The Newtown Pentacle

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Archive for November 18th, 2010

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– photo by Mitch Waxman

One of the many things which both torment and delight my imaginings is the notion of some foreign plague or hostile bacterium hitching a ride into New York Harbor onboard a ship.

In 1863, the city fathers enacted the “General Quarantine Act” due to similar fears. Political upheavals in Europe and Asia resulted in a lot of people seeking a more peaceful and profitable future and heading to North America. Many of these peasant pilgrims were weakened or crippled by ordeal and famine, and sometimes from an infectious disease. It was feared that if just one plague carrier became lost in the crowded tenements of Manhattan, something “biblical” would ensue, something which anointing the door with lamb’s blood couldn’t help you out with.

If the New Yorkers of 1863 were afraid of something… well, the City’s immune system ain’t what it used to be, y’know…


In 1864, the commercial avenues of the area were paved with cobblestones which, in turn, provided deep cracks in which refuse collected and rotted. But the streets were “very filthy” with accumulations of manure from the horses that traversed the area, dead dogs, cats and rats, household and vegetable refuse that in winter accumulated to depths of three feet or more. “Garbage boxes,” rarely emptied, overflowed with offal, animal carcasses, and household waste. “Pools” of stagnant water collected in the carcasses of dead animals, and over sewer drains that were generally clogged. “Filth of every kind [were] thrown into the streets, covering their surface, filling the gutters, obstructing the sewer culverts, and sending forth perennial emanations which must generate pestiferous diseases,” reported William Thomas, the Sanitary Inspector for the district. “Drainage is generally imperfect, the courtyards being … below the level of the streets” and “everything is thrown into the street and gutters at all times of the day.” While poorly designed sewers had been installed throughout the region, most of the population depended upon the outdoor “water closets” and privies in the courtyards of the tenement buildings, close to wells used for drinking.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

As early as 1755, the redoubtable stewards of New York Harbor were working on this issue, when an ordinance was passed demanding that all ships seeking entrance to the harbor must first be inspected by physicians and that all ships bearing contagion be quarantined at Bedloe’s Island. Bedloe’s, of course, is known as Liberty Island to modernity. 1795 is the beginning of the paper trail which eventually transmogrifies into the The New York City Department of Public Health and Mental Hygiene, when the first death records are filed for the 718 Yellow Fever victims that died that year. It wasn’t until 1866 that a Metropolitan Board of Health was formed, which was the same year that a Cholera outbreak was controlled by the “Disinfectant Corps” of Dr. Stephen S. Smith.

Tuberculosis, however, accounted for nearly 20% of all deaths in New York City.

from wikipedia

An infectious disease is a clinically evident illness resulting from the presence of pathogenic microbial agents, including pathogenic viruses, pathogenic bacteria, fungi, protozoa, multicellular parasites, and aberrant proteins known as prions. These pathogens are able to cause disease in animals and/or plants. Infectious pathologies are also called communicable diseases or transmissible diseases due to their potential of transmission from one person or species to another by a replicating agent (as opposed to a toxin).

Transmission of an infectious disease may occur through one or more of diverse pathways including physical contact with infected individuals. These infecting agents may also be transmitted through liquids, food, body fluids, contaminated objects, airborne inhalation, or through vector-borne spread. Transmissible diseases which occur through contact with an ill person or their secretions, or objects touched by them, are especially infective, and are sometimes referred to as contagious diseases. Infectious (communicable) diseases which usually require a more specialized route of infection, such as vector transmission, blood or needle transmission, or sexual transmission, are usually not regarded as contagious, and thus are not as amenable to medical quarantine of victims.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

Outbreaks of Cholera in New York City during the 19th century carried staggering death tolls, equivalent statistics for the modern population of 8 million calculate that 100,000 people would be snuffed out by a modern outbreak of the bacterial illness. Modern antibiotics and medical techniques have put reigns on Cholera, but it still ravages the populations of the developing world where such luxuries as sanitary waste water disposal, clean drinking water, and private privy rooms are beyond the reach of most. The class of diseases that keep me up at night though are the hemorrhagic fevers, caused by seemingly demonic entities like the Arenaviridae, Filoviridae, Bunyaviridae, and Flaviviridae families of virii.

from wikipedia

  • The Arenaviridae include the viruses responsible for Lassa fever and Argentine, Bolivian, Brazilian and Venezuelan hemorrhagic fevers.
  • The Bunyaviridae include the members of the Hantavirus genus that cause hemorrhagic fever with renal syndrome (HFRS), the Crimean-Congo hemorrhagic fever (CCHF) virus from the Nairovirus genus, and the Rift Valley fever (RVF) virus from the Phlebovirus genus.
  • The Filoviridae include Ebola and Marburg viruses.
  • Finally, the Flaviviridae include dengue, yellow fever, and two viruses in the tick-borne encephalitis group that cause VHF: Omsk hemorrhagic fever virus and Kyasanur Forest disease virus.
  • The most recently recognized virus capable of causing hemorrhagic fever is Lujo virus, a new member of the arenaviruses described in 2009 and found in South Africa.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

In 1879, conditions around the Hunters Point and Blissville sections of the Newtown Creek were infamous. The distilleries which lined the Queens banks produced a series of waste products, known collectively to the locals as “swill”, which was fed to a sickly group of cows and pigs imprisoned in overcrowded and hellish stables. Pneumonia and open sores were reported by state inspectors, and they intimated that animal waste was observed as mingling with the water in great abundances. The “swill milk” produced by these cattle was, of course, cheaper than more wholesome substitutes and meant for the children of the poor. The situation drew much attention at the time, and there is even an illustrated view of the conditions available at the National Institutes for Health, presented below (click image for full size).

The caption reads “The cholera breeders in New York and vicinity, how pigs and cows are kept at Blissville and Hunter’s Point.”

Who can guess, all there is, that might be buried down there… and what might be waiting to escape from a centuries long quarantine… in the deep sediments of the Newtown Creek?


EPA conducted an Expanded Site Investigation (ESI) of Newtown Creek in 2009 as part of the Hazard Ranking System scoring process for NPL listing under Superfund. Based on the ESI, which was focused on Newtown Creek itself and not its tributaries, EPA concluded that metals, volatile organic compounds, and semi-volatile organic compounds (including polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons and polychlorinated biphenyls) were present in Creek sediments at elevated concentrations. The variety and distribution of the detected contaminants suggests that they originated from a variety of sources. Previous environmental investigations of Newtown Creek, or specific portions of the Creek, also disclosed that sediments in Newtown Creek are contaminated by a wide variety of hazardous substances. Environmental investigations of upland parcels adjacent to or nearby the Creek have disclosed contamination of those parcels by hazardous substances similar to hazardous substances found in sediments in Newtown Creek.

Written by Mitch Waxman

November 18, 2010 at 3:44 am

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