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Ellis Island and the Great Spanish Flu of 1918

The Archivist, Volume 47, Number 1–2, February–May, 2020; ©2020 The Genealogical Society of Bergen County, NJ
Editor's Note: In this issue we welcome two guest authors, Torri Brouhard and Jim Peskin. Torri and Jim are Educators with the Save Ellis Island Foundation and conducted this original research into who served on Ellis Island and how the facility was used during the 1918 pandemic. We thank the authors for this article—and for making this interesting, timely history available to all. Please contact the GSBC,, for questions on reprints and distribution.

Ellis Island and the Great Spanish Flu of 1918

By Torri Brouhard and Jim Peskin


Just over 100 years ago, the Spanish Influenza Pandemic spread across the world and now we are in the thick of the largest world health catastrophe since then. While operations on Ellis Island were shut down to help slow the spread of COVID-19, when tours resume, undoubtedly, one of the first questions tourists will ask is to what extent the Spanish Influenza Pandemic impacted Ellis Island. This article seeks to examine that impact and explore the depths of what occurred on Ellis Island between 1918 and 1920.

On February 7, 2020, several weeks before Ellis Island was closed due to the COVID-19 Pandemic, the Anthem of the Seas cruise ship was docked at Port Liberte in Bayonne, New Jersey. Usually such ships dock for one night and leave the next afternoon, but strangely this one stayed for several days. The media reported that it was being held because there was concern that there were sick people on board who needed to be quarantined. Twenty-seven of the passengers had recently traveled to China. Four of them were sent to a hospital for further testing; all tested negative for the Corona Virus and within a few days the ship continued its voyage. The docked cruise ships always form a vivid backdrop for the start of tours of Ellis Island, reminding us how the immigrants whose stories we tell arrived in our country. They also provide a visual reminder of quarantine procedures that greeted ships as they entered the harbor.

History of Quarantine Procedures for the Port of New York

In 1799, a quarantine hospital was built on Staten Island to treat passengers on arriving vessels who had contracted infectious diseases such as yellow fever, typhus, or cholera. By the mid 19th century all ships entering New York Harbor were subjected to boarding and inspection by the quarantine o!cers with the hospital treating up to 1,000 patients at one time and about 8,000 in a year. If one looks from Ellis Island toward the Verrazzano-Narrows Bridge it is possible to see Swinburne and Hoffman Islands, which became the quarantine stations for New York Harbor after the Staten Island hospital was burned down by angry local residents in 1857.

Who knew that when we saw Anthem of the Seas docked in February 2020, that this was to be our first glimpse of a new pandemic.

Read the full article below or download a copy [2.3MB PDF ZIP file].


About the Authors

Torri Brouhard is Museum Educator at the Montclair History Center and Educator with the Save Ellis Island Foundation who has been conducting research with her colleague Jim Peskin while the Immigrant Hospitals are closed for the COVID-19 pandemic. Brouhard has her bachelor’s degree in History from Montclair State University, and is currently working toward her Master’s Degree in Liberal Studies with a concentration in Public History from SUNY Empire State College.

Jim Peskin has been the Senior Mentor/Educator at the Save Ellis Island Foundation and has led many tours. He is continuing to research the history of the immigrant hospitals while the buildings are closed during the COVID-19 pandemic. Before his work at Ellis Island, Jim had a 30-year career in the theater as a director, dramaturg, teacher, and administrator.


Matt Housch—Thanks for providing us resource material for which was invaluable to our research.
Arlene Keeling and Michelle Hehmann—Thanks for sharing Margaret Daly’s memoir.
Barry Moreno—Thanks for the The Pillbox and entree into the Census.
Ryan Radice—Thanks for sharing your thesis with us and finding The Pillbox.
Fred Voss—Thanks for helping us #nd the rest of the Censuses.

About the Save Ellis Island Foundation

The Save Ellis Island Foundation is the National Park Service partner for the restoration and preservation of the 29 unrestored buildings on Ellis Island’s south side. Save Ellis Island, its partners and members work together for the preservation of our nation’s historical and cultural heritage for this and future generations. The foundation provides numerous educational opportunities, including an online blog, author and historian talks, and “hard hat tours” where the public can experience this historic site while stabilization and preservation efforts are underway.