By Joan Lowenthal
We are in unprecedented times. Many of us never thought a quarantine of practically the entire world could happen in 2020. It seems like science fiction.
When did the practice of quarantine as we know it begin?
It actually began during the 14th century as an attempt to protect coastal cities from plague epidemics. Ships coming into Venice from infected ports were mandated to sit at anchor for 40 days before anyone could come to shore. The word quarantine was derived from the Italian words quaranta giorni which means 40 days.
When the United States was first established there was no federal involvement in quarantine regulations. It was not until 1878 that the United States Congress passed federal quarantine legislation. Up to this point protection against imported infectious diseases fell under local and state jurisdiction.
By 1846 all ships coming into New York Harbor had to anchor off near Staten Island for quarantine inspection. The ships were boarded and if any signs of disease were found all the passengers were taken to the Quarantine Hospital on Staten Island which was opened in 1799 and called the Quarantine. First-class passengers were taken to St. Nicholas Hospital at the Quarantine and steerage passengers were taken to smelly, overcrowded bunkhouses stripped naked and disinfected with steaming water.  The ship then had to remain in quarantine for at least 30 days and sometimes as long as six months. There were as many as eight thousand patients in the hospital in a year. It was very dangerous work for the staff and funeral expenses for employees was a category in the accounting books. Many people who lived on Staten Island did not like the nearness of the hospital and in 1858 angry well-prepared vigilantes set fire to the buildings. Two people died that night.
Check out When New Yorkers Burned Down a Quarantine Hospital by Matthew Wills (September 19, 2019) daily.jstor.org.
Quarantine facilities were then moved off-shore to a boat named after Florence Nightingale, then two islands off of Staten Island. The two islands were built with land fill in the Lower Bay - Swinburne Island in 1860 and Hoffman Island in 1873. These small islands were used as quarantine islands until the 1920s. The conditions were horrifying. Today these islands are uninhabited and off limits to the general public although you can go past them in a boat.
In the summer of 1892 there was a terrible cholera epidemic and several ships that came from Hamburg, Germany were kept quarantined. Many of the people on board were refugees from Russia fleeing the reign of Czar Alexander III. A cholera epidemic swept through Russia and passengers both in steerage and cabin class died from the disease during their voyage. They were seeking a better life in the United States. What is little known is that the Governor of New York at the time, Governor Flower, authorized the purchase of the Surf Hotel, an aging hotel on Fire Island to be used as a quarantine station for some of the passengers from the infected cholera ships in New York Harbor.
There was tremendous opposition and two hundred deputized officers of the Islip Town Board of Health tried to stop the passengers from getting off the ship. The Islip Town Board of Health disputed the right of the State to use the island as a quarantine station.  Local baymen feared their livelihood was at stake when oyster houses in New York City began cancelling orders. According to Shoshanna McCollum in an article posted February 23, 2020 “600 healthy cabin class passengers of the Normannia were transferred to a day boat to take the passengers to the Surf Hotel. Unfortunately the baymen turned vigilantes and crossed the bay with clubs and shotguns.” The trip should have taken the day boat several hours, but instead took several days. This must have been awful as the boat was overcrowded and did not have sleeping accommodations nor enough food provisions. Troops were sent by Governor Flower to Fire Island to permit the asymptomatic passengers to disembark. The Surf Hotel served as quarantine headquarters until early October of 1892. Amazingly only two documented cases of illness were reported on Fire Island during this time and those two cases turned out not to be cholera at all.
One other interesting note about the Surf Hotel. The owner of the hotel at the time was David Sammis and he sold the hotel to the state for $210,000 which is a value of about $60 million today. This was definitely over-priced. Check out the article by Shoshanna McCollum Plague & Prejudice When Quarantine Came to the Shores of Fire Island. fireisland-news.com
There have been pandemics throughout history, but probably the most famous at least up to this point has been the 1918 Flu Pandemic also known as the Spanish Flu. It lasted from January 1918 to December 1920 and as reported by the CDC it was the most severe pandemic in recent history. It infected about 500 million people which was about a third of the world’s population at the time and killed at least 50 million worldwide with about 675,00 occurring in the United States. cdc.gov 1918 Pandemic (H1N1) virus)
Many people on Long Island were affected by the 1918 Flu Pandemic. Just one page in The Long-Islander, October 25, 1918, Page 6, Image 6 describes the state of affairs. In Huntington Station “Garrett Van Wicklen, who has been with influenza, was improved, but this week suffered a relapse from which he is recovering.” “The influenza is quite prevalent here this week, and in one family there were four ill with it.” “Owing to the epidemic it has been deemed wise to indefinitely postpone the dance of the Huntington Manor Firemen, which was to have been held in Liederkranz Hall Saturday evening.” “In effort to help the health authorities to stamp out the influenza, no churches were open in this section Sunday. In order that his people should not be deprived of worship, the Rev. Francis X Wunsch had an altar erected on the lawn adjoining St. Hugh’s R.C. Church and celebrated mass out of doors.” “The Greenlawn School is closed by order of the Board of Health during the influenza epidemic.
