Bodies in Transit

Staff at the Municipal Archives completed digitization of the Bodies in Transit ledgers, 1859-1894 and the entire series of 10 ledgers is accessible via our website...

Bodies in Transit volumes from 1859-1894. NYC Municipal Archives.

The information in the ledgers about deceased persons whose bodies were transported through Manhattan prior to burial is a rich resource for genealogists and historians researching diverse topics in American urban history including public health, mortality and the Civil War.

The origins of this record arise from the City’s efforts to protect the health of its rapidly growing population. In 1804, the New York State Legislature authorized the New York City Common Council to enact sanitary ordinances and appoint a City Inspector. The first Board of Health was established the following year and oversaw the City Inspector’s Department.

Application for a Transit or Disinterment Permit. Second Annual Report of the Board of Health of the Health Department of the City of New York, April 11, 1871, to April 10, 1872, NYC Municipal Library.

In 1859, the position of Registrar of Records was created within the City Inspector’s Department. Contemporary reports suggest that the recording of the transportation of bodies in, out and through Manhattan was mandated by this new office. 

The “Bodies In Transit” registers record in ledger format the date of a body’s transit, the name of the deceased, age in years and months, the place and date of death, the cause of death, nativity, a location in transit, the intended place of internment, who provided certification for the transfer, and the name and address of the applicant for the transfer. Each volume is roughly 20 inches long and 15 inches wide and they range in thickness from one to 3.5 inches.

John Brown’s body passed through New York in 1859, after his hanging in Charlestown, Virginia, for “Murder, Treason and Inciting Slaves to escape from Virginia and Maryland.” Bodies in Transit, Vol 1, NYC Municipal Archives.  

Efficiency improved when a standardized permit application was introduced in 1871. As explained by the Deputy Register of Records in the Annual Report of the Board of Health for 1870-1871:

"… delay or inconvenience is sometimes experienced for lack of the necessary information relating to the death, particularly when bodies are sent by express, and only the name of the consignee and place of destination can be ascertained …. One reason for being so exact in demanding that the applications for a transit permit shall be accurately filled up is, that in enabling us to detect the cause of death, those bodies which might jeopardize the health of this city would not be permitted to enter. We also require to be satisfied that proper investigations have been made in cases of sudden death, death from violence, injury, or accident, the name and address of the applicant being a voucher for its correctness. The register of bodies in transit contains all the principal items that could be ascertained at the time, and which might be means of future identification."

The April 24, 1865 arrival of Abraham Lincoln’s body at the Desbrosses Street Ferry necessitated an entry in the Bodies in Transit ledger. The Obsequies of Abraham Lincoln, NYC Municipal Library.

As Manhattan’s population increased, there was increased pressure to relocate its deceased residents. Developers dug up cemeteries and moved the bodies to cemeteries in Brooklyn or Queens. Those reinternments can be difficult to trace, but these volumes are often the key to finding the graves. The grand cataclysm of the American Civil War also led to many of the entries in the ledgers.  Union soldiers are often identifiable by their company and regiment, however, they can also be identified by three other pieces of evidence: They died on Davids Island, in Long Island Sound, location of DeCamp General Hospital the largest Union Army hospital; they were buried at Cypress Hills Cemetery in Brooklyn (recently designated as a national cemetery for war dead); or the bodies were under the care of A.J. Case, who was the Undertaker for the US Army. In addition to Union soldiers, over 400 Confederate prisoners of war are recorded, having died at Davids Island after the Battle of Gettysburg. They are sometimes noted by their birth in the “C.S.A.,” or Confederate States of America.

Page and detail showing April 24, 1865 entry for Abraham Lincoln’s body as it arrived in New York to lay in state at City Hall on its way to Springfield, Illinois. Bodies in Transit, Vol 3, NYC Municipal Archives.

Additionally, there are several prominent individuals listed in the pages. Abraham Lincoln’s body is listed in the third volume when his funeral cortege stopped in the City on April 24, 1865. His registered cause of death is “pistol shot.” The abolitionist John Brown passed through on December 4, 1859 (volume I, page 42-43), two days after his execution for leading the raid on Harpers Ferry. Beside his name, under the remarks, it reads “Hung for Murder, Treason and Inciting Slaves to escape from Virginia and Maryland.”

Lincoln’s body lay in an open casket in the City Hall rotunda overnight and was seen by over 100,000 New Yorkers. On the 25th, after a funeral procession up Broadway, his body departed by train for Springfield, Illinois. The Obsequies of Abraham Lincoln, NYC Municipal Library.

