The neighborhood converging at the intersections of Essex Street, Rutgers Street, Canal Street and East Broadway on the Lower East Side — officially called Straus Square** — somehow seems exactly as it might have looked 125 years ago.
Anchored by Seward Park and its beautiful Carnegie library, it retains some of its turn-of-the-century character, while allowing for both Chinese-run restaurants and bakeries and trendier spillover in the form of designer restaurants and music lounges. There’s even a church from the 1840s (St. Teresa’s, at Rutgers and Henry Streets)
But one building that was once in the center of it all harbors a secret — 5 Essex Street.
It was at this address in the winter of 1892 that dozens of victims of the dreaded typhus disease were quarantined.
Thousands of immigrants were arriving in New York harbor by the late 19th century and making their home here on the Lower East Side, where aid organizations would often house families without means to support themselves. By 1892, the Lower East Side had become one of the most densely populated places on earth.
These were also the opening days of Ellis Island, and the strict examination that would make the immigrant center infamous had not yet been established. New York had safeguards in place to stop the spread of diseases, but they weren’t perfect.
The steamship Massilia (pictured above) arrived during Ellis Island’s first month of operation, January 1892, carrying over 700 hopefuls, most of them Italians and Russian Jewish immigrants escaping persecution.
Most of them ended up on the Lower East Side, including members of the Mermer family, who the United Hebrew Charities organization arranged to live in the small tenement at 5 Essex Street.
The passengers had not been properly checked for various diseases, including typhus, a devastating affliction that had swept through America during much of the 19th century. It would reach its height of destruction in Europe during World War I, where it would kill millions.
This horrifying sickness, spread by fleas or mites, was on the Massilia. And its passengers were now spread throughout the Lower East Side.
The condescending press of the day described the ship’s passengers as “the impoverished, unkempt class that usually comes from that land, and of the kind that such a scourge as typhus would be likely to mark as its own.”
It was first noticed among 15 Massilia passengers at another address, 42 East 12th Street. The city and the United Hebrew Charities scoured the city for all the remaining Massilia immigrants and found out to their horror that over 70 of them had typhus, including members of the Mermer family at 5 Essex.
Those with symptoms of the disease were transported out to North Brother Island. However all other passengers were forced into the two addresses — 5 Essex Street and 42 East 12th Street — and quarantined there, with police guarding the doors to make sure that nobody could go in. Or escape.
The remaining members of the Mermer family were now trapped at 5 Essex.
The mother Fayer was dead and two symptomatic children (who would later survive) were taken away. They were now quarantined in their home with dozens of others, unsure if they would all succumb to the same fate.
Even with increased precautions, the disease still found its way out. There had been little spread of typhus in the 1890s; now, with the arrival of the Massilia, dozens of cases were reported up and down the major cities of the East Coast.
Fearing a new outbreak, city officials did something drastic. In March, they emptied the two quarantined buildings and placed everybody who lived there on North Brother Island, whether they had the sickness or not.
It would be a nerve-racking month, a disturbing introduction to America. After a few weeks, if patients were without symptoms, they would finally be allowed to leave.
The quarantine seemed to do the trick; less than 50 people died from this potentially disastrous outbreak that struck the heart of the most densely populated neighborhood in New York.
UPDATE: When I first published a version of this article back in 2008, 5 Essex Street was still standing. But the building was not landmarked and this area of the Lower East Side is not contained in a historic district.
Further contemporary news reports of the quarantine house at 5 Essex can be found here.
Picture at top (of Straus Square in 1928) courtesy the Museum of the City of New York
**Straus Square is named for Nathan Straus, the philantropist and co-owner of Macy’s Department Store. Coincidentally, Nathan’s brother Oscar would become Secretary of Commerce under Theodore Roosevelt and oversee the administration of Ellis Island. Nathan’s other brother Isidor would die on the Titanic.