“An Exciting Game for the Sentinels, but Death for the People”

April 14, 1888

William A. Rogers

“An Exciting Game for the Sentinels, but Death for the People”

Gubernatorial Administration, David B. Hill (NY); New York State, Government/Politics; Public Health;

Hill, David B.; Platt, Thomas C.;

No 'Places' indexed for this cartoon.

No caption

This Harper's Weekly cartoon by W. A. Rogers grimly warns that the political guardians of the public health, Governor David B. Hill (left) and former senator Thomas C. Platt (right), president of the New York State Quarantine Board, are neglecting their duty while a cholera epidemic threatens to sail into the New York City port aboard ships from Europe.

Cholera was one of the most feared diseases in the nineteenth century, as epidemics killing thousands struck New York City in 1832, 1849, 1854, and 1866.  Yet, respiratory diseases, such as tuberculosis and pneumonia, were the major cause of death in the city from 1860-1900, with intestinal bacterial maladies, such as diarrhea (associated with high infant mortality), being second.  It was, however, the dramatic potential of cholera epidemics that made headlines and prompted reforms in public health which benefited the sufferers of the more common disorders as well.  It was concern over the approaching cholera plague in 1866, for example, that led to the creation of the Metropolitan Board of Health.  (See the archive for the cartoon of April 8 1865, "The Hygiene of New York City.")

The state's Quarantine Office was the main agency charged with the responsibility of containing contagious diseases, but in the mid-1880s, it became the center of a political squabble between Platt and his Democratic opponents.  Platt was the powerful head of the state's Republican political machine, and served as president of the Quarantine board.  His term expired during the gubernatorial administration of Democrat Grover Cleveland (1883-1885), but he refused to leave office and the Republican-controlled state senate rejected the nominees for the post offered by Cleveland and his Democratic successor, Governor Hill.  In order to force Platt out, Cleveland and Hill vetoed legislative appropriations for the Quarantine Office. 

While this political battle ensued, the facilities and equipment at the Quarantine Station deteriorated steadily.  In 1887, separate investigations were initiated by the State Board of Health, the New York County Medical Society, the New York Academy of Medicine, and the College of Physicians in Philadelphia, all of which strenuously condemned the conditions at the New York Quarantine Station.  Harper's Weekly and other press outlets in New York City publicized the medical societies' findings and urged that swift action be taken before the current cholera epidemic in Europe arrived in the United States.  Editor George William Curtis, like cartoonist Rogers, blamed both Hill and Platt, Democrats and Republicans.

Spurred on by press reports of the impending pestilence, the state legislature passed a law, signed by Governor Hill, on May 9, 1888, which reformed the state's Quarantine Board and allocated $80,000 for upkeep on the Quarantine Station.  Platt was forced out of his position as the board's president on a legal technicality.  Cholera did not spread in New York in 1888, but it did hit again in 1892.  By that time, however, a better understanding of the disease and the dedicated efforts of Dr. Hermann Biggs, the city's pathologist, kept the death toll to 120.  It was the last outbreak of cholera in New York City.

Robert C. Kennedy

“An Exciting Game for the Sentinels, but Death for the People”
July 14, 2024

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