So far, because there are only three of them, it's easy to feel reassured that those potentially and actually infected with Ebola in New York are in safe quarantine. Bellevue insists it had a biohazard protocol all ready and waiting; there is nothing to worry about.
Historically, the public has not always found such reassurances entirely reassuring.
For example: In the summer of 1892, there was a cholera outbreak in Hamburg, Germany. The news from abroad was very grim, as the Chicago Daily Tribune was only too happy to tell its readers:
No adequate idea of the situation in this plague-stricken city is furnished by the meager and false reports of the ravages of cholera given out by the authorities. Yesterday's record, as officially stated, made it appear that the pestilence had materially abated. As a matter of fact there were more than 800 fresh cases yesterday and 300 deaths. Tonight's task for the grave-diggers numbers 320 corpses...
It is no longer possible to move the sick to hospitals. Only those stricken in public places are promptly taken to the lazaretto. Hundreds are dying of the pestilence in their homes.
This is not totally unlike the reports we have been hearing from Liberia and Sierra Leone and Guinea all summer. And of course the American press, regardless, was chiefly worried about whether the tragedy would cross the Atlantic.
But in late August, Hamburg's plague made it to New York by way of a steamship called the Moravia, which, the San Francisco Chronicle breathlessly reported,
bore the sorry cargo of death and danger from the city which is now overwhelmed by the epidemic, a slow oil tub which made no pretense of carrying cabin passengers, but brought 300 emigrants, foul and undesirable offscourings of Russia, Poland and Hesse-Darmstadt.
She had been thirteen days making the passage — a significant number — and in that time twenty children and two adults, shut up in her foul and loathsome steerage, had met death at the hands of the Asiatic demon.
(It was called the Asiatic demon, this bout of cholera, in part because the outbreak was believed to have roots in Constantinople as well. As others have pointed out, panic over infectious disease often goes hand in hand with racism in human history.)
At first the ship's doctor tried to lie about the deaths during the voyage, the Chronicle reported, but eventually he had to fess us. The passengers and crew were sent off to Hoffman's island to be "attacked with the strongest irrigation and disinfectants." The same approach was taken to the ship itself, and after its thorough scrubbing all the passengers were returned there while New York authorities figured out what the hell to do with them.
President Benjamin Harrison called his cabinet together and the freakout became a national thing. He ordered a 20-day quarantine "against immigrant steamships."
New York's health officials of the time urged calm. Cholera, they said, was not as contagious as people thought. One Dr. Talmadge (no first name given) issued a statement:
It cannot be too distinctly understood that cholera cannot be taken through the air. It is not in the air. The only way to get the disease is to take the germs into the stomach or bowels either with the food or through the medium of contaminated water. The germs must be swallowed in some way or you cannot have cholera.
But paranoia was spreading anyway. One Lower East Side doctor was sure he'd found two cases on Orchard Street:
But he turned out to be wrong. Two days later, under the header of "FALSE ALARM," the Tribune would report that they simply had diarrhea.
One S.B. Halliday, of Brooklyn, responded to the panic by writing a stern letter to the editor of the New York Tribune (there was no Twitter, after all) telling people not to worry. He had been through the cholera epidemic in New York in 1832, and had learned a few things. He had nine points to convey. Points five through seven were particularly pithy:
Fifth — My impression is that comparatively few temperate, well-behaved, and provident persons were victims of the scourge, and should there be another visitation I am sure there would be a like result; such have no occasion for alarm.
Sixth — My father's family of eight persons remained in the city during the entire season, not leaving it for a single day. The only precaution taken was to abstain from articles of food which were proscribed; and yet no one of the family had a single cholera symptom. We had no fear, and were as cheerful as in ordinary times.
Seventh — To give way to alarm, fear and dread is most hurtful. Cheerfulness is a wonderful preventative.
There is no record of whether this advice was conveyed to any of the passengers of the Moravia.
By the second of September, 1892, the Moravia had been joined in its quarantine by several other ships whose passengers had been flagged at a quarantine screening station on Staten Island. The affected ships hung out in Lower New York Bay together waiting to see if anyone would get sick. Eventually, people did.
Of course, no public health crisis has ever passed through the United States without being leveraged by someone for political gain. New York's chief health official, a Tammany protégé named Dr. William Jenkins, began to give belligerent statements to the press about how he intended to keep the ships in quarantine as long as was necessary. He claimed he was not totally required to rely on the President's 20-day order and could do as he pleased.
In response, Washington began to make its own belligerent statements about protecting the American public from the invading scourge.. Here, for example, was one headline in the Washington Post on September 3, 1892:
The article accompanying it assured everyone the federal government was trying to handle the situation.
Meanwhile the San Francisco Chronicle was reporting that aboard the affected ships, a certain amount of worry and insubordination was setting in:
It is a well-established principle of medicine that in every epidemic of this kind more people are killed by fear than by cholera. Well, now for the first time since they left Hamburg these men and women are beginning to be afraid. A tropical storm does not come up more quickly than a panic among these emigrants from Eastern Europe...
Two of the Moravia's sailors are reported to have thrown themselves overboard Friday night and swam ashore to Long Island. There is neither confirmation nor denial of this rumor.
Over the course of the next several days the papers reported new cholera deaths aboard three of the vessels. Dr. Jenkins continued to make noises about how he wasn't necessarily bound by any Presidential order. A new vessel arrived with 32 active cases of cholera. There was agitation about the unending news of death aboard these ships.
The Governor of New York at the time gave up the ghost and bought a portion of Fire Island, on the South Beach, which was relatively isolated from the other inhabitants. There was already a resort hotel and several cottages on the property. (Herman Melville had actually written Billy Budd in that hotel.)
The cost was reported anywhere between $210,000 and $250,000. Cabin passengers on one of the affected ships, the Normannia, were allowed to convalesce there. Steerage passengers, meanwhile, would be quarantined in less exalted quarters at Sandy Hook, N.J.
Unfortunately, as I said, there were people already living on Fire Island at the time. They resisted with force, reported the press:
Most of them were fishers and clammers in the great South bay. They aregued that their business was about to be ruined, and they swore that they would commit almost any manner of crime rather than permit it. They swooped down on the Fire Island beach in their little cat boats like a fleet of Malay pirated bent on loot or blood. They would resent with force, they said, the landing of any passengers from an infected ship. If it were necessary they would burn down the hotel just purchased by the Government, and if it had not been for the watchfulness of President Wilson and his newspaper allies, that ramshackle building would have been in ashes ere this. It was a small rebellion but a fierce one.
The Governor appeared in New York and got things under control. But local government was never very happy with the arrangement.
And yet it turned out that while all of this was going on, cholera had already arrived in Manhattan. Though officials did not tell the press about it for a couple of weeks, five cholera patients had died in New York hospitals. Almost all were from the tenements.
There were no outbreaks on Fire Island, but those who had been transferred to Camp Low, in Sandy Hook, saw an outbreak. Because the incubation period for cholera was relatively short, though, by the end of a month officials were declaring the crisis over:
Cholera continued to rage on in Europe until 1896; Dr. Jenkins, protected by his Tammany friends, eventually moved on from the health board. What exactly happened to the passengers once they were all released from quarantine and on dry land is, meanwhile, anyone's guess.
The property the State of New York had purchased on Fire Island became a state park. The hotel was sold off and carted away on barges. Now you may visit the site as Robert Moses State Park.