Cholera Outbreak 1892


Cholera in New York Bay 1892

In August 1892 Cholera was affecting Russian Jews arriving in Hamburg on their way to the United States.

"On the 17th of August the Moravia, a two-masted steamer of the Hamburg line, sailed from that city with 385 steerage passengers, and she brought with her a clean bill of health from the American consul, who certified that when the ship sailed there were no infectious or contagious disease prevailing in Hamburg. The American consul was deceived, like the rest of the world. The Moravia arrived in the lower New York Bay Tuesday night August 30th, and the next morning anchored near the Quarantine Station on Staten Island, and close by several other ships that Arrived Tuesday night.

When the health officer boarded the Moravia, he was blandly told by the captain and the ship's surgeon that the boat had a clean bill of health, and that they were in a hurry to get to the ship's dock. An examination of the surgeon's report showed that there had been twenty-four cases of "cholerine" and twenty-two deaths during the voyage. The health office ordered that the Moravia should steam to lower Quarantine, in the outer bay. A little examination showed that the "cholerine" on the Moravia was Asiatic cholera of the most fatal type.'

Harper's Weekly, September 17, 1892

On Saturday, September 3 three more ships of the arrived from Hamburg, the Normannia, the Rugia and the Stubbenhuk. The Stubbenhuk with 232 steerage passengers aboard proved to be free of cholera. The Rugia had 98 cabin passengers and 436 steerage passengers. She reported 7 deaths at sea. The Nommannia carried 488 cabin passengers and 482 steerage passengers and "also had cholera deaths at sea."

The announcement of cholera on the ship caused a great deal of excitement in New York and in the country in general. All ships coming from Europe were detained longer than usual while health officials tried to determine the gravity of the threat. Inspections of other ships showed that there was cholera on the Rugia which sailed from Hamburg on August 21 and the Normannia which had sailed from Hamburg on the 27. Both ships had made other stops before leaving Europe. All of the deaths on these ships were in steerage.

Steerage passengers from these ships were taken to Hoffman Island and bathed while the ships were disinfected. Infected passengers to Swinburne Island. All passengers regardless of class were detained on board.

The Harpers article goes on to say:

"Here were nearly six hundred well people shut up in infected ships on which deaths from the infection were of daily occurrence, with the only water aboard that from the polluted Elbe. For many more days there was no practical solution of this problem, and from the ships came daily pathetic appeals for help and indignant protests against what the imprisoned passengers though official heartlessness and incompetency. Both appeal and protest were natural. Among the passengers were United States Senator McPherson, of New Jersey; Mr. E. L. Godkin, editor of the New York Evening Post; the Rev. Richard D Harlan, of New York,; and Mr. A. M. Palmer, the well know theater manager....... Lottie Collins the dancer and singer, who made famous the song "Ta-ra-ra-boom-de-ay", was also among the Normannia's passengers.
Letters sent from the ships were fumigated before being delivered.

In following days there were continued deaths on these three ships but only two new infected ships arrived - the Wyoming and the Scandia. All of the people who worked with the passengers on the ships and on the two island were cut off from "their family and loved ones" as long as there were cholera cases on the islands.

The big question was "What to do with the healthy passengers?". This turned into a first degree farce as first class passengers were moved from one boat to another, taken to a quarantine camp on Fire Island where they were opposed by locals before finally allowed to land and then transported back to the New York Harbor where they were finally permitted to disembark on September 17th in Hoboken piers.

In the end:

  • There were a total of 120 deaths, 66 on board the ships and 44 in the Quarantine Station
  • Something in the neighborhood of 5,300 immigrants where bathed and disenfected on Hoffman Island.
Cholera was not the only infectious disease present on these ships. The Scandia also had a measles epidemic among the children in steerage.

The twenty day quarantine period that was subsequently imposed on all incoming vessels greatly slowed immigration until the embargo was lifted in February 1893.

The 1892 cholora incident also had the unfortunate repercussion of instilling prejudice against Russian Jewish immigrants.

Magazine collection of Maggie Land Blanck, Harpers Weekly September 17, 1892


Harpers Weekly, September 24, 1892

First Supplementary Report Of The Advisory Committee New-York, October 4, 1892.

"The Medical Advisory Committee of the Chamber of Commerce was organized on Saturday, September 10, 1892, and consisted of Drs. Stephen Smith, A. Jacohi, E. G. Jankway, A. L. Loomis, R. H. Derby, Allan Mclane Hamilton and T. Mitchell PrudDen. To their number was subsequently added Dr. H. M. Biggs."

