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The Sepoy Rebellion: What Was It?

An Historical Note

The New York Quarantine, a medical center and quarantine station for people with infectious diseases for this major port city, had originally been established at Bedloe's Island in New York Harbor (1758) and subsequently relocated to Governor's Island elsewhere in the harbor (1796). After an outbreak of yellow fever in 1799, it was decided that the quarantine should be positioned even further away from the highly populated Manhattan Island (as it was then known) and moved to Staten Island.

(Illustration from Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper, August 30, 1856.)

Despite strong opposition from the community, the Quarantine was established in the section of Staten Island now known as Tompkinsville, on the Island's North Shore. Dr. Richard Bayley, father of the Catholic saint Elizabeth Anne Seton, was the first U.S. Public Health Officer and the individual in charge of the Quarantine. The Quarantine was an immense establishment containing a number of hospitals, a burying ground, a crematory, and residences. It was not uncommon for residents of the surrounding communities to become infected with the diseases of quarantined patients, as the employees were not bound to the grounds and hospital disinfection an sanitation standards were extremely primitive by today's standards. Despite continuous complaints, however, the city insisted adamantly on maintaining the Quarantine at this site.

In 1858, the local Board of Health on Staten Island condemned the quarantine as a "pest and a nuisance of the most odious character, bringing death and desolation to the very doors of the people of the Towns of Castleton and Southfield." One local newspaper denounced it as a "Pestilence in our midst." Finally, frustrated by years of vain protests, on the nights of September 1st and 2nd, 1858, about thirty residents of Staten Island -- luridly reported in one Manhattan-based newspaper as "scores" of "disguised and armed residents" -- marched through the North Shore's streets with torches, seized the hospital, removed the patients, and burned down the quarantine station's buildings.

"The Staten Island Rebellion," as the press of the time called it, was also dubbed by some reporters and editorial writers "The Sepoy Rebellion," after a famous uprising against the British by colonial Indians in southeast Asia a few years earlier. It is reported in all the local histories of the period -- Bayles, Leng and Davis -- that no one was hurt in the uprising. The quarantine station was never rebuilt on Staten Island.

This incident has recently returned to public consciousness with the discovery of a quarantine-station cemetery beneath the municipal parking lot in St. George, a short walk from the ferry terminal.

-- Marguerite Maria Rivas

Allan Douglass Coleman Wil Wynn Marguerite Maria Rivas Sepoy tag

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