”, also uses color to indicate the different subway lines and simple dots to indicate stops or transfers (Vignelli, who inspired subsequent map makers, had himself been inspired by London Underground maps), but “The Map” also contains much more information. It is now a visual compendium of rapid transit for all 5 boroughs as well as MTA railroads of the Metropolitan area, and it gives information on bus and ferry transfers for individual stations. Not surprisingly, it is physically much larger. It is a marvel of graphic communication, but I don’t think it would be described as elegant.

For elegance, head over to the MTA web site, where “The Map” can be accessed online in different permutations—individual line, weekend or late editions. Link to the Weekender and choose ‘subway diagram view,’ which Vignelli designed with associates for the MTA in 2011 as an interactive online map. An adaptation of this design is also available as an app for iphone and android, and we are once more able to carry  Massimo Vignelli’s abstracted and beautiful vision of our subway in our pockets.

The Peter Shaw article I mentioned, “The (mostly) true story of Helvetica and the New York City Subway”, 2008, is an account of the adoption of Helvetica as the NYC Transit font and it sheds a great deal of light on the evolution of uniform design, maps as well as signage, within the MTA. The MTA took significant strides in uniform design in the 1960s and 1970s, and Vignelli’s contributions were important and lasting.

Interested in seeing more maps? You can view the BHS map collection anytime during the library’s open hours, Wed.-Sat., from 1-5 p.m. No appointment is necessary to view most maps.

This map was cataloged with funding provided by a Council on Library and Information Resources (CLIR) “Hidden Collections” grant.

 

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Photo of the Week: July Fourth

v1974.4.2073

[View from Sheepshead Bay BMT Station], 1962/07/04, v1974.4.2073; John D. Morrell photographs, ARC.005; Brooklyn Historical Society.

bhs_v1972.2.29-july4

Ivanhoe Rifle Club, 1893/07/04, v1972.2.29; Early Brooklyn and Long Island photograph collection, ARC.201; Brooklyn Historical Society.

Apparently, most people are too busy on July 4th to bother with photographs. In the Brooklyn Historical Society collections, there are only four photographs from this date: two photographs of an afternoon spent in a field in 1893 by the Ivanhoe Rifle Club, and two photographs taken seemingly randomly from the platform of the Sheepshead Bay train station in 1962. These two images belie the stereotype of July 4th as a day dedicated exclusively to barbecued meats and firework displays, although I am sure that many of you will be doing plenty of meat-eating while enjoying the fireworks over the East River.

Whether you decide to barbeque, or lay on the beach, or wander around the city, or watch Germany, France, Brazil and Colombia battle in the World Cup quarter finals, I hope you have an amazing, photo-worthy Fourth of July.

Interested in seeing more photos from BHS’s collection? Visit our online image gallery, which includes a selection of our images. Interested in seeing even more historic Brooklyn images? Visit our new website here.  To search BHS’s entire collection of images, archives, maps, and special collections visit BHS’s Othmer Library Wed-Sat, 1:00-5:00 p.m. To leave a comment, contact: hchoiniere@brooklynhistory.org

Author: Halley Choiniere

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