Fear Is Contagious: When New Yorkers Burned Down a Quarantine Hospital

Americans have shown great compassion and sacrifice over the years to victims of epidemics. But sometimes, as in this report from 1858, their better nature is overruled by fear.

Rioters set fire to the Marine hospital in New York City, in 1858
Attack on the Quarantine Establishment, September 1, 1858. ( New York Public Library )

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—“Riot at New York,” September 11, 1858

On September 1, a mob collected and burned the principal portion of the quarantine buildings on Staten Island, only one large building being spared. The patients were first carried out, and the hospital and sheds, including the physician’s house, then set fire to and burned to the ground. Those engaged took no measures for concealment or disguise, and calculate to escape punishment, supposing that no grand jury will indict them.

A few days later, a row of six brick houses connected to the hospital was set on fire and destroyed, and soon after, the great Marine Hospital was discovered to be in flames. At the time it contained 125 patients, principally suffering from yellow fever, typhus, smallpox, and other malignant diseases.

Doctors Walser and Bessell have devoted their attentions to the sick, and are administering to their wants, although nearly exhausted from want of sleep and the excitement and exposure resulting from the destruction of the hospital and other buildings. Dr. Walser, throughout the terrible trying scenes of the last 48 hours, has acted the part of a hero and philanthropist.

Three sick men from the ship Liberty are lying on the pier, there being no shelter for them.

The rain is still pouring down, and there is no place within the quarantine walls to shelter the sick.

Newspaper report from 1858 about a riot in New York City
Excerpt from “Riot at New York,” September 11, 1858

Featured image: Attack on the Quarantine Establishment, September 1, 1858. (New York Public Library)

This article is featured in the July/August 2020 issue of The Saturday Evening Post. Subscribe to the magazine for more art, inspiring stories, fiction, humor, and features from our archives.

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