The earliest volumes in the collection are the most densely filled, as they corresponded with the years of the Civil War, one of the greatest periods of mass death in our nation’s history. However, the frequency of permits issued decreased in later years as local health agencies began forming in the surrounding cities. The 1874 annual report stated that bodies accompanied by burial permits from the newly-established Boards of Health of Brooklyn, Long Island City, Richmond County, or Hudson County, New Jersey were not required to apply for a transit permit. An increase of regulated Boards of Health across the United States may be the reason that the Health Department eventually ceased registering bodies in transit altogether: “If some general rule or mutual understanding existed between established Boards of Health and Vital Statistics regarding the transportation of dead bodies, there would be no necessity of placing any impediment or obstacle in the way of the transmission of a corpse from the place of death to its destination, provided that a burial permit accompanied it, with a sufficient number of coupons attached and containing the same items of information regarding the deceased as are contained in the transit permit; the coupons to be collected by the transportation agents on the arrival or departure of the body, and returned to this Bureau, as the regulations may require, to be entered on the register of bodies in transit.” This same report also suggests using the telegraph as a means of communicating when a body is being transferred from one jurisdiction to another, including the possibility of a delay in the journey.


"Bodies in transit records (1859-1894)." Goodwin, Aaron. New York City Municipal Archives: an authorized guide for family historians. New York: New York Genealogical and Biographical Society, 2016.

Duffy, John. A history of public health in New York City, 1866-1966. New York: Russell Sage Foundation, 1974.

New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. Protecting public health in New York City: 200 years of leadership, 1805-2005. New York: New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, 2005.

Department of Public Welfare of the City of New York

The vertical files in the Municipal Library contain a treasure trove of newspaper clippings, media releases and documents from City agencies. There also are original analyses written by the legendary Rebecca Rankin, the long-time Municipal Librarian and her staff. Written on onion-skin paper, the articles are distinctive and elicit a jolt of anticipation when located. This week’s blog is a history of public welfare in the City, circa 1922 as written by Ms. Rankin and staff. 

The original records of these welfare institutions, the Almshouse Ledger Collection, were processed by the Municipal Archives in 2016 under a grant funded by the National Historical Publications and Records Commission and a digitized selection of ledgers are now online.

Department of Public Welfare of the City of New York

The first Bellevue, a 6-bed infirmary on the present site of City Hall. Department of Public Charities Collection, NYC Municipal Archives.

The responsibility for the care and treatment of the dependents in the City of New York rests upon the Department of Public Welfare. The history of the Department really begins in 1734 when it became apparent to the Common Council that some means for caring for the poor, the beggars and the dependent sick must be provided; at this time the population of the City was 8,000 and contained 1,400 houses. It was decided to erect a workhouse on the unimproved lands known as the “Vineyard”; this site was the ground on which the City Hall now stands. This “Publick Workhouse and House of Correction” was finished in 1736; by 1746 it was outgrown and required additions.

 Page from Admissions, Discharges and Death Ledger, Almshouse of the City of New York, 1758-1809. Ledger columns include: date admitted, name, age, occupation, where from or born, complaints, by whom sent/by whose order, location/ward no., date of discharge, date of death, remarks. This collection was processed by the Municipal Archives in 2016 under a grant funded by the National Historical Publications and Records Commission and a digitized selection of ledgers are now online.  Almshouse Ledger Collection , NYC Municipal Archives.

Page from Admissions, Discharges and Death Ledger, Almshouse of the City of New York, 1758-1809. Ledger columns include: date admitted, name, age, occupation, where from or born, complaints, by whom sent/by whose order, location/ward no., date of discharge, date of death, remarks. This collection was processed by the Municipal Archives in 2016 under a grant funded by the National Historical Publications and Records Commission and a digitized selection of ledgers are now online. Almshouse Ledger Collection, NYC Municipal Archives.

Prior to this date, in the early years of the City, the poor had been maintained by the Church. From 1695 on the City appropriated yearly a sum of one hundred pounds or more for the support of the poor, and it appointed Overseers of the Poor who were responsible for policies of management and a Keeper was in charge. But not till 1736 could it be considered as an official part of the city’s activities. The Workhouse was supported by a tax upon the inhabitants. By 1775 this tax amounted to 4,233 pounds or about 95 cents per capita.

View of the "Old Bellevue Establishment" from the East River. Department of Public Charities Collection, NYC Municipal Archives.

In May 1796 a new Almshouse was finished and used till 1816; this occupied the site where the Courthouse now stands on Chambers Street. About this time the City purchased old Kip’s Bay Farm on the East River at the foot of 26th Street which later became known as Bellevue Hospital. This group comprised two hospitals, an almshouse, a workshop and a school. In 1819 an epidemic of yellow fever forced the addition of a hospital for contagious diseases. In 1828 Blackwell’s Island was bought and a penitentiary built and by 1839 a lunatic asylum added. In 1850 it became apparent that a poor farm was necessary and consequently Ward’s Island was purchased for that purpose. By 1843 a re-organization was demanded and a special committee investigated and a resolution was passed which provided for an almshouse on Blackwell’s Island, a children’s and an adult hospital, the lunatic asylum extended, a workhouse, and nurseries and infants hospital on Randall’s Island.

Blackwell’s Island looking southeast: Penitentiary, Charity Hospital with Superintendent's cottage, Smallpox Hospital, Reception Pavilion, ca. 1900. Department of Public Charities Collection, NYC Municipal Archives.

In 1846-1849 there was an Almshouse Department with a Commissioner at its head. But in 1849 a new state law put the Almshouse Department under a Board of Governors, ten in number which continued its responsibility until 1860 when the Department of Public Charities and Correction was created. It was in 1850 that the City began the practice of subsidizing private institutions for the care of dependents; in that first year a sum of $9,865 was expended. This policy is still continued successfully; in 1920 there were 196 private charitable institutions which accepted public charges for the City.