The committee approached the Health Officer at Quarantine and offered their services in case of emergency. The Health Officer seemed to feel everything was under control.

Excerpts from the First Supplementary Report Of The Advisory Committee New-York, October 4, 1892.

7b the Special Committee of the Chamber of Commerce of the State of New-York

At this time the "Moravia," the " Normannia," the "Rugia," the" Wyoming" and the "Scandia" were at anchor at the Lower Quarantine. All these were thought to be infected ships, and all had their passengers on board save the steerage passengers of the " Normannia " and " Rugia," which had been transferred to Hoffman Island. The cabin passengers of the "Normannia" had been transferred on the preceding day to the "Stonington."


On Monday the second attempt was being made to land the "Normannia" passengers at Fire Island. The "New-Hampshire" was anchored in the Lower Bay, and it was believed that the cabin passengers of the " Rugia" would be transferred either to this ship or to the "Stonington," as soon as she should be cleaned and made ready. We felt it unwise at this moment in any way to detract the attention of the Health Officer from the fulfillment of these most imperative duties to the "Normannia" and "Rugia" cabin passengers.


The Committee urged upon the Health Officer at this interview the importance of the immediate removal of passengers from infected ships. This he stated to be his purpose, and he furthermore explained that it had been his intention to transfer the " Rugia" passengers to the " New-Hampshire " that day, but that the sea in the Lower Bay was running too high to permit of its being safely done. (September 13) .........

(Wednesday, September 14th) We recommend that a bacteriologist shall be appointed who shall be freed from all other imperative duties, in order that he may be able to attend promptly to the bacterial examinations so frequently necessary under existing conditions, upon the promptitude and certainty of whose results often depend the personal welfare and the lives of hundreds of persons." The recommendation No. 2 was made in view of the fact, that the " Wyoming," with all her passengers, was still in detention at Lower Quarantine, where she was sent on account of the suspicious nature of certain deaths which had occurred on board after she had passed Quarantine, as we were informed, five days before.

Since under ordinary conditions the biological examination should show within three, or at the utmost four days, with great certainty whether suspicious deaths were or were not due to Asiatic cholera, and yet no definite report seemed to have been received, it seemed possible to the Committee that the physicians at Swinburne Island, where the bacterial work was done, might be so busy as to be unable to attend to all the duties of the situation. In any event, it seemed wise to secure in the fullest measure wise counsel in such an important matter.


(Thursday, September 15th) In company with the Health Officer, the Committee now visited Hoffman Islam. We found Hoffman Island greatly overcrowded with the steerage passengers of the " Normannia" and the " Rugia," with parts of their crew. We found an incomplete separation of the people into two groups by a fence, which divides the island into two parts. The drinking water, which is brought to the island by boat, is stored in several cisterns beneath that part of the asphalted surface of the island on which the detained people are kept. The mouths of these cisterns are protected with iron covers, which are furnished with padlocks. One of these covers, about which the "suspects" were closely grouped, was unlocked, and could have been raised by any of them, exposing the water. Another of the covers was so worn that several openings were found, through which, at any time, infected material from the clothing or persons of the detained passengers could easily have fallen and dangerously polluted the water supply.

We found that the only dining-room on the island for the Quarantined persons was in that part fenced off on the south side. This was wholly inadequate, in the opinion of those in charge, and in the opinion of the Committee for the accommodation even of the people in this group.

We found that the only laundry on the island for the use of detained persons was also on the south side. Part of the floor of this laundry was flooded with water, and the number of set tubs was wholly inadequate to the needs of the large number of persons confined in this precinct. We found that the faucets from which drinking water was drawn were set so low and so near to a long trough or sink beneath, into which refuse, food, etc., was occasionally thrown, as to suggest the possibility of dangerous contamination of the water as it was drawn.

We found a wholly inadequate privy accommodation on both sides of the island, but new structures were building on both sides.

While the condition of affairs on the south side of the island was extremely unsatisfactory, owing to its overcrowding, and the lack of a sufficient number of employees, and the other neglected conditions just described, the northern side was in a state so deplorable and unsanitary that it is difficult for your Committee to describe it in temperate language. In the first place, as there was no dining-room, the detained persons, over four hundred in number, as we were informed, received their food directly from the, distributing vessels brought from the kitchen, and were obliged to eat it either on the asphalted pavement outside, or in the dormitory crowded with cols, bedding, and such of their effects as they had been permitted to retain. Under these circumstances it is not strange, considering the class of people so largely represented among those here confined, that we should have been informed that it was a practice among many of them, which the authorities could not prevent, to stow away unused portions of food among their bedding or about their clothes.

