Map of cholera outbreaks in Manhattan, 1832. Image from NYPL Digital Collections.
New York faced three major waves of cholera from 1832 through 1866, killing anywhere from two to six Americans a day. Cholera, an infection of the intestine, first struck India near Calcutta in 1817, eventually spreading through the Middle East and Europe. New York immediately quarantined incoming ships from Europe after news spread of a cholera epidemic, yet New York once again was reluctant to make public announcements about cholera’s spread.
Cholera hit New York around June 1832, and within a few months cholera had killed over 3,500 New Yorkers. The disease mainly impacted poor African Americans and Irish who lived in New York’s slums. Cholera killed close to 1,000 more people by 1834, but the second wave hit New York in 1849 when over 5,000 people died. Despite efforts by the city to stop the disease’s spread, it killed another 2,000 people in 1854 and 1,100 people in 1866, making the cholera epidemic one of the most disastrous in New York’s history. The map above was created to help illustrate how the disease appeared simultaneously in multiple locations in Manhattan in people who had not traveled to other parts of town, in a seeming attempt to show that the disease could emerge from poor hygiene and general cleanliness of the area. We know now that cholera can be caused and spread by contaminated water.