Panic and Prejudice Go Viral Pt III

vintage man expressing fear

Americans are suffering from a serious panic attack, as panic itself has gone viral.

Ebola hysteria is spreading faster than the virus itself, creating a climate of fear mongering, misinformation and intolerance.

Along with frantic calls for travel restrictions and border closures, the panicked reactions resemble another viral epidemic of nearly a century ago.

The 1916 Polio epidemic, all but forgotten now, was the worst polio epidemic ever, striking a baffled N.Y.C. out of the blue creating a pandemic of panic.

Like the Ebola virus, the sources were unknown, the hysteria unchecked, making it ripe for conspiracy theories and xenophobic blaming.

Sound familiar?

A public was paralyzed with fears, and panic and intolerance went viral.

The stories my Brooklyn born grandmother would tell me of this awful, unknown epidemic that hit an unprepared NYC in the summer of 1916 would haunt my childhood.

vintage polio masks on women

Vintage photo masks worn during Polio outbreak 1916

Scientists and doctors  were helpless in offering treatment as this new mysterious outbreak swept through neighborhoods.

Mothers were so afraid they would not even let the children enter the streets, locking them in their rooms, their clothes hidden, to prevent them from infected children and breathing infected air that carried the disease, as if polio were like the poisonous gas used by the Germans at Verdun.

Everything came under suspicion – paper money, ice cream candy, wet laundry.

health polio germs spreading 1916

Local street vendors came under suspicion as carriers of the disease as they were considered dirty and unclean, especially those of Italian extraction. (R) Vintage warning how germs are spread

But because it began in the crowded Italian immigrant section of Brooklyn, panicked fingers blamed foreigners.

The good ol’ American melting pot was seen more as a cauldron of germs of filthy foreigners mixing with “native” others in parks, streetcars and subways.

Panic mixed with prejudice created a potent brew that quickly bubbled over into travel restrictions and border closures to children under 16 without proper health certificates.

Stories Pt III

vintage photos from the polio epidemic 1916

Day after day during the epidemic an exodus of women and their children took trains leaving the scourge ridden city while others were stuck in quarantine with signs warning the healthy. Doctors, strangers to polo, could do little to help the victims. (L) A scene in Brooklyn’s hardest hit district during the 1916 polio epidemic

The stories my grandmother told me about this epidemic only got worse as the summer wore on.

“The disease spread,” she would continue in her story, “and a panicked public wanted to get away, anywhere where the air would be clean.”


George Bellows Lithograph art NYC Tenements

With the ironic caption “Why don’t they go to the country for a vacation?” artist George Bellows captures the overcrowding of slum streets and tenement buildings in NYC along with the sensation registered by middle and upper middle class observers over the seemingly unbearable conditions . The cartoon appeared in the socialist magazine “The Masses” in 1913, where Bellows was a regular contributor.

In the stream of refugees that poured from the city that summer, the poor were in the minority.

They couldn’t afford to leave.

So thousands of New Yorker’s fled the heat if only for a day, for the cool ocean breeze of Coney Island.

Coney Island

coney island fatty arbuckle

Fatty Arbuckle enjoys the whip at “Coney Island” in his 1917 short silent film of the same name. The film also featuring Buster Keaton, follows his antics at Coney Island where he sneaks away from his wife to enjoy the attractions.

My grandmother often begged her mother, without any success to take the family to Coney Island for the amusements, but it seemed her father, “considered such pleasures as those, as inferior.”

Maybe strolls on the boardwalk or dinner at Feldmans, but Luna Park and the amusements were, he felt, beneath the dignity of his family.

And with the recent upgrading of the BMT line to a subway, now making the trip to Coney Island so much more accessible to the masses Coney Island was shunned by her mother more than ever.

The Other Half

Health Polio immigrants crowds

Perhaps that legacy is why years later Nana Sadie never once set foot on a public beach like Jones Beach, where the crush of crowds concealed the sand, preferring the safety of a private club, whose members were in fact the very progeny of the people her mother tried to avoid. (L) Immigrants entering Ellis Island (R) Coney Island 1940 by Weegee

No Emma Lazarus she, it seems the poor, tired and huddled masses harbored too many contagious diseases for my Great Grandmothers taste.

Like many of her class, she believed unclean people not only harm themselves but are dangerous to clean people. One dirty man or woman in a street car, or in a crowd could poison all the air for others.

No one was safe from polio.