So far as we could learn, there was absolutely no place for the large number of persons confined on this side of the island to wash their clothing, except by standing on the rocks bordering the island and using the sea water. Inasmuch as until the day of our inspection the ptivy accommodations had been wholly inadequate, these rocky borders of the island were in a most filthy condition. Further, since the privies, both old and new, discharged directly into the water close to the shore, it is evident that aside from the utter lack of proper facilities for washing, these people were forced, if they made any attempt at cleanliness at all, to do so under conditions which were always filthy and disgusting, and might at any moment be fraught with danger of fresh infection. In other words, between four and five hundred persons were obliged, as we were informed, to wash their clothing, if they washed it at all, on a rocky shore a few hundred feet long, directly upon which, or in the water within a few feet of which, all the excrement of these hundreds of people was deposited.

Your Committee saw one of the "suspects" coming from the rocks, close beside one of these privies, whose refuse fell into the sea water within a few feet of the shore, bringing a garment washed in this water up to the area for drying. In view of this condition of affairs it is interesting to note that new cases of cholera continued to appear among the passengers and crew of the "Normannia " and " Kugia," as we were informed, for several days after their isolation on the island. One case, which was pronounced cholera, did, in fact, occur among the people whose sanitary condition we have just described after their transfer to the camp at Sandy Hook.

In this connection, as will be seen later in this report, it is worthy of note that after the correction of the most glaring of these sanitary enormities, not a single case of cholera occurred among the "Scandia " passengers, whio after removal from their ship remained eight days under observation here, and up to this date we have not been informed of anv cases occurring among the " Bohemia" passengers after their removal to the island from the ship.

We were informed by the Superintendent of the island that the inside and the floors of the dormitory buildings on the north side had not been thoroughly washed either with or without disinfectants since the passengers had been placed there several days before. The observations of the Committee gave them no grounds for doubting this statement of the Superintendent.

When illness occurred the person was removed from his bed and the immediate surroundings were treated with sublimate. But a thorough washing, or disinfection of the whole region, was impracticable, it was stated, on account of the dampness of the situation, and the danger that the passengers would take cold. We found that there was actually no available suitable room to which a person suddenly attacked with cholera, or any other suspicious illness, could be removed pending his transfer to the hospital on Swinburne Island. The room which had been used for this purpose was now partly occupied as a storage room for cleansed emigrants' clothing and bedding. Moreover, the adjoining sulphuric acid disinfecting chamber was found to be in communication with this room by cracks in the wall, so that the fumes of the disinfectant, if the chamber were employed, would prevent the occupancy of the temporary isolation room. In fact, such persons had been temporarily placed in a hallway in one of the buildings while awaiting removal.


The Committee, accompanied by the Health Officer, now visited the "Stonington," which, through the generosity of Mr. Pierpont Morgan, had been placed at the service of the Health Officer in the great emergency. Neither the "Stonington" nor the "New Hampshire " had up to this time been thoroughly inspected, he said, by the Health Officer. Our visit to the "Stonington" was made three days after she had been vacated for the second time by the "Normannia's" passengers. We found on board a policeman, & colored steward, one or two mechanics and a few miscellaneous persons, who seemed to be without function, as they were without facilities for work. The dishes last used by the "Normannia's" passengers were piled in heaps on the floor unwashed; meat in the refrigerator was spoiling and offensive; heaps of table and bed linen were piled or scattered about. Several passengers' trunks were lying about the cabin.

Life preservers, marked "Normannia," were also seen in the cabin. There was, it was said, only about a gallon of water left on board. There had been no water for washing the dishes, and no service under orders, either to wash the dishes, or in any other way to clean up the ship.

Harpers Weekly September 17, 1892, collection of Maggie Land Blanck


1. Hoffman Island 2. Swinburne Island 3, On board the Doctor Boat 4. The Consultation of Doctors on Hoffman Island 5. Immigrants on the 6 Hospital Swinburne Island &. Disinfecting Room, Hoffman Island

The man in the lower left is Dr. Jenkins, the chief health officer for the port of New York.

Tenement Life

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