Horse-and-buggy ambulance in front of (Old) Coney Island Hospital, ca. 1900. Department of Public Charities Collection, NYC Municipal Archives.

Sea View Hospital, West New Brighton, Staten Island, 1920. Department of Public Charities Collection, NYC Municipal Archives.

About 1883 a feeling became general that the existing system under which the paupers, criminals, lunatics and the sick poor were cared for by one department, (Department of Public Charities and Corrections which was established in 1860) was objectionable so that in 1895 a law providing for the division of the department into two distinct bodies, namely, the Department of Public Charities and the Department of Correction was passed. The hospitals, almshouse, lunatic asylum and all institutions on Blackwell’s Island were placed under the Department of Public Charities, and the Department of Correction managed the penal and reformatory institutions. In 1902 further revision resulted in Bellevue and Allied Hospital having a separate organization. In 1920 the name of the Department was changed to the Department of Public Welfare [in 1938 it was further simplified to Department of Welfare].

City Home for the Aged, Blackwell's Island, ca. 1900. Frederick A. Walter, Department of Public Charities Collection, NYC Municipal Archives.

No allusion has been made to much legislation affecting the administration of this department. There were many and constant changes in the form of administration; sometimes three, sometimes five, sometimes one commissioner of almshouse, or even a Board of Governors. The Department at present administered is under one commissioner appointed by the Mayor.

City Home for the Aged, Blackwell's Island, ca. 1900. Frederick A. Walter, Department of Public Charities Collection, NYC Municipal Archives.

To carry on its diverse activities, the Department in 1920 maintained and operated two reception hospitals, six general hospitals, three special hospitals, two homes for the aged and infirm, cottages for aged couples and women, a preventorium, a convalescent home for women and children, a municipal lodging house, a mortuary, a social service department in connection with the hospitals, four schools of nursing and four training schools for attendants. The combined capacity of the eleven hospitals was 8,796 beds; the daily average of all patients cared for was approximately 5,847. The Department had a staff of 4,200 employees to carry on its work and the appropriation in the 1922 budget for the Department was $7,370,550.

Nurses lined up in front of Cumberland Street Hospital, 1920. Department of Public Charities Collection, NYC Municipal Archives.

Commissioner Bird S. Coler has set forth in his 1919 Annual Report of the Department a descriptive outline of the Department for the information of the public.

Activities of the Department, Annual Report of the Department of Public Charities of the City of New York for Year 1919. NYC Municipal Library.

Harlem Youth Opportunities Unlimited

Harlem Youth Report, a pamphlet from HARYOU in comic book form. NYPD Intelligence Division Records, NYC Municipal Archives.

Harlem Youth Report, a pamphlet from HARYOU in comic book form. NYPD Intelligence Division Records, NYC Municipal Archives.

The Municipal Archives’ collection of New York Police Department Intelligence Division records contains more than 2,500 files on groups and organizations that operated between the 1940s-1970s. The files were created by the Bureau of Special Services, a unit within the NYPD Intelligence Division that conducted investigations on groups both on the right and left of the political spectrum.

I have been processing this fascinating and significant collection and recently discovered files about the Harlem Youth Opportunities Unlimited (HARYOU) organization. I was not familiar with this organization, but soon learned it played a major role in job creation and reduction of juvenile delinquency in central Harlem during the 1960s.

Dr. Kenneth B. Clark, a professor of psychology founded the HARYOU organization in 1962 along with several ministers, community leaders, and government officials. Mayor Robert F. Wagner and the Harlem Neighborhood Association (HANA) awarded the organization a grant of $230,000 to conduct an eighteen-month study of the neighborhood, and to create a strategic plan to reduce poverty and delinquency in Harlem. Mayor Wagner disbursed grants to similar organizations, such as the Mobilization for Youth in the Lower East side of Manhattan.

Flyer for the HARYOU-ACT summer education program. NYPD Intelligence Division Records, NYC Municipal Archives.

HARYOU argued that an important step in delinquency prevention was to empower black youth by creating more job opportunities, providing job training (including professional careers) and assisting delinquent youths in rehabilitation. In addition to disseminating funds, HARYOU sought to increase black consciousness and pride. The organization focused on five areas: Community Action, Education, Employment, Special Programs and Arts& Culture.

In 1964 HARYOU released their report entitled Youth in the Ghetto: A study of the consequences of powerlessness and a blueprint for change. HARYOU surveyed the predominantly black neighborhoods of Central Harlem, which encompassed 110th to 160th Streets and extended to St. Nicholas Avenue on the West side and Third Avenue on the East side. The findings of the study were bleak:

1.      Only 10 percent of housing units in Central Harlem had been built after 1929, with the vast majority of that housing consisting of overcrowded and deteriorated projects.

2.      Central Harlem had ten times the number of drug addicts, six times the homicide rate and twice the juvenile delinquency rate compared to the rest of New York City. The area also experienced a higher index of infant mortality and venereal disease.