Safe Havens of Fresh Air

vintage school book illustration a ride in the country

Traditionally every summer Nana and her family like many city dwellers of means, would pack up their belongings leaving the stifling, oppressive city for the health giving benefits of “cool, fresh country air and sunshine.”

Breathing deeply of either the salty sea air of Long Beach, or the piney mountain air of The Catskills, these safe havens of fresh air were a welcome relief.

Even under normal circumstances, the hot still air of the city during the summer was considered especially poisonous and dangerous, with opportunistic disease germs just waiting to pounce.

In the openness of the country with its abundance of fresh clean air, good health was just around the corner.

The Perils of the Posners

vintage illustration soldiers planning war strategy

During the Polio panic the east coast became like a war zone, as residents formed strategy’s to protect their communities

However, that summer, hundreds of these so-called safe havens of fresh air responded nervously to the epidemic with severe restrictions of just who could inhale deeply of their pure clean oxygen, barring children from entering the area.


All was not quiet on the Eastern Front.

The east coast became like a war zone. To stop the virus from establishing a beachhead in their towns, medical inspectors, behaving more like paramilitary soldiers, guarded state borders, setting up roadblocks, ready to turn away any refugees from N.Y.C.

health polio restrictions suburbs and vintage school book illustrations

The same towns that had cheered and welcomed children in May were by July turning them away. Many families that fled the city to escape contagion did not find welcome elsewhere, as this sign at Brewster, N.Y. shows. (R)

All over Connecticut, Pennsylvania and New Jersey, residents mobilized, setting up barricades and taking drastic action to keep New Yorker’s out.

Entire train stations were guarded by regular citizens whose job it was to turn back children from the city. Towns posted large red signs on the roads that you couldn’t miss, warning travelers that certificate or not, no children would be allowed to even pass through their community.

On Long Island where in just 30 more years its suburbs would become the promised land of so many ex urbanites, was now anything but welcoming to city residents.

When polio patients from Oyster Bay were sent to the only available hospital at nearby Glen Cove, residents of that tony area reacted violently, threatening to kill the health officer and burn down the hospital.

In suburban Woodmere angry mobs gathered at an isolation hospital and threatened to wreck it until the institution was placed under heavily-armed guards.

Fellow Travelers

vintage photo travel restrictions halting traffic during 1916 polo epidemic

Towns took steps to combat the threat of polo by refusing entry to children. (L) 1916 photo- Great Neck, Long Island barred children under 16 and authorities checked each incoming car.

That July, as Nana remembered it, while traveling to their rented bungalow in Long Beach, Long Island, “suddenly, like some poor Russian peasants trying to escape to Vilna in the dark of night, instead of decent tax paying Americans, we were stopped by authorities who were checking every incoming car-like contraband for children under 16.”

The Health Department issued a law that no child under 16 could leave N.Y.C.without a health certificate that would absolutely positively certify that the child was not infected, nor had gone within two feet of an infected neighborhood.

“But,” she continued, “a certificate signed by your own family doctor, which-I-should-mention-we-had, wasn’t good enough for these shmegegees to prove we were free of infections. It had to be signed by a big shot city health inspector.”

Those cars with children without proper certificates were detained and sent back to the city, “and so like common criminals, back to the city we went.”

Manhattan Morphs into Minsk

vintage illustration of Uncle Sam

“It felt to my parents,” explained Nana, “who-thank- God–had-narrowly-escaped-them, like the terrible May Laws in Russia which restricted where Jews could travel and live.”
“How is it”, my mother would ask, “that in such a free country, you can’t go as you please… and since when, may I ask, did our President Wilson turn into, I-should-bite-my–tongue- the-Tzar.”

Equal Opportunity

But my Great Grandmother missed the big picture which was that this was indeed America, the land of equality.

Uncle Sam didn’t restrict only Jewish children, but all children’s freedom as well. Moishe as well as Mathew.

Land of equal opportunity, indeed!

End in Sight

vintage poster March of Dimes

Vintage poster for the March of Dimes to Fight Infantile Paralysis

Then late in the summer when the two month isolation period had passed the hospitals began to discharge the polio stricken children.

Out they poured with crippled arms and legs with bodies stripped of any chance of normal development.

“There were infants who had not yet learned to walk and who never would,” Nana said mournfully. “Babies who never would hold a bottle” “Youngsters who would never carry a school bag,” she sighed  bleakly.

Nodding her head in sadness, Nana always ended the story with “You should only know how lucky you are!”

© Sally Edelstein and Envisioning The American Dream, 2014. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Sally Edelstein and Envisioning The American Dream with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.


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