Roosevelt Island, NYC

THE SCOURGE OF SMALLPOX

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Working from home means no commuting time. More time to read our blogs I hope. The lead photo is the “Renwick Smallpox Hospital“; Roosevelt Island, New York City c.1980. I prefer to use one of the former names of the island, Blackwell’s Island. To me it has a ring to it. There is also a scene in Gangs of New York (2002) that uses this name as appropriate for the time period.

My point is that our nation has undergone epidemics and pandemics before just not in the lifetime of many of us, and this makes coronavirus even more frightening. Polio, smallpox, flu, yellow fever, cholera, meningitis and also typhoid have all caused suffering in our history. Many years ago I went to view the graves of my great grandparents whom I had never met. They are buried in Washington Cemetery in Brooklyn, N. Y. It is an old cemetery that was mostly overgrown until in more recent years the demographics in the neighborhood changed. Russian immigrants came to settle in Brooklyn. They cleaned up the place greatly and established a section for themselves near the entrance to the cemetery. Tall and elaborate headstones adorn a roadway inside the gate. On each headstone is s photo of the deceased permanently affixed to the granite. Grave after grave and all were under the age of 60, mostly in their upper 50s. These people drank themselves to death. But beyond this section is an older section of about 500 graves all dating from the same period, roughly 1903-1905. There is something odd in that these graves seem to be too close together in length. Small caskets? The answer is that these were children who died from a typhoid epidemic at that time. So we have been here before. We should also not ignore the intentional use of smallpox infected blankets given as gifts to plains Indians around 1850. Biological warfare. Don’t believe me? You could look it up. Roosevelt Island has been known by many names. So has the Renwick Hospital.