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Flatbush + Main Episode 29: Cholera in Brooklyn

By Julie Golia

Posted on September 28, 2018

In Episode 29 of Brooklyn Historical Society’s podcast Flatbush + Main, host Zaheer Ali and guest-host Erin Wuebker, fellow BHS historian, discuss the impact of cholera on Brooklyn, which led to the illness and death of thousands of residents in the 19th century. Zaheer and Erin consider how epidemics of cholera were both symptoms of the city’s tremendous growth and change in this era, and catalysts for Brooklyn to develop basic infrastructure we associate with a modern city.


02:49 Histories and Ideas
22:29 Into the Archives
45:59 Voices of Brooklyn

For complete show notes, go to

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Support for this episode was provided by the Wellcome Trust’s Contagious Cities project, which supports local conversations around the global challenges of epidemic preparedness.


Segment 1: Histories and Ideas

In this segment, Zaheer and Erin discuss epidemics of cholera that reached the shores of Brooklyn in the mid-19th century in the context of the city’s transformation from a small farming town of 6,000 residents to the third largest city in America and a global center of trade and manufacturing. They detail why working-class Brooklynites were the most likely to contract cholera and the challenges in telling their histories. Zaheer and Erin also reflect on how these epidemics pushed Brooklyn to modernize, resulting in new roles for government and the city’s first hospitals, sewers, and more.

For more on 19th-century cholera epidemics in the US and New York City, see Charles E. Rosenberg, The Cholera Years: The United States in 1832, 1849, and 1866.

For details on continuing challenges controlling cholera across the globe, see the World Health Organization.

Segment 2: Into the Archives

Zaheer and Erin delve into the prolific journals of Gabriel Furman, Brooklyn lawyer, politician, and amateur historian, who closely documented an 1832 outbreak of cholera. Furman’s journals reveal the different ways people understood cholera specifically and disease more broadly in this era – religion, morality, miasmas, climate – as well as the fear and uncertainty that many Brooklynites had as they waited for cholera to reach their city or heard contrasting advice on how to stay healthy. Zaheer and Erin also discuss the strengths and weaknesses of Furman’s journals as a source on cholera. Though well versed in the politics and medical knowledge of the time, as a wealthy resident who never contracted the illness, there are some parts of the story of cholera in Brooklyn that are absent from his accounts.

You can access the finding aid to this manuscript collection here (ARC.190). Below are images of Furman’s journals that we discuss:

Segment 3: Voices of Brooklyn

Zaheer and Erin listen to an excerpt from the oral history of Albert Johnson from the Voices of Crown Heights oral histories. In this selection, Johnson speaks about his experience with different physicians when he was diagnosed with HIV in the 1990s. You can listen to his entire oral history on BHS’s Oral History Portal.

Segment 4: Endorsements

Erin endorsed the program, “Immigrant Women, Labor, and the Quest for Gender Justice,” which takes place on Wednesday, October 10 at 6:30 pm at BHS’s Pierrepont building. Bernice Yeung, ProPublica reporter and author of In a Day’s Work: The Fight to End Sexual Violence Against America’s Most Vulnerable Workers, shares the harrowing experiences she chronicles in her book. She is joined by Rachel Isreeli of the Center for Family Life’s Cooperative Development Program in Sunset Park, which organizes cooperatives in the traditionally exploitative domestic work industry. Joanna Morales, a home care worker, will share her perspective as a worker-owner of Golden Steps Elder Care Cooperative. Tickets are $5, free for members, reserve them here.

Zaheer endorsed “The Not-So-Sweet History of Sugar,” a public program on Tuesday, October 16 at 6:30 pm at BHS’s Pierrepont building. Join social historian, York College professor, and author of Sugar: The World Corrupted, From Slavery to Obesity, James Walvin, as he uncovers the fraught history of one of our most prevalent ingredients: sugar. From its role in catalyzing colonialism and slave trading, to its current contributions to health crises, Walvin delivers this history without any sugar coating. Tickets are $5, free for members, reserve them here.

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