Ellis Island Quarantine, NY: Deaths in Quarantine, 1909-1911

Flying the Quarantine flag

Deaths in Quarantine, 1909-1911


Barriers Against Invisible Foes

by Frank Linstow White

Page 3 of 4

Frank Leslie's Popular Monthly, Vol. XXXIII, January to June 1892; Pages 662 - 672.


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It is perhaps not very generally known that both Hoffman and Swinburne Islands are not entirely natural formations, but mainly artificial constructions. They are both built on West Bank, a long strip of sand bar lying just east of the channel that runs southeast of Staten Island.

The sand is inclosed (sic) by cribwork protected by heavy riprap, and by a concrete wall surrounding each island, inside of the cribwork, and extending from below low-water mark to a foot above the surface of the islands.

The foundation of Swinburne Island was laid in 1866, that of Hoffman Island some tow years later, the first being completed in 1870, the second in 1873. The improvements made within the last three years have, however, brought the cost of the whole up to pretty near $3,000,000.

Morgue, Crematory and Wards on Swinburne Island

Swinburne Island, as it now stands, after the improvements it has undergone – with its rows of hospital wards, its crematory and mortuary (maisons des morts), the new dock, seventy-five feet long, the breakwater that makes a safe slip north of this dock for vessels, and all the other necessary arrangements, as complete as any in the world – is as satisfactory as the plans intended it to be.

Hoffman Island, as we have seen, is not a hospital, but simple a "Quarantine of Observation," for those who have been exposed to smallpox or typhus, and 12,000 emigrants (sic) have been isolated here since 1880. The other island, Swinburne, is a hospital pure and simple and is intended solely for yellow fever and cholera cases. It has been used for this purpose ever since its completion in 1870, in place of the "floating hospital" called for by law. The ten white hospital wards, opening off from both sides of a central hallway, are airy and pleasant, each ward forming a building by itself. These, as also John Butler's dwelling, are of wood, the other buildings being of brick. Those of the patients who die are cremated, unless their relatives or friends object. The effects of the sick are fumigated with sulphur, and in case of the owner's death, if not claimed by the heirs within two months, they are delivered over to the public administrator.

Interior of a hospital ward on Swinburne Island

Those of the dead who are to be buried must be placed in metallic coffins, and if they die in the hot season their bodies go to the mortuary. Here they are placed in metallic boxes, and the latter sealed up until the weather becomes cooler. The mortuary lies just behind the crematory, in which latter place there stands a row of numbered brown earthenware jars containing the unclaimed ashes of some half a dozen of those who have been incinerated here.

Until a few years ago those who died in Quarantine were buried at Sequine Point, and when the crematory upon Swinburne Island was finished, in 1889, the remains of those buried at the cemetery were disinterred and incinerated on the spot, in a rude but effective furnace. Sequine Point was then abandoned by the Quarantine people.

Swinburne Island, by the way, was originally to be named after Governor Dix; however, by Act of May 15th, 1872, it received the name of Dr. Swinburne, under whose direction it was built.

Before the erection of these islands, and to meet the emergency created by the destruction of the Quarantine hospitals at Tompkinsville in September, 1857, the sick were taken on board the hospital ship moored at the Lower Quarantine Station. Just below this ship is the anchorage ground of the Lower Quarantine, designated by yellow buoys. The present ship, the S. D. Carlton, is really no longer the "floating hospital" provided for by law, but simply a floating station from which ships are boarded that come from ports infected by yellow fever or cholera.

Flying the Quarantine flag

The arrival of suspected vessels is reported by a very simple system of signaling, which works more surely and is less troublesome than the telegraphic connection formerly tried and found wanting. The yellow flag that usually floats on the front of the "hospital ship" – from the foremast head – is transferred to the mizzenmast head, and its place is taken by the American flag. This is seen at Swinburne Island above, and from there the telegraph carries the news to the Quarantine station, when they go down to board the detained ships.

While absorbing all this information, we have once more boarded the tugboat.

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