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 1 of 4

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


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"Quarantine for the protection of the public Health, according to the provisions of this Act, is hereby authorized, required and established in and for the port of New York, for all vessels, their crews, passengers, equipage, cargoes, and other property, on board the same, arriving thereat from other ports." — Act of April 29th, 1863, Section 1.

It is a pleasant morning in late summer. The sun shines warm and bright over the group of buildings and docks lying a little above Fort Wadsworth on the east shore of Staten Island, and known as the Quarantine Station. Its rays are made bearable by a refreshing breeze that blows inland over the bay. Still, it is warm enough to make things appear quiet and sleepy.

Telegraph Office and Quarantine Boat House

In the lower room of the little building at the land end of the L-shaped dock some boatmen are lazily waiting for incoming ships, while another is tinkering about in a little place in back, fitted up as a workshop. In the smaller, towerlike section story the telegraph operator of the Western Union is kept busy, beside his routine work, in receiving and transmitting messages coming in from Fire Island, the Highlands and Sandy Hook, from which places the arrival of ships is successively reported for the benefit of the public. On two sides of his den long, narrow openings are arranged in the wall, through which the operator thrusts his telescope, by the aid of which he verifies the names of the ships as they pass him, and perhaps other details occasionally.

But the watchers in the room below have seen a large steamer coming in, and the big bell that hangs suspended on a forked pole before the door is vigorously tolled. The signal is intended for the doctors that live in the two houses perched picturesquely between the trees higher up from the shore. Vessels are boarded as soon as possible after arrival, and thus, only a few minutes later, a blue-uniformed figure comes hurrying down the wooden flights of steps which lead from the offices and dwellings to the dock. It is one of the two deputies that assist the Chief Health Officer, and to whom falls a good share of the outside, routine work. That there is plenty of this is apparent from the latest report of the Health Officer, from which it appears that 5,758 vessels from foreign ports, and 1,842 from domestic ports, arrived and were inspected at Quarantine during 1890, the passenger steamers bringing over 370,000 steerage passengers.

Beside the dock lies the tugboat of the station, the George C. Preston, with the official yellow flag fluttering at its stern. (Yellow, by the way, grewsomely (sic) suggestive of that dread fever from the South, is the official color of Quarantine.) The captain is already at his place in the wheelhouse, and as soon as the doctor and the Associated Press agent get on board off they go. They have already put in two hours of hard work in the early morning, and there is more before them, for away down the bay there are a number of black dots that are rapidly resolving themselves into incoming ships, among them one of those huge transatlantic ferryboats. The little steamboat puffs and reels as it makes straight for the first arrival, a Scandinavian freight steamer. AS we near it, the men begin to tumble up on deck from all points, and by the time we make fast to the vessel's side, and the doctor reaches the ship's ladder with a long jump and clambers up they are drawn in line ready for inspection. The crew that stands before the officer is composed principally of descendants of those hard Norsemen who "discovered" America on their own hook ages ago. Everything is found in good order, and the bill of health is handed over, together with the regular fee of $5. (All masters of ships from foreign ports must present such a bill of health, duly executed by the consul, vice consul, or other consular official of the United States at such port, setting forth the sanitary condition and history of the vessel.) A similarly satisfactory state of affairs prevails on the next ship, a West Indian freight steamer, except that there is an uncertified bale of skins on board, and the word is passed to the captain of the tug for the for the necessary disinfectants. A blue-coated boatman hustles up the ladder with a huge black bottle. It contains oil of vitriol, a little of which is mixed in a pail with some other chemicals, placed beside the bale and covered. A good whiff of the strong vapor that arises from this mixture is enough to take your breath away, and the steaming disinfectant thoroughly permeates the entire bale. Oil of vitriol or sulphuric acid is generally used to disinfect all animal products not vouched for by certificate as having come from healthy animals, or which have been shipped from a point infected by some epidemic. If there is a case of infectious disease, like smallpox, on board, the strongest disinfectant, sulphur, is used in the room occupied by the patient. Chlorine gas is employed in ordinary fumigation, while for cholera and yellow fever a strong solution of bichloride of mercury is used.

