On a Sunday in July 1832, a fearful and somber crowd of New
Yorkers gathered in City Hall Park for more bad news. The
epidemic of cholera, cause unknown and prognosis dire, had
reached its peak.
People of means were escaping to the country. The New York
Evening Post reported, "The roads, in all directions, were lined
with well-filled stagecoaches, livery coaches, private vehicles
and equestrians, all panic-struck, fleeing the city, as we may
suppose the inhabitants of Pompeii fled when the red lava
showered down upon their houses."
An assistant to the painter Asher B. Durand described the scene
near the center of the outbreak. "There is no business doing here
if I except that done by Cholera, Doctors, Undertakers,
Coffinmakers, &c," he wrote. "Our bustling city now wears a most
gloomy & desolate aspect - one may take a walk up & down Broadway
& scarce meet a soul."
The epidemic left 3,515 dead out of a population of 250,000. (The
equivalent death toll in today's city of eight million would
exceed 100,000.) The dreadful time is recalled in art, maps,
death tallies and other artifacts in an exhibition, "Plague in
Gotham! Cholera in Nineteenth-Century New York," at the New-York
Historical Society. The show will run through June 28.
The outbreak, as portrayed in the exhibition and other
documentation, highlighted the vulnerabilities of life in
overcrowded cities in a time of deplorable sanitation and before
medical science recognized the role of germs in disease. Cities
were growing faster in population than in understanding what it
took to make them fit places to live - an urban problem probably
as old as the Sumerians of Mesopotamia.
The initial response to the epidemic, Kenneth T. Jackson, a
professor of history at Columbia University, said recently,
exposed more than ever the city's divisions of class, race and
religion. The disease hit hardest in the poorest neighborhoods,
particularly the slum known as Five Points, where
African-Americans and immigrant Irish Catholics were crowded in
squalor and stench.
"Other New Yorkers looked down on the victims," said Dr. Jackson,
editor of The Encyclopedia of New York City. "If you got cholera,
it was your own fault."
Unlike most upper-class residents, John Pintard, the respected
civic leader who was the historical society's founder, remained
in the stricken city. His letters to one of his daughters are
included in the exhibition.
The epidemic, he wrote in an attitude typical of his peers, "is
almost exclusively confined to the lower classes of intemperate
dissolute & filthy people huddled together like swine in their
In another letter, his judgment was even harsher. "Those sickened
must be cured or die off, & being chiefly of the very scum of the
city, the quicker [their] dispatch the sooner the malady will
Dr. David D. Ho, a biomedical scientist at Rockefeller
University, noted the similarities between the views on cholera
and the initial reaction to a more recent epidemic that took
science by surprise: AIDS.
When the first AIDS cases were reported in 1981, the victims were
almost all white gay men. They were treated as outcasts.
"It was a repeat of the cholera experience," said Dr. Ho, the
founding chief executive of the Aaron Diamond AIDS Research
Center. "The cause of the disease was unknown, and it affected a
subset of the population. It was easy to brand the victims and
blame the disease on their lifestyle."
Scientists moved quickly and effectively to isolate the virus
that causes AIDS, which is by no means confined to gay men and is
rampant in developing countries, particularly in Africa.
Science and medicine advanced more slowly in the 19th century. It
was 1883 before the bacterium Vibrio cholerae was discovered to
be the agent causing the gastrointestinal disease. But a turning
point in prevention came in 1854, when a London physician, Dr.
John Snow, established the connection between contaminated water
Dr. Snow tested the idea by plotting cholera cases on a map of
Soho. This showed that most of the victims drew their water from
a public pump on Broad (now Broadwick) Street. An infected baby's
diapers had been dumped into a cesspool near the well. A recent
book, "Ghost Map," by Steven Johnson, recounts the discovery.
The cholera research was an early application of mapping in
medical investigations, a technique that has become widespread
now that computers facilitate the display and analysis of such
data. Historians of medicine credit Dr. Snow with advancing the
modern germ theory of disease and laying the foundations of
The cholera menace thus prompted cities to begin cleaning up
their fouled nests. This came too late for victims of the 1832
epidemic in New York, or one that followed in 1849. By then, the
city's population had doubled, to 500,000, and deaths by cholera
rose to 5,071.