3.      Schools were overcrowded and 80% percent of children in the sixth grade and under read below the average reading comprehension level of their corresponding grades.

4.      Higher unemployment rates and of those employed nearly two thirds were laborers. Fifty-five percent of the able workforce were high school dropouts.

Langston Hughes column in the New York Post discussing the virtues of HARYOU, collected by the NYPD Intelligence Division. At the time, the Post was a liberal newspaper. NYPD Intelligence Division Records, NYC Municipal Archives.

In the midst of the Civil Rights Movement and the Harlem riots, HARYOU’S mission became extraordinarily relevant. HARYOU and other similar organizations received federal funding to create community programs such as Project Uplift which established short-term jobs and training for Harlem youths. In 1964 HARYOU merged with Associated Community Teams (ACT) to manage federal funds for job creation and other community programs. HARYOU-ACT received $3.4 million from the City and $1 million from the federal government to administer these programs. HARYOU-ACT set up programs for occupational job training, homework help, narcotic centers for detoxification and rehabilitation, halfway houses for delinquent youth and a comprehensive African-themed arts and culture program.

Despite its success, the organization was not without controversy. After reports of mismanagement of funds, the city withheld more than $1 million in income while they conducted an investigation. A report from the Office of the Comptroller determined that the financial ledgers of the organization did not follow good accounting principles and had unreconciled petty cash funds, a missing bank account, and lacked records documenting furniture and supply purchases. A number of scandals and internal disputes followed the organization until the 1980s when funding was cut in half and the administration of anti-poverty programs became the responsibility of the Community Development Agency.

Membership application from Harlem Youth Report. NYPD Intelligence Division Records, NYC Municipal Archives.

Flyer for festival and parade organized by HARYOU-ACT. NYPD Intelligence Division Records, NYC Municipal Archives.

Perhaps of more interest to the police than HARYOU-ACT’s financial woes was the organization’s participation in the civil rights movement. Some of the activities included a candle-light vigil the night before the March on Washington, block rallies to mobilize tenants against slumlords and a planned stall-in at the World’s Fair. The organization also encouraged its members and leadership to take part in demonstrations. The Bureau of Special Services files contain reports of officers who attended these events and also background checks on board members and other staff.

Also noted in the surveillance files was the possible relationship of HARYOU-ACT with black nationalists. In May 1964, the New York Times accused the organization of collecting evidence against an anti-white youth gang in Harlem. The interim executive director Cyril DeGrasse Tyson (father of astrophysicist Neil Degrasse Tyson) responded to the allegations, stating that the tapes were nothing more than interviews with youths that spoke of police brutality and that HARYOU-ACT would release the tapes to the authorities. There is no evidence in the organizational file of any further investigation into this allegation.

Letter from commanding officer of BOSS to the Chief of Detectives on members of HARYOU. NYPD Intelligence Division Records, NYC Municipal Archives.

Letter from commanding officer of BOSS to the Chief of Detectives on members of HARYOU. NYPD Intelligence Division Records, NYC Municipal Archives.

Letter from commanding officer of BOSS to the Chief of Detectives on members of HARYOU. NYPD Intelligence Division Records, NYC Municipal Archives.

HARYOU-ACT’s sponsorship of forums and talks with leaders also drew attention to the organization. Some famous events included Malcolm X’s appearance and the hosting of a forum entitled ‘Youth Wants to Know” which featured Stokely Carmichael and Charles Kenyatta. While the authorities considered these individuals e “persons of interest” there is not any documentation in the files that points to extensive investigation of HARYOU-ACT’s involvement with these controversial figures.

HARYOU-ACT was an influential, although short-lived, organization. Its programs helped revitalize the workforce, contribute to the restructuring of neighborhood schools and spread awareness of civil rights issues and black pride.



NYPD Intelligence Records 1937-1973, Municipal Archives, City of New York

Office of the Mayor, Robert F. Wagner, 1954-1965, Municipal Archives, City of New York

Office of the Comptroller, HARYOU ACT INC. for period July 1, 1964-June 30, 1966, 1966.

Harlem Youth Opportunities Unlimited, Youth in the Ghetto: A study of consequences of powerlessness and a blueprint for change, 1964.

Mass Inoculation or: How New York Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Polio Vaccine

Boy with post-vaccine lollipop reward poses with doctor, 1955. Department of Health Collection, NYC Municipal Archives.

Mothers and small "Polio Children" board bus, Bellevue Hospital, ca. 1916. Department of Public Charities Collection, NYC Municipal Archives.

As each summer rolled around during the first half of the 20th century, parents, children and health officials dreaded outbreaks of poliomyelitis, commonly called polio. This was especially true in New York City, where people lived in such close proximity to each other. The polio virus is spread by person-to-person contact, is extremely contagious and can affect the spinal cord and brain. In many cases it causes paralysis and can be fatal. Polio was often referred to as “infantile paralysis,” because it was especially prevalent in children, though people of all ages could contract the disease.