Quarantine, by the way, used to apply only against yellow fever, cholera, typhus or ship fever, small pox, and "any new disease of a contagious, infectious or pestilential nature." However, by Act of Legislature of 1885, scarlatina, diphtheria, measles and relapsing fever have been added to the diseases subject to quarantine at the port of New York.

Meanwhile, other ships have been arriving, and are awaiting their turn in a long, straggling line. They are taken up as nearly as possible in the order of their arrival. The little tug turns on its centre and steams a short distance to where the large passenger steamer which we saw coming up before is now lying; the vessel is one of the Hamburg line. As we near the floating palace, we discern the officers standing in a group in the centre of the ship, a fine-looking body of men, broad-shouldered, well-built Teutons. The cabin passengers are gathered together aft, divided off by a rope stretched across from side to side, while the forward deck is black with the mass of steerage passengers, 350 in number. A few minutes later the latter are passing in single file before the Health Officer, those who forget to uncover their heads being quickly reminded of the fact by the energetic "Hut ab!" of the ship's officers. Each one holds up his green ticket, which furnishes evidence of his vaccination by the ship's surgeon, and which he will also need on some of the emigrant trains going West. What a heterogeneous stream of humanity passes before us! Germans from all parts of the empire; Austrians, their trousers thrust into high boots, shiny and smooth except for the accordion-like wrinkles at the bottom, over the feet; Russian and Polish Jews, the men usually wearing very long and heavy coats and an apologetic air, with strings of children, carried, dragged and stumbling along; Arabs, Italians, and what not, most of them with a half-scared, furtive air, which some make an unsuccessful attempt to conceal under an assumption of bravado or jocularity. It is surprising what a large percentage of the people consists of German of the better classes, many of them evidently well educated, forced for reasons of economy to avail themselves of the cheapest mode of traveling to the promised land of the thousands who hope to better their condition.

On board an immigrant steamer -- passing the doctor

But the inspection is over, and the officious little steamer again turns in its tracks and makes straight for a large sailing vessel that has cast anchor nearer shore. This ship is from Rotterdam. The regular questions are put and answered satisfactorily: the captain's name, the duration of voyage, the number of men, what cargo, the consignee's name, and the broker's name. The skipper is unprovided with a bill of health, however, which omission makes a difference of $3 to him. On the other side he could have procured it for $2; here it costs him $5. Again the tug swerves off, and a few minutes later we are lying beside a magnificent four-master. It has come from the Philippine Islands, and the sailors form a crew made up of a medley mixtures of slight Chinamen, heavy, bushy-bearded Scandinavians, swarthy, powerful Malays, dark-skinned West Indians, and other exotic nationalities.

We now steam back to the dock, stopping on the way to examine two small sailing boats from Georgia. The lanky skipper of one of them — proud commander of a crew of six — when ordered to hand over this health bill and the obligatory fee of $1, in his anxiety and excitement risks a broken leg in his hurried scramble over the lumber piled up high on his deck. The necessary formalities are observed, however, and the worthy salt may proceed on his way.

Dr. William M. Smith

The little steamer swings in at the dock once more, but is does not stay long. In a short while a gentleman in civilian attire gets on board. It is Dr. Smith,* the Chief Health Officer, who is to visit Hoffman Island this morning, both his deputies accompanying him. All on board are veterans in the business. Dr. Smith has been in charge since 1880, succeeding Dr. S. Oakely Vanderpoel, and both the deputies, Drs. E. C. Skinner and A. W. Smith, have also served for several years. William Sequine, the Health Officer's secretary, with whom we are chatting in the stern, has held his office since 1876, and the spare-built man who is busy over a notebook, just outside of the pilot house, in which Captain E. F. Keegan has been turning the wheel for some eighteen years, is Richard Lee, who has represented the Associated Press here ever since January 1st, 1877.

* The above was written just before Dr. Smith was succeed by Dr. William T. Jenkins. Another change must also be noted: the appointment of Dr. A. T Tallmadge in place of Dr. A. W. Smith.

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