The city in 1832 had expanded as far north as 14th Street. People
were squeezed out of the lower wards by the influx of immigrants.
Some, escaping earlier outbreaks of malaria and yellow fever, had
sought a haven in the clean air and open land of the village
Walking in Greenwich Village today, one is struck by the number
of small brick houses bearing markers with dates immediately
after 1832. It may be no coincidence that John Blauvelt, a carter
working the piers, built his on West 10th Street (then Amos
Street) the year after the cholera epidemic.
New Yorkers should have suspected that the scourge was on its
way. Cholera, originally confined to South Asia, had started
spreading in 1817 from seaport to seaport, presumably carried by
infected sailors. The disease struck London in 1831 and reached
New York the next June.
No one was prepared, not even doctors. They generally believed
that miasmas, the noxious vapors from rotting organic matter,
carried infections, an idea inspiring literature of death in Rome
and Venice. The cholera in Five Points seemed to bear out the
Five Points was a slum that had metastasized from an intersection
of five streets north of City Hall through the area that is now
Foley Square and Chinatown. "All that is loathsome, drooping and
decayed is here," Charles Dickens wrote after a visit. Martin
Scorsese's movie "Gangs of New York" captures the lowlife there
later in the 19th century, when it was still an urban sinkhole.
The exhibition includes illustrations of the thugs and gamblers,
the stray dogs and pigs that inhabited the streets of mud and
manure. The pigs at least were useful as garbage collectors and
sources of food.
For victims, the onset of cholera was sudden: an attack of
diarrhea and vomiting, followed by abdominal cramps and then
acute shock, signaling the collapse of the circulatory system.
Some survived the illness, despite the lack of effective
Posters from the time described recommended treatments, including
laudanum (morphine), calomel (mercury) as a binding laxative, and
camphor as an anesthetic. High doses sometimes did more harm than
good. Poultices of mustard, cayenne pepper and hot vinegar were
also applied, as well as opium suppositories and tobacco enemas.
Many victims, nearly half the cases at one hospital, died within
a day of admission. After private hospitals began turning away
patients, the city set up emergency public hospitals in schools
and other buildings. One, on Rivington Street, bore the brunt,
and sketches of its patients' faces contorted in the throes of
death look down from the exhibition walls.
In stark contrast, Asher Durand, who had escaped with his family
to their country home in New Jersey, painted his children happily
eating apples in a sunny orchard. The idyllic canvas hangs a few
feet, and a world, away from the scenes of Five Points.
While many Protestants sat out the epidemic at safe distances,
the city's Catholics, many of whom were poor immigrants, mostly
Irish, had no choice but to stay. Their nuns and priests also
remained to offer comfort and some help, and they emerged as the
few heroes in the ordeal. "The Sisters of Charity performed
heroic service, and many of them died," said Stephen R. Edidin,
co-curator of the exhibition, with Joseph Ditta. "As a result,
there was some reduction of anti-Catholic sentiments and a new
respect for the Catholic clergy, who risked their lives in the
epidemic. The feeling didn't last, of course."
Despite the epidemics of '32 and '49, people still flocked to New
York and other teeming cities. But the first outbreak bolstered
support for the Croton Aqueduct system to bring clean upstate
water to the city, a project, completed in 1842, that led to the
phasing out of private and neighborhood wells that were often
polluted with human and animal waste. In 1849, the municipal
government banished more than 20,000 pigs to the outer reaches of
the city. A similar effort in previous years had provoked riots,
but this time a public chastened by epidemic complied.
Finally, after the work of Dr. Snow in London and a lesser
cholera outbreak in New York in 1866, the Metropolitan Board of
Health was established with doctors in commanding roles and broad
powers to clean up the city. Inspectors went to houses and burned
clothing of people who had just died. They cleared the filth,
spread lime and instructed survivors in proper sanitation.
Cities had learned, or should have, that epidemics as a
consequence of urbanization were their responsibility to prevent
Cholera is still a threat wherever drinking water is polluted.
But Dr. Ho says that people should no longer die of it, if they
are treated promptly and properly with rehydration fluids to
restore their ravaged bodies.