The city’s first major polio epidemic struck in 1916, killing nearly 2,500 people. Almost 9,000 cases were reported in total that year. Smaller outbreaks were reported over the next few decades with two occurrences in the 1940s, continuing to terrify the populace. On average, over 800 cases and 40 deaths were reported yearly.

Girl gets injection as part of National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis vaccine testing, undated. Department of Health Collection, NYC Municipal Archives.

Doctors were soon developing and experimenting with preventive treatments including gamma globulin, an injectable solution made with the polio antibodies. Gamma globulin was introduced to the public in 1950 and showed some effectiveness in preventing the disease. Because the solution was made from blood, supply was limited and could not be a long-term remedy. Parents’ desperation to protect their children coupled with the restricted availability of the treatment led to sit-ins and protests demanding more access to gamma globulin from the Department of Health.

Department of Health mailer from 1954 explaining the vaccine testing. Department of Health Collection, NYC Municipal Archives.

Letter from pharmaceutical manufacturer Eli Lilly confirming Commissioner Baumgartner’s order for 500,000 units of the polio vaccine. Department of Health Collection, NYC Municipal Archives.

In the early 1950s a vaccine developed by Dr. Jonas Salk at the University of Pittsburgh looked promising. The vaccine was created with an inactivated polio virus. In 1954, New York City Health Commissioner Leona Baumgartner sought the city’s inclusion in the first nationwide testing of the Salk vaccine. The testing effort was coordinated by the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis (later renamed The March of Dimes) and Department of Health staff, and carried out locally by thousands of volunteers.

One of many mailings sent to the Department of Health by citizens skeptical of the safety of the new vaccine. Department of Health Collection, NYC Municipal Archives.

The NYC Department of Health selected six health districts for the first round of testing based on risk: Corona, Flushing, Gravesend, Lower East Side, Richmond and Tremont. Beginning on April 27, 1954, 40,000 school children in grades 1-3 were injected with either the vaccine or a control substance. The testing effort was coupled with a massive publicity campaign including television, radio, posters, pamphlets and film trailers. The success of the vaccine would not be assessed until the following polio season and there was some fear and skepticism about its safety and efficacy. During the first phase of testing, popular columnist Walter Winchell claimed on television, radio and in print that the vaccine “may be a killer,” incorrectly reporting the vaccine contained a live virus. Federal officials worked immediately to dispel Winchell’s claims and ensure the safety of the vaccine.

In April 1955 the Salk vaccine was declared successful and the New York City Department of Health under Commissioner Baumgartner began a systematic program to inoculate school children right away. In the first year 899,010 New York City residents were given the vaccine. By 1956, 45% of New Yorkers under age 20 were inoculated.

Elvis Presley receiving a polio shot in October 1956 from Assistant Commissioner Dr. Harold Fuerst. Commissioner Baumgartner holds Presley’s arm while Fuerst administers the vaccine. Department of Health Collection, NYC Municipal Archives.

Letter from Dr. Leona Baumgartner, Commissioner of Health, to Elvis Presley, 1956. Department of Health Collection, NYC Municipal Archives.

The Department of Health even enlisted Elvis Presley to help make the case for young people to get vaccinated. In October 1956, Presley was photographed, filmed and interviewed while he received the shot on a trip to New York. Commissioner Baumgartner can be seen holding Presley’s arm, while Assistant Commissioner Dr. Harold Fuerst administered the shot.

The widespread inoculation was absolutely necessary to stamp out polio in New York City but the project was often hindered due to its high cost. The publicity, staffing of health centers, vaccinations, and numerous other expenses strained the city budget. Not until the passing of the Federal Vaccination Assistance Act of 1962 was the city able to fully realize the large scale inoculation of the public. The Act provided grant funds to distribute polio and other vaccinations to children five and under, free of charge. Once flexible funds were available, a total of 3,624,670 doses were distributed in New York City in 1963 alone.

Explanatory chart depicting the success of Salk vaccine in preventing new cases of polio. Department of Health Collection, NYC Municipal Archives.

Department staff and volunteers outside mobile vaccine station on 84th Street and Amsterdam Avenue in 1961. Department of Health Collection, NYC Municipal Archives.

Graph depicting reported polio cases in New York City from 1951 to 1963. Department of Health Collection, NYC Municipal Archives.

In September 1963, Health Commissioner George James announced that not one polio case was reported and/or confirmed in the previous year it for the first time in New York City’s recorded history. However exciting the news of a polio-free year was, the statement was not accepted without scrutiny. There was a great deal of suspicion that the polio vaccine could very well infect a person with the disease it was meant to repel. In 1963, seven unconfirmed cases of polio were reported to the Health Department, but their legitimacy was never determined. In one case, a man contracted serious polio symptoms immediately after inoculation. He was tested for polio but the initial results were reportedly lost by the hospital and/or physician, raising concern in some quarters about the safety of the vaccine. Regardless of the unconfirmed polio cases, Commissioner James continued to claim that 1963 was a year free of polio.

Number of polo cases in New York City from 1954 to 1963, from Vital Statistics, Department of Health, NYC Municipal Library.

