About the exhibition

Plague in Gotham! Cholera in Nineteenth-Century New York, will examine the deadly epidemics of cholera that hit New York City, particularly the first in 1832, which killed thousands and highlighted deep divisions of class, race, and religion. The exhibition runs from April 4th through June 28th, 2008 at the New-York Historical Society and is part of New York’s first annual World Science Festival.

Cholera was among the most feared illnesses in nineteenth-century New York. Those infected with the gastrointestinal disease suffered severe diarrhea followed by shock and sometimes died in a matter of hours. The causes of cholera were unknown in 1832; the discovery that the disease was spread through contaminated food and water (by the bacterium Vibrio cholerae) lay more than twenty years in the future. Instead, certain activities viewed as immoral—like intemperance— were thought to increase susceptibility to cholera. Some saw the proclivity of the lower classes to contract the disease as their God-given punishment.

The exhibit provides a view inside one of New York’s poorest neighborhoods, Five Points, where cholera hit hardest. Those with means deserted the City, but for poor African- and Irish-Americans, escape was not an option. Thousands died. The exhibition will be displayed in the New-York Historical Society’s Henry Luce III Center for the Study of American Culture.

Visitors will see maps illustrating the rapid spread of the epidemic and displays of remedies that reflect the limited scientific understanding of the disease. The exhibit also features sketches of New York’s cholera victims drawn from life—and death—at a Rivington Street hospital. An idyllic portrait by Asher B. Durand of his children, painted at the family’s New Jersey retreat while the cholera epidemic raged across the Hudson, provides vivid contrast to these tortured faces. Also on view will be daily reports issued by the Board of Health at the height of the epidemic, which were used by residents to chart the epidemic’s progress. Portraits and memorabilia of those who risked their lives to aid cholera victims accompany these lists.

The exhibition will provide a backdrop for several programs and sessions, including an April 5th conversation between distinguished historian and New-York Historical Society Trustee Kenneth T. Jackson and renowned AIDS researcher Dr. David Ho.

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