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New Yorkers Try to Flee Polio

By THOMAS P. FARNER | Sep 07, 2016

Today as stories of the spread of disease and attempts to stop it are filling the media, a look at the 1916 polio epidemic might give us some insight as to how government and people react to an unseen killer.

The outbreak of infantile paralysis, as polio was known, began in Brooklyn in mid-June. The first report in the Asbury Park Press of July 6 describes early efforts to contain the disease, by “municipal and state governments in their campaign against infantile paralysis, the dread disease that is causing dozens of deaths among the little ones. The order barring all children under 16 years of age from moving picture shows went into effect today, and if this does not assist in curbing the spread of the disease other measures of the same kind will be taken.”

But the efforts may have come too late.

“In former epidemics the disease has been confined to the poorer sections of the city, but this time children in the finer residential sections, particularly in Brooklyn have been stricken. This has caused the hurried flight from the city of well to do parents and their children. It was estimated today that fully 50,000 children between the ages of six months and 12 years have been taken from the city since the epidemic began to spread.”

Two days later the Press reported, “The plague has spread to 11 states and Canada and the present heat wave threatens to cause a still larger increase than has been noted in the last few days. The death rate of 23 percent which has thus far marked the progress of the epidemic shows, according to the New York officials, that the task of controlling the plague will be an enormous one.”

The effects were becoming apparent.

“Many towns about N.Y. are taking active steps to prevent refugees from the epidemic stricken districts passing thru their limits. Among the towns that have determined to refuse New York children who cannot show clean bills of health are: Paterson and Elizabeth, N.J.; Burlington, Vt., Toledo, O., and Philadelphia.”

The same day, the Atlantic Hotel was the first on the Jersey Shore to react.

“The following rules have been adopted at the hotel and will be stringently enforced in an effort to prevent anyone being admitted having the symptoms of infantile paralysis.

“The rules are as follows:

“No child under the age of 12 will be admitted to this hotel without a doctor’s certificate issued the same day, testifying to the condition of the child, and declaring it free of the symptoms that predict infantile paralysis.

“The certificate of a physician who is a member of the family will not be recognized.

“Special delivery letters, informing parents of this rule, have been sent to those booked at this hotel.

“Mothers not living here are requested not to bring their children to this hotel.”

According to the Press of the 10th, “New York is now going thru the greatest ‘cleanup’ process in its history. While the health department continues its efforts to curb the disease itself, other bureaus of the municipal government are forcing the city’s residents to follow rules that will work for sanitary improvement.

“On the lower east side it is the custom of the tenants living above the first floor to wrap their garbage in newspapers and throw it into the streets. Thru all this congested section today policemen moved rapidly, catching numerous offenders and summoning them to court.

“In sections of Brooklyn where an outbreak is feared owing to the discovery of suspected cases, all vacant lots are being searched and where garbage carelessly thrown is found disinfectants are sprinkled.”

That same day the New York Telegram ran a story stating, “One hundred and twenty-eight of New York’s poorest residents, a majority of them women who carried babies, appeared before Magistrate Patten in Essex Market Police Court to-day to answer charges that they violated the sanitation laws in allowing garbage cans to remain open.

“In fining the first defendant, a woman, the Magistrate warned her and all others that the next offence would draw the maximum penalty.

“‘You understand what the city of New York is trying to do. You ought to co-operate with the city in order to save your own babies,’ said Magistrate Patton. ‘I am going to fine you $2, and if you appear before me again I shall fine you the maximum. This applies to every one appearing on this charge. There is going to be a stop to these unsanitary conditions.’”

On the 13th the Press was describing that in New York, “the terror has already caused immense loss to property owners. Entire blocks of tenements in which the disease has appeared have been deserted. Tenants have thrown up their leases with out any warning.

“‘Don’t get scared,’ is now the keynote of every official statement issued dealing with the disease and its spread. Business in New York has suffered greatly as the result of the plague. Thousands of tourists, according to the railroad companies, have abandoned plans to visit the metropolis. This is hurting the hotel trade.”

Finally there was reaction from Washington.

“All red tape was cut completely here today to enable the U. S. bureau of public health, with its wonderful facilities, to go to the aid of the N.Y. health department in the fight against infantile paralysis.

“As a result, under the direction of Surgeon General Victor Blue, the assistant surgeon general, Dr. W.C. Rucker, has set aside all other work to direct the government end of the campaign.

“‘We are in this fight to a finish,’ declared Dr. Rucker. ‘And we are not afraid of the end. One thing ought to be made clear to the people by the newspapers. There is absolutely no cause for a panic. Real and serious as the situation is all fear should be eliminated. The psychology of fear plays a big part in every epidemic.

“‘I believe that a panic in the congested districts will reflect itself in the disease. Children are cooped up who want to be out. Crowds are to be avoided, of course, in the districts where the malady is prevalent especially.’”

On the 15th the South Jersey Republican carried a notice from the Hammonton Department of Health.

“How to avoid Infantile Paralysis.

“This disease can be carried by healthy persons, cats, dogs, and flies. One-fourth of those who are taken down with it dies, and half of those who do not die are crippled for life. If your child should be taken with fever, headache, vomiting, stiffening of the limbs, or have convulsions, do not try home remedies, but call in the doctor at once.


“Kill your worthless dog or cat; by so doing, you may save the life of your child.”

If things weren’t confusing enough for parents, the next day the Trenton Times ran an article stating, “Health Officer Fell believes there is unnecessary alarm in Trenton and vicinity just now over the existence of infantile paralysis. He is satisfied from his personal observation of cases here in the past that the disease is not contagious.”

On July 17 the Press announced the nation’s largest city was under a lockdown.

“Active efforts to prevent the spread of infantile paralysis thru the departure from the city of children who have been exposed to the disease, were commenced today by the federal government.

“Under direction of Dr. Charles E. Banks, senior surgeon of the United States public health service, a force of 50 inspectors took up posts at railroad stations and ferry houses where they examined children leaving town for outside points.

“Local police were also stationed in ferry houses, at the terminals of railway routes and at town lines in New Jersey, Westchester county and other points.

“Children with certificates of health were turned back in numerous instances.”

The same day the director of the New Jersey Department of Health announced, “As a result of the present outbreak of poliomyelitis we are receiving numerous telegrams and letters from individuals and from persons representing benevolent organizations in New York City asking if the Department of Health of the State of New Jersey has declared quarantine against persons coming from New York. While stating in replies to these inquiries that no such action has been taken nor contemplated by this department we have suggested to those desiring to bring groups of children from New York City into New Jersey that they first procure a certificate from the New York City Department of Health and also communicate with the local authorities in the district to which they desire to come in this State.

“This advice seemed advisable in view of the fact that I am informed, local health officials in a few localities in this State have taken what appears to be extreme measures against all persons coming from New York City.”

One month after the outbreak began, parents were filled with important questions, including what causes the disease and how do you fight it? The problem was there were apparently countless answers, none of which were correct.

Next Week: It gets worse.

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