Even if the vaccination may have caused a handful of polio infections, it quickly proved its worth. After initiating the widespread polio inoculation the contraction rate drastically fell. Between 1955 and 1962, only 577 cases and 42 deaths were reported in New York City. On a yearly basis, the death count fell by 91% and the number of reported cases fell by 87%.

These results proved the vaccine effective and even presented the possibility of total eradication. Nevertheless, George James remained vigilant. Leery of complacency, he warned the public and private health sector of a possible reemergence.

Cover of Spanish-language informational pamphlet about the polio vaccine from 1959. Department of Health Collection, NYC Municipal Archives.

The next few years were largely polio free except for a few cases in 1964. Even as polio outbreaks faded from memory, the city and state continued to strengthen the offense against polio. In 1965, the New York State Legislature passed a bill which required any child to receive a polio vaccination before attending public school. During the first years of vaccination, children and young people were the primary recipients, but as the years progressed, more and more adults received the vaccine as well. The city’s defense against polio grew stronger and stronger.

With the help of the government and private health sectors of New York and the United States, the massive polio inoculation was predominately a success. Polio contraction rates plummeted in a surprisingly short amount of time, saving hundreds of lives and eradicating a major health scourge of the 20th century. The distribution and promotion of the polio vaccine in New York City served as a model for many states and cities in their battle against the devastating disease which is poliomyelitis.

Polio display, Jamaica Health Center, August 31, 1955. Department of Health Collection, NYC Municipal Archives.

This project has been made possible in part by a major grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities: Exploring the human endeavor. Any views, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this blog post do not necessarily represent those of the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Omnibuses and Horse Cars or What I Have Learned from Assisting Researchers

deg_22: Pier 42, French Line at Horatio and Jane Streets, c. 1880. DeGregario Collection, NYC Municipal Archives.

It always starts with “Hello. How can we help you?” A simple phrase that begins a relationship between two strangers—the researcher and the archivist/librarian. I provide assistance and guidance to DORIS’ collections. This doesn’t mean that I perform the patrons’ research for them. Sometimes I simply retrieve the requested records or book. More often, I have to dig a bit deeper into our collection guides and catalog to help patrons. It’s those occasions that I find the most interesting and when I learn the most.

Omnibus Advertisement, August 7, 1852, The Brooklyn Daily Eagle

One of our long-term researchers, I’ll call him Mr. F., began researching in the library over two years ago. Frequently here two to three times a week, he is not an academic, student or author. Rather, he has a life-long interest in New York City surface transit. Having traversed the City on buses since childhood, his goal is to correct some of the information that is available in books and online. It is from him that I learned about omnibuses and horse-cars and other modes of transportation.

When I met him in August of last year he thought he had exhausted all that the library had to offer, although he still had unanswered questions. The more he talked, the more I learned. I introduced him to the mayoral records in the Archives. The first time he found an archival document related to his quest—a letter in Mayor LaGuardia’s papers—he was giddy with excitement. He was hooked and so was I.

By now you’re probably asking “But what are these different modes of conveyances: horse-car, omnibus? Didn’t everyone just ride horses and in carriages and wagons?” Not really.

deg_29: Broadway, with horse-drawn rail cars at right, looking northwest from 22nd Street, ca. 1880. Photo by Robert J. Delvin, DeGregario Collection, NYC Municipal Archives.

In colonial New York most people lived and worked in the same location. As the City prospered, wealthier families moved northward, away from the crowded lower Manhattan business district. Thus was born the “commuter” who required public transportation.

The stagecoach was the first scheduled mode of public transportation. Soon thereafter, the Common Council imposed regulations: where stages could stand awaiting passengers, the speed of the coaches, where they stopped, and the right-of-way. Coach owners had to be licensed, and drivers were required to be over 21 and obtain a permit from the Mayor. A listing of stage coach owners in the 1800s, and some permits can be found in the Archives collection.

Petition of Kip & Brown, January 24, 1829, Common Council Papers, NYC Municipal Archives.

Signatures from the petition of Kip & Brown, January 24, 1829, Common Council Papers, NYC Municipal Archives.

Stagecoaches traveled between New York and Albany, Boston and Philadelphia as early as 1789. Fraunces’ Tavern was used as the stage-office. By 1811, there were five daily scheduled stagecoach trips between lower Manhattan and Greenwich Village, then the northernmost reach of the City. In 1816, Asa Hall’s line started at the corner of Pine Street and Broadway, near Trinity Church. The fare was 1 shilling. In January 1829 the Common Council fined the “Omnibus Men” Asa Hall, Kip & Brown, and James Dickenson $25 (over $600 today) for parking their stages illegally and blocking street and pedestrian traffic. Imagine a $600 parking fine! They petitioned the Council to cancel the fine. They lost their appeal but the text of the petitions are telling, acknowledging that they did in fact violate “a law passed 18th of June 1828 regulating the standing in waiting for passengers.” Asa Hall owned the oldest stage line. In his petition he states that it was a burden he could ill afford and that Kipp & Brown should bear the greater burden of the fine because they had more stages then he and James Dickenson. Additionally, they all stated that they could not manage what the drivers were doing when they were not around. In later years, Sol Kipp, of Kip & Brown, would lament the coming of the horse-drawn rail car and the construction of the Eighth Avenue Line to which he lost his right of way.