As today, nurses during the Spanish Flu Pandemic galvanized and worked extremely hard putting their own health in peril to save victims of the Spanish Flu.
One of these nurses was the daughter of George W. Barrett of Cold Spring Harbor who trained on Cold Spring Harbor whaling ships, The Alice and The Sheffield. The Long-Islander, December 13, 1918, Page 7, Image 7 states that “Miss Laura G. Barrett, who has been visiting her sister has returned to her work at the Henry Street Settlement in lower New York City. When the dreadful Spanish Influenza struck New York City, Miss Wald, who is at the head of the Henry Street Settlement, offered her large staff of 150 nurses to the city. During the time the epidemic raged the amount of work the Settlement was called upon to do was very heavy and taxed them to the utmost. Miss Barrett had much responsibility in her office and was given a short leave of absence for complete rest and has been much benefited by her stay in Cold Spring Harbor.”
There was good advice in The Long Islander, October, 4, 1918:
“HEALTH PRECAUTIONS: Don’t get frightened after reading that learned dissertation in our columns this week on Spanish Influenza and take to your bed. It is after all the old-fashioned grip and every time you cough or sneeze it does not signify you are going to have it. Keep your courage up and avoid overcrowded cars and other meeting places. Do not get too tired from overwork and eat moderately. Live in the open air as far as possible.” This is probably good advice for today, too.
4/22/2020 08:26:15 pm
4/23/2020 08:30:51 am
Fascinating article. As with many truths, the origin of the word quarantine was surprising at first, and then obvious. Most striking were the specifics near the end. That the dance of the Huntington Manor Firemen was postponed, the churches closed and the Rev. Wunsch doing a low tech version of a Zoom service by having an altar erected on the lawn and celebrating mass out of doors, made today's situation seem somehow more normal. Thank you.
4/23/2020 09:35:34 am
Thank you for your comments. Another interesting find was about Laura G. Barrett whose father George W. Barrett trained on Cold Spring Harbor Whaling ships. She was a front line nurse in 1918. A descendant of hers Cynthia Barrett gave a talk at our Museum a few months ago about a book that she wrote THREE SHEETS TO THE WIND. It just makes things real.
4/23/2020 09:44:15 am
I enjoyed reading this well-written article, especially the extended references to further research through articles and websites. Special interest for me is in the man-made islands of Swinburne and Hoffman. Fascinating that they are uninhabited today -- which makes their moment in history all that more memorable.
4/23/2020 09:50:52 am
Thank you for this history lesson! It is helpful to put today's pandemic into perspective by understanding the past.
4/23/2020 12:27:49 pm
An interesting article and so connected with our current situation. However on a lighter note would the surf hotel that you reference in your article be the same surf hotel that may still be there?
4/23/2020 12:42:20 pm
An excellent article. I enjoyed the information on the early history of NY especially Long Island during other health epidemics.
4/23/2020 12:50:31 pm
The Surf Hotel is not there anymore. David Sammis operated the hotel until 1892 when the state took it over. Today it is part of Robert Moses State Park.
4/23/2020 01:12:56 pm
Excellent well written blog. This is the third time I read it and still learned something new.
12/14/2021 01:24:36 am
Interesting history of quarantine, I'm going to share it with my friends who likes history and is looking for things to read! I've learned something new after reading this. Thanks!
4/23/2020 02:00:14 pm
Excellent article! I enjoyed the information, it helped put our current situation in perspective.
4/23/2020 02:34:42 pm
So interesting. I especially liked the photos. My grandfather who lived in NYC survived the Spanish flu. He was unable to work for several years thereafter but eventually completely recovered.
4/23/2020 02:44:52 pm
Fascinating piece on history of infectious disease and practice of quarantine in NY. The Spanish Flu no
4/23/2020 04:31:24 pm
I was so excited to find out about Laura Barrett. She was a front line hero.
Liza N Burby
4/23/2020 04:17:08 pm
This is really interesting! I'm going to share it with my 80-year-old father who likes history and is looking for things to read!
4/23/2020 04:49:40 pm
An interesting and scholarly piece of work. Great photos. There are many lessons to be learned from the past. This is especially true of the so-called “Spanish Flu”. Great Job, Joanie!
4/23/2020 08:26:30 pm
I enjoyed reading this informative blog. Thank you for taking the time to research this important topic.
4/24/2020 07:17:31 am
I was interested to find out how the word quarantine came about and the local history is always fascinating. Thanks for sharing Joan
4/25/2020 02:17:39 pm
Enjoyed this article very much. Nurses are still on the front line today and ignorant people are still behaving badly.
6/6/2020 03:27:30 pm
4/25/2020 08:02:38 pm
Thanks for sharing this engaging article. It certainly provides perspective. Well done!
9/26/2021 05:22:43 pm
Thank you for the great quarantine history. We can learn a lot from this history quarantine in New York Harbor and Long Island.
10/10/2021 01:27:38 pm
The practice of quarantine, as we know it, began during the 14th century in an effort to protect coastal cities from plague epidemics. Thank you for sharing fascinating article.
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