In 1822, New York City officials closed off a portion of lower Manhattan in an effort to combat repeated outbreaks
By Vivien Marx
When yellow fever ravaged New York in 1822, the city’s Board of Health put up a picket fence to quarantine a section of lower Manhattan. Residents were ordered to leave. If they were unwilling, the authorities forcibly removed them. Those who were too poor to leave were taken to a temporary asylum. Marine Hospital on Staten Island took in the sick. The yellow fever fence ran from Trinity Place westward along Rector Street, including piers three and four, then eastward along Carlisle Street back to Trinity Place.
Yellow fever outbreaks first hit New York in 1668 and again in 1795, 1798, 1799, 1803, and 1805, afflicting thousands of people. The outbreak of 1798 became known as the “great epidemic,” spreading panic and claiming 2,086 lives. In 1822, 1,236 people died. It was New York’s last major outbreak of yellow fever, but the disease continued to haunt the city until 1870.
Physicians and public health officials were at odds about how contagious yellow fever was or how to rid the city of it. Some believed yellow fever came through the ports from abroad, others thought it was local in origin. A mosquito-borne virus is now known to cause this disease that has symptoms ranging from mild to severe. Besides the jaundice that gives the disease its name, yellow fever can cause muscle aches, heart problems, excessive bleeding, seizures, kidney failure and coma.
“Coffins, coffins of all sizes!” is what boys shouted through the city streets, touting the pine coffins for the many dead. The four-dollar price tag was too steep for many people. Nightly, a dead cart carried corpses to the pits of Potter’s Field, now the site of Washington Square Park.
Residents and businesspeople were on the move doing these outbreaks. “Our city presented the appearance of a town besieged. From day break till night, one line of carts, containing boxes, merchandise and effects, were seen moving toward Greenwich Village and the upper parts of the city,” James Hardie, who was then secretary of the city’s Board of Health, wrote in his “Account of the Yellow Fever,” published in 1822. “Carriages and hacks, wagons and horsemen were scouring the streets and filling the roads; persons with anxiety strongly marked on their countenances and with hurried gait were bustling through the streets.”
Authorities heavily debated setting up the yellow fever fence, because it was going to deliver “so heavy a blow at the commerce of this large district,” wrote Hardie. During previous outbreaks, as well as the one in 1822, many businesses relocated to the countryside: Greenwich Village. And, indeed, once the yellow fever fence went up, banks, the post office, insurance firms, newspaper printers, and the customs office moved out, and many of these businesses did not return to their original location.