In 1832, the New York and Harlem Railroad was created to bring passengers from Prince Street (today’s SoHo) to Harlem, mostly along 4th Avenue. The cars were built in John Stephenson shop on 28th Street and horses pulled the cars along tracks. The era of horse-cars, and omnibuses (an oversized stagecoach sometimes called a horse-bus) had begun.

deg_42: Yorkville and Harlem stages in front of City Hall Post Office, Broadway and Park Row, ca. 1880.  Photo by A. Simpson, DeGregario Collection, NYC Municipal Archives.

Omnibuses were painted with the name of their route on the outside and accommodated about twelve passengers. Some were heated and some were not. People often describe the rides as slow and uncomfortable, being “jostled about the car.” A poem by Punch published in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle in 1852 entitled “Children must be paid for” [sic] describes, in the second verse, travel during the summer:

“If in an omnibus we ride,
It is n (sic) beauteous sight to see,
When full the vehicle inside,
Age taking childhood on its knee.
But in the dog-days’ scorching heat,
When a slight breath of air is pray’d for,
Half suffocated in our seat,
We feel that “Children must be paid for”

Omnibus travel in Brooklyn began in the 1840s, facilitating travel between Manhattan, Flushing, Jamaica and points east. They connected ferries docking in Brooklyn to the Long Island Railroad and the Jamaica Brooklyn Railroad. In 1853 the Brooklyn City Railroad began horse-car service that ran from the Fulton Ferry Terminal along Fulton Street and Fulton Avenue, a distance of 3.43 miles. Horses and mules pulled the cars along the double-track and took 37 minutes to travel one-way.

deg_21: Pier 44, White Star Line, Christopher Street "Entrance for Teams," ca. 1880. Photo by W.T. Colbron, DeGregario Collection, NYC Municipal Archives.

Transportation in New York was segregated and the omnibus, horse-car and railroads were no exception. African-Americans were prohibited from riding on some omnibus lines or were restricted to specially marked cars or the outside of the car. Sometimes the decision to allow an African American on board was left to the driver and the conductor. On the Sixth Avenue lines, every sixth car was marked with a sign “Colored Persons allowed to ride in this car.” In Brooklyn, Montgomery Queen, the owner of a line that went from the ferry to Bedford had a strict rule not to let “darkies” ride in his buses. Instances of African American men and women being forcibly removed or assaulted verbally and physically are covered by contemporary newspapers.

In 1855, African American school teacher Elizabeth Jennings boarded a car that lacked a sign prohibiting her use.  She refused to disembark at the request of the conductor. As the omnibus continued along the way, a policeman was hailed. He and the conductor “roughly removed” Miss Jennings. She sued the railroad, won her suit and was awarded damages of $225 plus costs of $22.50. As a result of this case, the Third Avenue Railroad immediately desegregated its service. Full access to transportation for all would not occur until after the Civil War. 

By the end of the 1850s, the Common Council (which covered only Manhattan) had issued over 400 omnibus licenses. As the number of railroad franchises grew and more and more track was laid, horses continued to pull the rail cars.

bps_05824: Stage Line Manhattan Bridge, Eugene de Salignac, photographer, Bridges, Plants and Structures Collection 1919, NYC Municipal Archives

Horse-driven omnibuses and railcars dominated surface transportation until the arrival of steam-driven cars in 1883 and then the electric trolley cars. But the era of the omnibus, or horse-drawn rail car, continued through to the 20th century. In 1899, 113.44 miles of track were still dedicated to horse lines. It was on the Bleecker Street & Fulton Ferry line that the last horse car made its final trip on July 27, 1917. By then the cars were dark, dirty and smoky. New Yorkers had moved on to more modern transportation above ground, and below.

This is not the end of the story of surface transportation in the City. There is a treasure trove of information to be found in the collections. Needless to say, Mr. F. will be here for quite a while longer.

bps_05829: Stage Line, Desbrosses Street Ferry, general view of stages waiting, November 6, 1919. Photo by Eugene de Salignac, Bridges, Plants and Structures Collection 1919, NYC Municipal Archives.

Take Me Out To the Ballpark

Baseball game, ca. 1939. Clifford Sutcliffe, WPA Federal Writers' Project Collection, NYC Municipal Archives.

When researchers think about Municipal Archives collections, generally the focus is on genealogical records or mayoral papers or 19th-century maps. However, the collections are vast and broad in scope, containing material on a range of surprising non-governmental topics such as food, fashion, music, and even baseball. Yes, the national past-time is well represented in the Municipal Archives.

Topographical Bureau of Queens baseball team, Long Island City, 1910. Borough President Queens Collection, NYC Municipal Archives.

Some say that the first organized baseball team was NYC-based—the Knickerbockers of Murray Hill who commenced their season in 1845 with a game in Hoboken. What made them organized is that they wrote down and followed rules for the game. Imagine that! Suffice it to say that baseball emerged in the mid-19th century as a game that could be played without much equipment—perfect for an urban environment. It became immensely popular across most demographics as a sport suitable for professionals as well as legions of amateur players.

Scenes from baseball game, Elks Club Clambake, Midland Park, Grant City, Staten Island, August 1924. NYC Municipal Archives Collection

Today there are two professional teams, the crosstown rivals New York Mets and New York Yankees and their minor league counterparts the Brooklyn Cyclones and Staten Island Yankees. But for decades there were three teams: The Giants, the Dodgers and the Yankees. Each boasted of enthusiastic fans and each was based in a unique ballpark.

A football game underway at the first Polo Grounds, Harlem Flats, 157th Street and 8th Avenue, ca. 1880s. DeGregario Collection, NYC Municipal Archives.

Seating chart for the third Polo Grounds, ca. 1930s. New York City Municipal Archives Collections.

The home of the New York Giants was the famed Polo Grounds in upper Manhattan on Coogan’s Bluff separating Washington Heights and Harlem. In a scene unimaginable today, fans could sit on the bluff, looking down on the park, and watch games for free. Originally named the Gothams, the club was formed in 1883 and decamped to San Francisco in 1958 abandoning their storied field. The ballpark was uniquely long and narrow, with a centerfield fence so distant that only the most elite players—Lou Gehrig, Babe Ruth—could hit a homerun over it. (Joe Adcock from Milwaukee could too but let’s stay focused on New York). Home to many a major league game, the park also hosted such cross-town rivals as the departmental teams of the FDNY, NYPD and DSNY. Friends and families packed the park to watch the amateur sluggers at play. Mayors attended and sometimes even tossed out the proverbial first pitch.

Police vs. Fire Department baseball game, Polo Grounds, 1940s. NYC Municipal Archives Collections.

Sanitation Department Baseball Team marches on Lower Broadway on Connie Mack Day, August 19, 1949. NYC Municipal Archives Collections.

Ebbets Field, ca. 1949. Department of Finance Tax Photo Collection, NYC Municipal Archives. 

Across the river, the Brooklyn Dodgers played in Ebbets Field. There are many Dodger stories but the preeminent, of course, is that of the great Jackie Robinson who in 1947 broke the color line in major league baseball at Ebbets Field, after playing in the Dodgers minor league Montreal team in 1946. There had, of course, been black semi-professional baseball players from the beginning, when leagues just were forming. But the black players were banned in 1868 from the National League and it was in Brooklyn where the beginning of the end of those race-based rules occurred.

Sullivan Street Elevation, Brooklyn Base Ball Club [Ebbets Field], Clarence R. Van Buskirk, 1912.

The Dodgers were chased out of NYC by Robert Moses in 1957, devastating their fans, but leaving home plate behind.

Home plate from Ebbets Field, ca. 1957. Brooklyn Borough Presidents Collection, NYC Municipal Archives.

Letters to Mayor Wagner urging him to save the Brooklyn Dodgers, 1957. Mayor Wagner Collection, NYC Municipal Archives.

World Series announcement board (Yankees vs. Giants), Radio Row, Cortlandt Street, 1936. WPA Federal Writers' Project, NYC Municipal Archives.

That of course brings us to the third of the City’s old-time teams, the erstwhile Highlanders renamed the Yankees in 1913. For a dozen years, the Yankees played at the Polo Grounds, sharing the ballpark with the Giants, another occurrence unimaginable today. In 1921 and 1922 the teams played against each other in the World Series, with the Giants prevailing both times. The “old” Yankee Stadium opened in 1923 and the original “subway series” may have been the 1923 World Series between the Giants and the Yankees which the Yankees won for their first-ever world championship. Legendary players donned the pinstripes, none better than the 1927 team frequently characterized as the best baseball team ever assembled. Those exploits are reimagined in the 2016 blog from Doug Alden—The Diary of Myles Thomas—which explores jazz, race, gangsters and New York. 

1936 World Series, singer Kate Smith (front left) and Babe Ruth (center) with his wife Claire Merritt Ruth in special seats in front of grandstand, September 1936. WPA Federal Writers' Project, NYC Municipal Archives.

Civilian Defense Poster, Pre-Season Championship Double Header Baseball Benefit Games, 1943. Mayor LaGuardia Collection, NYC Municipal Archives.

The archives collection illustrates the varied uses of the old Yankee Stadium. It was more than a ball park. It was an event space! In 1943 a double-header joined all three of the City’s teams in games to raise money for Civil Defense. There were rallies such as a citywide May Day rally for labor. In 1990, Nelson Mandela spoke to thousands of attendees who opposed apartheid in South Africa and then donned a Yankees coat and cap. In 1965 and 1979 two different Pope said mass right around second base, attracting very large crowds of worshipers. But the largest crowd in the stadium’s history was drawn by the Jehovah’s Witnesses in 1958—123,707 people. Prayer is a tradition that continues in the replacement stadium which, after the September 11th attack, hosted a multi-denomination prayer service, uniting a grieving City.

Nelson Mandela at Yankee Stadium, June 21, 1990. Mayor Dinkins Collection, NYC Municipal Archives.

Pope Paul VI, October 4, 1965. NYPD Collection, NYC Municipal Archives.